Tuesday, November 4, 2008


First, my apologies for making this so long but it's a big subject and I hope you're patient.

As if we didn’t already have enough to worry about, there’s a new virus whose symptoms are so subtle that most people don’t know they’ve been infected. IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS gets its name from the symptoms of it’s victims - ignorance, apathy and rigidity. It is currently unclear whether the virus produces these symptoms or is attracted to them, but the association is undeniable. And it’s spreading among all segments of society; regular people, pundits, experts and elected officials. As yet there is no vaccine.

How can you tell if you’ve been infected? Early symptoms are mild, first appearing as a desire to make everything simple. As the virus grows, so do symptoms; the need for a scapegoat when facing a problem and then an urge to yawn when answers require more than one sentence. IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS is spreading and evidence is everywhere. For example, here are two statements from recent articles in the Providence Journal:

1) “What I believe to be the root cause of the problem is the lack of qualified teachers”

2) “This crisis was not caused by capitalism’s being fatally flawed. It was caused by politicians forcing banks to give out bad loans”

Education and the economy are real problems and each statement suggests a simple answer to these problems. The unfortunate truth is that these are complex problems and these simplistic solutions indicate infection with IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS.

In an Oct. 17, 2008 Wall Street Journal article John Stossel explains why we shouldn’t interfere with the free market, and he gives an example of a skating rink and how people, when left alone, manage to make their own rules and solve their own problems. “Like skaters at an ice rink, we trace our way in the economy making decisions for ourselves. It works out pretty darned well.”

Really? This simple minded example satisfies only those already infected with IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS.

Think about it for just a moment and the problems become obvious. What if faster, more powerful skaters begin racing, intimidating slower skaters and even knocking down some of the more vulnerable, such as children? What if the more entrepreneurial skaters banded together, took over the better lanes and then charged others a fee to use them?

Of course the ‘market’ might eventually correct these problems but until and unless it does, many people will be harmed. A nation is far more complex than a skating rink, yet this simple minded view seems adequate for those who are satisfied by the simplest of answers and don’t think beyond their own self interest.

Likewise, when we address our education problems, too often the suggestion is more tax money. But Rhode Island already has the 7th highest per pupil spending*, 10th highest teacher pay† but performance averages only 35th highest*. Clearly more money will not solve this problem. *(NAEP 2003 data) †(NEA 2006 data)

Susceptibility to IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS seems to increase when we stop doing the work necessary to separate facts from fiction.

Environmental factors too, can increase susceptibility; these include the passive nature of today’s news, the displacement of print news by TV and talk radio, which require little active involvement on our part; information endlessly streams across the screen or from the radio, requiring no action or thought. We are subjected to a litany of narrow minded assaults of one group against another, particularly on talk radio, which are absorbed, thoughtlessly and uncritically. Our immune systems become weaker. For instance:

“Democrats and liberals want government to provide everything for everyone, especially those lazy people on welfare. People don’t have to be responsible for themselves since the government will provide solutions for everyone. More taxes diverted from the rich to the poor will solve the problems.”

“Conservatives and Republicans are racists and don’t care about the poor, believe that the free markets always provide the best solutions and government should keep out of the way. If someone hasn’t a place to live, or medical insurance, or enough food to eat, it’s probably their own fault.”

We insist on the simplest answers to the most important of today’s issues. But as problems become more and more complex, we’ve become less and less involved and informed. In other words, our ‘immune systems’, which are designed to protect us against disease, get weaker and weaker, and we risk infection by IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS.

And when statements or comments challenge our preconceived ideas we ignore them rather than reevaluate those beliefs and prejudices. A sure sign of an IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS infection.

So we don’t question what we hear or read in the newspapers (at least those of us who read more than the sports pages and comics). We assume our [party] leaders tell the truth, and the others don’t. But no one is immune to IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS, our favorite lawmakers included.

