Monday, March 28, 2016

“A Man’s Got to Defend His Honor”

The title is a quotation from Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.  That part of the story goes on to tell how one man murdered another outside a bar for insulting his mother.

I’ve written before about the two different kinds of pride.  The first is pride of accomplishment and the second is just some feeling of superiority, based usually on circumstances beyond our control.

Some people are proud of what they have done.  There is pride of winning a medal in the Olympics or pride about improving school grades or pride about finishing a critical project on time or closing a key account.  This is the first kind of pride and fits a definition of “a feeling of satisfaction or pleasure from accomplishment or for displaying admirable personal qualities.”

On the other hand, some people are proud of the fact that their ancestors lived in Ireland (or some other specific country) or that they are a member by default of a particular group or race (Hispanic or left-handed).  They seem to have developed a high opinion of themselves based on some characteristic that is completely beyond their control.  On the surface this seems pretty silly.  It’s like saying, “I’m so proud of my sister; she won the lottery.”  It’s just luck, winning the lottery or being born to certain parents.  This kind of pride sometimes comes out when talking about your school or what kind of car or truck you drive, or sometimes other controllable but not very significant things.  It is almost a tribalism where we are able to define an in-group contrasted with all the out-groups of different tastes or loyalties.

The upside to this second pride may be a feeling of confidence, motivation to live up to the admirable qualities of the group one associates himself with.  But even this smacks of stereotyping and could lead to a deeper prejudice, a false feeling of superiority based on nothing but an accident of birth or some concept of team or school spirit.

The downside of this second pride is much deeper and much more troublesome.  It leads to a kind of sensitivity or touchiness where any perceived slight, intentional or not, is immediately interpreted as an insult, an act of disrespect that must be avenged.  It comes not from real achievement, but from an ego-driven, false sense of importance.  Make a remark about someone from Ireland or the Irish (or any other country or nationality) or some school, my brand of truck, my favorite team or any of a number of other sensitive subjects and be ready for a fight, often a physical confrontation.

This came to mind a few weeks ago when I saw the news of an incident in a local bar involving two old-enough-to-be-mature men.  “John Williams was asked to leave the Ben Hur Tavern on S. Fourth Street.  He returned a short time later with his brother Richard Williams.  They “entered the bar waving around knives and threatening other patrons” and were subsequently arrested.

Understanding how this second kind of pride leads to trouble makes it easy to spot in the national news.  One widely publicized example occurred in Texas a few months ago when rival motorcycle gangs got together and bullets began to fly.

It doesn’t have to be motorcycle gangs or local drunks, though.  This kind of reaction is common, leading not only to individual acts but to large scale demonstrations and protest.  Relying on this kind of pride is an easy way to get non-thinking people stirred up.  It happens more frequently than most people imagine.  Now that you are aware, I think you will see this more clearly.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Window Dressing

This point was not inspired by a particular news story.  It is more of an accumulation of observations over a long period – OK, I’ll admit that it’s a pet peeve.

I am getting pretty tired of hearing people presented in the news as a representative of some category, as if that were one of their most important qualities.  Take for example this website that lists firsts in America.  It covers about 70 categories and almost half of them are based on a person’s outward physical characteristics:  first woman, first African American, first Hispanic American.  It includes a reference at the bottom:  for more information see first Asian Americans.  Other lists of firsts are similar.

In some cases we have people who qualify in more than one category.  Where do these lists of firsts leave Loretta Lynch?  She is neither the first African American Attorney General nor the first woman Attorney General; but wait, she is the first African American woman to become Attorney General!  Will we just continue to add categories and combinations?  At some point will it begin to seem pretty silly, like we are stretching to create a way to celebrate a person’s appearance, ancestry or preferences.

Personally, I think this approach detracts from a discussion of the person’s great performance or outstanding job qualifications and leads to many questions.  Why are they bringing this up in the first place?

Is it a celebration of the cracking of another (real or imagined) glass ceiling?  If so does it really show competence on the part of the person or is it merely the voters or appointers attempt to advertise how open-minded they are?  Will the person selected always have a haunting feeling about the objectivity of his or her selection?  (When an African American is nominated for an Academy Award next year will he or she think it is for an outstanding performance or perhaps at least partially as a payback in light of the fuss this year?)

Does this type of publication promote a victim mentality among others in the category - the feeling that it’s about time someone like me got a break because I never have?  As such, does it promote the very limiting belief that my role model has to look like me?  Isn’t it difficult enough these days to find people of excellent character and courage for role models without adding hurdles of race, gender or predilection?

