Of Burt And Bunnies

I am not quite certain what to make of this particular harmonic convergence of hormones, but I believe it must mean something.

Within just the past few weeks we have seen Burt Reynolds, that paragon of smirking 1970’s masculinity, pass away in Florida while the Playboy Club, that whimsical throwback to bunny ears and cottontails, has now been reborn in New York City.  Each life change is, in its own way, an opportunity to glance back at sexual and societal mores that seem somehow both distant and strangely contemporary, and our viewpoints are likely composed of equal parts of attraction and repulsion.  

The secret to Mr. Reynolds rakish and thoroughly self-deprecating charm was that he honestly seemed to enjoy being “Burt Reynolds”.  Like the grinning boy who stares you straight in the eye while he has his hand in the cookie jar, Mr. Reynolds’ utterly guileless determination to be as sweetly naughty as he could be allowed him to manage the neat trick of being the man whom women wanted to both slap in the face and drag to their boudoir.  

Looking at his movies and antics today, we are likewise divided by our attraction to his easygoing charm and our cringing reactions to his sometimes over-the-top sexism.  However, Mr. Reynolds’ willingness to make himself the butt of the joke in both his movies and real life—who will ever forget his hirsute nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1972?—largely inoculated him from the taint of overt misogyny and permitted him to later age into more demanding dramatic roles that no longer required a sly smile or whinnying laugh.

The return of the Playboy Club to New York City seems equal parts a yearning for a more naively seductive style of sexuality and a nostalgia for a bygone time when men were men, women were women, and sex was less about lawyers, regrets, and diseases.  During the Age of Aquarius, a period of time largely defined by a carefree desire to stimulate every available nerve ending, Hugh Hefner’s worldview both enabled the eternal adolescent within and disabled the guardians of traditional moral standards without.  

As a vehicle for fantasy role playing and the exchange of cash for a peek at pretty young women who exuded a wholesome innocence, the Playboy franchise was a money machine for many decades.  Ironically enough, however, what prompted its demise as a cultural icon and financial juggernaut was the ready availability of pornography that became, with the passing of the years, ever more explicit and gritty—the college co-ed next door eventually lost out to the grim hooker splayed in the alleyway.  Today the politics of sex, of gender roles, and of gender itself have grown infinitely more complex, and the penalties for misbehavior and miscommunication have gone far beyond a knee to the groin or a “bad reputation”.  

In addition, we have somehow managed to paint ourselves into a uncomfortable corner where our mass entertainment has devolved into soft-core pornography and even school children exchange sexually explicit selfies on their cell phones, yet we are told the cure to all that ails our culture and society is more sex-positivity because we are—hard it may be to believe—still far too prudish.  Apparently, having the least self-restraint or standards is today a sign of unhealthy inhibition that must be eliminated in order to avoid allowing anyone to judge another’s behavior.  What a world we live now.  Is it any wonder that we gaze with perhaps the least bit of longing back to the days when double-entendres were risqué, a tuft of exposed chest hair or a hint of cleavage was titillating, and any hint of nudity had to be wrapped in opaque plastic lest a child see something that they should not?

Although our world may somehow be better off because mothers can now work out to regain their pre-pregnancy form on a stripper pole in the den, porn stars write their own magazine columns, and everyone can learn how to give a blowjob on YouTube, it could be the case that the ultimate attraction of the movies and persona of Burt or of the Bunnies in their costumes is that each provides pleasures that rely more on what is kept hidden rather than what is revealed.  Perhaps we actually lust for just a bit more bashfulness as a counterbalance to the daily gynecology of our culture today.





A Reset Of Liberal Thought In America?

All systems of government—even totalitarianism—cannot operate without the support of the governed.  Although this support may be bought in all sorts of unsavory manners through lies, threats, or the handing out of unwonted benefits that translate into outright bribery, some provision must be made to obtain the cooperation that is necessary to ensure the operation of the basic economy and the maintenance of public order.  Failing this, no government can long survive.  Even if the actual benefits for citizens are set so far in the future that blandishments and symbolic gestures must suffice for today, leaders invariably maintain power by offering some pleasing mixture of perceived economic security, national pride, and protection from criminals within and enemies without.

