Tag Archives: Ann Gaylia O’Barr

Convinced Against Our Will

“A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

–old saying, used by Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People

The newspaper columnist Leonard Pitts explored a few fake news items of the recent past (“Truth, sadly, is not something we all value,” The Seattle Times, Oct 8, 2017).

One fake story led to a shooting in an innocent pizza parlor by an individual who believed ridiculous stories about the business, repeated on propaganda sites.

The fact that Barrack Obama has a legal birth certificate from Hawaii or that his birth was reported in a verifiable news item does not stop birther stories that he wasn’t born in the United States.

Pitts lists reputable groups (newspapers, schools of journalism, fact checking sites) all attempting to bring discernment to our decisions on what we read and believe.

He’s a pessimist, pointing to research suggesting that people tend to “double down on the false belief” when facts prove them wrong.

Our worth seems tied to what we believe. We find it difficult to think that we can be imperfect, that we can be duped. We seek, not truth, but validation of our perfection.

We are in need of listeners. We need to listen, not just to what our neighbors say they believe, waiting impatiently to argue our side. We need to understand why our neighbors believe as they do, to be touched by the needs they express. If we understand each other, we may be able to move closer to finding truth.

Iran Is Persian, not Arab

For many Americans, Iran is barely on the radar screen. They confuse Iran with its neighbor, Iraq, and they tend to think of Iran as an Arab country.

In fact, Iran is not an Arab nation. Iran is the descendant of ancient Persia. The official language of Iran is not Arabic but modern Persian, also known as Farsi.

Though Iran is a Muslim majority nation, most Iranian Muslims are Shia Muslims, a minority in Islam. It differs from nations like Saudi Arabia, where the majority are Sunni Muslims. The division goes back centuries to disagreement over the successor to Mohammad .

American feelings about Iran are mixed with the horror of 9/11 and other terrorist activities. While Iran is certainly implicated in upheavals and bloodshed in the Middle East, none of the 9/ll terrorists were Iranians. Fifteen were Saudi Arabians and the others came from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon.

Columbia University professor Gary Sick served under President Jimmy Carter while American diplomats were hostages in Iran (1979-1981). In writing my novel If Winter Comes, set during that period, I read his book, All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran, during my research.

In a recent article in The Foreign Service Journal, Sick highlights Iran’s unique culture, going back 2,500 years. Also unique among most Middle Eastern nations, “Iran has experienced at least five major political upheavals in just 100 years” and has “a remarkable record of political activism.” (“Iran Inside and Out,” October 2017)

Religious leaders exert outsize influence over who competes in Iranian elections. Nevertheless, Iran has a more active record of political engagement than many of its neighbors. All Iranian citizens can vote. Regular elections are held for presidential, parliamentary, and municipal offices.

Reform minded candidates do manage to make it through the process. The current president, Hassan Rouhani, is a reformist, though he does not hesitate to stand up for his country in verbal battles with President Donald Trump.

Americans would profit by a deeper understanding of this fascinating country and the complex negotiations that led to the Iranian nuclear deal. Iran, more than many Middle Eastern nations, holds promise of change. We should not lightly dismiss our agreement with them.

How Many Pulitzer Prizes Has Twitter Won?

Facebook, Google, and Twitter face scrutiny over Russian infiltration of social media to influence the 2016 U.S. elections.

Do we actually depend on Facebook, Google, and Twitter for news and analysis? If so, we deserve the less than stellar candidates recently elected to public office.

I connect with friends on Facebook, use search engines to aid research, and tweet my blogs over Twitter. For news and analysis, I read reputable newspapers and magazines. Most can be read online as well as in print.

What does reputable mean? Judgement by peers is one measure, like winning a Pulitzer Prize. Editors, publishers, writers, and educators gather each year at Columbia University to judge entries for the prizes.

According to the Pulitzer website, entries “may be made by any individual based on material coming from a United States newspaper, magazine or news site that publishes regularly during the calendar year and adheres to the highest journalistic principles.”

