Monthly Archives: May 2010

Column input shows where readers — and I — sometimes take wrong turn

The only thing better than writing an opinion column is reading or listening to people’s feedback about it. It’s absolutely great!

And last week I received some terrific reader input on my column about the health care bill, titled “Opponents of liberal reform are definitely not my comrades.” This piece was crafted to elicit strong responses, and it proved effective in this sense. I wrote a follow-up column this week explaining my rationale; it’s titled “Don’t believe everything you’re not reading.”

Before addressing some of the comments I received, let me say that I truly appreciate everyone’s input. It’s obvious many readers didn’t agree with what I wrote last week, but I respect their viewpoints and recognize their sincerity. These people are among those with whom I’ve interacted over the years who clearly love this country and wish only the best for it.

The column was stuffed with as many politically charged buzzwords as possible as well as intricately phrased (albeit vague) statements. This tempted readers to project specific meanings into each paragraph while I actually meant something different.

These buzzwords and statements have very specific ideological connotations, but I was using them in their literal sense. There were many instances where a point I was making contradicted what people perceived me to be stating.

My purpose was to demonstrate how some people react negatively to certain words or phrases as a result of their preconceived biases. They quickly dismiss ideas and short-circuit meaningful dialogue on public policy issues because they misinterpret the entire point. I chose the health care debate because there is a great deal of misinformation about this topic.

How can we create substantial legislation if we don’t understand each other and refuse to listen? We as a society do ourselves a great disservice by periodically jumping to erroneous conclusions and closing ourselves to important ideas.

That’s what I had in mind when I wrote my column. I’ll highlight a few examples of some misunderstandings that came about — and I’ll start by describing how I fell into my own trap!

One woman called me after reading the column, and she was rather upset. She wanted to know why I would turn away potential friends simply because they didn’t agree with my position.

She was referring to my use of the word “comrade” in the title. Now, many readers understood this term as a reference to what communists call each other. I was counting on people interpreting the word this way, and for the most part it worked.

But this woman was too wise to be fooled by my linguistic sleight of hand. She knew the word meant “friend” (among other things), and she couldn’t believe I would be so closed-minded as to refuse to make friends with people who disagreed with me politically.

It never occurred to me that someone would read the title like this, but that’s what it said if you take its meaning literally. Seeing how my goal was to point out the differences in the perceived ideological meaning of my writing as opposed to its literal meaning, I failed to consider that someone would read a critical part of it literally.

And if you interpret the title literally, it comes off as very crass. How could I have missed this?

I tried to reassure this woman that I meant “comrade” more in the sense of an ally or compatriot, someone partnering with you in a significant cause. Coupling this with the previous phrase of “liberal reform” (an agenda based on the literal definition of “liberal,” which means free and unrestrained), the title was supposed to literally convey my desire to associate with others who champion the freedoms this nation provides.

It was never intended to infer that I wouldn’t make friends among those with differing opinions, but that’s what it ended up saying. The long and short of it, I was wrong for writing it this way.

Who knew the first person I’d trip up with my convoluted statements would be me? It’s good that this woman called my bluff and showed me my error. Let me state that I definitely consider her a friend and hope she understands my point, however poorly I made it.

I appreciate how hard that people like her work to make a good life for themselves and value their extraordinary contributions to our society. They are obviously very frustrated with how dismally our government is run and how much of their tax money is squandered, and I share many of their concerns. They want things to improve for themselves, their children and their fellow citizens, and their efforts should be honored by us all.

The goal of my column was to highlight the impasses we sometimes run into when trying to communicate about ideological issues and how we can avoid them. I did not wish to express any contempt for the many readers who may disagree with my viewpoints, and I apologize for inadvertently conveying such a message.

An e-mail I received from another reader points out a few of the problems people had with my column. In a previous blog posting, titled “Column on ‘liberal reform’ as American as baseball and apple pie, comrades,” I wrote an extensive analysis of the points I was making in a literal sense. So, I won’t need to rehash all those but will touch on a few brief examples of some of the misunderstandings I found in the comments people made.

