The Wizards of Oz

One of the most telling scenes from the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” is when Dorothy and friends discover that the wizard is not all that he is cracked up to be. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” says the very mortal wizard through a distorting microphone. This scene is indicative of what is happening with great ease in our society much to our detriment. The “wizards” behind the curtain are people of great wealth who constitute an oligarchy of individuals and companies that are actually dictating the information we receive and who we should vote for. The distorting microphone and frightening wizard persona is, in essence, represented by their Public Relations (PR) people.

These PR people are well paid because of their ability to influence consumers like you and me. We tend to buy what they are selling. This has always been the case, but now it so easy for them as they are funded by industry or individuals through super-PACs or corporate marketing budgets. There is an excellent movie on the havoc that can be wreaked by PR people in the movie “Merchants of Doubt.” A link to an article in a San Antonio online news is as follows: http://www.sacurrent.com/sanantonio/americans-revealed-as-willing-suckers-in-merchants-of-doubt/Content?oid=2423641

In short, these well paid PR people are paid liars. There really is no better way to put this. They are often given the more politically correct term of “spin doctors,” but that does not do justice to what some of them do. I am more than OK with public relations people who do their best to tell a positive story based on factual information. In other words, helping companies put their best foot forward. As a business person, I have actually engaged people to help my company tell our story. But, we did not ask them to lie or distort the truth as that would have been a disservice to our clients. Yet, the folks I am referencing care little about the underlying message and the detriment it causes.

A dilemma we face is with our smaller attention spans, limited news budgets and conflicts of interests, news agencies that seek out and report verifiable truths are few in number. Some even rely on these PR agents to be subject matter experts, as presented in “Merchants of Doubt.” These PR people can contrive a more understandable story to countervent a scientist who has spent a lifetime on an issue, but cannot break his or her message into a sound bite. One of the more troubling things about the movie “Merchants of Doubt” as highlighted in the San Antonio article is one of the PR people actually brags on his ability to defeat scientists in arguments because he says they are “boring.” A sad truth is also shown in the movie is some of these scientists actually receive death and harmful threats at the directions of “paid liars” like this guy.

How do we combat these highly effective PR people and their underlying “Wizards of Oz” who pay for their services.

– Watch, read or listen to credible news sources – PBS Newshour, BBC World News America, NPR, The Guardian, Al Jazeera News et al are reputable sources who discuss issues in-depth and often with subject matter experts. Also, read editorialists you do not agree with as they will help confirm or shape your beliefs. I have changed an opinion or reconfirmed an opinion by reading someone who shares the opposite view.

– When a politician, pseudo-news person, or leader uses labels (Nazism, Socialism, Tree-Huggers, Apartheid, Slavery) in an attempt to discredit something or limits debate over a topic (as Governors Scott and Walker did in Florida and Wisconsin over the use of the terms climate change or global warming), dig further into argument. These tactics are generally used when the labeler or squelcher’s argument is not sound.

– Ask questions of politicians. Politicians know less than you would think and hope, plus they are beholden to funders who tell them how they should vote. Why did you change your vote or opinion? Why do you believe that when more people do not? Do you expect us to believe what you just said? Remember the words of Senator Jon Kyl, when caught in a lie when he responded “You should not confuse what I am saying with the truth.”

– Get involved. We have major issue facing our planet and country around climate change and eco-energy issues, poverty issues, and corruption issues to name a few.  There are more corrupt places than in the US, but we have monied influences that dictate what they want. These Wizards of Oz are akin to the Robber Barons that President Teddy Roosevelt fought so hard against.

– When you hear something inane in conversation or on Facebook, ask the person do you really believe that? Or, maybe you could say, “that is an interesting viewpoint. I personally do not share that opinion.” Be civil in your discourse, but it is more than OK to counter an argument. I do my best, but fail sometimes, to focus on the argument or issue. I use Senator Kyl’s name above as an exemplar as this line is on the public record.

We all need to channel our inner Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion’s and seek the truth. That is the only way we can countervent the “Wizards of Oz,” and their well-paid “Merchants of Doubt.”

Please do not rewrite history, there is too much to learn

In the US, a few states have acquiesced to the push by some conservative funding groups to whitewash history. The target is the Advanced Placement US History curriculum. The problem the group is solving in their minds is we do not pat ourselves on the back enough and discuss American exceptionalism. I will forego the word exceptionalism as I can devote a whole post to this, but when we try to hide our warts and how we have protested or overcome those warts, we are missing a key part of our greatness – our ability as citizens to protest and right a wrong.

