December 07, 2009

Reality is not a box of chocolates

It is very fashionable in today's world to blame someone else for your problems. If you're a blue collar worker you blame management. If you're a manager you blame labor. Those who work on Wall Street blame the consumer, while the consumer rails against "greedy Wall Street bankers". Democrats blame Republicans for stalling healthcare reform and in a perfect tit-for-tat, Republicans accuse the Democrats of trying to impose socialism. The beneficiaries of our liberal progressive education system accuse big business of destroying the earth, while business leaders accuse the government of over-regulation and excessive taxation.

There certainly is a lot of blame to go around, isn't there? Personally, I blame myself. Over the past three decades I have been too busy raising children, comforting my workaholic wife, and feeding the cat to do much of anything else. I haven't had a job in over a decade, and I cannot remember the last time I filed a tax return. The last time I voted in a major election Ronald Reagan was re-elected to the presidency (and yes, I did vote for him). Now, after two and a half decades in Japan, I'm setting up house in a small county seat in Ohio. I'm plugged back into the local political scene (but just barely), I've bought my first guns, and I'm on a first-name basis with the local bartender. Two letters to the editor were printed in my name, and one of them earned a vitriolic response from someone who disagreed with me.

So last week when I had a chance to attend a small reception at the home of a local resident who is one of three people running for the local seat in the House of Representatives (which happens to be the 16th District), I jumped at it. I've met two of the three and even though what I've seen of the third does not impress me, I'd still like the opportunity to shake his hand and hit him with my usual barrage of tough questions. The important thing today, however, is the reception.

The house of the candidate who hosted the reception is in an upper class neighborhood in the county seat of the next county over. He and his wife both work, but neither one is a doctor, lawyer, banker, or other occupation likely to produce the kind of money needed to buy such a house. I honestly have no idea how they're making their monthly mortgage payment. For all I know the previous owner (who was a very successful local business owner) died and left the house to him in his will, in which case there is no mortgage payment. It is a beautiful house, exactly the kind of house you would expect a congressman to live in, and that's what bothers me.

Four rooms of the house were open to the guests of the reception, including the library. In the livingroom was a beautiful Christmas tree all done up in a white theme. Then I looked more closely. There were about a dozen ornaments on the tree with pictures of the Whitehouse (yes, that one, the one in Washington D.C. where the president lives). On a table near the tree was Sarah Palin's book, "Going Rogue". In the library were books of presidential memoirs, presidential thoughts, the scribblings of JFK, and a biography of Abraham Lincoln. Books on pop psychology stood next to Bibles, and a first edition "Little Women" kept intimate company with a collection of "Great Wartime Speeches". Beyond a single ancient title by Thomas L. Friedman, there were no books on economics. A "Dummies" guide to legal documents stood next to a reprint of Blackstone's, "Commentaries on the Laws of England", and of the two the "Dummies" guide was the only one showing any sign of use. Presidential portraits framed the library.

Okay, so he has ambition. This is America, after all, and at least in theory any citizen who has lived in the country for at least seventeen years and is at least thirty-five years old is free to run for the highest office in the land.

And on his official website, the candidate in question has this to say:

"This campaign is about freedom...freedom from excessive taxation, out-of-control government spending and job-killing government regulations.

The future belongs to those who recognize that prosperity has never been delivered by the heavy hands of government, but it is always created by men and women who understand the combined force of freedom, personal responsibility and hard work. Our economic prosperity depends on you and me, and our commitment to doing what we know is right."

I am not a psychologist. I am not a sociologist. I am an avid reader and although I have read many books on both psychology and sociology, I am not a trained professional. When I walk through a person's house I read the environment the same way I read a book. I am looking for clues to what this person believes and how far they are willing to go to defend that belief. I am also looking to see how much of their belief system is firmly grounded in the real world of hardworking laborers, managers, bankers, and craftspeople. A congressional representative stands for an entire constituency. That constituency includes people from all walks of life and every single one of them is entitled to equal representation. A congressional representative who only stands for gay rights, gun rights, healthcare, or even lower taxes is not truly representative of their district. If a person does not intimately understand both the richest and the poorest, then they will not be able to fairly represent either extreme, let alone the middle.

I came away from the cocktail party deeply impressed with his sincerity. I also came away deeply disappointed at his lack of depth. I am not a professional analyst of any kind, so many people will happily dismiss my opinion on what does and does not make a person an effective congressional representative. I have observed the system from the outside for over two decades and to me, it looks like the system is coming apart at the seams. Now that I am back in America, meeting people, visiting their houses, and discussing issues important to me as a voter, I am struck by something that has always bothered me about American culture. We have this tendency to glorify ignorance (Forest Gump) and greed (Gordon Gekko), while getting ourselves deeply worked up over irrelevancies (American Idol), then we turn around and ignore real problems (Fair Finance) affecting our friends and neighbors.

The time has come for all of us to stop blaming the rest of the world for our problems. When reality does not meet our expectations, then the problem is not reality and it is our expectations that must change. We must each individually ground our expectations in reality and then we must move forward to change circumstances around us in ways that will help serve everyone. I'm not saying individuals must sacrifice themselves for the common good, nor should the common good ever be sacrificed for the benefit of one individual or one group of individuals. What I am saying is that if we are going to fix this mess we find ourselves in (rising unemployment, impossible deficits at all levels of government, nighttime streets ruled by drug gangs), then we must first take responsibility for our own individual life and that responsibility starts with making an honest effort to come to a realistic understanding of the world around us.

In short, turn off American idol and spend some time reading books on history, economics, and law. Susan Boyle is not important. It does not matter how deeply she disturbed Simon Cowell, her voice will not help lower your taxes by passing the kind of healthcare reform we do need (H.R. 4038 and H.R. 4039), and her country charm will not prevent the Senate from enslaving us to China by passing the woefully misnamed "American Clean Energy and Security Act".

You and I must do our homework. We must also demand our representatives do their homework, and then we must hold them accountable for their mistakes. Our future depends on having competent people in Congress and we cannot achieve this if we are not competent ourselves.