Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tested Every Day

by Libby Sternberg

A recent Tom Friedman column found its way into my Facebook newsfeed, like a piece of newspaper  floating down a rapidly moving river, appearing several times as various "friends" posted it. The upshot of the column is that we need another political party in the U.S., something to replace that intransigent Republican group that is so riven by special interest strife, it can't compromise on the important issues of the day.

First, let me say how refreshing it was to read Mr. Friedman arguing to keep at least two parties in our system. Lately, he seems to be besotted with love for the one-party rule of China.

That aside, what struck me about his argument was how easy it was to turn it on its head. Every sin he accused Republicans of could be found equally and obviously in the Democratic soul, as well. In fact, I did a little Bizarro World editing of Mr. Friedman's main point and came up with a paragraph listing the Democratic special interests--everything from abortion rights zealots to union leader stalwarts to Progressives who want to chuck capitalism altogether--that keep Democrats from compromising.

And then I asked myself: why can't my liberal FB friends see this obvious flaw in Friedman's piece?  They're not stupid people. The ones who posted his column are smart, some with positions in universities, certainly all people who care deeply about the country.

All they had to do was flip the argument around to one where their "team" was on the receiving end of the criticism and ask themselves if it's true in this instance, too. If so, then is the critic's original point still valid or is there a deeper story here?

In the case of this Friedman column, you'd have to come up with a mountain of "yeah, but" qualifiers to make the switch invalid, to prove that Democrats weren't equally or more guilty of lack of compromise. Maybe a steaming mountain of caveats, if you get my drift.

But Friedman's column isn't the only one that's easily debunked. There are a whole swarm of Facebook pictures, slogans, petitions...whatever--usually traced back to some arm of Moveon.org and George Soros's money--that these friends regularly grab on to and repost without much thought, it seems to me, given to the underlying issue. They become rapidly moved by what I call the Outrage Industry, rushing to nail to the Facebook church door their angry complaints. (The Outrage Industry, by the way, doesn't necessarily have to have an impact on a particular issue to be successful. I'm sure their own coffers swell whenever they get followers het up about something.)

So, again, my question is: why do these bright liberal friends thunder, herdlike, off to "like" whatever this Outrage Industry spews forth?

Well, my theory is: they're not used to having their ideas challenged. Oh, I know, I know. How can I make such a sweeping generalization? Surely some of them are used to challenges to their beliefs? Maybe. But, if they live in the same world I do, probably rarely.

You see, conservatives, even center-right gals or guys, have their views challenged from sunup to sundown. From the moment you flip on the morning TV, you're seeing some newscaster repeat a Democratic talking point or simply not covering stories that are critical of Democrats or liberals.

How about these recent examples:

  • The mainstream media's coverage of the Occupy movement versus Tea Party demonstrations: the former was treated as a grassroots protest of value, the latter as surly, gun-loving racists with sinister motives.

  • The lack of expansive mainstream media coverage of two big administration scandals: the failure of several green energy companies funded by stimulus money despite warnings from experts; and the Fast and Furious gun scandal where Attorney General Eric Holder has given conflicting accounts to Congress.

  • The absence of setting the record straight when the president blamed Republicans during difficult policy battles--when his party, not Republicans, controlled Congress.

  • The double standard on sex scandals: Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards's affair was only dragged into the mainstream media when the National Enquirer outed the story, while presidential candidate Herman Cain's alleged sexual harassment of women was given Watergate-like coverage in the mainstream media with conflicting and thin backup for evidence.

  • And, just this morning, Mika Brzezinski's slavish adoration of the president's just-released budget. (She proudly displayed a lipstick bedecked copy of the budget on MSNBC's Morning Joe. Way to go, Mika. You set women journalists back a few decades with that stunt, even if you do work for a network that leans forward left).


The one exception to this kind of coverage is Fox News, of course. But it's the ONE exception. And if some liberals had their way, it would be put out of business. Fox isn't perfect. I know that. But at least they will cover stories that challenge the liberal outlook.

Even if you're not a news junkie, your conservative ideas are still put to the test when you flip on television during prime time. There you're treated to a parade of stories, dramatic and comedic, that often portray the villain/buffoon as a conservative-minded homophobic, gun-loving, woman-hating, Muslim-despising, evangelical preacher/Wall Street financier/white father/deranged Iraq war veteran (Law & Order has about a million variations on that plot).

So at the end of the day, if you're a conservative, you're pretty used to having your worldview gobsmacked a couple dozen times or more. And if you're thoughtful, you...well, think about it. You ask yourself: is that true? Are those thoughts and ideas real and valid? You're tested, in other words, and you learn to look more deeply into what the news industry, Hollywood, or the Outrage Industry floats in front of you.

By the way, you don't turn off that analysis when you encounter ideas that jibe with what's already in your ideological wheelhouse. You still ask yourself if the ideas are true, if there's a counter argument that's valid. (For a good example of lively conservative discussion and debate, not always in agreement, read the National Review's blog The Corner.)

