Saturday, February 05, 2011

Effective Griping

Andrea and I found ourselves behind a car today, on the way to do some walking and mom-tipping. It had a bumper sticker that said "Don't Steal. The Government Doesn't Like Competition!" What a useless thing to say.

If you don't have the power to change something, griping about it is like getting upset at a rock you stub your toe on. A natural reaction, perhaps, but in no way useful. The only effect of such a reaction is to make life unpleasant for the people around you. I do this a lot, so I know.

If you do have the power to change something, griping about it is like pointing at a pile of dog poop on the sidewalk and loudly saying "someone ought to clean that up." You are someone. Why don't you clean it up? I do this a lot too. It's really useless. It humbles me to see people who actually clean up the dog poop instead of complaining about it, and to the best of my limited ability I try to emulate them. I feel best about myself when I succeed.

So what about the bumper sticker? It's a truism that government takes money, in the form of taxes, and that some amount of that money is wasted. It's not unreasonable to describe this as stealing. But it's useless to speak in generalities, because it means that you are griping about something you can't change. It will always be the case that there is government waste of tax money. If you think it can be stopped, you're delusional.

Take away the government, and a new one will form to fill the power vacuum. It will also levy taxes, and it will also waste some of them. Take away the government's ability to tax, and it will fail, lacking the money to pay for its operation. A new government will arise to fill the power vacuum. Don't be naive enough to think that the new government can only be better than the old one. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. If you actually want change, work to change what you have into what you want. Don't just blow everything up and hope something better arises through random chance.

So when you phrase a complaint in such a general way, you might as well be complaining about the rock you stubbed your toe on. You can't change the fact that government is imperfect. If you really think that government waste is a bad thing, identify some, and work to put an end to it. Pick a problem you actually have a chance of solving.

And if you just want to have a clever bumper sticker that makes you look smart, take a hint from someone who knows: griping doesn't make you look smart. It makes you look like an ass.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Be A Grownup

A good friend of mine recently forwarded me a political cartoon he'd paid someone to draw. The cartoon portrayed Hillary Clinton talking to Egyptian president Mubarak, and made Ms. Clinton out to be a long-time supported of the Mubarak regime, using our taxes to support a repressive dictator.

This image seemed like a mistake to me; I wasn't sure why at first. After all, our taxes have been supporting "president" Mubarak's regime. Hillary Clinton's our Secretary of State. She's been involved in implementing this policy for a while now, although she certainly didn't invent it, nor did her husband. We've been supporting Mubarak my entire adult life, since Anwar Sadat was brutally assassinated in the wake of the signing of the Camp David peace accords.

What's wrong with the cartoon is, first, that it doesn't give the reader a clear picture of the problem. The cartoon implies that if we could get rid of Hillary Clinton, or if we could get her to stop behaving the way she is, that the situation would change. In other words, that Hillary Clinton is the problem.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Hillary Clinton is not responsible for the situation in the middle east. She didn't create it. She doesn't exist in a political climate where the situation *could* change. We aren't really even permitted to talk about what would have to change in order for her *not* to be supporting regimes like Mubarak's. If a serious person were to advance a serious solution to the actual problem of the U.S. supporting repressive regimes in the middle east, that person would be shouted down by people on all sides of the political spectrum.

THAT is the problem.

When we engage in political tactics that don't address the truth of the situation, it's like teenagers playing school politics. Who cares? Who cares if it's Hillary Clinton, or Henry Kissinger, or any of the Secretaries of State who've come between them who are implementing the broken policies that we see implemented? None of that matters. When we talk about personalities instead of issues, we are being ineffectual. We might as well do something else, like play golf, or read books, or watch TV. Our efforts will come to naught.

If we want to see the U.S. stop supporting repressive regimes, we need to stop allowing certain topics to be forbidden, and we need to stop our national obsession with gossiping about personalities. Discussing real issues honestly and seriously is never a bad thing. When we allow people—pundits, politicians, university professors, religious leaders—to tell us what we are allowed to discuss, we are behaving like children.

It is time to behave like adults.