Sunday, November 30, 2008

Say bye to Wii and hi to a coffee can -- Saturday's column.

Hi everyone,

Saturday's column:

I’m a little irritable about the commercialization of the winter holidays and thought I’d throw some kerosene on that Yule log.

When you visit friends and relatives are you stunned by the sight of children, absorbed in their video games, eyes fixed in a 1,000-yard stare, distracted by the flickering screen from their participation in the festivities: from the tree, from conversations with second cousins they won’t see again for a year, from aunts, uncles, and grandparents – and even from eating dinner?

Yeah, me too. I think we’re teaching them to prefer virtual reality to real reality.

Back in the Internet’s pre-commercial days, Cliff Stoll was a celebrity. He was the guy who, in 1986, caught an East German KGBsponsored hacker breaking into the U.S. military network. During the ’90s he wrote a great little book (Silicon Snake Oil) about the way computers were being injected, like artificial Twinkie filling or hepatitis, into the lives of children. Every year, he prophesied, computers would replace sand boxes and construction paper in the lives of kindergartners. Stoll was particularly worried about some unnoticed moral lessons kids assimilate from exposure to video games. Here is the gist of it.

Think about what children learn from video games versus what you learned playing kick the can.

Let’s start with video games.

In video games, the rules must be strictly obeyed and can never be appealed or changed. In the face of absolute rules the only way to get what you want, in the mind of a 6-year-old if not an Enron executive, is to go around them. In other words, you learn to cheat. Prolonged exposure to video games thus trains a child to believe that rules must be followed blindly, a character trait better suited to fascist regimes than America, and that cheating is an appropriate way to win. Cheating is not a habit we want to inculcate in kids. It’s economically harmful. Even Milton Friedman said that cheating subverts a free market.

Kick the can, by contrast, embodies all the best American values. You may not have noticed at the time, but kick the can taught you how to play with others and negotiate your own rules. (When I was a kid we played with a bunch from the next block who used a different set of rules. They insisted, for example, on leaning the can up against a tree instead of setting it out in the middle of a lawn. Disputes about can placement always dominated the opening rounds of our kickthe-can marathons. Sometimes we couldn’t reach an agreement on the rules and, therefore, never even got around to playing. Another valuable lesson about the real world.)

Moreover, negotiation was followed by a second, greater, lesson: you learned to keep your word. If you accidentally stepped out of bounds, say, you learned you had to abide by the rules you’d agreed to, or get thrown out of the game. You also learned that if you were honest, people would believe you and let you keep playing. You learned to be responsible. Prolonged exposure to kick the can teaches kids how to forge contracts and the importance of keeping their word. They learn that cheating screws up the fun of playing.

Let’s recap:

Video games: You learn to play alone.
Kick the can: You learn to play with others.
Video games: You learn to obey rules.
Kick the can: You learn to create rules and to take responsibility for following the rules you create.
Video games: You learn to cheat.
Kick the can: You learn to negotiate.
Video games: You can start over whenever you want.
Kick the can: You can’t start over whenever you want.
Video games: No need to consider others.
Kick the can: You learn that, in the real world, you have to get along with other people, whether they like you or not. You learn the majority sets the rules, even when they're wrong, and you learn how to cope with situations where you don’t get your own way.

So, this Thanksgiving weekend, as you roll out to join the swelling river of minivans flooding the Yule-soaked shopping mall parking lots, remember: video games teach blind obedience to authority and kick the can teaches democracy.

Resist the impulse to buy flashy new electronic reality-substitutes. Show your children and grandchildren you love them. This year give them an old coffee can, and the real world, instead. Then take ‘em outside and teach them how to play.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

After the thrill of the election, back to sewer zoning.

Hi everyone,

[My editor wrote the headline! "From the Whitehouse back to the outhouse."]

Saturday's column.

The gripping national drama of this year’s election is finally beginning to loosen its hold on us and our political attention can finally shift from the faraway spectacle of Washington, D.C., to the local, and more immediate, concerns of Washington County.

The election was a thrill ride, wonderful for some and frightening for others. Mr. Obama’s promise of participatory democracy is, apparently, even more frightening to neoconservatives than Mr. Reagan’s voodoo-economics-driven plutocratic-Christian-fundamentalist-fascism was to those of us on the progressive side of the aisle.

But now, after all that tumult and excitement, after the grand sweep of Grand Ideals, we have to get back to figuring whether we want bike trails, who to assign to West Bend’s Parking Advisory Committee and, of course, sewers.

I have a funny story about sewers. Eleven years ago this autumn I was sitting in the visitors gallery overlooking the Estonian Riigikogu, their parliament. Below us the members were engaged in a fierce debate.

Beside us our hostess, the minister of the environment, was giving us goose-bumps by recounting the story of how, on Aug. 20, 1991, as a column of Soviet tanks drew down on Tallinn, the Estonian parliament defiantly passed a final resolution declaring full Estonian independence. Volunteers set up perimeters to defend key government buildings from the Soviet Interior Ministry’s OMON shock troops.

There was, surprisingly, no bloodshed. Even when the Soviet troops finally pulled out of Estonia everyone assumed, we were told, that the Russians were merely leaving to see who would emerge as leaders afterward. Once those people were known, everyone assumed, the Russians would return and slaughter them. Those who lived in the Baltics following World War II understood the Soviets perfectly well.

There didn’t seem to be any point in delaying the inevitable, she told us. People poured down to the border crossings to block the returning Russian tanks with their bodies. They waited. The Soviets did not return. Eventually everyone decided they might as well head back to Tallinn and start work on the new government. That’s what they did.

