Absolute Knowledge

J Edgar HooverAs a recent New York Times video (about the event that proved J. Edgar Hoover was on a crusade to destroy liberal dissent) demonstrates, it is natural for those in power to view ANY challenge to their authority and/or policies as a threat.  It is not much of a step from there to justify the need to silence all who oppose their policies, even though (as one of the people in this video says) “dissent is the lifeblood of Democracy.”

So, one must reflect on how the legacy of Karl Rove & Dick Cheney, Richard M. Nixon, Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Albert S. Burleson (among others), proves that this temptation to squash dissent (rather than allow it to have a place in “the marketplace of ideas”) has a long and unrelenting history in this nation (let alone elsewhere!) and that preserving free speech is a never-ending and often thankless battle.

I should note that several people I know are mentioned in the FBI’s surveillance files from the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. Some (like my Dad) merited only a passing reference.  Others were the target of prolonged harassment and pressure, to try and silence them and/or to force them to name others as threats to the public order.

Our modern euphemism for such threats is the word “terrorist” – which is a term that has become fashionable in some circles as a label for any who dissent, used far more often than is merited.

So, in the current furor over Richard Snowden and the NSA’s spying activities, one must remember that the NSA has accumulated the largest trove of information and knowledge about the activities of millions of people that has ever been assembled – far greater than what the most repressive regimes in history were ever able to accumulate.  Whether Snowden is a hero of free speech or not, he is but one in a long line of those who have paid a great price for their attempts to shine a light in the dark corners of our government.

Can we trust that there isn’t a nascent J. Edgar Hoover somewhere within the Beltway who has access to this mountain of data?

I doubt it.

Knowledge is power.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site). 

The Israeli Palestinian Conflict, A Call for Hope and Healing

Aziz is a warm, thoughtful, energetic man of peace whom I had the pleasure to get to know last year when I had the opportunity to tour Israel and Palestine (through a tourism company he helped establish named MEJDI), and hear the narratives of individuals on both sides of the wall that divides them, a wall not just of concrete and barbed wire, but a wall of shared misperception, mistrust, hate, pain and even greed.  If all that can be shared, why not also share healing and hope?

I urge you to read his words carefully and prayerfully, and hear the heart of a man who, even though a victim of great oppression and injustice in the land of his birth, loves all the peoples in that part of the world and earnestly desires peace and healing for those on both sides of the wall.

A Moderate Political Manifesto

I recently heard a Republican voter state in a radio interview that her primary goal is to “get rid of Obama”.  This same statement can be heard out of the mouths of many other Republicans – voters, candidates and power brokers alike.

Yet,  there seems to be a strong move within the Republican Party based on the premise that ideological purity is what is needed to carry the day and put America back on the right track.  An approach identical to that which the Republican Party adopted in 1964 when they nominated Barry Goldwater to oppose Lyndon Johnson, and which worked so well for them.

It would seem to me that our Republican friends, if they are serious about making Obama a one term president, would be seriously considering a middle of the road candidate, one who would appeal to independent and moderate voters.  Yet, candidates who might appeal to moderate voters – such as Jon Huntsman and perhaps Mitt Romney – are gaining little traction with those likely to vote in the primaries.  Perhaps this is why there has been so much interest by Republican power brokers to find another candidate, such as Gov. Chris Christie.

Personally, I am totally fed up with the politics in Washington.  While I think Obama had (and has) a lot of promise, he has shown himself to be ineffective as a leader, and has made some unforgivably huge gaffes, such as the recent tiff with John Boehner over when to schedule a Obama’s presidential address announcing the latest jobs bill.  A simple phone call would have gone a long way towards preventing such an embarrassing incident, and would have also at least provided some hope that the bill would be seriously considered by the Republican leadership in the House.

