Tag Archives: General

Something that Breaks my Heart

Something that Breaks my Heart

Many years ago, I joined an online forum community. One of the areas on this community was for scientific discussions. I had never had much interest in science in general, but I had been reading books about the brain – partly out of curiosity about my own issues, and partly because they were really fascinating. By the time I found this place, I had graduated to reading a fair number of skeptical and science blogs. My curiosity had been aroused. At the same time, my critical thinking skills were being tested and honed. Finding a place where people were discussing research and providing evidence and links to studies about brain things that were relevant to me was wonderful and exciting.

When people posted things that were well-supported, I found new sources of information in links and searches. When people considered implications or possibilities, they provided evidence and reason for their ideas. When people posted things that looked suspicious, I went off in search of the truth, and found out all kinds of knowledge that either rebutted or supported these things.

In fact, if it hadn’t been for someone posting about epigenetics in a way that sounded an awful lot like magical thinking, I would never have delved as deeply into this fascinating process as I have, and would not have learned most of the amazing things I now know about genetics, evolution, and developmental neurology. I had learned a lot about the physical structures of the brain and their functions, but without the input of the other curious and intelligent people there, I wouldn’t have known about the interconnectivity and the complex chemical and electrical communication that makes these structures function as a whole.

This was different from reading scientific information from scientists. While some were writing for public understanding, most were writing for their peers. These were not always places to pose elementary questions or ask if some speculation you had might have some factual support. This forum was, and I looked forward to visiting it every day. The dialogues were lively, and disagreements were usually battles of who had the most robust evidence. I was interested in science, but it was this particular place that got me excited about it.

No more.

Sadly, an extremely small number of people have been given carte blanche to ignore all the rules that used to make this discussion area work. Should anyone dare to post anything remotely resembling fascinating new information, they descend upon the conversation and shut it down. Every thread looks like a copy-paste of every other thread; evidence is disregarded in favor of dogma; anyone who disagrees with what is basically the only topic of the entire area is told they are wrong with a thinly veiled insult to their intelligence.

Cognitive dissonance should be a call to arms – go out and find the truth! It should prepare you to learn more and change your mind if you discover that the best evidence contradicts what you think you know. Now, the ability to ignore that conflict is treated as the highest of virtues.

Here was a place filled with creative, curious people, who had unusual approaches to connecting ideas, different ways of putting things together and taking them apart. Here was a place where the goal was not to be right for the sake of being right, but to be right because you could show your work. Here was a place that was exciting and interesting and challenging.

It is gone, and I don’t anticipate it ever coming back. I used to direct people to this place to get information; now I tell them they won’t find what they’re looking for there. It is hostile and uninviting to the very type of thinkers it used to attract. I miss it terribly.

The Fall of the American Empire?

The Fall of the American Empire?

I hope I’m being alarmist. I hope I’m unduly concerned. I hope that this all is just a hump we’ll get over after a few difficult years. What I’m thinking here is that there are people alive today who will witness the decline and fall of this country.

I was thinking pragmatically when I voted for Obama. I expected that he was not going to be able to live up to his promises, or find that his ideas were unrealistic once he was in office, and chose him not because I had any faith in him being the hope and change he promised, but because he was better than the alternative. I also expected that the GOP was going to continue to oppose any efforts of the Democrats and the Democratic Party regardless of their merit simply for the sake of opposing them. What I didn’t expect was that the President and what’s close to every elected Democrat in this country would cave to a slew of destructive Republican demands so that the Republicans would agree to one or two inconsequential concessions.

All I can see now is that both Obama’s budget proposal and the Republican cuts are going to fast-track our country into a third-world standard of living, if not actual third-world status. At first, all I objected to was the short-sightedness of politicians at all levels all around the country – did they not think about the greater implications of the changes they were proposing? Some ideas impacted quality of life by removing or restricting services, some by taking away funding or re-allocating it misguidedly. Bit by bit, the picture began to emerge that one side had a clear agenda for a new social structure, and the other had only a few pet ideas that it would half-heartedly defend.

Yes, a lot of things should be cut. A lot of programs spend more money than they should. A lot of programs don’t generate results that justify their budgets or their continued existence. Looking at a list, I can see some things that could be consolidated, managed better, or yes, even eliminated. What I don’t see, though, are cuts to things that could manage just fine without government assistance, like corporate welfare and tax credits, and tax structures that benefit the wealthiest individuals in the country. Instead, what’s being taken away in these proposals are programs that help those without the money or power to help themselves, or programs that protect them from abuse by the people and entities in power. Almost all the proposals coming to the table from both sides increase the gap between the haves and have nots, push the middle class and working poor closer to the latter category, and erode the quality of life for all those who can’t buy their own luxury and peace of mind.