Here is the text of this reader’s e-mail in its entirety:

“I struggle with Jerry Moore’s validation of our ‘right’ to health care (May 6). He says Congress can justify health care reform legislation. After all, we have ‘an established precedent of allowing welfare [spending] for the collective good.’ He is referring to Social Security and Medicare. The original intent of those programs was noble, but our government’s fiscal management has been abysmal. It has committed gross intergenerational theft. According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, our unfunded liabilities of these programs exceed $107 trillion – 7 times the size of our economy and 10 times our national debt. Left unchecked, in 20 years these programs will require 50 percent of our income taxes. With that track record, we should be justifiably outraged that our government would even suggest another massive entitlement program.

“Opposing health care reform has been met with a favorite political comeback: being classified as extremist. For example, if you don’t espouse the concept of global warming, then you just don’t care about our planet. Or as Jerry suggests, those opposing radical policies ‘want to reduce the size of government until nothing is left.’ So there is no middle ground? His statement is merely provocative. No wonder our nation is polarized politically. Conservative politics doesn’t aim to eliminate government; it craves limited government, which is so clearly outlined in our Constitution.

“More worrisome is Jerry’s hope for a ‘novel global structure’ draped with a ‘revolutionary spirit of solidarity.’ He doesn’t tell us what he means, so I’ll guess. This notion isn’t new among the liberal elite. It is a world government that would have certain authorities impacting the future of our sovereignty — think European Union, but on a global scale. Despite this naïve notion of global kumbaya, our adversaries don’t consider themselves global citizens. Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, to name a few, would like nothing better than to see a weaker U.S., our strength sapped by the empowerment of other countries participating in decisions about our best interests and our survival.

“If this is liberal reform, I want none of it.”

This reader makes many valid points, and I understand why he is less than enthusiastic for universal health care. But he jumped to some conclusions here, and this is how people become sidetracked on contentious issues.

My comment on “an established precedent of allowing welfare spending for the collective good” was actually a reference to the first paragraph of Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which authorizes Congress to collect taxes to provide for the “general welfare” of the nation. It’s not that universal health care is necessarily ideal, but there’s a plausible case to be made that it’s constitutional.

The e-mail then claims I declared that “those opposing radical policies ‘want to reduce the size of government until nothing is left.'” I didn’t write about those opposing “radical policies”; I wrote, “opponents to such radical rule-making want to reduce the size of government until nothing is left.”

As I pointed out in my previous blog post, this “radical rule-making” is our system of representative democracy whose rivals favor fascist governments. The desire to turn every state “red” is a reference to communists; their goal is definitely to create a stateless, classless society with no centralized authority.

The reader states that a latter portion of my column is vague and he’s not sure what I means, and then he says, “so I’ll guess.” Here is the crux of the problem with how some people approach public policy issues.

They realize they don’t fully understand some concept, but rather than admitting this they jump to a conclusion — and sometimes they’re wrong. If people aren’t sure of the meaning of some point, they should ask to have the idea clarified. Don’t presume to know the answer and devise conclusions based on potentially false information.

Ultimately, I’m not arguing against anyone’s political ideology. It’s the process we use to form these views that has me concerned, because sometimes we take a wrong turn and oppose concepts that aren’t quite what we think they are.

I’m no exception to this, as I demonstrated earlier. We’re all human and just as likely to make mistakes.

My point is that we need to commit ourselves to ensuring we understand each other’s positions on issues, and this often means we have to admit something eludes our grasp. It makes no sense to object to ideas if we’re not certain what they are, or we’re certain what they are and we’re still wrong. We thwart productive communication with other Americans when we do this, and I’m living proof of how easy it is to lead ourselves astray.

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Column on ‘liberal reform’ as American as baseball and apple pie, comrades

Seeing what these terms truly convey, what freedom-loving patriot wouldn’t favor a liberal agenda for our progressive society?

A column I wrote last week had the attention-grabbing headline of “Opponents of liberal reform are definitely not my comrades.” It made ample use of politically charged buzzwords and intricate phrasings to make a point about the recently passed health care reform legislation.

