Friday, January 28, 2011

Few Thoughts on Challenger

So today is the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger explosion, and that seems strange.
On the day that it happened, I was still in middle school. I remember this kid named John Rauschberger (sp?) running up to me in the hallway as I walked to band class and breathlessly telling me that the space shuttle had exploded. As memory serves, he wore the sort of excitement and enthusiasm for a big, splashy, high profile tragedy that a troubling number of people probably feel, but only junior high boys are probably likely to openly express.
We got to class and our band teacher, Mr. Lacour, had the TV on in the band hall. The news programs were showing endless, looped fottage of the space shuttle taking off and then exploding shortly into its ascent.
We all sat and watched it a few times before out teacher turned the TV off and returned his attention to the class, saying something like, "Well, obviously that's very sad. Now everyone get out your music books and turn to page 16..."
The real awfulness of the flight was amplified considerably by the fact that Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from New Hampshire, had been included among the shuttle flight crew. The primary purpose of her inclusion, unfortunately, had been to sort of highlight the importance of education and to inspire students, teachers, and other people across the country who might be moved by the participation of an "ordinary civilian" on a flight into space. McAuliffe, in other words, was primarily on the flight in order to make sure that lots and lots of people were watching it. Accordingly, there were many more eyes watching this shuttle launch (such flights having become somewhat routine by this point) than might have been typical on any other given day.
I know that at my mom's elementary school the teachers had all turned on their TVs and were watching the launch with their kids. I remember my mom being excited before the flight about the idea that a teacher was going into space, and I remember her being really sad when she came home that day, talking about how awful it had been to watch the tragedy with the excited, enthusiastic kids from her class.
I guess the major lesson learned from the disaster was that cutting edge science and exploration almost always call for more bravery, courage, and even sometimes sacrifice than we typically think about. Our engineers, scientists, and explorers are often so good at their jobs that we sometimes get lulled into a certain sense of complacency about the risks and the constant possibility that something could go very wrong (when things go perfectly time after time it's easy to forget about what can happen when things fail). As much as we forget about the dangers, though, the Challenger astronauts were certainly very aware of the risks that they faced. Such things are drilled into them over and over during their training so that they can try to avoid problems and/or deal with them as they arise. They knew far better than the rest of us that really bad things can happen if any number of things go wrong. Obviously, though, those astronauts thought that the benefits of space travel and the knowledge that could be gained were important enough that the risks were outweighed.
So that's impressive. These days we forget about that kind of courage too often.
I mean, this isn't exactly a new point. In the pursuit of expanded knowledge, explorers of various forms have literally been taking risks on behalf of society since the dawn of time (I try to imagine being some kind of early explorer, climbing into a wooden boat and sailing out into a vast ocean without being sure of what you would find).
Still, sometimes we forget.
We celebrate and memorialize our veterans and our police officers and first responders and so forth, but events like the Challenger explosion wake us up and remind us that there are also a different sort of people are out there who are really putting their lives on the line for the benefit of all of us on a pretty regular basis.
Even as I write this there's a very good chance that there are people collecting data above me in orbit (maybe Americans, but also quite possibly Russians or people from other countries) or people exploring the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean in specially designed submarines. Test pilots fly experimental aircraft and spacecraft at the most extreme limits of human engineering knowledge. There are people out there who are risking their lives in order to advance our civilization, and these people don't always get memorials or days of remembrance.
But it's important to keep them in mind.
So that's all I've got. The Challenger disaster is definitely one of those "do you remember where you were?" sort of historical moments from my life, but it also marks something a bit bigger. Then and now it has always served as one of those moments that wasn't just a simple tragedy, but a reminder that heroism comes in many different forms.
Anyway, hats off to the Challenger crew, even 25 years later.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Personal Freedom Dilemma and Mental Illness