I'm sorry, liberal buddies. I don't think you face that same test every day. And sometimes, on Facebook, at least, it shows.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her website is here.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

A meditation on Greece

by Leslie S. Lebl

For any of our readers who worry about what's going on in Greece, here's a little background and historical perspective.

Greece actually has two problems: First, its government spends more than it takes in and has, as a result, run up a huge debt. Add to that strict labor laws and generous social benefits, and you end up with a bloated public sector, full pensions for hairdressers who retire at 50, and so on.

That would already be bad enough, but Greece has an additional problem: it's a member of the eurozone. As its internal crisis unfolded, the EU has sought to 'bail out' Greece. The EU wants to ward off default while paying as much as possible to Greece's foreign creditors in hopes of keeping the euro from getting a bad name.

The result: for two years Greeks have been hit with all kinds of austerity measures yet still face a huge debt. Kinda the worst of both worlds, especially when you look at this chart. Only 19 cents of every euro given to bail out Greece goes to the Greek government; the rest goes to creditors.

Just a short while ago, the EU demanded that Greece accept a new prime minister acceptable to the EU. Greece complied, but of course that didn't solve the problem. Now Germany, the EU's financial strongman, has proposed that Greek financial decisions be turned over to EU authorities. In other words, bye-bye to any remnants of Greek democracy. Naturally, Greeks are protesting in the streets, burning the German flag and shouting 'Nazis out.' (Other EU member states also oppose this idea, unsurprisingly, as some of them also risk default.)

In the past, creditor countries have taken over countries that defaulted on their debts. This happened in 1882, when Great Britain invaded Egypt and made it a protectorate. In 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt persuaded the Dominican Republic to let the United States manage its tariff collections, so as to forestall any action by European creditors. The United States didn't invade - probably, after the Spanish-American war, it wasn't necessary.

In other words, it usually requires force or the threat of force to take over another country's finances. Maybe the EU has found another way to accomplish this goal, but I doubt it.
A retired Foreign Service Officer, Leslie S. Lebl is a writer, consultant and lecturer. In the Foreign Service, Ms. Lebl served as Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels. Prior to that, she was Political Advisor to the Commander of Stabilization Forces (SFOR) in Bosnia-Herzegovina, first in the American sector in Tuzla and then at SFOR headquarters in Sarajevo. Other assignments included Russia, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York, Bolivia, Germany and Poland, as well as a year as diplomat-in-residence at Yale University. She speaks French, German, Russian, Polish and Spanish. She is currently at work on a book about radical Islam and the European Union.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Breast Cancer and Me

by Libby Sternberg

Those who know me well know that I'm not the type to strut my personal struggles out in public. I'm not a fan of using sad but true anecdotes to wring feeling from an audience instead of intellectual understanding.

The ubiquitous pink ribbon. It helped
bring cancer out of the closet.
But the recent brouhaha over the Komen Foundation's defunding of grants to Planned Parenthood has me treading into very personal territory in order to demonstrate my solid connection to the topic at hand.

Specifically, I'm moved to tell my story after seeing a youtube video of a breast cancer survivor telling her tale about what "breast cancer is and is not." Her ultimate conclusion is that breast cancer is not about certain values, and therefore she's disappointed in the Komen Foundation and they can "kiss her ass."

First, congratulations to her on surviving this far, going through the tremendous upheaval, pain and uncertainty of this diagnosis. As to her message to Komen...I'm sorry, but we disagree. Not that I think the Komen Foundation is the best breast cancer organization in the world. But I do think they've been unfairly vilified by Planned Parenthood and her allies. Shame on them.

Before I go on, here are my bona fides on talking on this topic:

My mother died of breast cancer after a four year struggle. The following people in my family have been diagnosed with it, although -- thank God, so far -- none died of it: my maternal grandmother, a maternal aunt, a paternal aunt, a cousin (diagnosed in her thirties), my sister (diagnosed in her forties) and now...me. I was diagnosed four years ago. But I don't carry the breast cancer gene. Go figure.

I went through surgery -- tough surgery with lots of wounds and the scars to prove it. Surgery removed my lymph nodes on one side, which means I'm always on the alert for the swelling of lymphodema. I have a handy-dandy elastic sleeve and glove to put on when my arm starts to puff up. It's wonderfully cozy in winter. Not so much in summer.

I went through chemo. Like the woman in the video, I went bald. Unlike some women who go through this process, I was not comfortable with displaying my baldness. I had two wigs, one I called Thelma and one I called Louise. I used to joke that "Thelma" was a firecracker.

Chemo was hard. It forced me to think a lot about what fatigue really is, pressed-to-the-sofa-scared-you-won't-have-the-energy-to-even-get-up-to-use-the-bathroom fatigue.

