IOWA CAUCUS – REBIRTH? OR ABERRATION?

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

IOWA CAUCUS

REBIRTH?  OR ABERRATION?

 

Dec. 21, 2011

 

As a historian of ideas, I’ve always been fascinated by sudden turning points.  Case in point: During the last year, we’ve seen, one after another, the emergence of democracy all across North Africa and the Middle East.  Even totalitarian Russia now feels the open scorn of its people.

 

In the daily news, we’ve seen Europe reeling from one economic seismic shock after another.  For decades, Europe has been a poster child for a template that appeared to have staying power: one currency for all, fiscal stability, no closed borders between nations, cradle to the grave welfare for all, more than generous retirement benefits, vacations galore (it often seemed that the population of the entire continent could be found on beaches every August), and millions of tourists flooding the continent the icing on the cake.  But no longer: Europe’s template has cracked right down the middle.  And nobody knows how to fix it.

 

In the U.S., things are little better than in Europe.  Only the fact that the spotlight of the world has been fixated on Europe rather than us has enabled us to escape the world’s scrutiny.  But that cannot long last.  Our status quo is unrelentingly grim.

But in Iowa, on the eve of the last debate before the Caucus, something electric happened.  Gingrich may well be right in declaring that we haven’t had anything this substantive in our political arena since the Lincoln-Douglas debates a century and a half ago.  But first, I must admit that, though I’m a registered Republican, I’m a centrist and vote accordingly.  Like most Americans, in recent years I’ve been disillusioned time after time by the G.O.P.  All too often it has seemed as if our Republican leaders were determined to out-dumb each other.  “”Naive’ and “uninformed” way too inadequate to describe their condition, their evident ignorance of current events and national and world history off the charts of probability; their voting out of offices the informed and intelligent moderates who would work together for the good of the country –  instead they elected, all too often, individuals so close-minded they’d stampede the nation off a cliff rather than work together.

However, on Dec. 15, there took place a rational debate between presidential candidates who, for once, did themselves and their party proud.  Same for the moderators.  Such an impact did this make on me that I was unable to sleep afterwards; in fact, at 2:30 a.m. next morning, I got up and wrote until 5:00 a.m.

 

But even now, I find myself incapable of really making sense of all I heard that night.  I’m mightily muddled.  But even so, permit me to muddle through these swirling unconnected thoughts.  Stream-of-consciousness disorganized because I can’t yet make sense of them:

 

It’s like, on the eve of Dec. 15, the proverbial straw broke the camel’s back.  The candidates and the concerned audience fed on each other, together rising to unexpected heights:

 

Rather than merely ramble on unstructured I am bullet-pointing the concerns that generated that eve of Dec. 15:

 

 

  • Government gridlock
  • Out-of-control spending
  • Massive unemployment – worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, for third year in a row
  • Epidemic of bankruptcies
  • Millions of lives shattered by foreclosures and being evicted from their homes.  Almost half owe more than they could get by selling their homes.
  • The middle class shrinking so dramatically that the gap between rich and poor has yawned so wide we risk revolution from the disenfranchised.
  • The collusion between government and Big Banks
  • The breakdown of our protective agencies
  • The federal out-of-control spending taking a terrible toll on the finances, education, social programs, infrastructure, and public services of individual states, resulting in a devastating implosion
  • The revolving door between government and lobbyists
  • Government office being restricted to self-made millionaires or billionaires or those who sell their souls to special interest groups
  • The decline of a literate electorate.  With elections decided by electronic sound-bytes rather than thoughtful reading of newspapers, magazines, and books
  • The political campaigns degenerating into attack ads and character assassination orchestrated by unknown sources or people
  • Vote fraud
  • The staggering economic toll taken by multiple foreign wars
  • Retirees losing all they’d saved for their retirement years
  • Graduates unable to find well-paying jobs
  • Manufacturing continuing to be sent overseas
  • The perceived failure of so many of our schools and colleges
  • The courts becoming ever more hostile to all public expressions of religion or belief in a higher power
  • Marriage discredited by secular forces; so much so that the nuclear family (man, woman, child) is for the first time ceasing to be the norm.  Out-of-wedlock births are skyrocketing to such an extent that it is said that one-third of all American children are effectively being raised by their grandparents.  Sexuality today trumps lifetime commitment.
  • A media apparently determined to so ridicule religion and those who attempt to live by biblical principles that they will discredit those people into irrelevancy.
  • Widespread attempts to strip religious holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving of their spiritual significance
  • The replacement of time-honored concepts of Good and Evil and Right and Wrong with psychiatric terminology divorced from a Higher Power.  Result: lying under oath no longer means much to all those who don’t believe in God (however they may perceive Him).  Neither do cheating or stealing seem wrong.
  • Deconstruction of history strips our erstwhile national heroes of whatever noble qualities were once attributed to them.
  • Thoughtful parents so terrified of societal forces hostile to their children (bullying, hazing, pedophilia, rape, substance abuse, sexuality without commitment, ridicule of their beliefs, etc.) that they are pulling their children out of public schools and homeschooling them

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

All these variables swirled around during the memorable two-hour debate (meaningful because moderators asked searching thoughtful questions of the candidates, zeroing in on issues where candidates were perceived to be on thin ice).  Furthermore, moderators permitted candidates to respond and defend their actions and words.  Unlike so many meaningless public debates of recent years, where no real substantive dialogue took place, this debate was very real—indeed it was so gripping I felt it to be high drama!