Well here's a link to a good article by Sharon Begley that appeared in Newsweek a few weeks back that got me to thinking again about the difficulties suffered by families of the mentally ill and about the role of the criminal justice system in dealing with mental illness. The piece is about the difficulties that parents can have when trying to get treatment for mentally ill children, particularly, but not only, when their kids are unwilling to admit that they have a mental illness or are resistant to a hospital admission.
There's nothing particularly groundbreaking in this article, and to people who work in or around the mental health system, the anecdotes contained in the article aren't going to come as a surprise (my own experiences with the mental health docket made most of the situations found in the article all too familiar), but within our larger population (i.e., the larger population of people out there who haven't really had to deal with serious mental illness on a personal or professional level) I think that the breakdown with the mental health system remains a story that's much less widely known and understood.
As I've complained many times before on this blog, the mental health system in this country remains tragically underfunded and ineffective. We simply don't have nearly the number of required hospital beds, doctors, or treatment facilities necessary to deal with our mentally ill population. As Begley's article points out, hospitals and mental health facilities, chronically underfunded, find themselves in a position where they're restricted to treating only the most serious of cases, typically reserving hospital admissions for situations which pose an immediate, imminent threat of physical harm while placing all other patients on long waiting lists for outpatient services. (a situation which is all but untenable for parents and/or family who are living with a floridly psychotic, extremely paranoid, or hypermanic individual) Even in these sorts of situations, treatment is often limited to stabilization which relieves the immediate threat, but the long term follow up care may not do much to prevent such incidents from arising in the near or far future. Private insurance frequently provides minimal, if any, coverage for mental illness, with coverage falling far short of what is medically advised or required (short term stabilization is sometimes possible for people with private insurance, but longer term hospitalization and/or long term, ongoing psychiatric treatment is rarely covered).
In addition to the problems arising from a lack of resources are thornier issues regarding personal liberty and the reluctance of judges and public officials to proceed with involuntary commitment for individuals who are unwilling to acknowledge their illness or accept treatment. On the one hand, I understand the need for a preference toward personal liberty (the great majority of people with mental illness pose no risk to anyone, after all, and we don't need to create a system where we end up locking away every ill person who ever makes someone else feel uneasy or uncomfortable for a moment). On the other hand, as the system currently sits it appears that most judges aren't going to really think that a person is suitable for an involuntary commitment (the standard requiring that the person pose a risk to himself or others) up until the time that the person in question has actually caused some sort of harm to himself or to another person.
I work the mental health docket, and I struggle with this stuff all of the time. I only work on misdemeanors, so things usually haven't gotten too far out of hand when I get my cases, but I'm usually looking for some sort of signs that the defendants on my caseload aren't headed toward doing worse and more harmful things. When a guy is just sitting at a bus stop and yelling at people, he's going to be harmless 95% of the time. I have a high volume of cases where people do some things that seem alarming or even mildly menacing (things that might especially seem menacing to people in the general population who aren't used to dealing with mentally ill people), but these same defendants don't have any sort of criminal record that would ever reflect that they're capable of any real violence and most of them never will.
I can and do try to see about referring these people to services when I can, but typically, at best, they just get stabilized and/or put on some kind of waiting list for services. So, given the high volume of people that I see who engage in bizarre behavior on a regular basis, and knowing that the vast majority of them are harmless, what am I supposed to do? I could lock all of them up for as long as I can (which isn't very long, anyway, on a misdemeanor docket) in the hope that I'll maybe, possibly happen to catch the one guy who ends up going on a shooting spree at some point.
Given the fact that "warning signs" are always much clearer in hindsight, however and that I'm dealing with hundreds of these cases (at least) every year- most of which will never amount to anything more than a momentary irritation for the people involved- I find it hard to believe that handing out harsh punishments for symptomatic conduct is really the way to go. It just doesn't seem right. If our mental health system weren't so broken in the first place, most of these people would be hospitalized or in institutions and wouldn't be out on the street to get themselves into trouble in the first place.
But I 'm not going to lie. I still worry about getting a Jared Loughner on my docket- that one guy in a hundred or a thousand who is going to go on to shoot up a grocery store parking lot. When that sort of singular individual goes off the deep end and creates a bloodbath, and "they" later go back over his criminal records, I fear that there's going to be a lynch mob outside my office door, wondering why I didn't "do something" about this guy when I had him in court on a criminal trespass or for making some threatening comment to someone at the liquor store. I'm not sure it's going to appease "them" when I try to defend myself by saying that the mass murderer was one out of hundreds of cases just like him, indistinguishable from the harmless defendants in the rest of the pile.
But as things sit right here and right now, I'm here to tell you that I seriously think about these things all of the time, and there's not a heck of a lot that can be done- or if there is, I'm missing it, and I'm more than open to suggestions.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Cool Pic; Democrat Kicks Off the New Year by Calling the Republicans Nazis

I got this picture of Amy and my dad at Enchanted Rock from my mom about a week ago (they went out there between Christmas and New Year), and I just like it.

