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Author: Maya Bohnhoff

... is a professional writer, editor, recording / performing artist, and Baha'i. She lives in San Jose, CA.
Conspiracy Theories, Writing and Logic 103

Conspiracy Theories, Writing and Logic 103

Guest Blogger

In editing a piece of promotional work for someone one morning, I was reminded again of the many similarities between writers, who tell fantastic stories for a living and have no intention that they be taken as fact, and conspiracy theorists, who tell fantastic stories for a variety of reasons with every intention that they be taken as fact.

In Truther circles, as in plotting a story, the narratives often become increasingly elaborate as they expand. Take Jade Helm, for example, or the Birther Movement, or Sandy Hook, or 9/11 or any one of a number of conspiracy theories that have grown up over the course of the last decade. These theories often become increasingly byzantine as the conspiracists seek to answer the inevitable logistical and logical questions that their theories evoke.

For example, with regard to Jade Helm (which is either a mundane and regularly held military exercise or a plot to take over Texas) one might ask the following:

Where will the US military put the Texans they so fear while taking over that sovereign nation . . . er, embattled territory . . . uh, I mean, federated state?

Well, there are several empty Wal-Marts in various locations in various cities in Texas. That’s where the enemies of the Federal Government will be taken.

But how shall they be gotten to and from these centers without anyone noticing?

Ah, there are underground tunnels that connect the empty Wal-Marts to train yards or other points of dispersal.

Dispersal to where? Where would an incursion of prisoners not be noticed?

Obviously, to FEMA camps set up in unpopulated areas of the country so isolated that no one knows they’re there.

This line of questioning could go on for some time, but I’ll stop there.

battleshipAs I suggested in the previous post in this loose series, a question that is seldom asked (or, if asked, is treated superficially as if it, too, was a matter of simple logistics) is WHY? Why does the US military wish to forcibly “take over” one of the states that is already part of our Union?

Answer: Because the Feds want them to do it.

But this only leads to yet another WHY: why does the Federal government want to capture rank and file Texans?

Answer: Because the POTUS wants it to.

As you can see, we’re no closer to the Big WHY. WHY does the POTUS want to militarily take over a state that is already part of the Union of which he is the presiding executive, and imprison random Texans (at great expense)?

Answer: I’ve heard it’s because he hates America (why?) or that he wants ISIS (or the Chinese) to take over the country (why?) or because we suspect he’s a Muslim (why?) or because . . . Well, you get the drift.

At this point, “just coz” simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in the real world in any real sense. It doesn’t even work in fiction. In fiction, far more than in real life, we expect coherent patterns to emerge and coincidence to be a non-factor. Above all, we expect to be able to understand the motives and rationales of the characters, else we cannot follow their story lines, much less empathize with them. There must be an actual motive that merits the scale of the events the writer proposes occurred.

diffuse-an-argument-800x800The trick to writing readable stories in just about any genre is to make the characters’ logic accessible to the reader even if that logic is flawed, based on false premises, ethically and morally bankrupt, or completely alien. A character’s motives—their Big WHYs—must make sense to readers on some level or readers will be unable to suspend their disbelief or follow the narrative. Their reaction may be much like my reaction to conspiracist logic: “Wha—? You’ve got to be . . . LOL. . . . Wait a minute. Seriously? OMG, I can’t even . . . Oy. Headache.”

A phrase that’s been floating around the blogosphere for awhile is “word salad”, which is the verbal outcome of thought salad. An article I read a while back referred to this verbal incoherence as a “sentence-like string of words”. It also described trying to extract real meaning or logic from these strings of words as “a category error”—as in, you are attempting to understand logically something that is not logical, but is merely a logic-like string of thoughts. The author likened it to attempting to polish a duck.

I believe writers of fiction and non-fiction (journalists, pundits, statesmen) owe their readers more than something that only seems like a logical thought because it’s set in what looks like a real sentence describing a real Thing.

Perhaps there are writers clever enough that they can get away with murder (literary murder, at any rate) because their sentence-like strings of words sound enough like the real deal to dazzle readers into thinking they have experienced a coherent idea, felt a particular emotion, or discovered a truth.

salad_platterSome polemicists, for example, make such good use of evocative phrases and emotionally charged words that they give the perception that they’ve said something factual, when no facts have changed hands. Some politicians are especially adept at stringing together evocative words that, if confronted with those words later on can—in all honesty—say, “No, I didn’t say that.” And, by golly, a careful reading of what they wrote or said reveals that they didn’t actually say what people thought they said. This form of plausible deniability allows every reader or listener to take away from the sentence-like string of words whatever they wish.