Prizes are awarded in many categories. Recent awards were given for investigations of abuse of power, analysis of the opioid tragedy, exploration of hidden tax havens, and a host of others.

In other words, the reporters investigated. They didn’t depend on unsubstantiated rumors. Editors checked facts.

The founders of the republic were under no illusion that simply holding elections would, by itself, safeguard the nation. For it to survive and flourish, the citizens had to be informed.

Information will not come in a few digital bytes. Only dedicated digging can keep tabs on politicians, business interests, cultural movements, and other complexities of our postmodern world.

Opioid Plague: Searching for Spiritual Answers?

Dr. Thomas Andrew, at age 60, is changing his profession from medical examiner to that of minister. As medical examiner for New Hampshire, he’s appalled by the mushrooming number of deaths from drug overdoses for which he’s had to perform autopsies.

He’s planning to enter the ministry as a chaplain under the United Methodist Church. After watching the drug toll mount, Dr. Andrew, in the words of a newspaper article, “wants to try, in his own small way, to stop it.” (The Seattle Times, “Opioid deaths are taking a toll on medical examiners’ offices,” October 8, 2017).

Maybe Dr. Andrew has hit on an answer too little tried in our horror at what can only be called a moral epidemic. We plead with young people and others to save themselves from drugs, to enter rehabilitation programs, to think about what the drugs are doing to them.

Maybe getting people off drugs is not merely to keep drugs from harming them. Perhaps it’s also because, if they destroy themselves, they deprive their communities of their gifts.

Their job is to find their purpose in life, to discover their particular talents and skills, to explore ways to serve. In other words, to understand that they don’t exist for themselves alone.

Removing “Servant” from Public Servant

“ . . . the federal workforce has the same number of employees in 2017 as it did during the Kennedy administration, despite the creation of the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and various agencies, as well as a roughly 40 percent increase in the total U.S. population during that interval.

“And yet one popular narrative is that the federal workforce has become too large, and must be pruned. But the work still has to be done by someone.” (Paul Verkuil, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, quoted by David Thornton, Federal News Radio, October 20, 2017, “Federal Workforce in Jeopardy”)

The work that must be done, Thornton goes on to say, is often picked up by contractors. Verkuil points out two differences between government workers and contractors:

“‘For me, the first reason is the oath of office. You may not think about it, it may be just a symbolic act, but … it means something,’ he said. ‘It differentiates you, it separates you. It should; you took an oath to uphold the constitution. It’s meaningful. … If you don’t take the oath, you’re not in the same club, if you will. It’s an important club.’

“And that speaks to another difference Verkuil pointed out: motivation. Federal workers overwhelmingly point to the mission of public service as one of their primary motivations for what they do. Contractors don’t.”

After swearing the oath to protect the Constitution and defend my country when I joined the U.S. Foreign Service, I was assigned to a U.S. consulate in the Middle East. Contractors came in for a few weeks to set up a new computer system. As far as I know, the contractors did a good job, and certainly fulfilled a vital need for expertise not available at our post.

They left at five o’clock in the afternoon. I stayed to finish my work, which seldom could be done in an eight-hour day. I was available for any American citizen who suddenly ended up in a foreign jail. If danger threatened from terrorism, I came in no matter the hour and sent off a warning to our American wardens to pass to all American citizens in the district for which we had records.

The contractors, as skilled they may have been, were there for the money. For them and their companies, it was the bottom line. I and the other officers had been assigned there to serve.

War on Coal; War on the Planet

Until I moved to the Pacific Northwest, most of the salmon I ate came from cans. I was not fond of it. Then one day I ate fresh salmon and became a salmon lover. An added plus is salmon’s contribution to a healthy diet, one of those foods you can enjoy that is good for you.

Salmon fishing also provides jobs. One of the greatest habitats for wild salmon is Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay. Salmon harvesting provides jobs for 14,000 Alaskans, according to Timothy Egan, columnist for The New York Times. It’s a clean and sustainable industry.