And yeah, I haven't blogged in a while, but of course I was really disappointed and annoyed to see some of the lamest, most inflammatory rhetoric used during the House debate on the health care reform repeal coming out of the mouth of a Democrat. Really, Steve Cohen? A Joseph Goebbels comparison? You couldn't have just said that they were being dishonest and left it at that? Did Cohen miss the whole part where some overly excited nutjob executed half a dozen people at a congressional meet and greet?
Ugggh. Plenty of stupidity to go around, I guess.
Some people just. Don't. Get. It.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

McCain in the Washington Post

As a sort of quick follow up to my last post, I'd like to link to this Washington Post editorial by John McCain.
McCain doesn't abandon his political beliefs here, but he acknowledges the need for civility, and he commends President Obama for giving a speech memorial speech in Arizona that sought to unify the country in the wake of the shootings rather than simply assigning blame. He goes on to call Obama a patriot, and he rejects critics who have called Obama unworthy of the office of president.
The whole thing just sort of reminded me why I used to have a great deal of respect for John McCain (I'll admit that some of his rhetoric lately has turned me off a bit, but he takes some responsibility for that sort of thing in this piece as well). I'm not saying that I always agreed with McCain's politics, but over the course of his career he's often seemed like a fair minded leader who was willing to respect his opponents, even while struggling fiercely against them (and despite the protestations of his critics on the far right, McCain has been a very effective senator, and he was a pretty strong candidate during the presidential election).
Anyway, I thought McCain showed a lot of class here, and I really, really hope he doesn't get raked over the coals by his peers on the right for writing this piece.
I also hope that there's some substance to the idea that these shootings could represent some sort of a turning point. I'm not saying I think it's likely, but I remain sort of hopeful.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Krugman's Two Moralities

Paul Krugman recently had an editorial in the New York Times called A Tale of Two Moralities. It's an interesting read, and it's basically Krugman's argument (or what I took to be his argument) as to why the President (and the upper level Democratic leadership, in general) need to sort of abandon the idea of encouraging cooperation between the left and the right and instead focus on the idea that vitriolic, inflammatory speech (especially the sort of political speech that might incite others to violence) will not be tolerated. Krugman's main point is that the differences that currently divide our country aren't the sort of trivial points of disagreement that can be smoothed over through greater attention to manners or a a greater display of niceties. Probably correctly, Krugman points out that the differences between the right and the left actually derive from differences in deeply held moral beliefs and in essential differences between the ways that progressives and conservatives see the world (to quickly summarize: Krugman characterizes progressives as seeing a moral imperative in preventing suffering among the poor, especially given that we live in a relatively affluent nation where some live lives of excess and abundance while others are wanting in terms of basic necessities. Conservatives, by contrast, are characterized as seeing personal property rights and freedom from intrusion as their most precious, fundamental rights, and they tend to see any governmental action which interferes with those rights as a form of theft, with private property being stolen- or at least wrongfully taken- from them.)
Krugman sees the differences between these two viewpoints as being of a quintessential difference in morality, and he seems to see the tension and hostility between the groups as being all but intractable (Krugman leaves little room for settling differences between the two sides short of legal action).
In a lot of ways I see Krugman's point (especially his larger point about the need to put limits upon inflammatory rhetoric), and I can certainly see how these differing viewpoints might seem completely irreconcilable to a banner-carrying progressive like Krugman who has spent decades defending liberal positions and serving as a lightning rod for fiery criticism, vitriol, and animosity from the right. I would imagine that many right leaning pundits probably have similar sentiments about the possibility of reconciling conservative viewpoints with those of progressives)
I've been spending some time pondering his underlying suppositions, though- in particular his assertion that these two moralities, each supposedly fundamentally different, must inevitably lead people to polarized viewpoints that are so antagonistic that there's really no point in trying to harmoniously reconcile the two belief systems. In Krugman's view, it seems, the best that we can hope for is to recognize that there will always be these two opposing sets of moral beliefs, and then go about trying to learn to live with each other even though each side believes the other to be morally inferior and, thus, more or less undeserving of mutual respect (am I overstating Krugman's position? Maybe to a slight degree, but if so, not by much). Such thoughts, in a best case scenario, lead to a sort of truce or cease fire, with neither side ever really trusting or respecting the other because each believes that the other side is, at its core, simply wrong and flawed in some way. In this sort of world, it seems like we're destined to continually be at each other's throats, taking momentary respites to calm down (as in the wake of a mass shooting or the attempted assassination of an elected official) before slowly ratcheting up our rhetoric again until the next disastrous, priority-adjusting calamity occurs.
But I just can't buy the thought that Krugman can be right on this.
After all, I work, live, and hang out with conservative people with different political ideologies than my own every day- coworkers, friends, and family. I'm actually really close to some of them, and they're important people in my life. Am I only able to get along with these people because I avoid ever talking about politics or anything else that's important to me?