I’d like my stories—whether fictional or fact-based—to contain real sentences that grow out of coherent thoughts. I’d like to give my readers the real Thing, not a semblance of that Thing, even at my most ambiguous. And that’s why when I begin to turn ideas into stories, I ask myself WHY; why would my character do this, say this, feel this?

If the answer is “just coz” I’d like them to, I’m not doing my job.

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Conspiracy Theories, Writing & Logic 102

Conspiracy Theories, Writing & Logic 102

QuestionI commented in an earlier post that I have observed similar thought patterns and behaviors in some inexperienced writers and conspiracy theorists (or truthers, as they are often called).

In my first article on the subject, I explored some of the common elements in the narratives spun by truthers—specifically Sandy Hook truthers—and inexperienced writers I’ve worked with over the years in different contexts.

Some of those elements include:

  • The importance of time. For example, that video cannot be taken of an event before reporters or even people with cell phones have had time to reach the scene.
  • The continued existence of persons or characters involved in the narrative and their pre-existence before the narrative.
  • The interconnectedness of those persons or characters with other persons or characters.
    The marks that people leave where they live, work, go to school, shop, etc. In other words, paper trails and back story.

My interest in conspiracy theories as fiction narratives was piqued again more recently when an online colleague, Chris Hernandez, posted a couple of articles on the recent dust up over Jade Helm 15. Jade Helm 15, for those who may not have heard of it, was one in a series of war games that our military conducts in the US to prepare our soldiers for battle. It has precipitated a number of conspiracy theories about The Government’s real intent in holding these joint military exercises.

For me, the discussion crystallized a common element in both intentionally fictional narratives and conspiracy theories: the absence of a motive.

I became engaged in the online comment stream on Chris’ blog with those who insist that The Government has intent to (choose one or more of the following):

  1. Invade Texas and declare martial law.
  2. Send certain citizens or all citizens of Texas to FEMA camps via secret tunnels beneath defunct Wal-Marts. (There’s also a conspiracy theory about those camps being equipped with thousands of guillotines purchased from France, but that’s a different bouilloire de poisson.)
  3. Allow China to invade Texas.
  4. Allow ISIS to invade Texas.
  5. Make a show of force at the border to warn the ISIS terrorists in Mexico to stay the heck out of Texas (which, you’d think, would be a good thing).

Be it noted that Texas is only one of nine states that will host these exercises on private property.

It is an interesting facet of conspiracy theories that no two truthers agree entirely on the exact nature of the conspiracy and some may differ widely on what the reality is, hence the conflicting ideas above. Among Sandy Hook conspiracists there are groups who spend much of their time and effort in debunking each other; whether that will also happen with Jade Helm conspiracists remains to be seen. But, regardless of which of these scenarios a truther believes or a writer posits, there is an important question that must be answered in order for the scenario to make sense to others.

Many questionsIn a word: WHY?

I’d argue that this is more important in achieving buy-in in intentional fiction than it is in conspiracy theories because most readers demand a certain amount of veracity in the plot and character details or a narrative before they will suspend disbelief. Perhaps this is because conspiracy theories are free, but one must usually pay for a book. (Please, Dear Reader, pay for my books!)

Author Anna Quindlen has said that, in writing fiction, “Reality is in the dishes.” What she means by this is that a reader will cheerfully believe in unicorns or dragons or sentient geckos if a writer makes the human details realistic and believable or if, in the context of the fictional world, the writer can show that it makes sense for there to be unicorns or dragons or sentient geckos.

This is the standard I apply when I play Jedi Master to less experienced writers, and it causes me to ask, as I read a writer’s work, “Why? Why would X character do this? Why would this group function this way?” In other words, what is their intent or purpose?