 Does this emphasis instead show progress toward some goal; and if so, what is that goal, and who decides when it has been achieved?  Is it when we have some kind of equal representation?  If so, the concentration on categories and outward characteristics persists, and it will become an exercise in accounting rather than objective judgment.

At some point will we as a nation get over this obsession with background and appearance and just be grateful to get an individual most capable of a competent performance?  Or will we continue to feel the need to celebrate and recognize individuals as icons of a certain category of formerly unaccomplished or unrecognized people?  Again, who has the authority to declare which categories are eligible for distinction (and which are not)?

In the end this is a lot like curb appeal for home sellers.  Make your house look good as people drive by so they will slow down and consider buying it.  Plant red flowers, have cookies baking when potential buyers come in the door.  These are all tricks that fly in the face of critical thinking and practical analysis.  Smart people are not distracted and make decisions based on overall qualities – just as they should with other people.

To me, presentations of this kind (e.g., first Native American lesbian?) bring to mind the idea of the old circus side shows, an arrangement of tents with performers whose primary claims to fame were based on unusual or extreme physical characteristics:  tiny or overly large people, bearded ladies, etc.  I think it will be a healthy thing when we can totally drop the labels.

Monday, March 21, 2016

One More Time: Dietary Supplements

About every two months the subject of dietary supplements comes up.  That is probably because I subscribe to an e-mail newsletter skeptical of false medical claims and promises, and this e-mail frequently cites cases of supplement vendors being prosecuted and fined by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Supplements, including multivitamin and mineral pills are very popular in America.  Due to pressure from lobbyists, Congress passed a law that they be treated like food and not like drugs.  From this law they gain significant freedom, but it does prohibit them from claiming that their product cures any disease.  FDA guidelines on supplements explain that unlike drugs where they require extensive testing, with supplements the FDA gets involved in problems or safety issues only after they arise.  (That means someone has an adverse reaction and the doctor reports it.)  It is the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure safety.  There are no regulations regarding dosage, and if they advertise benefits that are not true, it becomes a case for the FTC to prove that they are making false promises.  Remember, any claim of a cure is automatically illegal.

The problem is that when it’s left to the manufacturer, a lot can go wrong.  Documented here are examples of how many supplements have significantly more or less of the listed ingredient, in some cases none at all.

That is not the only problem.  Many supplements have been shown to be completely ineffective for what they are reputed to do.  This includes fish oil, Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins in general and glucosamine, to name just a few.

Glowing reports and endorsements, sometimes paid endorsements and sometimes endorsements from friends and neighbors, lure customers in, but the ads come with warnings that most people ignore, because the supplements are all natural.  This one is typical:  “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.  This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.  Results are atypical.  Results will vary.  Always consult your healthcare provider before taking any supplement.” 

Now CBS gives more bad news.  The ultimate problem is that supplements are dangerous.  There have been documented cases where the contents of the bottle did not match the label, but were in fact poison.  This report confirms what I have read elsewhere that even accurately formulated supplements from reputable companies can interact with each other or with prescription medications causing problems.

As Americans spend billions on supplements, the experts continue to advise getting your vitamins and minerals from the food you eat, and checking with your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet.  Unfortunately Americans rarely do that.  They believe in supplements to the point that food companies now increase sales by adding them to their product and proudly announcing it on the packaging.  Given all the watch outs with supplements, this is a scary progression.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Perspective in the News

Here is a good illustration of what I mean when I warn about not depending on the news media for a sense of perspective.

On the same day, early in the morning and around noon, I caught two news reports.  The first came from CBS This Morning.  It was promoted as, “what the car companies won’t tell you that may be a danger to your family.” Later, when the story aired, the headline read:  “’No excuse’: Safety experts say this car defect puts kids in danger.”  It featured a family whose child was severely injured when their car was rear-ended; and the father, who was driving, was propelled back into his son in the back seat.  The force of the crash caused the front seat to fail and break.  Although the seats met federal safety standards, the auto company was found partially liable for not having stronger seats and faces a verdict of over $120 million.  (Included in the video but omitted from the text was that the father was not wearing his seatbelt and the child was not riding in a safety seat.)

The report went on to say:  “CBS News investigation has identified more than 100 people nationally who were severely injured or killed in apparent seatback failures since 1989. The majority were children. Seventeen have died in the past 15 years alone.”  At the end of the piece the father urged viewers to contact their representatives demanding stricter standards.