So, you’d think that the Republican Party would recognize that they have an opportunity to capture those many voters who are as disenchanted as I am.  It seems not.  Candidates like Herman Cain, and the antics of the Republican leadership in both the House and Senate over the last couple of years, lead one to wonder whether the Republican Party will focus so much on ideological purity that the concerns of the majority of Americans will simply be ignored.  — It seems they believe that their way is “right” and competing views are to be given no credence at all – I won’t draw parallels between this and the way other regimes have governed, but one can say in general that those who govern with such attitudes are not remembered with fondness, nor are their administrations considered successful.

So, will I support the Democratic Party in 2012?  No.  The Democrats are as bad as the Republicans – think of how Nancy Pelosi handled the House when she was Speaker.  But, I won’t be supporting the Republicans, either.  Instead, I’ll be looking for someone who really cares about the “little guy” and who knows that those who are unemployed, have seen their standard of living decline over the past decade, have huge medical and insurance bills, are facing losing their home, have burdensome college debt, are seeing their business or jobs threatened due to unfair competition from foreign manufacturers or unreasonable government regulations, face an an unfair tax burden, or have their kids attending failing schools, need to be heard.  We need a candidate who is pragmatic and doesn’t adopt extreme (climate change is a fantasy!!) inflexible (no new taxes!!) or ill-considered (don’t infringe on people’s right to carry automatic weapons!!) positions.  We need someone who understands that they and their party do not have all the answers, probably don’t even ask all the right questions, and believes it is critical to put the best interests of the nation ahead of ideological purity and political advantage.

So, who will I support and send donations to this coming year?  Not any of the national political organizations, nor any special interest group campaigning on a single issue.  — And I am boycotting companies and organizations that do.  Instead, I’ll put my money, and my votes, behind those who have shown they are committed to the principles I state here, and who do not have a vested interest in maintaining the combative and dysfunctional environment in Washington (and in many state governments as well).

 

Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Radically Moderate

I lost a friend today.  An old High School friend of mine wrote to me via facebook this morning to tell me he was angry and insulted by the postings from some of my more liberal facebook friends.  Not only did he find those postings offensive, but went on to say that I appeared to him to be just as liberal, unbalanced and evil as them, and so he wanted nothing to do with me in the future, either.

I find this both puzzling, and sad.

Puzzling because a recent attempt of mine to become associated with an organization was derailed (at least in part) by some of its representatives who did not seem to believe that I could be appreciative of a number of conservative Christian organizations (that I’ve either worked-for or been a member-of in the past) and yet still consider myself a progressive Christian.  They seemed troubled by my refusal to denounce those organizations and what they stand for.  Instead, I emphasized the positive things that I found in them and my admiration and respect for the earnest and godly people that work for and support them.

So, I am apparently seen as too liberal by some and too conservative by others: I guess I must be doing something right.

What I find sad about my friend’s rejection, and about the other challenge I mentioned, is that in both cases I was dealing with people that I find to be dedicated, intelligent, wonderful human beings.   They are all very sincere and heartfelt in their beliefs and very dedicated to the causes they support.  There is nothing wrong with this.  In fact, it is a good thing.  Further, there are many things that each of these people consider to be heartfelt values that I also value.  In fact, I see more commonality in their respective values than I do difference.  My sadness here is because it seems that in both cases they do not see the commonality I see.  Worse still, there is a refusal to acknowledge that the “other side” has any legitimacy at all.  And so, rather than seeking to understand, respect and embrace their fellow human beings – something I believe the Bible teaches us we must do – they are both not listening to each other and are each seeking to cut off debate before it has begun.  They are both refusing to allow relationship to occur, perhaps knowing in their hearts that entering into relationship means taking the risk of being changed by that relationship.  In both cases, it seems they have decided that change is something they will not be open to, except on their own terms.  There is a refusal to learn and a refusal to appreciate that the spark of the divine exists in all of us, and needs to be valued by all of us.

Now, I want to be very careful in saying all of this – as I am sure I will receive critical comments both from those who are more conservative and those who are more liberal, each concerned that I am supporting the views of the other “side.”