The members of parliament on the floor below us had been among those Estonians who, jaws set and singing patriotic songs, waited for Russian tanks that never came.

The voices from the floor below grew louder. What were those courageous people, now transformed into representatives of a parliamentary democracy, discussing with so much fire?

Our hostess leaned over the railing to listen and, eyes widening, finally said, Ah yes. A very important debate is taking place. The members are discussing the best way to extend a new sewer line.

This was, admittedly, something of a letdown, but it was also a brilliant lesson in the aphorism that all politics is local.

Here in Washington County we haven’t even had to worry about Soviet shock troops, but there is a lot to do.

The West Bend Common Council still has to think about the northwest interceptor sewer line in one form or another. The main water tower was just repainted blue. There have been sanitary sewer repairs along Salisbury Road and Barton Avenue and city council has considered whether to allow a new tattoo parlor shop to set up on Barton Avenue and whether to initiate some rezoning for (another ?) new Walgreen's at Paradise Drive and South Main Street. They’re preparing the 2009 Water Utility budget.

(Sitting in the visitors gallery in Tallinn, I remembered something my grandfather the pastor liked to say: You can climb the mountain to behold the glory of God, but always remember, the fruit grows in the valley.)

I thought about what it must have been like for human beings who had risked their lives on the mountain tops of patriotic dedication – and the lives of their families – to suddenly find themselves arguing about sewer lines, or to realize that their greatest contribution to the future of their country might well be a set of smart zoning regulations. I thought about this again last week while recovering from the adrenalin rush of three months campaigning against the neoconservative culture warriors.

I realized that, if on a less dramatic scale, we too should take a deep breath and get back to the urgent needs of local government because, grand political events notwithstanding, we live in the valley.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

This just in: The Bogeyman doesn’t exist ... Saturday's column.

Hi everyone,

Saturday's column.

[I'll be posting these online now that I finally (!) figured out proper citation. For those of you without a West Bend Daily News subscription, you won't be able to access the electronic version... but then, you don't need to if you read it here.]

I remember hiding under the covers, worried about the bogeyman under my bed. My mom would come in and turn on the lights. I’d push back the covers, lean over the edge and, terrified, peek underneath. Nothing but dust bunnies. Whew.

There was enough loose talk about Karl Marx and socialism over the last few weeks, two of America’s biggest bogeymen, to make me put on my mean-old-professor glasses and work up a little pop quiz to test our political understanding. See how you do.

Identify the source of the following:

“Owners sell off their land and houses and bring the proceeds to their leaders who then redistribute the wealth to each according to their need.”

Does this idea first appear in

a) Karl Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program,”
b) Vladimir Lenin’s pamphlet, “What Is To Be Done,” or
c) the Bible?

Did everyone get the Bible?

It’s a paraphrase from Acts 4:34-35. A little earlier, in Acts 2:44-45, we even find “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”

Scary stuff, but that’s where Marx got it.

Does it strike anyone as ironic that this quotation – Western culture’s most compelling description of a community that cares about its members – was misconstrued over the last few weeks to suggest that the President-elect poses a “socialist” threat to America’s future?

So, let me be blunt: this fear-laden notion of socialism is a bogeyman. It keeps us scared and hiding under the blankets. Let’s turn on the lights and check out the dust bunnies.

For starters, if by “socialism” we mean a totalitarian state that controls every aspect of human life… well, you’d have to explain where that shows up in the President-elect’s agenda. No, another look under the bed confirms it’s all dust bunnies. Even the famous examples of oppressive totalitarianism – Nazi Germany, the USSR, and China under Mao – have all been vacuumed up by history. The lights came on and they turned to dust. Besides, think of all the fully functional, and fully free, “socialist” countries like Sweden, Norway or even France. Denmark hardly looks like Orwell’s “1984” and they’re currently the happiest people on the planet.

On the other hand if, by “socialism,” we mean “a government that does stuff for its citizens,” then nearly every heartbeat of America’s political and economic life runs on a “socialist” infrastructure. The interstate highway system, our sewer and water facilities, the electric grid, Social Security, Medicare, the Internet, our fire and police departments, and the armed services are all, technically, “socialist” programs. So was the public health service in Milwaukee during the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918-1919 – a public health service that kept Milwaukee at the bottom of the mortality rate nation wide.

Anyone want to privatize the fire department or the interstates?

In fact, over the past few decades no segment of the economy has benefited more from socialistic government spending than the largest corporations – and, let’s not forget, their Boards of Directors. Liberals haven’t been able to afford regular lattes for years. Wall Street CEOs? That’s a different matter entirely. Our schools may be underfunded, but President Bush’s corporate welfare queens are crowding into the Treasury Department’s waiting room this week, palms outstretched for government-issue golden parachutes. They whine that these bailouts will help “the employees,” but our tax dollars, apparently, will also help “the executives” pay for hunting trips to shoot French Red-legged partridges in rural England, as AIG officials did last month.

Turn on the lights and you can see what's happening under the bed: socialism for the rich and capitalism for everybody else.

Let’s get back to why the “socialism” bogeyman appeared so much over the last few weeks in the local paper. Washington County is one of the places in Wisconsin where bogeymen are still being kept alive. Here they’re fed by local radio talk-show hosts and state representatives who depend on sloganeering, promulgating irrational fear, and wedge-issue politics to keep their jobs.

But the lights are on now. It’s only a matter of time until everyone’s had a good look under the bed.

You go first.

I dare you.


Does Charlie Syckes's job depend on a nation of victims?

Hi everyone,

As we guessed, yeah, it does

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