In the case of both conspiracy theorists and some writers, that question draws a blank stare accompanied by the dulcet tones of crickets singing in the grasses. In one instance I recall vividly from a writers’ workshop years ago, I asked an aspiring fantasist why his character did something that was both out of character (as revealed in the story) and against the apparent magical rules of the fictional world. He looked at me with a completely perplexed expression and said, “This is fantasy. There are no rules. That’s why I chose to write in this genre—I can just make stuff up as I go along.” (Yes, you can hear eyes rolling if four people do it simultaneously.)

Similarly, conspiracists ignore the basic reality that in order for a person or organization to undertake a tremendously expensive and time- and energy-consuming exercise that requires exhaustive planning, they will have a pretty solid reason for doing so—at least a reason that makes sense to them and offers sufficient payoff to compensate for the expenditure of resources and energies.

jessica-rabbitI find that this inability to answer the basic question “Why?” is most prevalent in both writing and conspiracies when it comes to assigning rationales for the “bad guy”. The old school comic book or fairy tale villain was just evil ‘coz he was evil. Like Jessica Rabbit (Who Killed Roger Rabbit?) he or she was “just drawn that way” because the writer said so.

In modern fiction, most readers want and even demand more than “just ‘coz” from an antagonist. They want characters that are nuanced, realistic, relatable. They want to be able to understand the motivations of the villain, even if they do not relate to them. They want the characters they read about to seem like real people with real motives.

I have come to realize that we are more demanding of the fiction we read than we are of the allegedly factual accounts we consume in the daily news.

The payoff aspect of the Big Why inherently raises issues of scale. Some of the most trying moments I’ve experienced as a ghostwriter and editor are ones in which I have been unable to make a client understand that a reader will not suspend disbelief if their characters are acting out of scale. That is, blowing up the FedEx truck that’s blocking your driveway instead of simply asking the driver to move their truck.

I’ve experienced a similar level of frustration when trying to get a conspiracist to understand the importance of a rational reason an individual or group would do something huge and heinous when there were simpler, legal, more straightforward ways of accomplishing the same thing … or the huge and heinous thing was completely unnecessary because the desired situation already existed. For example, that taking over Texas is unnecessary because Texas is already part of the United States, having been annexed in 1845—an event that set off the Mexican-American war. As Chris Hernandez put it, “All your Texas are belong to US.”

Essays & Articles

Personally, I think that everyone, especially writers of fiction, could benefit from at least a cursory study of conspiracy theories and conspiracist arguments. Having asked numerous questions about logical connections (most of which go unanswered) I’ve become hyper-aware of those connections in my own stories and, more profoundly, in my own real world thinking.

There is one way in which the naive writer and the conspiracist differ. When a writer neglects to answer questions about the logical connections in her fiction, it may affect her ability to publish or, having published, to satisfy readers. The most dire impact is on the writer, herself. When conspiracy theorists and those who buy into their theories fail to ask those questions, the consequences can be far-reaching and destructive to society as a whole.

Here, I invoke Anna Quindlen again.

“Ignorant free speech often works against the speaker. That is one of several reasons why it must be given rein instead of suppressed.”


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Conspiracy Theories, Writing & Logic 101

Conspiracy Theories, Writing & Logic 101

the thinkerI have recently participated in ongoing conversations online with Sandy Hook truthers. After listening to the litany of “reasons” that they have for suspecting a hoax or conspiracy of some sort (what sort varies), and hearing their questions, and reading some of their source material, a pattern began to emerge.

They seemed to have little awareness of a number of things that, as a writer, I must take into account in every story I write and every plot I conceive.

These include such things as:

  • The passage of time. Some of the truther suspicions centered around the lack of news footage showing events that took place during and immediately after the school shootings. There is no visual record of the escape of the children at the school, therefore that escape never happened and/or those children never existed.
  • That the people in the scene exist beyond the camera eye. There is a sense that the people depicted in the story freeze in place or disappear from reality when the camera is not trained on them. They exist only to populate the places where they can be seen. Otherwise they are in a sort of stasis and do not interact with others, which leads to…
  • The connections between people—the interconnectedness of everyday lives that goes far beyond where the people on camera physically touch. To the truther, those individuals who were direct actors in the events of the day are the only ones worthy of consideration—and of course, whatever Machiavellian Puppet Master is pulling their strings and writing their lines of dialogue. They are disconnected from family, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, people with whom they share vocations, avocations or hobbies. In the mind of the truther, their outside connections do not exist. They are creatures of the plot.
  • That everyone leaves some sort of “paper trail”—or a electron trail, at least. Everyone has a back-story that includes mortgages, jobs, cars, subscriptions to magazines, Facebook pages. They must eat, clothe themselves and purchase other necessities. They have lives that go back in time. If they were part of a conspiracy, that paper trail would also exist, logically, between the individuals and the Master of the conspiracy.