What I’m getting at is that to me, there is no “side.”  We are all human, we are all pathfinders on this journey we all share called life, and we are all imperfect.  We need to support, learn from and share with each other.  We need to listen to each other, and we need to love each other.  We all stand equal before the divine, whether you identify your conception of the Divine with the term “G*d”, “Jesus”, “Allah” or “Brahman”.  For me to criticize the wonderful people I have worked with in the past would be, to me, a betrayal not only of my friendship with them and my appreciation of the wonderful people they were and are, but a violation of Christ’s command to love one another.  Similarly, I see both wisdom and willful blindness on both sides in the rancorous political debates occurring within our country at the present time.

All too frequently I run into folks who do not seem to realize that they are being just as obstinate, close minded and reactionary (in the sense of reacting before thinking) as those they condemn for being so on the other side of the religious and/or political fence.  It’s time to listen to one another, it’s time to show each other the radical love that God wants us as Christians to have for each other.  It’s time to moderate our own voices and listen to what our fellow human beings have to say.

We may not like the causes they espouse, but behind each person’s support of any cause are hopes, dreams and fears.  There are reasons why they feel those causes are legitimate.  What I have always found is that when one starts digging into those reasons, to see behind what is being said to find what is being felt, to really listen, there is much more that we share than not.  It is time to focus on that commonality and to act upon it, realizing that we cannot get agreement for the solution we see as ideal, but also realizing that we do not know the whole story, and that the only way to get a fuller understanding is to come to understand and appreciate why those we differ with believe as they do.  This is what the founding fathers of this country believed, and their wisdom has stood the test of time.

So, I will remain “radically moderate” – always (I hope) willing to listen, willing to learn, and willing to love.

 

Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

What’s in a Name?

My hometown, Brattleboro, VT, has built a new bridge across Whetstone Brook to replace the historic but long outdated “Creamery Bridge” (which will be turned into a pedestrian bridge).

Although there seems to be a consensus that some person should be honored by naming the bridge after them, there is much controversy over exactly who to memorialize in such a manner.  I hear that a very vocal group wants to name the bridge after a local man who gave his life in service of our country.  — A similar effort a few years ago resulted in a bridge in the center of town being named after a young man who died in (I think) Iraq.

I applaud and agree with the motivation behind the campaign to name the bridge after him, and have no objection whatsoever to honoring those who have served our country, particularly those who have had to put their own lives on the line while doing so.  (If anything, I think they should get far more recognition, honor and support than many or most of them do. Without them, the USA would never have become the great nation that it is.)   Yet, I have two significant reservations with regards to naming a bridge after a single fallen soldier.

The first is that we don’t have enough bridges!  Brattleboro, VT has perhaps a couple of dozen significant bridges in town (though some are Interstate Highway, not local, bridges).  Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Brattleboro natives have served in the military over the years; and many of them made the ultimate sacrifice.  Should we name a bridge for each of them?  What do we do when we run out of bridges?

Second, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with those serving in the military, it’s all about your buddies. Going into a fight, you are betting your life that the men and women with you, and supporting you, will “have your back” when the going gets tough.  That sort of complete reliance on each other to survive in the midst of battle is at the root of a camaraderie and trust that I have often heard those in the service speak about, but which most of us civilians will never experience.

In the center of town, on the “Common”, are a number of monuments. They list the names of those from Brattleboro who served and died in every war since the Civil War. What’s important to me about these monuments is that there are many names listed. A fallen soldier’s name is listed along all of his (or her) comrades in arms who died in the same war. The companionship that sustained them, and which more than a few gave their lives in battle-for is echoed in these monuments.  They are remembered together in death, just as they served together in life.   By having all of these heros memorialized and honored in one place, it gives us who pass by a chance to reflect on the dedication of the men and women of this town to serving our country, and the magnitude of the losses we’ve experienced in the fight to keep this country free.