Now granted, as most readers of this blog know, I can get pretty worked up (and become pretty argumentative) when it comes to politics, but I still really can't bring myself to believe that I'm only able to live with the conservative people in my life because we avoid ever talking about important things.

Part of what I think that Krugman gets wrong is his characterization of morality and his assumption that we'll inevitably react in a certain way to reasoning which reaches different moral conclusions than our own. Part of what I, personally, think that this country needs is a greater willingness to respect and try to understand the moral reasoning of other people instead of simply passing judgment on others because the end product of that reasoning (in this case, their political views) ends up being different than our own.

Yeah, yeah. I know I'm often not all that great about this myself. But I'm trying to get better. Really!

What I'm saying is that, even though we may ultimately come to different conclusions as we work our way through moral problems, we ought to be able to have a greater degree of respect for another party's position if we can understand and respect the moral principles that they have applied in coming to their conclusion. If their reasoning is sound and they're basing their reasoning on rational principles (notice that I didn't say those principles had to be identical to our own), then we need to be able to give their judgments a fair amount of deference and at least treat their argument with respect. I know that this idea isn't exactly rocket science, but it just seems like we've really lost sight of these things somewhere along the way.
And let's say we take Krugman's assertion (implied if not overt) that conservatives place a greater value on their own personal property rights than they do upon empathy (or sympathy) for others. First of all, most conservatives will be quick to deny this characterization, while some progressives might quickly move to a moral judgment finding the people holding such a belief as selfish or self centered. But, when pinned down on a point by point analysis of the moral reasoning that led to that belief, many liberals will have a hard time quarreling with many of the simple underlying principles utilized by conservatives. (and, of course, conservatives will argue that insisting on freedom from government intrusion doesn't amount to a lack of empathy)
So liberals might acknowledge, "Yes, I believe that people have a right to own their own property without having it seized or interfered with. Yes, I believe that it's wrong for the someone to appropriate someone else's property if the property holder hasn't agreed to relinquish it. Yes, I believe that people should strive to be self sufficient and responsible for their own well being. No, I don't think it's fair to take property away from a person who has worked for it so that someone else can enjoy it."
Of course there are a million special exceptions and qualifications and reasons why liberals and conservatives might disagree about the how, when, and why of how these principles should be applied, but the point is that some basic underlying principles between the left and the right are there the entire time, and many of the differences between the two opposing viewpoints come into play in terms of how much weight should be placed upon various principles, the cases in which exceptions should be made in terms of these various principles, and how these principles should be applied.
In the same way, there are probably a fair number of principles held by progressives that most conservatives would find hard to refute on some level.
"Yes, it's a good thing to make sure that the the people within our community who are incapable of helping themselves are cared for on some level. Yes, there are a few situations where the need to protect people overcomes simple property rights. Yes, we live in a society that is governed by laws and which seeks to protect its citizens on some level, and some amount of resources are required by the community in order to accomplish that task."
Once again, there are some principles there that even conservative would probably have to grudgingly accept, but the quarrels begin once we get into arguments about exceptions to the rules, cases where the rules have been applied too broadly, and debates about which principles should trump each other (that last one's a biggie in terms of generating argument).
Anyway, I guess my point is just that there's still a very real, very legitimate underlying moral framework there which leaves room for civil debate and respect for the other side's position, even when the other side has decided to weigh certain things differently.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't be arguing over this stuff, but I'm just saying that we're often, in actuality, arguing about matters of degree and about the specifics of how moral principles are applied rather than about whether certain moral principles exist at all (neither side seems to be advocating an absolutely zero sum game, after all, where everyone is forced to earn and live on exactly the same amount of money or where rich people are given inherently different rights or privileges than poor people).
I just think Krugman has gone too far. People are polarized, it's true, but politicians have playing to their respective bases, and we haven't nearly often enough heard from leaders who've been willing to say, "Now I understand that you're angry, and I don't agree with what the other side is saying, but here's why they're saying it..."
Essentially, each side needs to just be more willing to say that while they don't agree with the opposing view, the other side does have a point. We might disagree, but the other side isn't totally crazy.
Don't get me wrong, I don't want my leaders to quit fighting for me, but at the same time we really need to find a way to get back to having a culture that involves at least some modicum of respect. Of course, in order to pull that off, you need cooperation from both sides, and that cooperation has to come at the same time from both ends.
I don't know, maybe it's a byproduct of having been a lawyer for a while and arguing on a regular basis with some people that I genuinely like and sometimes even admire, but I really do think that it's possible to pull off this whole mutual respect thing will simultaneously continuing to fight pretty hard for the causes that we believe in.
The fact that we've come to different moral conclusions doesn't mean that we can't have respect for the moral reasoning on the other side of the aisle, and, perhaps naively, I still tend to think that we've still got some room to find compromise in those areas where moral principles overlap. But we have to find ways to like each other more, even when we disagree.
I'm not sure what's going to happen if the country keeps splitting farther and farther apart, but in the end I just think it's not going to be very good at all for any of us.