 

Significantly, the Dec. 15 growing consensus appeared to be: our template is broken beyond repair; it almost has to be rebuilt from the ground up, starting with cutting politicians’ salaries in half, moving back to citizen governance with half-time government service and half time work in the real world.  Frugality once again.  Pay as we go: don’t spend any money we don’t have.  Create jobs rather than parasitically siphoning off the life blood of those who are working hard to create a newer and better society.  Bring God back—, more to the point: bring us back to God.  Respect right to life.  Bring back a society based on the twin bedrocks of God and country.

 

Frankly, I’m less than optimistic that what I felt in the auditorium on Dec. 15 will blossom into a much needed cultural revolution.  For both parties—not just the G.O.P.

 

However, in the darkest days of history, God has summoned great men and women to selfless service—Moses, Daniel, St. Paul, St. Nicholas, St. Francis, Luther, the Wesleys, Washington, Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Gandhi, Schweitzer, Churchill, Mother Teresa.

 

Why could not God do it again?

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PLAGIARISM—WHY AMERICANS CANNOT NOT CHEAT

Colorado GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis is but the latest reminder that, in the Internet Age, one can run but cannot hide from one’s words: Plagiarism is getting increasingly difficult to hide—as McInnis has discovered to his chagrin. Former University of Colorado regent Jim Martin, in his “Dishonesty in the Internet Age” (The Denver Post, July 15, 2010), notes that “A story several years ago on NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ profiled a University of Virginia professor’s new innovation to catch Internet cheaters—a search engine that can locate patterns of phrasing and match them to other works. The device has already turned up a number of cheaters not only in academia, but also in other areas of our lives.”

As a long-time English and writing professor I can testify that it is incredibly easy to spot cheating in term papers, for once I get a feel for an individual’s style of writing (in controlled writing assignments in classrooms), any significant stylistic deviance from the norm jumps out at me. The difficulty heretofore has been to track down the source the student copied from. No longer: my teaching colleagues tell me that it’s amazing how quickly they can track down an original source thanks to Google et al.

Which brings us to the core issue: Why do we cheat?

Increasingly, we cheat because we cannot not cheat. Permit me to explain why. Before I wrote my book, Remote Controlled (Review and Herald Publishing, 1993), I first researched the subject of the impact of television on the American people for over 30 years. One of the key resulting epiphanies of that research was this: the ability to think, write, and create is not a given; it is extremely difficult to achieve because it can only come into being by having an inquiring mind; a sense of wonder; by questions that never stop; by voracious reading in books, magazines, and newspapers; by daily journaling. Where writing is concerned, we are all works in progress—we never arrive, because knowledge is increasing by the nanosecond. That’s why the Chinese have a proverb: “If you haven’t read in three days, you aren’t worth listening to.” Staying in tune with the Zeitgeist has never been more difficult than it is today.

Nor is it easy to be a researcher (the job Scott McInnis was paid $300,000 for). I tell my students, “It’s not easy to write a good term paper. Unless you so immerse yourself into reading about your chosen subject, and writing notes from all those sources, you’ll never experience that mysterious breakthrough marathon runners talk about: when you literally break through a mental or physical barrier into a new dimension—you’ll know you’re there when you start dreaming about it. When that happens, you can write your paper in your own style. Otherwise, you’ll only be capable of a String of Pearls term paper: one quotation followed by insipid words leading to another quotation—on and on and on. Because the subject never became part of you.”

And that’s the tragedy of our age. We encourage our children to follow the path of least resistance—they faithfully follow our suggestion. How? By staring zombie-like into electronic screens hour after hour. But virtually none of that imagery can ever be their own: it was all created by someone else, and thus it was blasted straight into their mental archives without any involvement of the receiver’s brain. That’s why, when I tell a class of Freshman Composition students to take out a sheet of paper and begin to write, the reader (having many stylistic templates to draw from) can hardly wait to begin writing; the non-reader, however, can only stare at the piece of paper, being incapable of writing a coherent sentence or paragraph.

That’s why millions who grow up plagiarizing cannot not cheat: because of years of mental laziness, there is nothing original (unique to them alone) in their brains to draw from. So they have only two alternatives: fail the course—or cheat.

But when they grow up and enter the workaday world, sooner or later there will come a day of reckoning, when the boss will discover that this particular employee is incapable of original thought. Fortune 500 CEOs have developed a test for prospective employees that involves a series of interlocking steps leading to a solution. When the prospects take the test, they discover that a step was left out (such as A, B, D, E); the reader, having developed a part of the brain scholars call “the library,” where the brain talks to itself, is able to bridge the gulf, or synapse, en route to a solution. The non-reader can only stare at the gulf till Doomsday, unable to move on.

Which brings us back to Jim Martin, who concludes his insightful commentary with these sober words:

Our age of instant information offers in nearly every aspect of business, academia and media the temptation to exalt outcome over process, to value doing something quickly over doing it effectively and honestly.

Somehow, our citizens have come to believe that money or pride matters more than integrity. And we have allowed this to happen.

Our lessons about achieving excellence, getting into the “best” schools and colleges, getting elected to public office and the general opulence and promise offered of e-business have sent a dangerous message to our citizens people: you can have it all and have it now.

Maybe public exposure will put an end to this character defect, but I doubt it. In the long run, society at large will have to re-establish the values of effort and process, rather than simply holding up too high the rewards of success, power, being elected, or money.

All in all, this will be a difficult task, but the message must go out loud and clear—that there is no such thing as instantaneous writing, and that those shortcuts shortchange.

That message may sound old and familiar, but that’s because it is lifted from the familiar lessons of life, not some site on the Internet.

SPECIAL NOTE

Next week, we begin a four-month series of blogs on our historic national park lodges in the Northwest (we just returned from visiting each one).