Therefore, while naming a bridge after a single fallen soldier will honor that individual’s memory, and provides closure and solace to those they leave behind, it in effect dishonors the very thing that they and their comrades risked their lives to preserve – the lives of their fellow comrades in arms.   From what I’ve heard WWI, WWII and younger veterans all say when lauded for their service, I also think that most of those who have died while serving this country would be unhappy to hear that their sacrifice is being honored above the sacrifices of so many of their fellow servicemen.  Therefore, listing the fallen on a monument that honors all fallen soldiers from the same war together, and in a place where soldiers from all other wars are similarly honored, is (to me) much more appropriate, and provides a fitting way for us as a people to remember and honor those who gave their lives that we might remain a free and democratic country.

So, I ask the Selectpersons of Brattleboro to consider carefully whether it is appropriate to honor a single servicemen when naming this bridge.  Also, we must consider that the person we will memorialize through having their name on this bridge says something about who we are as a town, and what we think is important to be remembered about our community in years to come.  While every life is important, and the loss of even a single soldier in battle is a disaster to those who knew and loved them, no soldier (at least in this era) achieves victory by fighting alone.  Every soldier that has fallen was part of a community, a community they were fighting to preserve.  Let’s honor what they felt was worth giving their life-for.

For me, a bridge is about connection and community, about bridging gaps and making paths were no path existed before.  Therefore, whomever we name this bridge after should be a person whose life impacted Brattleboro in a positive and significant way, someone whose life reflected deep concern for the community, someone who worked to bridge gaps, and/or someone who built paths were no path existed before.

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Healthcare and Battle Fatigue

I may not be a conservative Republican, but I do respect and admire the opinions of thoughtful, balanced writers, no matter what their political stance. David Frum’s recent CNN column is a very well written and persuasive commentary on the damage the Republican party has done to itself in the healthcare battle, as well as some well reasoned suggestions as to where to go from here.

I agree with Mr. Frum on most of his points.  Healthcare is an accomplished fact, and the Republican leadership needs to accept that and move on.  Attempts to derail the legislation after it is signed into law may well have far-reaching negative consequences for the country as well as for the Republican party.  As Frum says, a more productive and probably more favorably received (by the voters) strategy would be to pass laws to fix those portions of the new legislation that are the most troublesome from a Republican point of view.  Blindly attacking the entire legislation is a strategy that is very high risk and which has already failed (probably at great cost to the Republican Party), and continuing to do so may well have additional major side effects.

I find it disingenious, for instance, that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is denouncing the new legislation as unconstitutional due to it’s requiring all citizens of the US to sign up for healthcare or face fines.  He seems to have forgotten that he was governor when the system upon which the new Federal Law was based became law here in Massachusetts, legislation that he championed as a bipartisan victory, and for which he lauded the Late Senator Ed Kennedy’s assistance in making it possible.  Does he think Democrats will forget this in the upcoming election cycle?  Romney’s claim will be great ammunition for any Democrat running against a Republican who makes the constitutionality of the new law an issue.

I also wonder, in this rash of Republican State Attorney Generals filing lawsuits to get the law declared unconstitutional even before it has been signed by Obama, if anyone has considered the consequences of such a legal victory (should it ever happen)?

If the U.S. Supreme Court were to decide that Federal Government programs forcing citizens to get insurance are unconstitutional, then does this impact Social Security, which is another Federal Insurance program that all citizens are required to sign-up for?

If not, then it will be because the new legislation forces citizens to sign up for private insurance, not a government program.  This will leave Republicans with the option of either taking responsibility for ditching healthcare reform entirely – not likely to win them many friends when millions of formerly uninsured Americans instantly lose their newly acquired protections; or else they will need to create a government sponsored insurance plan in its place – the very thing they spent lots of time and effort demonizing the current legislation for!

Finally, there is the issue of “battle fatigue”.  You can’t keep on whipping up the rank and file of your party into a frenzy on every major issue, especially if you keep on coming back to them with nothing to show for it.  Eventually they’ll get burned out and turn their back on you, or else they’ll go and look for someone else who is actually able to get things done.  As Frum says, the “All or Nothing” approach the Republican leadership is currently using is a negative, short term, high risk approach.  It is not a long term, strategic plan for positive change.  It can be effective, but is a weapon that gets “blunt” very quickly.