Modern liberalism, which traces its roots back several hundreds of years, has sustained its support across the centuries by essentially promising that a benign and expansive government can supply economic security by way of a mix of government benefits, enable national pride by supporting freedoms not found in illiberal nation’s elsewhere, and provide protection from criminals by removing the basis for most criminality—want and anger—through state-sponsored laws and programs that will both fill stomachs and gladden hearts.  Enemies beyond one’s borders will—although bullets will unfortunately sometimes still be necessary—be largely vanquished by the shining example of your nation’s incredible goodness, which others will surely wish to emulate.

Therefore, liberals are, by their very nature, supporters of—and proselytizers for—government in all of its manifestations.  Given enough taxes and legal authority, poverty, ignorance, and injustice can—and must—be eliminated, and these governmental ideas must be exported across the globe in order to create interlocking and mutually supportive liberal international authorities to manage the world for the benefit of all.  Misbehavior and overreach by government entities will be controlled through an alert and interventionist judiciary, and mismanagement of money and resources will be driven to the point of extinction by a secular priesthood of credentialed experts who will guide their nations and people to something approximating heaven on earth.  No problem will be unsolvable as long as government is free, after some period of study and reflection, to provide the most perfect of all possible solutions.

Of course, the obvious trade-offs here are two-fold.  First, tax money—and lots of it—will be necessary to support the Byzantine governmental structures necessary to monitor and manipulate human behavior to ensure the best outcome for all.  Second, any pesky adherence to traditional cultural, moral, or religious beliefs must be openly denigrated and actively suppressed—if not outright outlawed—should they not serve the greater good as defined by liberal government.  Unfortunately for the social engineers, two harsh realities tend to throw a monkey wrench into the gears of governmentally-imposed nirvana if liberal aspirations are allowed to proceed unchecked: Money tends to run out rather quickly, and your citizens get a tad annoyed about being constantly ordered around.

When given its proper place within a broader governmental system that also respects traditional institutional norms and personal beliefs, liberal political values provide an idealistic appeal that is a necessary counterbalance to the daily grind of governance—and which also brings new energy and fresh ideas into the process.  However, if allowed to proceed unrestrained, the idealism that animates liberal thought can curdle into sanctimonious scolding, and programs and laws intended to improve the lives of the citizenry can turn government into a horde of micromanaging busybodies armed with all the legal authority that the state can provide.  If the judiciary, which is meant to check the abuses of government powers, has also been captured by liberal ideologues, the daily lives of citizens, schools, businesses, medical providers, the police, the military, and houses of worship are subjected to a daily beat down by bureaucrats and attorneys who are determined to reshape humanity to fit their goals and purposes.  If no reason or relief is available, the inevitable outcome will be an insurrection at the ballot box, and I believe this is precisely the situation we find ourselves in today.

If you scratch the surface of the average American voter, you will find a fundamentally fair and kind-hearted individual who would rather live life with fewer constraints upon their choices and behavior.  These citizens, who do the work and pay the taxes that keep America moving, are generally good to their families, friends, and neighbors—and quite sympathetic to those who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own.  However, having cared for themselves and others throughout their lives, they are set in their values and loathe to adopt new ideas unless their benefits can be clearly demonstrated.  Often blessed with an abundance of common sense, they are innately suspicious of pie-in-the-sky promises and unwilling to allow elites to scorn their lives and aspirations.  Like a terrier, they are loyal to a fault, but they will administer quite a ferocious and memorable bite if sufficiently annoyed—which America’s liberal establishment now knows to be the case.

The 2016 election of Donald Trump did not herald an army of Klansmen hooting out of the hollows and hillsides, although one would imagine from the prevailing media narrative that goose stepping goons were ready to round up the resistors at any moment.  This fraught—and dangerously wacky—reaction to election results that were a surprise to no one other than the commentators at MSNBC perhaps served the political purposes of progressive partisans who were determined to delegitimize President Trump from the outset and paint his victory as a win for bigotry and intolerance, but it has also caused damaging fear and suspicion to pervade our nation.  