It was as if every citizen of Newtown who was directly connected to the school shooting in some way, came into being when they walked “on stage” and froze or disappeared when they walked off again into the invisible wings. Between them and those whose lives were touched indirectly, there was an impermeable wall. The rest of Newtown existed in a stasis field.

I found this all strangely familiar. It is the same set of logical and logistical issues that I’ve found myself going over with writers I’ve mentored. An odd coincidence? Not really. Both the writer and the truther are attempting to lay out a narrative that seems convincing to their audience and is internally consistent.

Kilroy 062909Therein lies the similarity and the problem: some plotlines will only remain internally consistent if time, the continued existence of the characters, their interconnectedness, and back story are ignored.

There, the similarity ends. I have some new insights into what motivates truthers that may be beyond the purview of this blog. But with writers, I think inexperience and tunnel vision (Okay, and possibly laziness) may be to blame for stories that fail to ring true or which raise too many unanswerable questions. These are generally solvable for writers. For truthers, not so much.

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Health 101: Myth and Bloated Bureaucracies

Health 101: Myth and Bloated Bureaucracies

MD000613Myth #3: other country’s universal healthcare systems require bloated bureaucracies. 

This first of two related myths, as summed up by TR Reid, has it that the universal healthcare systems of other wealthy countries are run by bloated bureaucracies.

This is simply not true.

Every other system Reid cited is less wasteful than ours. This is true whether they are public or private systems. Our for-profit setup has the highest administrative costs in the world.

This is a major reason we spend more on healthcare and get less in return. Our insurance companies spend roughly 20 cents on the dollar (that is, 20% of every dollar they spend) for the non-medical, administrative costs required for a profit-making venture: paperwork, reviewing claims, rescission, marketing, etc.

In comparison, France, with its private, non-profit system, spends about 5% to cover every resident of France; Canada spends about 6%; Taiwan—which broke in its brand new system in 1995—spends only 2%.

Reid refers to Japan as the “world champion” of cost control. This, despite the fact that Japan’s population is aging. They have better health outcomes, as well, and have the longest-lived and healthiest population in the world, though they are spending half as much per capita as we are.

One of the chief reasons these systems are so efficient has to do with the very fact that they DO cover everyone—in most cases, even visitors to the country. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  1. There is a vast pool of healthy people who—through taxes or premiums—pay into the system.
  2. There’s no need for a claims adjustment staff who are charged with finding reasons to not pay claims (this means doctors don’t require people in their offices to handle claims either, by the way, which brings their costs down).
  3. There’s no need to spend millions for marketing and other profit-making schemes.
  4. There’s no need for a rescission department charged with finding reasons to cut people from the rolls … just when they need the coverage the most.

Actually, this ties into another myth:

empty pocketsMyth #4: if insurance companies covered everyone they’d go broke. 

They have to be cruel to stay in business, they say. If that’s the case, then why do the systems that cover everyone continue to exist? Because everyone is covered, as I mentioned. There are young and healthy people paying in to balance the older, sicker people. Then when those people are no longer young and healthy, they’re covered, in part, by the next generation of young and healthies coming along behind. It’s sort of “paying forward” … or maybe it’s paying backward. The point is that at some point, everyone will benefit from the system, so everyone pays in.

To balance this, in the other developed countries, if a doctor okays a procedure, it’s covered. Period. The costs are known, the claim is submitted, the sick fund or government agency or insurance company cuts a check. The doctors are paid within strict time limits. Coverage can’t be canceled or refused for any reason except non-payment of premiums in systems that use that method.

These plans don’t go broke; some, such as Switzerland’s fairly new privatized universal system, are doing very well indeed. Even if the government has to put more money in or raise premiums, they’ve still got massive amounts of headroom before they’d even be in the ballpark of what we’re spending.

Hey, today was a two-fer!

TR Reid’s next myth is that these plans are too “foreign” to work in our unique country. More later.