My goal was to highlight how easily some people project particular meanings into certain words and concepts that aren’t necessarily there. As I explained in my column for this week (titled “Don’t believe everything you’re not reading”), people often make gross generalizations about some ideas and quickly dismiss them as politically suspect.

In doing so, they could well misrepresent the legitimate meaning of whatever they’ve read and miss the whole point. They then close themselves off to ideas that need to be debated if we are to devise practical public policies.

It irks me that many words take on meanings that don’t hold true to their original definitions. This diminishes the richness of the English language and leads us to converse solely for the purpose of expressing ideological supremacy rather than literal truth.

I realize that some words take on alternative meanings as they become part of the jargon of particular industries. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as those engaging in the dialogue have a mutual understanding of how this jargon is constructed.

But we should avoid using a purely political jargon for everyday conversation about important social issues. This tends to circumvent reasoned discussions about legislative matters that could provide benefits. While it’s tempting to see every exchange as a way to gain a political advantage, at some point we must put aside factional objectives and focus on what’s best for all of us.

In dissecting my column of last week, the headline I used really set the tone. But if we examine the literal definitions of the words I used, a different picture emerges from what many readers perceived what I was saying.

The word “liberal” means free, unrestrained, not limited. It comes from the root word liberalis, from which we get terms like liberty, liberate and libertine. However, “liberal” is commonly used to describe the collectivism associated with left-wing politics. It’s clear this differs sharply from its genuine definition.

“Comrade” means colleague, ally, compatriot. It’s often used by communists as a term of alliance with one another, but “comrade” is not necessarily a political term. I knew, though, that throwing it into the headline would have many readers scratching their heads.

The first couple of paragraphs of my column describe how local members of the U.S. House of Representatives responded to a question I asked them all, “Is health care a right?” I highlighted how each of them replied as well as how they voted on the health care reform legislation in March.

From this point on, my column kicks into high gear. It’s been intriguing to read how some people have responded to what I wrote.

If parts of my column seem overly vague, that was by design. Readers often project ideas into my writing when (from my perspective) it’s obvious that wasn’t at all what I was saying.

“Contrary to what’s being said by opponents, Congress can justify approving this plan [the health care bill]. Our nation has an established precedent of allowing welfare spending for the collective good.”

This paragraph gives a good example of my point. Many people have stated that universal health care is unconstitutional, so how could Congress possibly justify such a plan?

The fact is that the first paragraph of Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution states: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”

The “provide” for the “general welfare” phrasing opens the door to a variety of spending priorities. I’m not suggesting that each item pursued under this clause is money well spent, but legislators can make an argument that it’s at least constitutional.

Few phrases get people as riled up as does “welfare spending.” It conjures images of legislators wastefully throwing untold amounts of money at items that are best left to the private sector.

But remember that “welfare” doesn’t necessarily refer to things like subsidized housing and food stamps. Webster’s New World College Dictionary (Fourth Edition) defines it this way: “the state of being or doing well; condition of health, happiness and comfort; well-being; prosperity.”

So, anything that impacts the well-being, comfort or happiness of Americans can reasonably be categorized as “welfare.” This is another incredibly broad term open to interpretation.

“Some political theorists believe the government should take resources from taxpayers, based on their ability to contribute, and use them on those who demonstrate a need. This is even exemplified in the Bible. A nation that promotes human dignity, safeguards civil rights and rejects social injustice will create productive citizens.”

The first sentence in this paragraph refers to how the framers of the Constitution (“Some political theorists”) authorized the levying and collection of taxes for various purposes. Some readers interpreted this as mirroring the Marxist phrase, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” but this sentence actually describes the process of taxation, which is permitted in the Constitution.

Taxes need two things: a giver and a receiver. Taxes are levied against people or organizations that earn wages and generate income, thus they need to be taken from “taxpayers, based on their ability to contribute.”

The reason taxes are collected is because there is a stated reason for them, hence they are used “on those who demonstrate a need.” Some readers took this to mean I was advocating a “transfer of wealth,” but this isn’t the case.

