Monday, April 21, 2014

Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson misses the target and gets lost in the race space...

I recently saw a clip of Cosmos host and all round brilliant Neil Degrasse Tyson answering a question posed during a panel discussion. The question, which wasn’t really a question at all, had to do with former Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ comments on the disproportionate representation of women in science and math fields and his wondering if innate differences in sex might partially explain it.

The heavily mustached Tyson, seeking to ensure clarity in the event that there was any confusion, stated emphatically “I’ve never been a female.” He quickly followed with “But I have been black my whole life”. He went on to suggest that he might be able to tangentially address the issue. “So let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective because there are many similar social issues related to access to opportunity that we find in the black community as well as the community of women in a male dominated, white male dominated society."

He goes on to talk about the roadblocks, he faced beginning as a 9 year old who had decided that he wanted to study astrophysics. Teachers would ask if he wouldn’t rather be an athlete. Later, security guards would follow him in stores thinking he might be a thief. He states that the decision to become an astrophysicist was for him “The path of most resistance through the forces of nature in society, the forces of society.” He then follows with this: “And fortunately my depth of interest in the universe was so deep and so fuel enriched, that every one of these curveballs I was thrown and fences that were built in front of me and hills I had to climb… I just reached for more fuel and kept going.

He then wonders why there are so few others (blacks or women) where he is: “Where are the others who might have been this? They’re not there. And I wonder how, who, what is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not, simply because of the forces of society that prevented, at every turn, at every turn…

Finally, wrapping up he says: “My life experience tells me that when you don’t find blacks in the sciences, you don’t find women in the sciences, I know these forces are real and I had to survive them in order to get where I am today. So before we start talking about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity, then we can have that conversation.”

Just as Tyson has never been a woman, I’ve never been a black person. But as a sentient person I recognize that discrimination exists. It always has and until we’re all either clones or robots, it always will. Discrimination is about making choices and making choices is part of life, and people make them for all different reasons. Whether it’s hiring a cousin over a more qualified stranger, a man choosing the younger more attractive secretary over the older more experienced applicant, a woman choosing the 6’ ft brooding Adonis over the 5’4” nice guy, or a white family choosing to attend the mostly white church 4 blocks from their house rather than the mostly black church a block and a half away… discrimination of all sorts exists and takes place every single day.  It exists everywhere... and for lots of different reasons, some of which society can seek to minimize and some of which it can't. Think about it, when was the last time you chose to hit on someone you found unattractive? At the end of the day, life is not fair because we’re all different, with different characteristics, abilities, skills, personalities, likes, dislikes, prejudices and as Tyson pointed out, drives.

And that’s where Dr. Tyson misses the mark. He said it himself when he talked about his desire being so deep that it fueled him to overcome all obstacles to his success. Despite what he calls the “forces of nature” set against his success, he succeeded to a level he would likely never have imagined. His success was not due to some phantom “system where there’s equal opportunity” but rather his success was due to his desire to succeed and his willingness to work for it. Just as it was for Clarence Thomas, Jackie Robinson, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Reich, John Stossel and millions of other Americans. Is Tyson suggesting that he is superman and that other blacks and women don’t have what it takes to succeed in life as he did, and therefore they need some special advantages he did not have? I don’t think so. By his own words one could make the argument that Tyson succeeded because of the challenges he faced, not in spite of them. After all he used the roadblocks to fuel his passion to achieve, which led him to become one of the best known scientists in the country.

The problem with Tyson’s comments is that he puts the focus in the wrong place. He suggests that we don’t currently have “a system where there’s equal opportunity” and implies that it is possible to create one. The United States may not be perfect, but for those who are willing to work, for those who have the drive, for those who have the passion to pursue their goals, the United States offers more opportunity than any nation in history. Tyson and tens of millions of others prove that point. But by focusing on a mythical, unachievable, discrimination-free society or system, he undermines the single most powerful factor in someone’s success… their own willingness to overcome obstacles in order to achieve their goals.

