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Monday, December 21, 2009

A "Pants on Fire" Dishonor

POLITIFACT.COM recently published its findings on the political "lie of the year." The winner? Sarah Palin, for her rhetorically charged allegation of health care reform. From my perspective, it is not the lie as much as her choice of words which deserves such a dishonor.

If you've missed the controversy over the course of the year, here is a snippet of her original "death panel" remarks:

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."

Clearly, the remarks made here are divisive; has gone a step further and deemed them wholly without merit. To her credit, Palin stands by her claim. But she also stands by her choice of words, comparing the tone with President Reagan's decision to refer to the Soviet Union as the "evil empire."

While the "lie of the year" may go to Palin, her choice of divisive rhetoric is not unique. Unfortunately, language used to divide is becoming much too common.

Shakespeare once spoke through Juliet to negate the power of certain words: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

I disagree. In any society, words have an associated stigma for good or ill. If I was told to smell a beautiful red rose referred to as "diarrhea," I would at the very least be hesitant to take a whiff. Similarly, I would I have a hard time taking comfort in a political leader of any party who consciously used negatively charged words to prove a point. And while Sarah Palin may be the winner of this year's shameful contest, she is not alone in her choice of tone.

Words can be used to divide or unite. How we use them is our choice. It is not a requirement that politicians always agree. But it should not be a liability to try and get along in the process of disagreement. In days gone by, fierce but polite debate would often conclude with the phrase, "I respectfully disagree."

Perhaps it would do our entire society a great amount of good if we were all to add a little more respect to our disagreements.

* For an additional examination of divisive rhetoric, see my previous post: "Kill the 'Death Panel' Rhetoric."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Rwanda: A Genuine Respect for Life

Recently, I watched a Frontline documentary entitled, Ghosts of Rwanda. I came away from the experience feeling very impacted by the extremes of human nature in regards to life: our ability to either take life or to tamper with its creation. One story in particular led me to a deeper understanding of what it means to have a genuine respect for life.

In 1994, over the course of approximately 100 days, an estimated 800,000 people were massacred in Rwanda—a country in east-central Africa. The situation was eventually termed genocide, although for a variety of reasons—some complex and some inexplicable—international aid was not given in the form of troops until the damage had been done. Killing was widespread and virtually unrestrained. Unlike the Jewish holocaust of World War II, the vast majority of murders were committed one at a time. Large-scale Nazi gas chambers were replaced by long-edged Hutu machetes.

One of the characters portrayed in the documentary was the chief of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Rwanda, Philippe Gaillard. The Red Cross had a long standing policy of neutrality, but Philippe felt morally obligated to make the world aware of the perpetrators of the genocide. He emerged as one of many heroes in a dark conflict. Despite his best efforts to develop a thick skin, the constant exposure to death and murder took its toll on Philippe. His response was as heartfelt as it was poignant:

"When we came back from Rwanda, my wife and I had been married for seven years. We had deliberately had no children. It was so evident for her, for me, that after this experience we both wanted to create life. And it is so beautiful. [My children] will know it, they will discover it, [but] I would never explain to my son that he was a product of genocide. That’s not easy to explain."

One recurring theme throughout the documentary is the capacity of mankind for great good—or great evil. Truly, the motivation of Philippe to create life stood in opposition to the desire of the Hutus to destroy it. As I reflected on his story, I gained a new perspective of two directives familiar in one form or another to all three of the world’s major religions.

The Ten Commandments are found in the Old Testament, a book which is revered by Jews and Christians—and also appreciated by Muslims. The two “commandments” I am referring to are found in quick succession:

Thou shalt not kill (Ex. 20:13).

Thou shalt not commit adultery (Ex. 20:14).

The change in my perspective was more or less a realization of the actions covered by these two commandments. Of all the terrible things of which mankind is capable, the worst is the taking of human life (i.e., “thou shalt not kill”). The second offense is nearly as grave, but lies at the other end of the human spectrum of sin: the inappropriate tampering with the creation of life (i.e., “thou shalt not commit adultery”). In between these two transgressions lie an innumerable degree of misdeeds which affect human life to one degree or another.

My exposure to Philippe’s story led me to see that mankind has long been warned of the dangers associated with taking human life—or tampering with its creation. The lessons that can and should be learned from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda are many. Among them is the capacity of mankind to develop a genuine respect for life, even while immersed in a culture of disrespect of the worst kind.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Kill the "Death Panel" Rhetoric

The true aim of a conservative is to unite others in a common cause that leads to the betterment of society. As a conservative, I believe that hateful rhetoric which misleads the public with talk of “death panels” does not contribute to national unity.

Let me be clear, I do not believe that the passage of universal health care legislation is a step in the positive direction for our country. While I espouse bipartisanship, the passage of a bill such as the ones currently being considered simply violates too many of my political principles.

So why am I advocating against “death panel” rhetoric? Because I believe in American unity, and I believe that the way in which we use words serves to either unite or divide us as a nation.