I have written before about May 35 which is a real reference to an imaginary date. Per the attached article in the New York Times, it is a reference to what happened in Tiananmen Square in China on June 4, 1989, which has been expunged from Chinese history, including internet search references to that date. So, to make sure the Chinese kids remember this protest which was brutally squashed by the Chinese army, historians established a May 35 web link.*

I mention this extreme, as we must know our history, the good, the bad and the ugly, to avoid repeating the same mistakes. Here are few things we must never forget and constantly remind ourselves and question the why, the where, the what, the when and the how around these issues. If we do not, we will repeat the same mistakes.

– our forefathers did not give women the right to vote in our US Constitution. This was not remedied until 1921 after a significant and building level of women protests.

– our forefathers did not disallow slavery, but to give the southern states more clout agreed to count slaves as 3/5 of a person. Slavery was not outlawed until near the end of the Civil War in 1865.

– our ancestors conducted a war on Native Americans who would not play ball to let settlers live amongst them as we seized their land. These tribal leaders were constantly lied to, mislead and slaughtered in some cases. Eventually, we made tribes move to designated areas for their own protection.

– during the industrial revolution, business tycoons exploited everyone and everything to make their profits. These folks were called Robber Barons and it took a concentrated effort of President Teddy Roosevelt to make sure Americans got a Square Deal. The traits of these Robber Barons can be found today in major funders of political elections who want to win and do away with those pesky regulations around job safety, pay equity, and environment, etc. that get in their way.

– one of our greatest Presidents in FDR confessed later his chagrin over having to place Japanese Americans into guarded camps during World War II. It was a malpractice on the rights of Americans and leaves a bad taste in many mouths.

– we remain the only country to ever drop a nuclear bomb on people and did it twice. While we may understand the rationale, as bringing a Japanese surrender would have been a horribly bloody affair, we need to learn from this and never, ever let it come to this again.

– although slavery ended 100 years earlier, it took a major effort of protests and marches to bring codified rights of equality to African-Americans ending a long period of Jim Crow laws and the killing and maltreatment of people of color. This racism still festers in our country, but we need to shed a spotlight when we see poor behavior, such as the masked Voter ID laws that usually carry Jim Crow like provisions.

– one of the reasons Iranians do not trust Americans is in 1953, the CIA helped overthrow a Democratically elected leader to establish the Shah of Iran who was supportive of the US. The Shah was overthrown by rebellion in 1979. My guess is over 95% of Americans are not aware this happened. Why do they hate us so much, many may ask?

– one President came very close to being impeached, only saving himself from this fate when he resigned. President Nixon used to say “I am not a crook.” Mr. Nixon, you are wrong. You are a crook and ran a burglary ring from the White House, had a dirty deeds campaign to discredit Edmund Muskie forcing him to resign his campaign, and had an enemies list who you spied on with the help of J. Edgar Hoover.  While you did some good things, you got less than what you deserved as you dishonored the White House and dozens of your compatriots went to jail, including your two key advisors.

– we supported folks like Osama Bin Laden to help repel the Soviet army from Afghanistan (watch “Charlie Wilson’s War”). Once the Soviets left, we left these folks high and dry and the country fell apart. After 9/11, when we had a chance to get Bin Laden, we let him get away. To save face, President Bush led the invasion of an old nemesis in Saddam Hussein under the premise he possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction. This information was fabricated from misdirection that Hussein used to let his enemies think he was more powerful than he was. We have been paying for this invasion for twelve years and will still pay for it with ISIS, who was formed from the police force we helped fire. Our weariness from the wars also led President Obama to pull troops from Iraq leaving the country less stable and underestimate the problem in Syria. A historian notes we overreacted to 9/11 and underreacted to Syria, as a result..

I could go on, but we need to remember all of these moments. We have a great country, but it is an imperfect one. We must learn from these events and avoid repeating mistakes and instead emphasize the equality of all Americans. If we forget our history, then we will not learn from our mistakes and do them again. A good example is fighting an elongated unwinnable war in Vietnam. The same thing happened in Iraq. We owe it to our soldiers to have a set strategy and a definition of what winning looks like. This is their message to our leaders – we do not mind fighting for our country, but give us support and an end goal.

Do not let anyone whitewash history. We need to know the good, the bad and the ugly, as all three are there to be found. We need to avoid the need for May 35th.

* http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/24/opinion/global/24iht-june24-ihtmag-hua-28.html?_r=0eal

Stemming the decline in American Exceptionalism

In 1961, the New York Yankees won the World Series defeating the Cincinnati Reds going away, winning four out of five games. This team was voted one of baseball’s all time best teams, with six players hitting twenty or more home runs, led by Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. What many did not realize at that time, is this huge success was the beginning of the end of a long-lasting Yankee dynasty. Yes, they made it back to three more World Series, even winning one, but that was the apex of the dynasty and its hero, Mickey Mantle and by 1965, they would be out of the limelight until the late 1970s.