There are indeed challenges that blacks face in the United States. And likely they are greater and different than those faced by whites. But the question is, what is keeping more blacks from achieving success? Is it white racism in a world where even the hint of racism can cost a company millions of dollars or open an individual’s life up to social and online scorn and ostracization? Or is it teachers’ unions that force mostly minority students to stay in failing schools? Is it minimum wage laws that keep black youth unemployment near or above 50% and remove opportunities for work experience? Is it government welfare programs that make it feasible for 77% of black babies to be born to unwed mothers?

What has a better chance of unleashing the potential power of success for blacks who have yet to achieve it? Focusing on some impossible dream of a where equal opportunity is equated with equal outcomes or rather empowering everyone by focusing on equipping children with the tools and skills to pursue their passions and overcome all obstacles with the vigor Dr. Tyson did. My guess is the latter would.

Monday, April 14, 2014

1776 & 2014 - Complacency and Revolution

How long has it been since you thought about the American Revolution? In 2014 not that many of us spend our time thinking about the catalysts that caused that revolution over 200 years ago. Who has the time? Between jobs, families, bills, a bit of TV and some recreation and socializing, there are only so many hours in the day. That’s the beauty of things being settled… you can get on with other things. If we had to spend our days thinking about what kind of government we wanted, how would we get anything else done? It would be impossible. Think about election season every 4 years. From July through November we can’t escape it: campaign advertisements on TV and radio, signs on the side of the street, wall to wall press coverage and endless water cooler chatter. All that and we have a government that’ been largely settled for 150 years.

Sometimes however it makes sense to go back and look at why things happen. In the case of American independence and the Revolutionary War, it was not any single event that caused the war to begin, rather it was a series of things that took place over years.

Among these things were well known events such as the Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre, the Intolerable Acts and the conflict at Lexington & Concord. Then there were other lesser know but equally important events such as The Quartering Acts of 1765 and The Declaratory Act. In all the Declaration of Independence lists 27 grievances against the King. Among them are:
  • He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
  • He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
  • For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
Importantly, the most significant lines in the Declaration of Independence are not among those 27, but rather in the 2nd paragraph.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…
… all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Americans today are acting as Jefferson suggested most people do… they are suffering evils rather than throwing off the yoke of a despotic government. Jefferson suggests however that when the abuses become too much, the people will indeed revolt. So the questions in 2014 are two: Are close to that point of abuse that sparks a revolt, and is it too late to turn the tables on the usurpers?

On the first question, the answer is a resounding yes. While 2014 may not quite yet be George Orwell’s 1984 with an all knowing all seeing – and listening – all powerful government… We’re close. We have a government that uses the police power of the taxing authority to silence its critics. We have a government that has decided that children can be punished for their parent’s mistakes, even if it was the government who made it. We have a government that spies on its citizens with impunity. We have heavily militarized local police forces across the country and every federal agency seems to come with its own SWAT team, regardless of its mission. We have an executive branch that brazenly ignores the clear language of the Constitution. And then of course we have the shrinking pool of citizens who are forced to pay stifling taxes in order to support a growing horde of those suckling at the government teat.

On the second question, is it too late, the answer is less clear. Human nature suggests that at some point those who shoulder the burden of financing the government’s largesse will revolt. Today we don’t see taxpayers manning the barricades and storming America’s Bastilles so we clearly have some time to reverse course and strip the usurpers of their power.

Settled can be good, but as Jefferson notes, it can turn to complacency. And complacency can lead to rot. Whether it’s the five year reign of Usurper in Chief Barack Obama or the last 40 years of creeping comforts and expanding government, Americans have assumed that we’ll get through everything just because politicians tell us we will. That’s not how things work. Freedom and prosperity demand vigilance. Neither can survive where a government decides that they are its to withhold or grant. In 1776 fifty six men risked their lives and decided that they could no longer abide the complacency of accepting tyranny. And they started a revolution. How many Americans will come to the same conclusion in 2014 and risk far less when they turn off the television and enlist as foot soldiers in an electoral revolution in 2016? Only time will tell.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Wile E. Obama and his bag of tricks and anvils...

One of the great things about children’s cartoons is how the characters can do the craziest things and somehow everyone walks away unscathed. How many times has Tweety Bird ended up in Sylvester’s mouth or under a clock only to end the episode smiling as Granny scolded Sylvester? How many times did Scooby Doo and Shaggy seem to be scared into heart attacks only to be back eating in the next scene? Then of course there is Tom & Jerry who seem to spend every episode blowing each other up, or poisoning one another or pounding on one another with hammer. Invariably, regardless of the circumstances, the characters not only survive, but at the beginning of the next episode are as good as new.