If used to unite, words have tremendous power to do good. Roosevelt inspired a nation drowning in an economic cesspool when he declared that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Kennedy stirred our patriotism by advocating that we ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. Dr. King pled for unity when he proclaimed that he had had a dream. And now in our day, Obama has announced that the government will decide if your grandmother lives or dies. Now, each of these presidential statements have been accurately summarized, right?


If you are reading this editorial, you know the facts of the issue and the inaccuracy of the allegation. However, the purpose of this piece is not to deal with the way in which a bill is interpreted, but rather to address the danger of rhetoric that goes by many adjectives: misleading, deceitful, hateful, vitriolic, or most importantly, divisive. Even if a legislative bill actually designated a death panel, called it a death panel, and indicated that we no longer had the choice to decide whether we live or die—hateful rhetoric is not a good strategy.

Contrary to hateful rhetoric is the concept of meaningful debate. When the founding fathers gathered for their miracle in Philadelphia, no doubt insults were flung that skimmed the issues, crossed the line of propriety, and did not always make use of common sense. But these men who are so revered by us today eventually found a way to get past their deeply held—not to mention, well-founded—personal beliefs and were able to whittle down one decision after another through meaningful debate.

Why is it that we cannot do the same?

The issue of universal health care is of universal importance. Regardless of the outcome, the consequences will have a domino effect that goes from one generation to the next. However, we should use this issue not as an occasion to spread hate for a supposed larger good, but as an opportunity to showcase our devotion to the virtue of unity. If, as some claim, our nation is going to hell in a hand basket, it will not be directly attributable to the passage of a universal health care bill. Rather, if our nation ever meets with a tragic self-inflicted decline, it will be because its citizenry has lost the value of unity and chooses hateful rhetoric over meaningful debate. Such need not be the case. The government will not decide whether our grandparents live or die, but we as a people will decide the fate of the hateful use of our words. And I am in favor of killing the “death panel” rhetoric.

* Intended for publication 07-Sep-2009

Obama's Inauguration: Utah's Opportunity

Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20th is an opportunity for Utah to showcase the virtues of tolerance and patriotism.

As a Mormon living in Utah, I did everything that I could not to vote for Mitt Romney in the primaries — just as I would have acted similarly in regards to Clinton or Obama if I was a woman or African-American. I didn’t want to be accused of voting for Romney simply because he was a Mormon. That being said, after much consideration I eventually cast my vote in his direction.

I faced the same dilemma in the general election. I gave Obama every bit of leeway I could because I felt that Utah didn’t need another citizen voting Republican simply to vote Republican. I received numerous emails tempting me to further the cause ignorance: Barack Obama is Muslim, he isn’t patriotic… he’s the anti-Christ. My responses? No, he’s Christian—but so what if he was Muslim? Yes, that was an interesting YouTube video—but have you seen the other ones that demonstrate his patriotism? Seriously—the anti-Christ? The vitriolic rhetoric was rampant, and my own circle of staunch Republicans thought I was insane to even consider voting for—a Democrat!

My vote ultimately didn’t do much for the sake of diversity in Utah. I voted for McCain. In the end, I simply disagreed with too many of Obama’s policies. Consequently, I should fight against the incoming administration at every turn, right? Wrong.

Aligning with Obama’s policies and his presidency are two completely separate issues. In the first instance, to support an issue I disagree with would be immoral. In the second, to withhold support from a president who espouses different policies would be intolerant and unpatriotic. Obama’s economic policies are hardly unadulterated capitalism, but then 2008 wasn’t exactly a good year for laissez-faire in the Bush administration. As a fiscal conservative, does that mean that I should hope for failures in the Obama administration so I can prove that my points are justified? Absolutely not. Two of my family members just returned from the war overseas, and one is preparing to leave. Something is fundamentally wrong with saying, “Thanks for putting your life on the line, but I kind of hope you guys fail over there so that we can get a Republican back in the White House.” A loyalty to the presidency of the United States is crucial—even if there is a disagreement with its policies.

Utah Republicans should support the Obama presidency and can do so without betraying their ideals. As a die-hard BYU fan, I cheered voraciously for the Utes in the Sugar Bowl: they were a good team and it was the best thing for the (Mountain West) conference. As a Utah Republican, I will support the Obama presidency: he is a good man, and it is the best thing for the country. By doing so, I do not betray my conservative principles, but instead show that Utah is more than an ignorantly red state. I am calling for Utah Republicans to demonstrate a support for the virtues of tolerance and patriotism by supporting Barack Obama’s presidency—even if there is a disagreement with his policies. This support need not necessarily manifest itself in the voting booths, but should be demonstrated by advocating against hateful rhetoric. America is a great force for good in our global society, but will lose its influence if it loses unity. Disagreement in democracy is not an oxymoron, but an opportunity. And January 20th is a great opportunity for Utah Republicans.

* Originally published January 2009