Blah, blah, blah, I know.

I just think we can do this. Krugman lives in a world of angry pundits, and he probably deals regularly with some of the most extreme political thinkers out there. I just want to believe that the rest of us, the people who live every day with people who have different views than us, are a little different. When Krugman states that there' no middle ground between progressive and conservative viewpoints, I just balk at that statement. While pundits and professional mouthpieces might see their political views as absolute positions with no middle ground that allows for compromise, I just believe that most of the rest of us needn't feel compelled to feel that way.
It's still okay for the rest of us to say, "I can't agree with you, but I see your point," and the simple ability to concede the validity of someone else's argument, even while disagreeing with their ultimate conclusion, represents a hope for a social and political climate in which, hopefully, we can respect each other well enough to not have to rely only upon rules, laws, and regulations in order to reign in vitriolic speech.

Okay. I'm done. Everybody hug each other and sing Kumbaya... ;-)

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Brief Thoughts on the Tucson Shootings

Amy asked me whether I was going to blog about the recent shootings in Arizona which killed six people and wounded fourteen others.
I guess I feel like just jotting something down, but I'm not sure what to say. There's been an immediate move by some people (particularly those on the left) to blame the incident on the heated, angry political rhetoric that we've seen over the last few years (Sarah Palin and some of the other Tea Party members have been singled out, in particular, for their inflammatory statements), while people with opposing political views on the right have quickly moved to defense of free speech coupled with the likely possibility that the gunman, Jared Loughner, may quite possibly have been mentally unbalanced. I guess I think that the people who were making accusations leaped a little too quickly to judgment early on, but I also think that the reaction of commentators on the right represents a sort of knee jerk defensiveness and unwillingness to reflect about the root causes of such a tragic event.
Overall, I guess that I, like a whole lot of other people, would just like to see people take a step back and tone down some of the really angry political messages that have been spread lately. I'll grant people that this gunman was probably a pretty sick individual, but given the fact that political speech is, by its very nature, meant to reach all different sorts of people, it was almost inevitable that some of these incendiary messages were going to reach (and probably have an effect on) some unstable people who were already at the brink of taking rash action. Political speech, which is meant to induce people to take action (although, hopefully, at the voting booth) doesn't just reach calm, collected individuals.
And don't get me wrong- I don't hold every politician accountable for every situation in which some wacko might come up with a twisted interpretation of an impassioned political argument, but when Sarah Palin is using phrases like "Don't Retreat- Instead RELOAD!" as a campaign slogan and distributing maps with crosshairs over contested election districts- well, then I'm not even sure that crazed misinterpretation is really the issue. At that point the issue is actually about whether some extremist or nut job is just going to take these inflammatory messages literally (which hopefully were never meant to be taken that way at all) because some people just don't have the capacity or the willingness to realize that this rhetoric is meant to be hyperbole.