Chemo wrecked my immune system during one session, sending me to the hospital to be pumped with antibiotics. I received white-blood-cell-shots after that. Those had a side effect all their own -- deep bone pain. Chemo gave me hives. Chemo gave me "chemo brain," where thoughts were muddled. Chemo gave me a metallic taste in my mouth that made me crave foods that would cut through it. Chemo was always preceded by the ingestion of steroids that jacked me up into a "hyper" state. Got a lot done those two days. Chemo, mercifully, was over one day.

And then it was time for radiation. Six weeks being shot with rays Monday through Friday. Six weeks of "sunburn." I was luckier than most. It didn't zap my energy. Or maybe, I was so damn glad to be getting my energy back after the chemo that the radiation's drag didn't bother me so much.

And now it's an estrogen suppressor pill ingested daily. I love my pill, my "precious." But it causes its own set of discomforts.

I could go on with other thoughts -- the care the nurses gave me, the wonder I experienced as the chemo was pumped in me -- the drug came from the bark of the Yew tree. I felt like writing hymns to the Yew tree, the beautiful, magnificent Yew tree -- Oh, Yewbaum, oh, Yewbaum, Wie treu sind deine Bl├Ątter!

And radiation -- who thought of this machine? What brilliant minds brought destructive power to bear in such a constructive way? More often than not, I was filled with songs of praise in my heart, grateful these things were available for me. They'd not been so refined in my mother's struggle.

And again the nurses -- with their little ceremonies at the end of each struggle, a dancing frog toy and singing at the end of chemo, a bell-ringing and certificate presentation at the end of radiation. Those silly things meant more to me than walking on stage to receive my two degrees. And I rejoiced with the lucky individuals who experienced them while I was still in the throes of therapy.

So I know breast cancer. I have more than just a passing involvement with it. Me and breast cancer, we're always staring each other down through narrowed eyes.

The Komen Foundation has been an unflagging advocate for breast cancer awareness, research and screenings.  Komen, with its pink ribbons and pink...everything...made it okay to speak of this scourge. Komen brought cancer -- not just breast cancer, I believe, but all cancer -- out of the closet.

Oddly enough, that alone has made a world of difference to me. You see, when my mother was diagnosed in the early 1980s, cancer wasn't something you talked about except in hushed and sorrowful tones. It almost felt as if it were something to be ashamed of. Certainly something to be fiercely afraid of.

And I was afraid. Despite seeing survivors in my family, my mind had been seared with the trauma of my mother's unsuccessful battle with the disease. Komen, along with my family survivors, made me realize I needn't fear the diagnosis. Komen created an atmosphere that said: women beat this; get that mammogram you've been putting off.

Do I always agree with Komen's strategies? Of course not.

But I was appalled at the reaction when they decided not to continue giving money to Planned Parenthood. Yeah, they mucked up the communications part of this act big-time. I'm still unclear on what was behind the decision. Part of it seems to be the fact that PP does few actual mammograms. They do referrals, not the actual screening.

Sounds reasonable to me. Donors to Komen have a right to expect their money going to actual screenings and not referrals.

Part of the reason might be a congressional investigation of PP. I know it will shock PP fans, but there are actual cases of PP chapters not reporting sexual abuse in their zeal to help young women access abortions. Like Komen, Planned Parenthood isn't perfect.

But Planned Parenthood has a lot of allies on the left. And they rallied those troops, ginning up outrage (and probably donations, too, since the outrage industry can always count on money when they light on just the right conflict). Facebook was a sea of comments, most with this theme: Komen cut the PP funding because of some right-wing agenda influencing them. It was all "politics."

Newsflash for PP supporters: pro-life women get breast cancer, too. Maybe Komen's money is better spent on screening programs that all women would be comfortable accessing, not just the sisters from the liberal clubhouse.

What I saw was a swarm of bullies. Or maybe, to use a Godfather analogy, a swarm of enforcers visiting a shopkeeper who wasn't interested in paying "protection money." See what happens when you don't pay up, these "enforcers" seemed to be saying. We make your life miserable.

I won't go so far as to say Planned Parenthood can "kiss my ass." But I will say this: potential big donors to Planned Parenthood should heed this warning: think carefully before you write that check. There might come a day when you don't want to or can't write it. And when that happens, you'll be beaten up in the public square, too. The pro-choice crowd seems to care more about that one issue than any other, certainly more than breast cancer, more even than decent behavior.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her website is here.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Let's Ask Abby about this Komen/PP Gift Thing

Dear Abby,
Every year, my friend Karen gives my friend Penelope a great gift. This year, Karen decided not to give the gift -- she'd heard some bad things about how Penny used the money. Then Penny got all her friends to gang up on Karen and make her life so miserable that she ended up saying oh, all right, I'll give you the money. I think Penny was wrong, but all our friends say Karen was wrong because she shouldn't have stopped giving the gift. What do you think?
Torn Between Friends 

 Dear Torn,
Gifts are freely given, not extorted. Karen should be thanked when she gives a gift, not harassed when she doesn't. Penny might be disappointed, but getting your friends to "gang up" on Karen is called bullying.