Frum’s column is one I think Liberals and Conservatives, Democrats and Republicans should read.  He raises issues and questions about the new legislation that all of our representatives in Washington should seriously consider, and not just dismiss out of hand, or sweep aside in favor of a broad attack upon the entire package.

Liberals take note: there is intelligence on the other side of the fence!

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Thoughts on the Healthcare Debate

I have many years of experience in the IT side of the healthcare industry, having worked for ten years at a major medical center (the Mayo Clinic) renowned for its efficient and high quality healthcare system.  I also worked nearly three years for a major nonprofit that provided healthcare (and other support) to those in need, worked for three years in support of the Veterans’ Health Administration, worked with the Red Cross and UNICEF while Director of IT at a company that provided services to nonprofits, and worked for a year or so as a contractor supporting a small company in the medical insurance industry.

I’ve also dealt with the challenges of attempting to provide healthcare for myself and my family as a self employed, underemployed and unemployed person.  Finally, in my current status as a student working towards ordination, I am constantly meeting and working with those who are underserved, if they are served at all, by our current healthcare system.

In other words, I’ve seen many aspects of our current  medical system, and its’ evolution over the last 20 years or so, from the “inside” – working closely with Physicians, Nurses, Technicians and other support personnel; as well as from the “outside” as a person looking for affordable and reasonably good quality healthcare services and insurance.

Let’s start with the obvious: the current system is evolving in an unsustainable direction, of providing high quality healthcare to fewer and fewer people, with costs rising at a rate that significantly exceeds inflation, meaning that we pay more and more each year while getting less and less for each dollar we spend.  In other words, it’s broken, and it will get worse, much worse, in the foreseeable future.

That good quality healthcare at a reasonable cost can be achieved is a certainty: the Mayo Clinic does so by providing highly centralized, well integrated services to its patients, supported by sophisticated manual and automated systems that ensure that each and every physician seeing a patient has accurate and timely information when they need it, and that every patient is able to rapidly get all of the tests and procedures they need for a correct diagnosis, followed by a course of treatment that works hard to take into account all of the complexities presented by the patient’s medical history and condition.  No wonder Mayo is rated as the best place to go for treatment of complex cases involving multiple disease processes.

What’s really astounding is that Mayo does all this for a cost much less than most other medical practices can achieve.  This is due not only to the volume of patients Mayo sees, but also due to Mayo’s sustained (nearly century-long) effort  to integrate and standardize medical care while ensuring a consistently high level of care and quality across every medical discipline in the practice.

There has been much talk of how the implementation of databases for patient medical records and the building of interfaces to allow such databases to talk to each other will be a “golden bullet” for high quality medical care.  I’ll agree, as one who played a significant role in the building of such systems at Mayo, that such systems are needed.  But, let’s not forget that Mayo built such systems itself primarily due to their need to share medical information and test results rapidly, if not simultaneously, among multiple healthcare professionals.  Paper-based mechanisms to store and share such information, and ensure its consistency and quality, had already been in place at Mayo for decades.  The business case for the expense of such automation was built on the need to speed access and to handle the ever increasing volume of such information.  The quality of the data, and the quality of the care itself, was already there.

In other words, automation is a great tool in healthcare: one that can provide great benefits, but an infrastructure that can take advantage of such high quality information must be in place, too.  That requires the creation of business processes to acquire, manage and utilize such information.  It means rethinking how medical practices (hospitals, labs, doctors, insurers, and other healthcare professionals, services or organizations) are managed internally, how they interact with each other, how they are regulated, and how they are compensated for their efforts.

It is not a small task.  It cannot be done piecemeal, and we cannot afford to avoid the challenge of doing so any longer: if you want to have a healthcare system that can meet your needs ten or twenty years from now, then we need to begin to make such changes now, as it will take years to implement such changes across thousands of medical institutions, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of healthcare professionals, and within every government agency, hundreds of insurers, and thousands of companies that are involved in every aspect of healthcare.

