I don’t know anything

I spent a not insignificant part of my formative years in Michigan cowering in a school basement, or under a desk, curled up in a fetal position and waiting patiently for disaster to be visited all about me. But not upon me.

We were being trained how best to survive a nuclear disaster. Or a tornado. Duck and cover. It was drilled into us on a regular basis. Signs on walls and ads on television made sure I knew what to do when the end of the world was near. We all knew what to do.

When I moved to California, I brought my knowledge of how the world worked with me to earthquake country. My wife and I taught it to our daughter, and put it to good use when the 1994 Northridge earthquake jolted us from our beds and sent us scurrying to the doorjamb in the kitchen. We cowered beneath it as the walls shook and the floor rocked, secure in the knowledge that we were taking all the proper precautions under difficult circumstances.

But just the other day, I received an e-mail from a friend who forwarded me an article from “rescue expert” Doug Copp, who had crawled through 875 collapsed buildings, worked at a high level for the UN and was a member of the world’s most experienced rescue team. He categorically refuted everything I ever knew about surviving the Big One.

He called his method The Triangle of Life.

Falling buildings crush big things and everything under them. Don’t get under things. Lie next to them. Don’t go to the center of a building. Cuddle up to a wall. Don’t curl up under a doorjamb. It will skewer you to death. The only safe place was in the space next to objects, beneath the triangle of wreckage. About all the two approaches agreed on was that when disaster struck, it was OK to assume the fetal position and regress back to the womb.

Copp shot a video of a staged disaster that validated all his natural experience.

Once again, the conventional wisdom had proven to be the wishful thinking of people who felt the desperate need for safe, concrete solutions in a world of deadly uncertainty. Like the efficacy of vaccines, the insights of Keynesian economics and the lasting value of a good smoke, yet another unshakable truth was replaced in short order by its diametric opposite.

If only they knew this in Haiti, how many lives might have been saved, I wondered.

But I didn’t wonder for long. Another friend e-mailed that their father, an aerospace engineer, was skeptical of this most unconventional wisdom. He detailed a number of specific objections to Mr. Copp’s article and linked to a U.S. Geological Survey website that linked to, uh, this.

And just like that, I had yet another new contradictory set of facts.

In a world of diminishing returns and growing uncertainty, it’s good to know that the unceasing flow of information, streamed at us our entire waking lives, will continue to provide an unending supply of simple truths.

They’re cheap. Help yourself.

Talk the talk

After watching President Obama go head-to-head with Republicans at their annual retreat in Baltimore, and dominating every aspect of the conversation, I am once again intrigued by the possibility of real dialogue about issues on a national stage.

Anyone who has seen the British prime minister debate his rivals on the floor of Parliament knows that there is much to be gained from a legitimate exchange of information and ideas. Unfortunately, in this country, the closest we come to that are staged debates, so formal in their structure, that any meaningful exchange is smothered at the outset.

And the substitute dialogue, hammered out hourly by surrogate talking heads on the cable news networks, only serves to emphasize our paucity of legitimate public forums.

So it’s no surprise to find that only a third of Americans know what the health care public option is, 39% believe in evolution, nearly half think the President can suspend the Constitution and a majority still think there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when we invaded the second time. Let’s hope that the 50% of Americans who believe we are protected by Guardian Angels are right. Someone has to take care of us.

I would like to see President Obama issue a challenge to the loyal opposition to debate him, one on one, every week for an hour on C-SPAN. Two people sitting across a table having a spirited discussion of whatever issues come to mind. Participants would venture into the seamy world of wedge issues and demagoguery at their own peril. It would be a fine replacement for the weekly presidential radio address and maybe make it up to the TV network for jobbing them on Obama’s pledge to televise the final stages of health care negotiations.

Update: How delightful. Not only did Obama arrange to have televised the final stages of health care negotiations, he sat down one-on-one with the loyal opposition and debated a range of issues.

Something new

I’ve had an interesting past year. How about you?

I didn’t used to notice years being particularly interesting, though I often felt interesting things were  happening in my life and the world around me.

Empires would rise and fall. But there always seemed  to be some continuity in the sweep of my personal history. No one year being all that more significant than another. No one event defining an era.

Though I have grown up in interesting political times, I have never quite felt the pendulum of history swinging between left and right in this country. Watching a culture of Kennedy/FDR worship morph into the veneration of Ronald Reagan always seemed less an ideological gyration than an incremental victory for money and marketing.

People still seemed to have a sense of shared responsibility, a sense of community  and the knowledge that we’re all in this together.  Even if Tea Baggers, in a bizarre spasm of corporate doublespeak,  wanted government to keep its hands off their Medicare, they recognized the underlying virtue of the government program.

There was still hope that facts, with their distinctive progressive bias, might still somehow inform our world.

But I had little doubt where politics, awash in money in a modern world, was headed. The die was cast in 1975 when the Supreme Court, building on a historically obscure, though monumental, screw-up, equated spending money with free speech.  It was just a question of time before the intended consequence of that decision would be realized.

And now it has.

On Jan. 20, the Supreme Court may have made its most significant decision since  establishing itself as a co-equal branch of government alongside its executive and legislative brethren 200 years ago in Marbury vs. Madison.  This time, the justices brought in a new, senior partner, corporations, and proclaimed them free to spend as much shareholder money as they want to influence and elect politicians.

It’s only 22 days old and the new year has already piqued my interest.

Addendum: A dissent from the left.