However, the Trump administration has recently reversed protection for the bay, favoring a mining conglomerate’s proposed plan to mine copper and gold there. Previous findings indicated the mine could send tons of toxic waste into the bay, harming the salmon habitat.

Scott Pruitt, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, met with leaders of the mining company before the reversal of protection,

In addition, Pruitt has termed President Trump’s intention to end the regulations curbing greenhouse gas emissions as the end of the “war on coal.”

Some thought of those regulations as the war on polluted air.

Egan refers to Trump’s reversal of many formal environmental protections as “the war on the planet.”

Born on Third Base

Chuck Collins, heir to a wealthy trust fund, decided at age 26 to transfer his wealth to four grant-making foundations. He made this decision after working with a group of mobile home owners struggling to raise money to buy the land where they parked their trailers.

Collins could no longer justify to himself his advantages over the “99 percent” (including those mobile home owners) because he was born wealthy. He had paid his college expenses out of his trust fund, yet had seen that fund double during his college years.

He likens being born wealthy to being Born on Third Base, the title of his book. He did not earn the education or the upper class home or the security and safety that would forever give him an advantage over the 99 percent, even if he gave away his money.

However, Collins is not interested in shaming the wealthy. His goal is to convince the wealthy to become partners in building a more just society.

He points out the benefits reaped by Americans of a few decades ago which grew the economy of the country: GI education bills, cheaper college tuition, affordable mortgages for homes, workers’ wages that were not so unequal to those of their bosses, higher taxation on the wealthy.

He believes some redistribution of income is only fair, since the wealthy have themselves benefitted from subsidies for years: tax breaks, for example, which amount to a subsidy for the more well off. He favors a “GI Bill for the next generation.”

He wants the help of the rich in creating a tax system in which the wealthy pay their fair share. He hopes to persuade them to understand “the shortsightedness of an economic system that funnels most income to the few.”

Getting Rid of the Editors

Most of us use at least one of them, even if we harbor uneasiness about their power. We log on to Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the other digital helpers. We connect with friends and families, carry out research, express our opinions, and follow the latest breaking news.

Thomas Friedman, columnist for The New York Times, acknowledged the good things digital media helps us accomplish. At the same time, he warns, it’s easier to abuse them because no one is judging their output for accuracy. (The Seattle Times, “Hold social media accountable,” October 12, 2017.)

The business model of the digital media, Friedman writes, aimed “to absorb all of the readers of the mainstream media newspapers and magazines and to absorb all their advertisers—but as few of their editors as possible.”

Some enjoy the freewheeling ride of social media. Some don’t like editors who tell them they can’t write certain things—demeaning those different from themselves or spreading false stories.

As Friedman reminds us, “An editor is a human being you have to pay to bring editorial judgement to content on your website, to make sure things are accurate and to correct them if they’re not. Social networks preferred to use algorithms instead, but these are easily gamed.”

Social media has connected us with different viewpoints and given us freedom to explore. They’ve also given us greater ability to spread untruths. Fake news was not invented in the digital era, but it spread its wings there.

To cope requires what is so often lacking in these times: self-discipline. Self-discipline curtails our temptation to treat news as entertainment, an attitude tailor-made for social media. Instead, if we are wise, we will exchange some of that time for reading hard news and analysis, gathered by journalists who are paid to investigate and kept to strict standards of what is true.

Today’s Glorious Autumn; Echos of Another Fragile Season

In western Washington State, we are enjoying one of the most beautiful autumns in several years. The maple tree across the street has retained that brilliant scarlet, known only in autumn, far longer than I thought possible.

I hold on to the beauty a bit tighter because of several novels I have read recently, set around the First World War. The years 2014 to 2018 mark one-hundred-year anniversaries of events in that war. Today’s authors have written a number of novels in that time frame.

A Fine Summer’s Day, by Charles Todd, is one of them, set mostly in the months just before the war began. The book sets the stage for the post-war Ian Rutledge detective novels about a shattered veteran returning to work for Scotland Yard after his traumatic service in that war.

