Sunday, August 30, 2009

For Teddy

I have been writing a lot of poetry lately, mostly political. I don't yet feel completely comfortable sharing my poetry, but one of the reasons I enjoy writing is that it allows others to experience something they would not be able to otherwise. Here are a couple poems I wrote yesterday at Ted Kennedy's funeral procession and Senate tribute.

August 29, 2009

Lost amongst the crowd
Stretching to see the passage of history
As one era ends
A new one seems only too distant
We pay our respects
We give our thanks
A cool breeze gives the mob some relief
Our hands on our hearts
To keep them from falling
and shattering

A Rainbow of Grief

The Senate seems a little less grand
As if the marble itself were sagging
Even the sky looks ready to cry
A staff clad in black
A mob peppered with colors
The cicadas would deafen us
Were we not already deaf with sorrow
The buildings lean in to hear the prayer
Unable to escape their foundations
As we all contemplate our measure

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Filibuster: Moderating Force or Minority Tyranny?

I recently ready an interesting article that argued that the Senate filibuster should be abolished. While not necessarily the most important issue on its own, the author linked it to wider issues of fairness and democracy (and to the current health care reform). While he didn't touch on numbers, it re-energized my concerns about about the massive power rural states have in the Senate. To me, reforming the filibuster would be one possible small step toward making the Senate more democratic. These rurual states would be amongst the first to fight such a measure.

In my undergrad, I grappled with the issue of the Senate being undemocratic in the sense that its votes are not proportional to state population (as the House is, though not completely). The filibuster increases this undemocratic leaning by allow 41 senators, which could represent a small minority of Americans, to block a vote on nearly any issue. In a country of 304,059,724 (estimated as of July 2008), Senators representing the twenty states with the lowest population plus one senator from the 21st lowest population state could conceivably hold nearly any bill from ever receiving a vote. Seven of these states have less than a million residents, eight have between one and two million residents, and the final five each have less than three million residents. The 21st state, Iowa, has just over three million residents. Combined, the population of these twenty states, plus half of Iowa, adds up to 32,637,771 or just over ten percent of the U.S. population. The fact that nearly 90 percent of the population can be outvoted by this small minority clearly indicates that at the very least dissolution of the filibuster is something to consider, if not wider reform of the system for electing Senators.

Luckily, getting rid of the filibuster simply requires a majority vote, while any larger Senate reform would likely require amending the U.S. Constitution. Some will argue that the filibuster has been used in the past to moderate debate and force compromise. They will say that despite its undemocratic nature, it provides some protection from majority tyranny. While I accept that protection of the rights of the minority are fundamental under any legitimate democracy, requiring super-majorities to even be able to vote on a bill often hampers the policy-making process through allowing powerful lobbyists to influence the votes of a few against the will of the many.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The End of an Era

A hero has passed. And the world is a darker place for it...

"For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on. The cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die." - Ted Kennedy.

You will be greatly missed.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Summer Heat

Ok, so I am a wimp. I never claimed that I would be able handle the heat and humidity of a Washington D.C. summer. Every time someone tells me this is a "mild" summer, I just want to curl up and die. Growing up in Montana we had about 9 months were it could conceivably snow. When it was hot (it could get up into the 100s) it was a dry heat that only required a spot of shade to find comfort. There are lakes in Montana that never completely unthaw and mountains which have snow year-round.

Moving to Northern Utah near the end of high school meant longer and generally hotter summers than I experienced in Bozeman, but once again it was a dry heat, easily conquered through shade or light clothing.

Then I made that move that broke my weather tolerance. A beautiful, temperate rainforest in Vancouver, BC. The weather usually hung between 50 and 70 year-round. It never felt muggy, despite the higher humidity. Our apartment had only a measly heater and no air-conditioning. However, neither were ever needed as you could regulate your temperature year round simply by opening the window. Sure there was a hot day here or there, or a chilly evening when it snowed, but I have never been more pleased with weather than I was living in BC. Some would dislike how often it rains. But I personally enjoy the rain and grey skies. Often when we would walk around campus there would be a mist in the air unlike anything I had ever seen or felt.

While I love Washington D.C., I can now certainly understand why people take a long vacation in August...

Social Determinants of Ignorance

In a very disconcerting sign of the times, a recent poll found that nearly half of Americans were accepting the fear mongering and fallacious charges against health care reform. One of the most concerning findings was that forty-five percent of respondents thought that the current health care reform proposal would likely "allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly." While I am aware that this charge is out there, I assumed (wrongly, as usual) that any responsible person would try to verify this extreme and dangerous claim.

This got me thinking more broadly about how easily the public is misled and where this comes from. I have heard many people blame the individuals themselves for their ignorance on these issues; and I will admit I do have some sympathy for that view. However, taking a more sociological view, I am forced to look beyond the individual and examine the social nature of these misunderstandings. This brought me to some recent findings on beliefs about evolution.

The Pew Research Center recently released a study that contained some pretty depressing findings regarding the public's knowledge (or beliefs) regarding science. They found that eighty-seven percent of scientists agree with the statement that "Humans and other livinging things have evolved over time due to natural processes." For the general public this number dropped to a dismal thirty-two percent. In the study they also break down the findings demographically which provides some interesting insights and show clear social patterning across age, eductation, and religious beliefs or lack thereof. The social patterning and the clear lack of widespread scientific thinking amongst the majority of society speaks to something more structural than individual.

Part of the problem certainly lies within the education system, but clearly, many people who end up being scientists began in the same schools as those that will go on to believe Obama wants to kill your grandmother. Thus, improved education alone would likely only serve to close the gap somewhat. It would seem a more lasting solution would have to involve making scholarly and academic findings more approachable. Allowing people to be involved in education throughout their lives. Until Americans can tell the difference between a legitimate reliable source and the ramblings of conspiracy theorists, or fear mongers, we will continue facing these one-sided debates. Debates where the facts are on one side and anger, fear, and ignorance are on the other. I don't mean to belittle anyone's opposition to health care reform, as I have written previously about its inadequacies. However, a real, informed debate about health care simply isn't possible in the U.S. because the knowledge gap is so big. Providing people the tools to close that gap and setting up structures to do so would reap benefits far beyond the political sphere.