The reality was perhaps a bit less dramatic—or worrisome.  Fed up with a federal government that seemed more interested in bathroom politics than creating the conditions for economic growth, Americans were willing to roll the dice on a rude and confrontational outsider who promised massive changes.  Moreover, many wanted see immigration laws enforced, regulations reduced, taxes lowered, government shrunk, and accountability returned to federal agencies that operated with the impunity of medieval royalty.  In addition, it cannot be overemphasized that Hillary Clinton ran one of the worst political campaigns in American history, and her evasive and defensive responses to legitimate questions regarding her use of an unsecured email server while serving as Secretary of State only served to cement the voting public’s unflattering perceptions of her slippery character and deficient honesty.

The upcoming midterm elections will provide an opportunity for voters to decide whether they like having a reflexively combative President who delights in punching his opponents in the face and chortling at their pain.  Moreover, and certainly more importantly, the midterm elections will serve as a referendum on the rollback of liberal thought and action that Donald Trump’s election certainly signaled.  My guess is the expected “blue wave” will not materialize, and the post-election analyses will blame Americans for surrendering to fear and stupidity by helpingPresident Trump to continue to torch liberal institutions and philosophies that many wrongly assumed were inviolate.

However, as painful as this might be for some, the political dominance that President Trump now enjoys might serve as a necessary corrective that will later facilitate a more measured liberal phase—one now counterbalanced by a conservative stamp on many institutions of government—which will permit the good of liberalism to persist without the excesses that obviously annoyed so many voters in the past.

Harming By Helping

To seek to help others is, for the vast majority of individuals, a basic human instinct.  We want to comfort the afflicted, aid the helpless, protect the vulnerable, shelter the homeless, and feed the hungry whenever this is humanly possible.  This laudable aspect of our humanity combines with our simple desire for self-preservation to produce many of our governmental structures and policies, and we have typically—but not always—demanded some degree of self-reliance and personal responsibility in exchange for all manner of aid and protection.

However, as much as some might fervently wish it to be otherwise, no government yet devised can protect us against the consequences of every tragedy, personal mistake, fear, or plain discomfort. We cannot outlaw natural disasters or man-made stupidity, although we can—and should—always try to lessen their impacts upon both individuals and communities.

Therefore, the many catastrophes caused in American today by all the “help” our government provides are truly a Greek tragedy of mind-boggling proportions.  Our prideful efforts to provide the most perfect forms of government possible have instead produced family dysfunction, community chaos, state fiscal crises, and national gridlock—all with the added “benefits” of punishing personal initiative and rewarding irresponsibility.  Sophocles would be proud.

Over the past half-century of liberal hubris, we have watched as government in all its glory has pursued a variety of well-meaning but ultimately misguided policies.  These have caused the costs of housing, education, and medical care to spiral out of control while supposedly improving affordability, simultaneously increased both taxes and public debt, and screwed up capitalism so badly that now young people somehow now find socialism an attractive alternative to our present punitively expensive system.  In addition, half of our nation seems to be angry at the other half, our public schools fail to adequately educate the majority of our children, and the legacy costs of big and bigger government—retiree pensions and healthcare—are bankrupting many of our cities and states.

The problems are basic.  Compassion exercised by individuals, private charities, and faith communities is compelled to live within dollars and cents realities that government can easily circumvent by continually raising taxes or taking on more public debt.  In addition, the heavy hand of government tends to alter the cost/benefit ratios of a whole range of human behaviors, which later requires yet more government interventions to “fix” the problems its own programs created in the first place.  The old adage that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” has never been more true than when the wonders of government goodness are involved.

In American we see this cycle most vividly within the four walls of our own homes—and the brunt of the problems are borne by our children.