Taxpayers are people who earn wages, and many of them must drive their cars to get to their jobs. But how can they drive their cars to work if there are no roads?

Here we have a need for taxpayers to drive to their jobs, and some of them may use federal highways for at least part of their daily commute. Therefore, they pay taxes to the government so it can create and maintain roads that enable them to get to their jobs and earn the money from which they pay taxes.

Here we see that those who contribute revenue in the form of taxes are the same people who demonstrate a need for these taxes. Their wealth isn’t transferred to someone else; it’s reallocated for alternate uses. In the broad sense, this can be called “welfare spending.”

The portion of this paragraph that mentions the Bible (yes, also intentionally ambiguous) refers to Genesis 41, the story of how Joseph was put in charge of everything in Egypt. The pharaoh commanded that everyone in Egypt give 20 percent of what they produced during the seven years of prosperity so they’ll have food to eat during the seven years of famine, and Joseph oversaw the entire operation.

Tradition holds that God actually pulled the strings so Joseph would be in a position to assist the pharaoh through this crisis. Contrary to what I’ve previously heard from some readers, the Bible definitely includes a story of God orchestrating a government mandated “taxation” on “wealth” to help those in need.

And given that the famine would fall hardest on the poor (like Joseph’s immediate family, as demonstrated when his brothers came to Egypt seeking food), it was vital that the government use its authority in this way to save lives. (Another interesting biblical teaching on respecting government authority can be found in Romans 13:1-6; check it out!)

Promoting human dignity, safeguarding civil rights and rejecting social injustice are all valid goals worthy of a constitutional republic such as we have in the United States. However, some readers will come across those phrases and dismiss them as being too “socialist.” But in the literal sense, this is exactly what our nation was founded upon — like it or not.

“And, frankly, it doesn’t hurt that many legal decisions rest in the hands of a select group of elites. This makes passing something like a health care bill possible.”

I knew this phrasing would arouse the suspicions of many readers, and they didn’t let me down. But, of course, I’m referring to how a representative democracy is made up.

What else would you call members of the U.S. Senate but a “select group of elites”? And, in fact, electing legislators to make decisions on our behalf is precisely how public policies become law. I’m not saying that all of them (or most of them, for that matter) are good, but it’s the process we have.

“But opponents to such radical rule-making want to reduce the size of government until nothing is left. Can a self-sustaining culture really be achieved with no centralized authority? Wow, talk about turning every state red.”

The “radical rule-making” refers to our system of governance (certainly, a nonmonarchial representative democracy was the most radical form of political rule when it was initiated by our founders), and who is opposed to representative democracies? Fascists, and many of them have placed good portions of the world under “red” tyranny (see Jonah Goldberg’s book “Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning” — although I should point out that based on their literal definitions, “liberal” and “fascism” are contradictory terms).

Yes, folks, the “reds” I’m talking about are communists. They have historically been the biggest opponents to our style of governance. And it’s the very goal of socialism to create a stateless, classless world (“no centralized authority,” i.e., reducing “the size of government until nothing is left”) through which pure communism will become reality.

“If the government must protect our freedom of expression and defend us from foreign threats, why shouldn’t it subsidize our medical needs? There’s a case to be made that we have a right to health care, but many people stubbornly refuse to acknowledge it.”

My point here is that the government has already taken on the role of our protector when it comes to threats to our civil liberties and to our security. Is it a stretch, then, to believe the government should also help preserve our health and, hence, our lives when necessary?

My question about why shouldn’t the government do this is a call for a response in rebuttal. I’m sure there are good arguments why this isn’t an appropriate function of the government, so I’d like to hear some. That’s all.

There is, however, a plausible case to be made that this is proper and that health care is a right, based on the reasoning I’ve used in explaining my train of thought in this column. And then beginning in the next paragraph, I start my argument that many people are predisposed to quickly dismiss such notions without giving them due consideration based on how they (perhaps wrongly) interpret these ideas.