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Health 101: Myth and Waiting

Health 101: Myth and Waiting

Our Spiritual Homeland

Here’s the big scary idea: Care in countries with universal health coverage is rationed with waiting lists and limited choice.

Yes, this is a real problem in some countries … including the US. I’ve had to wait for appointments simply because I couldn’t afford the out of pocket expenses or the copay. I’ve considered not renewing a prescription for a medicine I need because of our financial situation at the time. (That’s not rationing?)

True, patients in Britain and Canada may have to wait weeks or months for non-emergency care or elective surgeries. BUT, rationing is far from universal. In many other “developed” countries, folks get quicker access to care than we do in the States. Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden and Japan all do better than we do on both waits to see specialists and waits for elective surgery. And, as TR Reid found out, in Japan you can literally just walk into a doctor’s office without an appointment. (I’ve found one clinic here in SJ where you can do that and it’s always swamped.)

As to choice—Germans get over 200 private health insurance plans to choose from, which is a broader choice than many Americans have, even after the ACA went into effect. Plus, if they don’t like their plan, they can change it at any time without increasing their premiums.

epocheaufklaerungOh, and there’s no such thing as an “out of network” doctor. Right after I had brain surgery (yeah, yeah, I heard that mumbled, “Well that explains everything!”) my company moved to a new insurer. I was informed I’d have to do my follow-up exams with another neurophysician. My GP hit the ceiling and wrote the insurer insisting that I be able to see the doctor who’d done the surgery. I was blessed with a fierce GP. Not everyone has that.

Then there’s pre-authorization: having to make an appointment with, pay for and wait for an office visit with a GP in order to see a specialist. This saves money? Really? It sure doesn’t save time, and if time is money—well, there you have it. My German friends don’t have to do this. They just go to whatever doctor they think they need to see. My Canadian friends only have one choice for coverage, but they, too, can see any doctor they need because all doctors, hospitals and clinics are in-network. Some plans in other countries even pay for spas and health club memberships.

So, there it is. The fear of rationing and limited choice presupposes that we Americans aren’t smart enough to devise a plan that doesn’t have rationing or pre-authorizations. I’m pretty sure we are smart enough. If not, we can always hire a battalion of Japanese or Euro experts to help.

Oh, and lest I forget—here’s a statistic: 625 people lost their healthcare coverage in 2009 … every hour. This is not an economic problem, folks. It is a moral one.

“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ …whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” — Jesus Christ, Matthew 25:40,45

But what about the bloated bureaucracies that are inherent in universal healthcare systems, you may ask. That certainly seems worth a look…

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Health 101: Myth and Socialized Medicine

Health 101: Myth and Socialized Medicine

image_of_godI’d like to talk about mythology. Not Greek mythology or Norse mythology, but American Healthcare mythology. In his book, The Healing of America, TR Reid listed a number of healthcare myths he had busted in the course of researching his book. Some of these I knew about (because I have friends who are living or have lived in countries with universal healthcare) and some I didn’t.

Myth #1: “Universal healthcare is socialized medicine!”

(sound of game show buzzer) Wrong. Apparently even Michael Moore got this one wrong in “Sicko” when he dealt with the conviction of many Americans that “socialized” systems won’t work in our ferciely individualistic and capitalist country.

Bust #1: Most wealthy countries have privatized mechanisms to provide and in some cases pay for healthcare. 

That’s part of the myth—that healthcare provision and insurance are synonymous. (There’s that buzzer again.) There are two parties involved in healthcare: providers and payers. Not all universal care countries handle this in the same way.

In England and Spain, the government pays for coverage and owns the facilities, but private physicians provide the services. Canada and Taiwan have private-sector hospitals, clinics and doctors and the government pays the bills. In Germany, France and the Netherlands, both care and payment are privatized, but since everyone is covered and, again, the government negotiates prices, insurance providers (sick funds) compete to enroll more people and to keep them as healthy as possible. Costs are kept lower because, among other things, malpractice insurance is inexpensive and the government bargains collectively with the funds and physicians on the price structure.

MD000613Here’s the kicker: so many people seem to get real charged up about “socialized” healthcare (though probably couldn’t really tell you why), but American healthcare—even before the ACA—was already more socialized in some aspects than most countries with universal coverage. Our veterans, government employees and elderly, for example, are covered under socialized programs. The VA is a far more socialized program than just about anything you can find in other countries. All these different programs are part of why we have problems containing costs. In Germany, people stick to their private insurance plans no matter how old they are. Of course, they can always choose a new provider if they’re not happy with the one they have.