Todd captures the bitter-sweetness of the spring and early summer of 1914, before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, archduke of Austria-Hungary, began the blood-letting.

Young men and women fall in love and plan marriage. Fields are planted as they have been for millennia. Times seem as golden as the trees of this autumn.

Then the war came, a surprise to many Europeans, who thought the modern world had given up that sort of thing. Many of them were positive it would last no more than a few months. They believed their leaders were too wise to allow a prolonged conflict.

Unfortunately, a refusal to understand the limits of human wisdom and an inability to corral national pride contributed to an inhuman slaughter. It did not stop until an uneasy armistice came into effect over four years later.

I hope we do not take our blessings for granted. Humans still make foolish decisions.

Business and Politics: A Match Made in Hell?

We have sometimes elected business people to legislative bodies, but not generally to the U.S. presidency. For that job, we have tended to go for politicians already holding elective office at the state or U.S. congressional level or else military leaders.

Donald Trump is the first president I can think of, at least since the twentieth century, of one elected to the office directly from a business career. Some of his supporters reasoned that a business person practices efficiency in order to make profit. Thus, Trump could drain the inefficient swamps of the U.S. government.

The problem is that a business leader is more like a dictator. Business experience does not necessarily prepare a person for heading a representative government.

As he took office, Trump appeared to think that members of the U.S. congress were his board of directors, beholden to him to carry out his wishes. In fact, they are not beholden to him; they owe their jobs to the people back home who elect them.

As a business leader, Trump could fire any underling who disagreed with him, free to make absolute loyalty to him a primary requirement. This appears to be his style as president.

Like the French king, Louis XIV, he has assumed the role of Sun King. He takes criticism personally, spewing unverifiable insults on anyone, even a supporter, who dares intimate that he isn’t the greatest president who ever held office.

Sad.

From South Korea: “What Are the Churches in America Thinking?”

I don’t know how close North Korea is to actually sending a nuclear weapon to devastate some city on my own Pacific northwest coast.

I’m pretty certain, though, that North Korea could now, at this instant, use weapons, conventional or otherwise, to snuff out the lives of millions of South Koreans and perhaps Japanese as well.

While we deal with our own problems, serious as they are (shootings, hurricanes, wildfires), South Koreans wonder if their entire population will be obliterated in the next few seconds.

The conflict with North Korea is not a movie dramatization of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Leaders hurling street bully insults at each other are as helpful as gasoline on a California wildfire.

One visitor to South Korea, an American Christian leader, asked a Korean Christian what the churches in his country were thinking about the situation.

He responded: “We’re asking, ‘What are the churches in America thinking?’”

Bring Your Pets to Work; How About Your Children?

A shopping section of one newspaper featured equipment a pet owner might want for taking their pet with them to their workplace. Suggestions for the growing pet-to-work movement included a pet carrier, collapsible feeding dishes, and a portable paw washer.

Anyone who’s loved a pet can understand the satisfaction of a pet’s affection and how the pet’s presence might contribute to less stress in the work place.

Animals now are used in some prisons to teach inmates responsibility as they provide care for a living creature dependent on them. Hospitals use pets to relieve tension of patients preparing for medical procedures. Sometimes animals are part of mental health programs.

Might parents also profit by having their infants and young children close by as they work?

Small humans present certain challenges, of course. They sometimes cry and want to be picked up no matter what other responsibilities the worker parent has. They have to be changed and fed, not always on schedule. As they begin to crawl, they are apt to pick up small items off the floor and attempt to swallow them. They constantly explore. Trash baskets and reachable desk drawers are a treasure trove.

One solution might be close-at-hand children’s centers. Parents could stop by on breaks and spend a few minutes. They might eat lunch with them or perhaps put them down for a nap.

Our separation of work and home, beginning with the industrial age, separated mothers from economic production. It also separated fathers from their children. Perhaps bringing children closer to workplaces might lessen both problems.