The U.S. Census has amply quantified the astonishing increase in single parent households (most of which are headed by women) over the past fifty years, and this has repeatedly been correlated with worsened educational, emotional, and economic outcomes for children who grow up with only one parent.  This trend has been accelerated by all manner of public aid that has served to allow one of the parents—typically the man—to shirk financial and parental responsibilities owed to their children by forcing the taxpayers to raise the offspring whom those parentsconveniently forget.  By decoupling reproduction from responsibility, government “help” has perversely only helped generations of families to deal with yet more of the dysfunctions that are typically—but not always—inherent in single parent households.

The net outcome of the startling increase in the number of single parent households—enabled and accelerated by the government assistance that makes this living arrangement possible for parent and child—has been the equally startling growth of government programs and bureaucracies set up to battle the many problems caused by those other government programs and bureaucracies that initially supported the maintenance of single parent households.  Got that?  This self-reinforcing loop of government “help” has now destroyed families and communities on a scale that would make even the cruelest tyrant proud, and the perpetuation of single parent households across generations continues to wreak havoc and compels taxpayers to subsidize an ever-widening circle of personal injury and societal harm.  Now that roughly 1/3 of American children live with either a single parent or an unmarried couple—a separate arrangement that provides its own unique blend of issues and insecurities—we should not be overly surprised by the many problems afflicting our nation’s young and their overwhelmed parents.

As the number of single parent households has risen, we have seen the inexorable march of the pathologies associated with the poverty, instability, and trauma that often impacts both parent and child.  Rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, drug use, physical and sexual abuse, hunger, homelessness, self-harm, and sexually-transmitted diseases have reached epidemic levels for both children and adults.  Although many times these problems can be attributed to unique personal circumstances or local economic conditions, their sheer number speaks to the rot within the foundation of our society—the family unit.  If families fail to thrive, it is impossible to for a community to flourish.  The most expensive home in the world will collapse if it is built upon sand.

The defenders of our expansive social welfare state will, of course, assert that they are doing God’s work by helping those who cannot otherwise help themselves.  It is an interesting “chicken or egg” argument: Has government helped to create dependency or merely helped those who must depend upon the government?  

One could use the pernicious persistence of generational poverty, for example, to argue either side of the issue.  Those who support the programs that provide food, healthcare, and housing to the poor will whistle up all manner of learned experts who will confidently proclaim that entrenched and pervasive inequality condemns many to lives filled with desperation, and it is the role of government to relieve their suffering.  However, others might point out that programs that provide for all the needs and wants of the poor without the bother of work are a disincentive to developing the self-reliance and self-discipline necessary to provide for oneself and one’s family.  In specific circumstances both viewpoints likely have some validity, and the endless haggling over the shape and scope of welfare reform that has consumed so much attention over the decades points to the near-impossibility of both discontinuing government programs once they are started and convincing people that work is better than sloth when there is little or no price to pay for living life on the couch.

I sometimes see the broad outlines of this debate when I listen to educators bewailing the many difficulties of teaching children and adolescents raised in our nation’s many troubled homes.  Many of these students walk into the classroom completely uninterested in the curriculum being offered because they cannot connect with the idea that education is the key to a better future for reasons that are obvious to them—“we’re doing just fine right now with the checks my family has been getting from the government since before I was born.”  Therefore, why should they bother reading a book, writing an essay, or solving a math problem?  Having had few—if any—examples in their lives of adults engaged with the real world of work and taking pride in their own accomplishments, school is at best an opportunity to hang out with friends and at worst an incredible irritant.  

To this extent, those who blame families for the failures of their children are correct.  As much as many may denigrate the notion of role models, we can unfortunately predict much—but not all—from observing the adults who influence a child’s daily life.  For this reason, teachers can play a key part in changing the lives of these children by opening their eyes to a world of possibilities that have heretofore been closed to them—but this is too often a sad struggle against a host of familial and parental influences that are pulling in exactly the opposite direction.

Government can protect the public in a variety of ways that provide a bulwark against disasters that can be neither foreseen nor readily prevented.  However, government and its representatives must be keenly aware that the more they help—and the longer the duration of this help—the more likely it is that harm will be the final outcome of their best efforts.  Worse yet, this harm will continue throughout the generations yet to come.