How many of us have that option, especially if we’re covered by a policy offered by our work?

“Yeah, okay,” some of you might be thinking, “but those other countries control costs by rationing healthcare and offering limited choice.”

That’s something worth exploring …

Care for the stranger as for one of your own; show to alien souls the same loving kindness ye bestow upon your faithful friends. — Abdu’l-Bahá

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Health 101: Where Reason and Faith Meet Healthcare

Health 101: Where Reason and Faith Meet Healthcare

Healing-ReidcoverIn his book The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper and Fairer Healthcare, journalist T.R. Reid does what I had hoped for some time that our national leaders would do: he undertook to study (through first-hand experience), contrast and compare the healthcare systems of other “first world” nations. (He included a couple of developing countries in his study as well.)

In the book, he details the main features of each system profiled, and shows how the systems compare. He looks at the upsides and downsides of each system and even walks through the process by which the representative countries came by the systems they have. He also profiles how two other countries (Taiwan and Switzerland) made drastic changes to their healthcare in the 1990s—basically redesigning it from the ground up based on a study of what other countries were doing that worked and didn’t work. Mr. Reid lays out his findings clearly in plain English, without polemics or hyperbole. That, in itself, was refreshing.

I’d like to share some of what I learned from his book, but first I want to make something absolutely clear: This is not a political issue to me, it is a moral issue. It is not about capitalism or the free market; it is not about conservatism or liberalism; it is about being human.

I am a Bahá’í. This means I do not belong to a political party and don’t give a rat’s patoot for anybody’s party line. It also means that my feelings about my fellow human beings are informed by the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh:

“The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.”

Let’s consider the needs of the age. Here’s what I learned from The Healing of America:

  • Of all the wealthy nations, the United States is the only one that does not provide medical care for all the people who live its territories.
  • The USA is also the only developed nation with a healthcare system that has, as its purpose, paying dividends to shareholders rather than insuring healthcare to its citizens.
  • The World Health Organization has ranked the nations based on such key indicators as infant mortality, life expectancy and the number of people who die of preventable or treatable diseases. The US—the richest nation on earth—ranks 37th. That puts us behind the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica and just ahead of Cuba. (You may ignore this appeal to national pride if that’s not what motivates you. If that’s what motivates you, feel free to be appalled.)
  • In the US every year, around 20,000 people die because they do not have access to healthcare and thousands go bankrupt because of medical expenses. That does not happen in any other developed country.
  • Nations that have created universal healthcare systems provide care to ALL of their citizens for far less than we spend to insure only some of ours. To put this into perspective, the USA spends 17% of its Gross Domestic Product on healthcare. Taiwan, which revamped its “out-of-pocket” non-system in 1994-1995, spends 6% of its GDP. To look at a it a different way, France spends a little over $3,000 annually per capita for healthcare; we spend over twice that.
  • Though most universal healthcare systems are struggling with the rising cost of care (as are we), the problems they’re having are less complex than ours because their systems are already doing what they’re designed to do—insuring everybody.  Here’s what this means “on the ground”: My family spends hundreds of dollars per month on insurance premiums, yet still has to cover things out-of-pocket. Last year I paid over $700 for dental work. I almost didn’t get it done because we really couldn’t afford it. Our health plan is considered excellent, but it paid only 50% of the most expensive work. Our co-pays range from $20 for office visits to $60 for prescriptions. With the advent of the ACA/Obamacare, we no longer pay for cleanings and other preventive care. In Taiwan, for example, monthly premiums are $150; co-pays are $7 and there is no other out-of-pocket expense. Taiwan could raise its outlay to 8% of its GDP and double premiums and co-pays to save its admittedly under-funded system and still not come anywhere close to what we spend.
  • Most universal healthcare systems are NOT “socialized” (be that good, bad or indifferent). The German system—whose founder, Otto Von Bismarck (yes, THAT von Bismarck) referred to it as “applied Christianity”—relies on about 200 private “sickness funds” that German citizens can choose from. They compete for those citizens, too, because the more they have the more they earn. The Taiwanese didn’t like the inefficiencies of that—they opted for a single National Health Fund. It’s true, the German system is more expensive—11% of their GDP (reminder: we spend 17%).
  • Not all universal healthcare systems ration healthcare—at least not in any way that compares with the rationing that Americans experience: We don’t cover that. Or We only cover 50% of it. Either translates to: I can’t afford it.
  • Not all universal healthcare systems involve long waits for healthcare and none make people wait for urgent care. German citizens, for example, wait no longer for any treatment than US citizens do (that is, those of us who can afford coverage).
  • Malpractice insurance is a major cost in our system. Doctors in the universal systems pay annually for malpractice insurance what our doctors pay in a week. And law suits are vanishingly rare. I have my own theories about why that is.