The second report was a national story presented on the local news.  They reported that the number of pedestrian fatalities was up in 2015 partially as a result of texting while walking. 
“The [Governors Highway Safety Commission] report showed one of the biggest factors in the past few years, has been smartphones. More and more people are texting or on social media while they’re walking.”  They showed pictures of several people walking down the sidewalk while absorbed with their cell phones and conducted a few interviews.  The whole presentation was serious but had some light-hearted notes with people saying they weren’t surprised because nearly everyone was paying less attention while walking.  One interviewee joked about walking into a garbage can once while he was distracted by his phone.  According to the Associated Press, “2,368 pedestrians [were] killed in the first six months of 2015.”

So we have two news stories on the same day:  one with people wringing their hands and demanding changes to federal regulations to avoid about 100 deaths or injuries in 25 years, while the other calmly presented how we should try to reduce over 4700 deaths per year.  Now deaths and serious injuries, especially to children, are sad and important, but look at how out of proportion the first story is to the second. 

The lesson here is that we only have enough time and energy to worry about a limited number of things.  Don’t rely on the news media to help us sort these things out or set priorities.  They want us to be equally upset by everything they present, whether a problem results in a couple of deaths a year or thousands they are given the same import.  The exception is that deaths or injuries to one or two Americans usually get much more attention than to hundreds of Africans or Arabs.  Their job is to inform and entertain in such a way that allows them to sell viewers to their sponsors not to sort things out.

Monday, March 14, 2016


For almost 5 years I have made the case for personal responsibility, accepting that most of our problems arise from our own behavior and that most of our societal problems are merely the accumulation of these poor choices.  This is the 500th posting on the subject.  Time for a review.

In 1961 the President inspired Americans with the words, “Ask not what your country can do for you.”  Later in that decade a popular chant was, “Power to the people.”  In the past 50 years we seem to have forgotten those messages.  Today Americans stress about the next election, thinking that if they can only elect the right savior, all will be well.  Meanwhile the candidates try to buy votes by promising more government solutions and more government benefits.

We have strayed from a belief in active involvement to one of passive acceptance.  The barrage of crises and national epidemics that dominate the media and political discourse explains this change in part.  We hear that all these problems are too big for us to solve on our own.  The playing field is not level.  The odds are stacked against us.  We need help from politicians and advocates to take on the inequities and massive challenges.  What choice do we have?

The rest of the explanation to this passivity lies in the fact that Americans have forgotten or never understood a basic principle of life:  Behavior has consequences.

These crises and challenges that we constantly hear about do not, for the most part, originate with government.  They are the consequences of individual behaviors that over time build up into those crises and epidemics we keep looking to others to solve.

People got sloppy about their diets.  Food became more plentiful, especially fast and convenience foods.  Laborsaving devises and sedentary jobs kept Americans less active.  Obesity in America grew from 13% to 36%.  This results in increased healthcare costs that are now shared by everyone.  Is this a problem for government to solve?  If we say yes, we relinquish some of our freedom.

Similarly, Americans make spending choices in reaction to hype, scare tactics and emotional appeals.  They fail to distinguish between wants and needs, then reach retirement age with inadequate savings.  Americans spend more money on unproven dietary supplements and other unscientific faux-remedies than on all legitimate healthcare costs.  Instead of setting high standards for their children, parents defend them against teachers’ criticisms, as first generation children of Asian and African immigrants that teach different values outperform them in the same schools.  Forty and fifty years after the Surgeon General’s initial warning, they blame (and sue) tobacco companies for tricking them into smoking and getting addicted, playing the victim, and not understanding that any award or settlement is really money coming from all of us with tobacco or insurance companies acting only as intermediaries.  Failing to take the time to do simple calculations and not reading the fine print leaves them financially overextended.  They trust and defend erroneous medical and nutritional advice gathered from social media.  None of these are governmental problems.  They are personal choices that have spread and morphed into a society headed in the wrong direction.

The 499 previous posts (and many more to follow) present clear and specific examples from the news and advertising of these types of behavior.  Ill-advised behavior leads to unfortunate consequences. In today’s interdependent society, everyone shares in these consequences.  The only way to succeed as a nation, the Real American Solution, is to improve behavior in the five key dimensions, personally and individually, while discouraging, not rewarding or tolerating, the destructive behavior of our neighbors.