Opinions Will Always Vary

I have been puzzling over the stark and seemingly insurmountable political differences that divide our nation these days, and I see some cause for hope—as faint as it might sometimes seem—in the current crop of more moderate candidates running for office across our nation today. Perhaps we are finally growing weary of shouts and insults as a proxy for policy discussions.  Accusing those with different views than your own of all manner of moral and intellectual failings—in the most caustic terms possible—tends to excite the excitable, but it also forestalls any opportunity for the sometimes inelegant compromises that keep the wheels of our nation going round.

There are obvious differences between the policies of our two major political parties. The clashes between the capitalists and socialists, those who favor open borders and those who do not, and the advocates of Big Government vs. fewer rules and regulations are both never ending and necessary.  The debates between diametrically opposite points of view sparks the synthesis that provides the solutions that we need to solve our problems.

However, our focus upon surface differences often ignores the morals, values, and judgments that inform our individual opinions.  Characterizing others as either “good” or “bad” based solely on the degree to which they agree or disagree with us neatly avoids the messy and occasionally maddening business of discussing the ethical, religious, and personal values that inform our decision making on a range of matters.  This failing enables the facile insults that now are the most prominent feature of our daily political and social discourse.  The shocking ease with which we demonize those whose ideas differ from our own often seems more like the rude and immature chatter in a middle school lunchroom that a discussion between reasonable adults.

Although we are often far from agreement on many issues, perhaps we also sometimes fail to understand how our differing priorities both divide us—and also have the potential to bring us together.  Think of a great many hot-button topics, and you will find the debate typically falls along familiar lines: Liberals will focus more on “rights”, and conservatives will be more preoccupied with “responsibilities”.

However, rights and responsibilities are simply two sides of the same coin because every right comes with an equal responsibility to use that right wisely and reasonably.  When we recognize this fact, we can better attempt to search for common ground regarding a variety of issues—and hopefully engage in a dialogue that will lead to less rage and more actual discussion.  Whether we are talking about issues as varied as law enforcement, housing, immigration, healthcare, education, military spending, or pension security, we can possibly have more polite and productive conversations that can lead to policy proposals that will solve problems rather than prompt yet more discord—if we remember the linkages between our rights and responsibilities.

There is also one further connection between rights and responsibilities than warrants our attention.  We have the right to disagree with others because our own values, priorities, and judgments lead us to different conclusions; however, we also have a responsibility to respect opinions and ideas that are different from our own.  We may believe what we do with all our heart and soul, but there is a very good chance that someone believes otherwise.  Their opposing ideas are not a signal that they are evil or deluded—or a ready target for our anger.  We are instead face to face with an immutable fact of life: Opinions will always vary.

We are welcome to advocate and attempt to swing others to our viewpoint through reasoned discussion and debate if both parties agree to engage, but we must resist the human urge to heedlessly denigrate—or ruthlessly attack.  We live in a big nation within a far larger world, and sometimes we are going to need to live by rules that conflict with our own because we assume certain responsibilities as members of a broader society.  We have the right to dissent, to support political candidates whose ideas align with our own—or even run for office ourselves.  However, we must always be keenly away of our responsibilities to others—and be aware that there is no “right” to be selfish, self-centered, or sneering.  This might be a tremendous disappointment to those who enjoy attacking others, but perhaps these are precisely the sort of individuals who are deserving of far less of our support and attention in the future.

The Fluid “Truths” Of Statistics

Over the past half century we have, as I have pointed out before, increasingly turned over the management of our nation to credentialed experts. These experts direct virtually every aspect of our lives based on jargon-filled studies and massive data sets, which purport to show that all their recommendations and actions are in our best interests. To question their judgments is to question logic and reason itself—and will earn you a whomp on the head with the latest edition of The Journal of Unquestionable Truths.