“They won’t abandon their preconceived biases about how a progressive agenda will bring about a revolutionary spirit of solidarity, perhaps sparking a novel global structure. Seeing only what they want to see, they’ll miss the forest for the trees.”

“Progressive” means to advance forward, as opposed to going backward by being “regressive.” It’s hard to argue against moving a society forward. Who wants to live in the past?

The bit about a “revolutionary spirit of solidarity, perhaps sparking a novel global structure” set off a few alarms for some readers, and understandably so. But think about this in light of the argument I’ve been making all along.

As I’ve stated, a self-governing society was revolutionary when our founders created our nation — they engaged in a revolution to ensure its survival. And Americans have long sought to unite with other people around the world who cherish liberty.

The “novel global structure” statement was another way of saying “new world order,” and it was meant in the manner intended by former President George H.W. Bush when he spoke of spreading freedom and democracy in other countries. His son, former President George W. Bush, initiated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to just this — actions vigorously defended to this day by many Americans.

My statement that people will “miss the forest for the trees” was a reference to how many are misinformed about legitimate arguments in favor is health care reform as well as a prediction that some readers will completely miss the point of my column. And based on some of the comments people have left, this has certainly been the case.

You see? My column is as patriotically American as baseball, Mom and apple pie. Neither Commandant Thomas Jefferson nor Czar Benjamin Franklin could have written a more stirring piece of propaganda, if I say so myself (here are a few more words for you to look up before jumping to any conclusions).

So, raise the flag proudly and pass the borscht!

To see how I respond to some of the feedback readers left about my column, take a look at my other blog post on this issue, titled “Column input shows where readers — and I — sometimes take wrong turn.” Enjoy.

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Local members of Congress respond to ‘health care right’ question

To prepare for a column I wrote this week, I asked our local members of the U.S. House of Representatives to respond to the question, “Do Americans have a right to heath care?” They each replied shortly after the health care legislation passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama several weeks ago. Here is how each of them answered:

U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-13th District, of Hinsdale, who voted against the health care bill —

“Health care is not a Constitutional right. But as a policymaker, I am committed to ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable, high-quality health care options.”

* * *

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-14th District, of Geneva, who voted for the health care bill —

“Yes.”

* * *

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-3rd District, of Western Springs, who voted against the health care bill —

“The question of whether Americans have a ‘right to health care’ is open to many interpretations. Usually when we discuss whether an individual has a ‘right’ to something we are asking whether or not there is or should be any law that prevents that person from exercising that right. Most rights, such as free speech, do not have a cost. But when speaking of health care in this context, it is important to keep in mind what is otherwise obvious: that health care not only has a cost, but that its cost is rising rapidly. The debate over the recent health care bill was not about whether there is a ‘right to health care,’ but rather how much health care should be provided by the government for certain individuals. Currently, we have Medicaid for low-income individuals. In addition, hospital emergency rooms are largely required by law to treat people with emergency medical conditions regardless of their ability to pay, and the government provides special funding to hospitals that treat significant populations of low-income patients through Disproportionate Share Hospital payments.

“I believe we can all agree that in seeking to expand access to affordable health care, we must take care to act in a fiscally responsible manner, since any government support must come from raising taxes or cutting payments in other programs. The bill that just passed both raises taxes and takes money from Medicare and Social Security in order to provide new health care subsidies for some individuals. The most important action to take to help every American access affordable health care, as well as to lower government spending, is to reduce the skyrocketing cost of health care. Unfortunately, the bill just passed does little to control skyrocketing costs. Left to grow unchecked, health care costs will become a crushing financial burden on our country, and crowd out other vital services and expenditures that protect us from harm, enhance our quality of life, and may in fact reduce our need for medical treatment.”

* * *

U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, R-6th District, of Wheaton, who voted against the health care bill —

“I believe that access to health care is a right for all Americans, and the best way to ensure the availability of high-quality care is to enact meaningful reforms to bring down the skyrocketing cost of health services.”

* * *

I appreciate the time all of them offered to address my question.

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