What’s wrong with this picture?

liberty-weepingThe “wrongest” thing with this picture, in my opinion, is that there are people who think there’s nothing wrong with this picture. I am appalled that there are people who are not morally offended by the idea that people should only receive medical care if they can afford to pay for it.

It’s been suggested by some that one of the impediments to universal healthcare in the US is people like me whose families have healthcare through an employer and who don’t want anything to change. The idea is that we are willing to condemn others to having NO healthcare so we’re sure to get ours. Personally, I find it insulting that my elected representatives assume Americans are that selfish and short-sighted.

I would love to believe I live in the greatest nation on earth. I think that would be truly wonderful. So, my question is: how do we become that? How do we become not just the richest nation, but the most compassionate, the most responsible, the most truly egalitarian? How do we build a healthcare system that rises to our high ideals?

If thine eyes be turned towards mercy, forsake the things that profit thee, and cleave unto that which will profit mankind. And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself. — Bahá’u’lláh

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Media: Mirror of the World

Media: Mirror of the World


“Islamophobia is the accepted form of racism in America. Leaders … show us that you can take a potshot at Muslims and get away with it.” — Arsalan Iftikhar, human rights lawyer.

February 4 on Fox News’ The Five, in the aftermath of President Obama’s speech at a Baltimore mosque, three of the show’s five hosts that evening jumped in to interrupt a fourth (Juan Williams) as he was remarking on “the spike in attacks, hate crimes against Muslims in the United States” and on a proposed ban promoted by a high-profile celebrity/politician.

88ca698a-692f-4546-8128-3685c99ee211-2060x1236Before he could finish his remarks about hate crimes (during which the other panelists were laughing), a male cohost broke in to ask: “Are there a lot of a hate crimes against Muslims in the United States, because I haven’t heard of any.” (emphasis his)

”Where are the numbers for that?” one of the women asked, rolling her eyes and shaking her head.

First, let’s establish those numbers. Anti-Muslim hate crimes have, as Mr. Williams noted, spiked to a level we haven’t seen since just after 9/11. There is data on this in a variety of places that is literally at the fingertips of any citizen with a computer or a smart device. But let me cite just one public source. The Washington Post has run several pieces on this subject. One they did a year ago about the rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes in which they noted that the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports program had documented the trend.

4-teen-bullies-charged-with-anti-muslim-hate-crimeThe WaPo article summed up the FBI’s findings, commenting that ”Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the [FBI] program typically recorded between 20 and 30 anti-Muslim hate crimes per year. But in 2001 that number rose more than tenfold to nearly 500. In the years since, annual hate crimes against Muslims have consistently hovered in the 100-150 range, roughly five times higher than the pre-9/11 rate.” (emphasis mine)

At its peak, that was roughly 12 such crimes per week, and they have spiked again since the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shootings. To be clear, these are not retaliations against the people who committed those crimes, most of whom are either dead, in jail, or hiding out abroad. These are crimes against men, women and children who have nothing to do with the perpetrators of those crimes except that the terrorists claim allegiance to the same faith. (I refer the reader to Matthew 7:15-29 for the essential Christian take on this.)

hate-crimesNow, back to the Fox journalists’ questions. As I mentioned above, the information that I just cited is reported in numerous places (except, apparently for Fox) and it is easily available by scanning headlines from major news sources (AP, Reuters, CNN, NPR, WaPo, take your pick), or by checking Facebook, or Twitter, or making a five second Internet search.

Why is this significant?