Unfortunately for Americans, we’re in the middle of a cartoon, but the end of the episode doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight and it’s unlikely anyone will escape unscathed. The star of our show however isn’t a superhero like Underdog or Popeye or Roger Ramjet, but rather the monumentally inept Wile E. Coyote. In perhaps the most brilliant piece of typecasting ever, the role of Wile E. Coyote is being played by Barack Obama.

In most cartoons the dynamic has the antagonist spending the episode trying to eat or capture or somehow put an end to the protagonist. They always fail and the hero always wins. In our not so funny cartoon however we have a somewhat different dynamic. The antagonist, in this case Wile E. Obama, fails at virtually every single thing he tries. In the Road Runner cartoon, when Wile E. Coyote fails, we invariably see our hero standing at the side of the shot looking at the mess like when Coyote was stuck in a rock overhang he had just rocketed himself through. Or when Coyote was flat against a rock upon which he had painted a tunnel and into which Road Runner had just run. Or when Coyote is smoldering from a dynamite explosion he had accidentally set off while still holding it.  The Road Runner typically offers his “Beep Beep” and zips down the road leaving a cloud of dust behind.

In our real life cartoon however, when Wile E. Obama sets one of his traps, there is nobody to play the role of the unscathed Road Runner who gets to speed off unencumbered by the anvil Obama has just dropped. Rather, the anvil hits the side of a mountain and touches off an avalanche that buries not only the entire town but the countryside for as far as the eye can see.

Of course the perfect example of Wile’s abilities is Obamacare. Sold on the contention that there were 45 million Americans who were unable to afford or qualify for healthcare, Wile E. Obama crafted a “fix” that would have made cartoonist Rube Goldberg proud… except that unlike a Rube Goldberg contraption, it dosen’t actually work. Instead of figuring out a solution to how to solve the problem for whatever the true number of uninsurable was, he crafted a fix that upended the health insurance system for 315 million people. And of course he lied and obfuscated in order to get the anvil to the top of the hill. Then, promising it would only land on the rich, who can afford it, he pushed his anvil off the cliff. Those below watched in horror as the anvil hit the side of the mountain and started a landslide that buried and burdened everyone as far as the eye could see. Those who thought they could keep their plans couldn’t. Those who thought their costs were going to drop by $2,500 got a rude awakening. Those who thought it would be easy to sign up found it wasn’t. And worst of all - but not surprising - only a tiny fraction of the people the bill was supposed to help ended up actually being helped. Obamacare is the equivalent of Wile E. Coyote stringing a rope between two trees in order to trip up the Road Runner but instead starting a domino effect that knocks down every tree in the country.

Unfortunately the Obamacare anvil is not the only weapon in Wile E. Obama’s bag of tricks. There’s also the dynamite sticks that he has used to alienate friends and embolden enemies. There’s the crayon he used to draw signs of Uncle Sam waiting in the desert with open arms, welcoming illegal immigrants. There’s the trick compass he used to turn the American space agency into a Kumbaya circle intended to build Muslim self esteem. Finally of course there is the Purple Pen he borrowed from Harold (and added a little ink from Karl Marx) to write a virtual spider web of red tape regulations with which to incapacitate not only the Road Runner, but every entrepreneur and businessman who might deign to try and start or grow a business.

The result of Wile E. Obama’s machinations is a record number of people on welfare and food stamps, the smallest Navy since World War II, an economy that can’t seem to get out of neutral and a healthcare plan that not only doesn’t work, but somehow ends up destroying millions of jobs and kicks millions of people off the insurance policies they liked in the first place. Before this episode has concluded he will have run up more debt than the accumulated total of every president before him from George Washington through his predecessor George W. Bush.

Let’s hope that when this episode is over the next can begin as if this nightmare had never happened and all the vestiges of Wile E. Obama’s failures nowhere to be seen. Maybe then we can move back to a place of normalcy where heroes, particularly those with initials RR, rule the day and the only person the bad guy injures with his bag of tricks is himself. Beep Beep!