At the state level here in NJ, we’re seeing this on a much more obvious level, since there are fewer places to hide waste and favoritism. When Governor Whitman eliminated state pension contributions in order to cover budget deficits, and then (of course) never quite got back to putting that money back (nor, to be fair, did Corzine) we of course ended up with not enough money to pay pension benefits to retiring state employees. Contrary to what politicians would like us to think, most of these employees are not lazing about the public trough, living easy at the cost of our tax dollars. The bad apples are held up as examples of how undeserving these people are, but the truth of the matter is that the ones who are getting hurt have worked hard, many of them dealing with the hardship of low wages in exchange for benefits, and have put in their time. They signed contracts that made specific legal promises, and planned their lives with those promises in mind. At retirement or close to retirement age, they should not have the rug pulled out from underneath them because someone else didn’t plan as well as they did.

At the same time, people higher up the food chain are not being asked to make the same sacrifices. Small pockets of outrage have erupted over double-dipping politicians, patronage jobs that pay six figures for showing up a few hours a week, and contracts that allow certain elected or appointed individuals to collect the full salary for their term of employment and keep generous retirement benefits even if they’re booted out early. The problem is, I think, that your average Joe who votes sees the “lazy government workers” in his daily life, is affected personally by the “bad kids produced by all the rotten schools and overpaid teachers,” knows people who “get off easy” or “get screwed over” by “corrupt cops”. . .ask anyone to provide examples of how any state or local employee is getting more than he deserves from our hard-earned tax dollars, and you’ll get tons of anecdotal evidence. Ask him what’s in the contract for his school superintendent, or how many duplicate jobs exist at the upper levels of state administration, and all you’ll get is a blank stare.

So rather than making good on the debt, Governor Christie comes out like a raging bull, demonizing public employees so that he can cut their salaries, benefits, and numbers with impunity, and further the disconnect between budget problems and excess at the higher levels. Not only does he effectively swell the ranks of the poor and impoverished, but he also proposes cuts to things that benefit all of us. Public programs that house the mentally ill will lose funding, putting more of them out homeless on our streets – your streets, if you don’t live in a gated community. Funding cuts for schools that result in fewer and less qualified teachers and fewer extracurricular opportunities will give us bored, uneducated, disaffected young people, rather than future leaders who contribute to society – the kids down the street will be robbing and vandalizing your house rather than, say, shoveling your driveway or watching your kids, because what else is there for them to do? And if you call the cops after they do this (or the fire department, if they get a little too enthusiastic) you’re going to have to accept that they might not be able to get there, sorry, because they’re understaffed and haven’t been able to afford to fix some of the broken equipment.

Open spaces aren’t being preserved, so if you don’t own your own pristine recreational acreage, you’d better be happy with the view out your window. Other agencies and organizations that preserve history or provide recreational opportunities are closing up shop, so the field trips that got students excited about learning just won’t happen, and you’ll have to come up with your own ideas for things to do with the family on weekends. Yahtzee and Monopoly will wear thin pretty quickly, and you won’t be able to go to the local library, because the special programs will be gone and the hours will be cut, if it even manages to stay open.

Horse racing, however you feel about it, takes up a lot of space and doesn’t contribute as much as casinos, so the entire equestrian industry in the state is taking a hit. You might not think much about it, but once those horse farms become new housing developments, it’ll be too late to realize you didn’t want to lose them.

And speaking of casinos, you get to buy those whether you like it or not. Revel paved the way – they began construction and then threatened to leave the rotting hulk if they didn’t get the funding and tax breaks they wanted. New Jersey caved on that. Since you paid for it, you should probably go visit it. While you’re there, take a tour of the sparkling gem that is Atlantic City. The casinos got incentives and breaks from the state because they promised to give back – specifically to the town in which they operated. What you actually see, though, is a microcosm of our future as planned by lockstep Republicans and weak-kneed Democrats. The haves – the casinos with their flaunted wealth, taking in money from working people and keeping most of it through special arrangements and creative accounting, and the have-nots – the people of AC, most of them at or below the poverty line, in decrepit housing with inadequate public services, whose future generations will not have received the education or assistance to rise above it and make a better life for themselves or their families. Keep your car windows rolled up and your doors locked, and don’t depend on the police showing up if you need them.

As Atlantic City is a smaller version of what may await us as a state, it is also a smaller version of where our country may be headed if the budgetary efforts to increase the class divide succeed. Nothing anyone has done has been able to counteract or slow this process in that city. If that’s what happens on a local scale, I don’t have high hopes that it will be different in a state or regional or national level.