I use this example as it is a metaphor for the United States that has touted its exceptionalism. Mind you, we have one of the greatest governmental constructs of any country, but we have let others catch up and pass us, by investing less in our country than others. We have also let our country drift further into a land of haves and have-nots, where not everyone has full access to the same opportunities, what Teddy Roosevelt called a “square deal.” However, it is not too late to stem the tide of decline. We have rallied before and can rally again. But, we need to recognize the world has changed and we will be only one of several great economic engines and world influencers.

Not to belabor the decline too much, but to highlight where we have lost our way, note the following:

– Our educational rankings per the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development show we have declined in rankings in math, science and reading where we can barely hear the music the band is playing. On this subject, it should be noted that India sent a rocket to orbit Mars on its first try and did it cheaper than we could.

– Our upward mobility rankings continue to decline where we are no longer in the top ten. Some measures have us even further down the list. It is increasingly more important in the US where and to whom you were born than your own relative merit to achieve success. It should be noted that Canada now has a higher median level of wealth than in the US and our bottom 90% have stagnated in earnings, while our top 10% have done quite well per a recent survey.

– Our governing process has been thwarted by special interest groups, funders and lobbyists, to the extent deadlock, gridlock, ineffectiveness and inaction are words used more often than others to describe our leaders in Congress. Plus, bizarre and hypocritical decisions are made by many and few notice. Our own Department of Defense has noted Congress as a security risk to our country, as they are not governing and prefer to grandstand.

– Our focus has been on entertainment and sound byte issues. Fewer people care to investigate and pay attention to what really is going on with some biting hook, line and sinker the propagandized version or a superficial version of the news. If it is not exciting, Americans tend to lose interest. They do not recognize when smoke is being blown at them or question rhetoric.

– Our infrastructure is declining and we need to invest in roads, bridges, ports, technology, education, and renewable energy. The fact that one major political party refuses to admit publicly climate change is man-influenced is beyond lunacy and has harmed America and our planet. This is prima facie evidence of the power of funders, in this case the fossil fuel industry which favors the continuation of non-renewable energy where their greatest profits lie. Per “The Global Warming Reader” edited by Bill McKibben, the industry sold through an advanced PR campaign the story that “global warming is a hoax” and many bought this story and some still do.

So, how do we fix this? First, we must invest in our country. We built this country with leveraged public and private investment and other countries have followed our model. Yet, we have lost sight of this and we have fallen behind. There are several books on this subject, but the best one is “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How it Can Come Back” by Thomas Friedman (who wrote “The World is Flat” and Michael Mandelbaum.

We must provide equal opportunity for everyone and not favor those with the most money. As a 55-year-old former Republican, what I have witnessed in my business dealings and observations, is people say they want free market capitalism. What they tend to want is capitalism that favors them. Our country needs some governance on capitalism, which is why Teddy went after the Robber Barons who ran the country. Everything was tilted in their favor and they used everyone else as their pawns. We must avoid collusion, price-fixing, interlocking boards, insider trading, back dated stock options, unfair labor practices, aggressive marketing and fraud, etc. I also don’t like that long time employees must pay for the sins and bad decisions of their leaders through lay-offs while the leaders continue on or go out with a golden parachute.

We must also recognize that we have a poverty problem in this country. Most of the vanishing middle class did not go up in ranks, but fell down the ladder. We must increase opportunity through education and training. We must provide a living wage to people by increasing the minimum wage and tagging it to periodic or indexed increases. We need to embrace health care access for all, so we should refine Obamacare which is showing success in spite of its complexity. It should not be lost on others that the countries with better social mobility rankings tend to have some form of national healthcare. While Obamacare is not national healthcare, it does improve access and is dampening cost increases.

Finally, we citizens need to pay more attention and tell politicians we are watching. We need to share our concerns and vote for people who are willing to collaborate. The rigidity of a candidate in his or her belief system is in direct proportion to his or her inability to govern. We don’t need leaders shouting at the wind; we need leaders willing to listen and look at real data from reputable sources. We need leaders who are less enamored with their own voice and do not believe their own BS simply because a supposed news source regurgitated that rhetoric as fact, so it must be right.  We also need our citizens to be better informed. I encourage you to read and watch news sources that are more even-handed and in-depth, where actual subject matter experts speak civilly with informed newscasters.

It is not too late to stem the tide of our decline. But, we do need to wake up and change our behavior. The Yankees did learn from their demise and eventually rebuilt their team. They won two World Series in 1977 and 1978 and then created a new dynasty that rivaled the older ones in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Derek Jeter is retiring this year and serves as a great example to learn from. He carried himself with professionalism, came to work every day on time and ready to play and cared more about winning than individual success. Not a bad act to follow.