I don't know what happened in this case, and I don't really know exactly why this guy did what he did, but I really feel like this country is becoming more and more divided. I also feel like there's a real danger in seeing one another as enemies rather than simply as ideological/political opponents who have differing views about how we should be working to improve the country. This Jared Loughner guy might turn out to have been someone who was dealing with some serious mental health or drug problems, but even the mentally ill don't live in a vacuum, and I just can't help but feel like the culture of animosity and divisiveness that fills our political speech (and to some extent our society) didn't play a part in what happened.
I think we all need to take a big step back, take a deep breath, and remember that, competing visions aside, we're all trying to work to build a country where everyone has the opportunity to be happy.
Maybe that sort of thinking sounds a little too hippie dippy for some people, but I really believe that, on a very pragmatic level, this country is headed for some major problems if the people who live here can't find a way to respect one another a whole lot more.
At any rate, if this shooting fails to make people stop and think, then the events that occurred in Arizona will not only represent a profound tragedy, but a meaningless one as well.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Other New Year's Eve Pics

A couple more pics from New Year's Eve. My mom took these with her camera and just sent them to me, and they're probably better than the ones I posted earlier, so I thought I'd just put 'em up.

Jamie and Amy at dinner. The Brothers Steans were luckier than they deserved on the eve of 2011.

The whole fam together. I thought this was a better than average pic of our family unit, so I thought I'd put it up.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Happy New Year; True Grit

Hi! Well, I want to wish everyone a happy New Year!

My enthusiasm for the new year, I have to admit, has diminished just a little bit already since, as I write this, Amy is at home sick, and I'm facing down the prospect of an upcoming work week that will be devoid of holiday cheer.
Oh well.
Hopefully Amy will get better fast, and I can quickly find myself some new things to celebrate and look forward to!
New Year's Eve and Day were good this year.
On New Year's Eve Amy and I joined my parents and Ryan and Jamie for a really nice dinner at Vespaio on South Congress. I like that restaurant a lot, and it was a really nice evening with our family.

On New Year's Day I went with Amy to a party at her friends Anni (not sure I spelled that right) and John's house. It was a nice party, with good food and some really nice people. I had heard a bunch of times about Anni and John, as well as Amy's friend Donna and Lon, so it was good to finally get a chance to meet them and put faces with names. Nice people.
On Saturday night we went out to dinner with Ryan and Jamie and hung out at their house a bit afterward. It was a nice, relaxed evening. It felt good to just chill out after all of the holiday activity.
Tonight I finally got a chance to go see True Grit with Amy. I really enjoyed the movie, although , I guess I don't have a lot to say about it. It was just a good, old fashioned western. The Coen Brothers added a few light touches that sort of reminded you that this was a Coen Brothers movie (they have a knack for capturing moments of strangeness that border on the absurd- the appearance of Bear Man immediately springs to mind), but on the whole I thought the movie was well executed, but carried out in a fairly traditional style. The dialogue sounded a bit stilted at times (especially to modern ears), but as my brother pointed out on his blog, the dialogue was apparently meant to mimic the patterns of the very articulate, albeit somewhat formal, Mattie Ross, the film's narrator and protagonist.
Anyway, I really enjoyed the movie. It was well acted, well directed, and, of course, it had a good script.
Hope you're feeling better, Amy!