However, as statisticians have known for a very long time, the problem with data is that it can be readily manipulated—and deceptively compiled, selectively presented, or entirely ignored—to “prove” whatever you might wish. This numerical black magic is a boon to politicians who need to either direct attention away from their own job performances or whoop up anger to win votes.

One well-worn way to conceal the truth is to use methods of measurement that define the problem away. The official U.S. unemployment rate is a fine example of this chicanery. In order to be considered unemployed, you must have actively sought employment—that is, applied for a job—during the previous four weeks, which does a wonderful job eliminating discouraged workers and those for whom no suitable job openings are presently available. Moreover, you are no longer considered unemployed if you work a single hour—yes, one hour!—during an entire week. Very few people can purchase food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare with just one hour of pay, so this seems like the cruelest gaming of the numbers imaginable.

It has been variously estimated that the actual unemployment rate would double—or even triple—if a more honest accounting of those driven out of the job market or unable to secure full-time work were used, but I would not hold my breath waiting for this day to come. Comforting half-truths boost the reelections of many incumbents and must be maintained.

Another handy trick for misleading the public is to present data without context in order to support a narrative that would be contradicted were the full story actually to be told. Given the national attention now being paid to the issue of fatal police shootings of African-Americans—which is a matter that should always be of the keenest possible concern—one would hope politicians would focus upon sober facts in order to avoid inflaming public opinion and causing unnecessary fear of the police, but this is unfortunately not always the case.

Most would probably be amazed that during 2017, the last full year for which statistics are available, less than 1000 people were killed by the police in the United States. Roughly a quarter of these cases involved civilians who were mentally ill, in only 7% of these cases was the person who was shot unarmed, almost a third were fleeing the police—and roughly twice as many whites as blacks were killed by the police that year. It must also must be noted, were one interested in facts, that 135 police officers died from duty-related causes during this same year.

Although the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the small subset of unarmed African-Americans killed by the police must be carefully reviewed for signs of incompetence, bias, or malfeasance—and the officers involved punished if this is the case—we should not be routinely and loudly characterizing police officers as wanton murderers and racists. The facts do not support these assertions. As is often the case, the truth is much more complex and frustrating, and simplistic and dubious mischaracterizations interfere with the core mission of law enforcement, which is to apprehend the accused and protect the public from criminals.

A final way to fudge statistics is both simple and startling: ignore them altogether. We see this method most visibly used when it comes to reporting on the academic outcomes of our nation’s K-12 public schools and the students who attend them. Even though voluminous data on academic progress and college/career readiness is readily available across the nation—and helpfully broken down by individual schools and school districts—think carefully about the coverage you see on a daily basis about the public schools in your area. Most of the stories focus upon charming human interest topics such as high school athletes triumphing over adversity, trips to petting zoos and museums, sweet middle school students raising money for charity, teachers attending conferences, principals engaging in goofy stunts to raise school spirit, or retirees reminiscing about their careers.

One would be hard-pressed to ascertain from the occasional dribble of actual data provided by the media that American public education performs very poorly overall—and at far greater expense—compared to other nations, American college students continue to flunk out at astonishing rates due to weak K-12 academic preparation, and public school teachers are abandoning the profession in droves due to problems with disrespect, threats, and violence from both students and their parents. Education reporting seems to have, in many cases, abandoned actual investigation and inquiry in favor of rewriting glowing press releases because criticizing public schools risks offending powerful constituencies that include local businesses, construction companies, real estate agents, and neighborhood organizations—all of whom have a stake in the illusion of successful local schools for reasons both personal and financial.

Numbers do matter, and we ignore troubling trends and ongoing problems at our own peril. The peculiar lack of national coverage concerning our mounting and terrifying public sector budget deficits and debts is a fine example of a looming and significant problem that is largely absent from our 24/7 news cycles. As much as we enjoy our daily diets of scandal, silliness, and celebrity gossip, perhaps—just as the regular consumption of sugary sweets eventually rots the teeth—the consumption of “news” that provides no complete or reliable data to support its dishonest assertions and wild accusations is contributing mightily to our horrifying and destructive civic rot.