To make matters worse, we’ve become victims of our own success. As our nation has become more and more affluent we have become ever more impatient. Delayed gratification? Never heard of it. We need that first house now, and if it takes two incomes and lots of debt, so be it. It’s the American dream isn’t it? Everyone says so.

So, not surprisingly, we find ourselves in the midst of economic problems unprecedented in modern times. Although we want answers we still get impatient, even bored if the answers are involved and more complex than a simple black or white, a yes or no, some one to blame. And what’s the government doing?

After all, our legislative process is supposed to produce the best of outcomes, laws that are best for the people. Opposing points of view, opposing ideologies, vie for support and from this process is supposed to arise the best answers for us all. But do they?

Think for a moment about the legislative process compared to a court trial.

The ultimate goal of a trial is to uncover truth. We try to do this by having opposing sides, the prosecution and defense, each presenting evidence, its interpretation of events, its opinions, to a jury. A judge insures that the evidence is presented in a fair and legal manner and that there is no undue influence of the jurors.

The jury’s job is to weigh the evidence, vote and come to a decision, a verdict. That’s our judicial system, arguably the best in the world.

Compare that to making laws. There are opposing sides, usually Republican and Democrat, who discuss, cajole, persuade, argue - similar to a trial. But there is no jury and no impartial judge. The final “verdict” depends on which side has more votes, which side makes the best deals, and which side manipulates the House and Senate rules to their best advantage. There is too little respect for other opinions and ideas.

Issues degenerate into an either/or contest. You’re either with us or against us. Pro-union or anti-union. Democratic proposal - good, or Republican proposal - bad. The minority point of view is too often ridiculed or even worse, ignored. As a result, outcomes often are not the best they can be, but rather are what’s best for a special interest group, an industry or a constituency. IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS at work.


One might say that we the people are the jury, that we render a ‘verdict’ with our votes at election time. In this state in particular, we rarely do. Too many legislators run unopposed – is it a true verdict if there is only one choice on the ballot? The single party checkbox is proof of this and should be banned from every ballot as anti-democratic.

And we, the ‘jury’, never even get to hear the evidence, the legislative discussion, if that information is even available to the average voter. One has to wonder if lawmakers themselves can adequately weigh the evidence, given the huge amount of legislation rushed through the Assembly in much too short a time at the end of the legislative session.

And by election time it’s hard to review how lawmakers voted. Elections aren’t actually the result of knowledge and thought but more the result of habit.

The best answers, the best laws, can come only after a respectful dialogue among lawmakers, an honest consideration of all views, in the open, where all of us can access the proceedings, producing a consensus that will deliver the best legislation possible.

But lawmakers aren’t the only ones to blame. As was said earlier, there is rarely one simple answer to complex problems and we have complex problems. If we want the best government, we too must be better citizens than we have been. We need to attend town council and school committee meetings. We have to become informed. We have to discuss government in our schools and especially in our homes, with our friends and family. We must vote. Anything less is unhealthy, dare I say un-American. IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS may even be fatal.

Many years ago a comic strip character, Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. Pogo was right.

An anthropologist once observed that bees and ants aren’t very smart as individuals, but as communities they are incredibly successful. We, as the most intelligent creatures on earth, often don’t do as well as insects!

Can we reinvigorate our immune systems and cure IGNORAPATHY RIGIDITIS? I think so.

1. Listen to all sides and think. The ‘other’ side just might have legitimate points that should be considered and discussed further.

2. Pay attention to what happens in the legislature. Follow the votes of your representatives. Are they the best for everyone or just for a small group? Demand transparency, better access to legislative proceedings. (http://rhodeislandvotes.org/)

3. Attend town meetings and school committee meetings. They decide the quality of life in our communities!

4. Talk about government and politics with friends and neighbors. Exposure to many ideas is good. First listen, think, discuss, only then decide. AND VOTE.

The true patriot is not the one who waves an American flag
but the one who works to make America better.

Or maybe we don’t really care very much. If that’s the case, may Heaven help us.

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