The changes also impact our schools, which need to train not only new healthcare professionals, and retraining many of  those already in the field, but also ensure the correct mix of skills are being taught – not just in terms of ensuring enough Primary Care physicians are there, but training thousands of new administrators skilled in managing to ensure high quality, or skilled in integrating systems and practices: not skilled just in generating maximum profits for their employers.

The system cannot fix itself.  Only external pressure can redirect current trends into a more constructive direction.  Any person with knowledge of business ethics will tell you that a company that ignores or avoids social responsiblity for its actions will always be able to provide services cheaper than those that do seek to be socially responsible: just as it’s always cheaper to dump raw sewage and chemical waste into a river than it is to clean it up.

In terms of healthcare, it is always cheaper and more profitable to squeeze those individuals out of the system who are likely to incur greater healthcare costs.  This includes the elderly, those with chronic medical conditions, or anyone with an increased risk of becoming ill.  We see this in the ever increasing list of “pre-existing medical conditions” that are not covered by insurers.

On the other hand, as insurance costs increase, it becomes more and more desirable for those of us who are healthy to simply avoid buying insurance.  We put off doing so as long as possible, and only buy insurance when we get older, and/or think we’re likely to need it.  This is a major problem because it means we are not paying into the system: we’re expecting the money to somehow magically be there when we need it ten or twenty years from now, even though we have not put anything into the “bank” for our own future medical care.

Who then is paying?  We are: those who do have insurance have to foot the bill, either in terms of paying more for insurance (to cover for those who refuse to pay into the system, or who cannot afford insurance to begin with), and the escalation of costs at hospitals due to the need to pay for expensive emergency room care for those without insurance.

Every aspect of the healthcare industry is facing greater and greater challenges every day because of the current situation.  Insurance companies have to cope with an unbalanced pool of “customers” for their services and have to cope with competitors who seek to increase profits by reducing costs through reduced insurance coverage in their policies, excluding more potentially costly clients, and finding new ways to avoid or delay payment for covered services.  Hospitals have to deal with increasing malpractice and emergency room costs.  Doctors are avoiding critical professions (such as obstetrics and pediatric care) due to the high costs of malpractice insurance.

We all feel the impact of overall inefficiencies of the system due to inadequate and management and sharing of healthcare information among (and even within) healthcare organizations and individuals.  We all pay for payment practices that encourage volume over quality, and for insurance rates that discourage or prevent many from getting insurance at all (which simply raises costs for everyone else).

We have vicious circle after vicious circle – an ever escalating mess that can only get worse, and which will rapidly escalate with each passing year: like the compound interest on an overdue credit card bill.

Those who think they are safe from loss of benefits or “rationing” of healthcare in the future are kidding themselves.  Within the lifetimes of most of those reading this, we are likely to see a situation where only the extremely wealthy will be able to afford decent quality healthcare — assuming the entire system doesn’t collapse well before then.

President Obama’s speech before the joint houses of Congress earlier this week certainly contained suggestions for healthcare reform that not everyone agrees with.  (Even I, a [relatively] Liberal Democrat, don’t agree with all of his suggestions!)

Yet, he had a critical message that we must all take seriously: the overhyped and overheated posturing we’ve seen from both liberals and conservatives must stop.  If the attempts that we’ve seen to derail reform through ridiculously overblown rhetoric succeed, then we will all lose.  No matter how good your healthcare is at present, the course we are on as a nation will inevitably turn all of us into “losers” if changes are not made.  A debate that is reasoned and constructive, one where moderation and respect are the order of the day for everyone at the table, is the only way that our healthcare system can be reformed.

As Obama has said, the status quo is not an option: if you don’t like the proposals on the table, then provide an alternative and back it up with facts.  Those who work to destroy the opposition’s position in a game where political “points” are all that matter are being irresponsible and playing with fire: they are putting everyone at risk, including themselves.  If they succeed in derailing healthcare reform, it will be a Pyrrhic victory: one where they will be called upon to pay the price for their irresponsible actions far sooner than they can imagine.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).