I’m a writer by trade. Mostly fiction, though I blog on several sites, as well. I am also an intensely curious person; I suspect the two things are connected and may have a causal relationship. Information, to me, is like hazel-nut-centered, chocolate-mousse-filled truffles. To a journalist—to a person whose job it is to ferret out information—it should be even more critical. Not dessert, but the daily bread of life. In fact, information is the very substance on which journalism (and therefore journalists) thrive. Without information, a journalist has nothing to say (as is amply demonstrated by the video of the ‘discussion’).

anti-muslim-hate-crimecrop-690x388Here, we have members of a highly paid, highly visible—and if the hype is to be believed—’most trusted’ journalistic team who have somehow managed not only not to research anti-Muslim hate crimes with even a brief Internet search, but have somehow avoided coming across any headlines, news feeds, or crime reports about them. They have heard nothing from any source—not even the one sitting in their midst.

Do I sound angry? I am. I am not a professional journalist. Yet I know more about the subject matter this ”news program” is presenting than a team of people who claim journalism as their profession.

Generic-Les-Mis-website-news-icon3Millions of people have seen and heard this display of ignorance on national TV. But do they recognize it as ignorance? Or do they assume that because these folks are sitting at the journalists’ table, they know what they’re talking about? Will it matter to Fox News fans that one of the hosts has stated fact, while the others offer only anemic, information-starved opinions?

There was much more than this to their remarks, alas, and when the lone panelist who seemed to know something about the subject tried to present a fact-based point of view, they simply talked over him, turning the ”news show” into a ”does not!”, ”does so!” kindergarten debate.

For the love of God snd/or mankind, when you hear this sort of interaction, strike a blow against ignorance—look up the facts, sample a variety of opinions if facts are not forthcoming. Find the answer to the question. Look for confirmation of the claims and assertions. In this case, google ”anti-Muslim hate crime”, then send Fox News an email with the links—they’ll know who to direct it to.

My voice is small and has no broad reach. I cannot hope to counter this public display of negligence with a blog post, or Facebook timeline, or Tweets. I can only hope that perhaps the few folks who do read this will pass it along through their networks. What I want more than anything in this moment, is for my fellow Americans to realize that they have the power to combat ignorance and prejudice, and that it takes less effort than they might think.

“In this day the mysteries of this earth are unfolded and visible before the eyes, and the pages of swiftly appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world; they display the doings and actions of the different nations; they both illustrate them and cause them to be heard. Newspapers are as a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech; they are a wonderful phenomenon and a great matter. But it behooves the writers and editors thereof to be sanctified from the prejudice of egotism and desire, and to be adorned with the ornament of equity and justice. They must inquire into matters as fully as possible in order that they may be informed of the real facts, and commit the same to writing.” —Bahá’u’lláh, Tablet of Tarazát (Ornaments)

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Sam Harris, Reza Aslan and Hiding the Ball

Sam Harris, Reza Aslan and Hiding the Ball

Sam Harris

There’s an interesting volley in the ongoing feud between Sam Harris and people who question his crusade against Islam. During a discussion at the Harvard Science Center, Harris made the claim that Muslim violence is different than any other religious violence. He maintained that when any other religionists commit violent acts, they are individuals committing violent acts unrelated to their faith’s doctrines and “articles of faith”. Islam’s articles of faith were uniquely different.

He used as an example the brutality perpetrated against Muslims by Zen warrior-monks, and ended up making this argument that their violence wasn’t religious violence:

“Now, the truth is it was never pure Zen. It was Zen mixed with Shinto mixed with a kind of Japanese nationalism and war ethic. So it was a weird brew, but it was not at all a surprise that certain Zen teachings, which do not emphasize compassion to the degree that most Buddhist teachings do, could be spun into this sort of martial ethic.” (italics mine)

If this prompts a “Wait … what?” response, I would not be surprised. That was certainly my reaction.  Though he has just taken pains to acknowledge that Buddhist on Muslim violence is “a weird brew” caused by external influences and artful interpretation of certain teachings, Harris then faults others for making the same argument in the case of Islam. I’ve studied both Buddhist scriptures and the Qur’an and what stands out in both cases (as in examples of Hindu or Jewish or Christian violence) is that given the preponderance of teachings on compassion in all of those faiths, believers feel they have any wiggle room to “spin” certain teachings into a “martial ethic”.

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