Dispatches, fiction

Dispatches: Free and Fair Elections

Back sooner than expected, our roving reporter, Steve Finch, has another story to be filed under “that’s something that would really benefit humanity.”

openDemocracy (ASA)Putin on Banner

SANTA MONICA, CA — The YZ Prize Foundation has announced a second interesting initiative to help the world to move toward stability. Unlike the YZ Prize for Peace, this one strikes straight at their vision of government: free and fair elections.

In light of the blatantly rigged elections in Russia last week, and the just-resolved election mess in Kenya, the Foundation has pledged that they will dedicate a significant amount of money for elections that are externally verified to have been completely free and fair.

“Obviously, we were spurred on by what had happened in Kenya,” said the chairman. The recently brokered peace deal between the opposition leader Raila Odinga and the sitting President Mwai Kibaki did satisfy the Foundation, but they were deeply saddened that the December election–which most outside observers agreed was rigged–touched off violence and chaos that left at least 1000 dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, and tarnished the reputation of what had been one of the jewels of Africa.

And though the YZ Prize Foundation was glad to see little violence over Russia’s election, they were distressed by the implications. “It looked to us,” the chairman said, “as though the will of the people was clearly subverted. It looks to us like outright authoritarianism and we can’t stand by and let such shams continue.”

The plan is relatively simple, the Foundation has offered about $100 million that would be split between the sitting executive (either a president or prime minister) and his country if the elections are declared to be free and fair. Anticipating some vexing questions, the chairman offered this tidbit on eligibility: “Surely, we can’t afford to hand out $100 million for every clean election. Stable, open, accountable democracies are thankfully numerous, and so we were forced to make restrictions. To qualify for this prize, the country has to have a history of fixed elections, to be seen to be at great risk for such fixing, or to be a new democracy.”

The Foundation has formed a committee that will decide before every election whether or not the country qualifies. The chairman was forthright that forming and maintaining this committee would be difficult but said that there is “no other way.”

Contacted for comment, Steven Jones at the Center for Democracy said that he thought the prize was a good idea, though he has some concerns. “Though I don’t think this is likely to cause more rigging in the interest of winning the prize money in the future, as some have suggested, I do think there are risks. The most prominent of these is the possibility that once they know they don’t qualify, they’ll go ahead and rig it.”

The Foundations has, however, been prompt in responding to this issue. They’ve since decided that the eligibility decision will be made and announced after the elections have been held. Releasing the statement, “We’re hoping to address the very valid criticism of Mr. Jones and others. It’s in everyone’s interest that the prize remains a possibility for all countries until all elections everywhere are deemed free, open, and fair.”



DWQCanadian Geese

“What a fool?!” thought the old man, seeing a young man coming up the path. He wasn’t looking out at the pond. He seemed to see little more than his feet and the dog that would sometimes wander away from him.

“What a fool?!” thought the young man. This grandpa had stopped on the path, put down his walking stick and is taking out his binoculars. Binoculars? There’s nothing to see here through binoculars. Just some geese floating around on the surface of a pond. More of a puddle really.

“I wonder if I should tell him.” After all, this young man doesn’t know the beauty of all that’s around in this park. He doesn’t see the beauty of a recently thawed pond. Or of Canadian geese chasing each other around. If I’d been smart enough to pay attention while my eyes were good I wouldn’t have to be standing here now, large binoculars on my eyes letting me make out the geese clearly.

“I wonder if I should tell him.” After all, some old people don’t mean to be so careless. Maybe he doesn’t mean to block the path. Perhaps he’s just forgotten where he is, and that he’s making it harder for others to walk by. Maybe if he knew, he’d move out of the way, or better yet, keep walking.

“It’s probably not worth it.” He’s young and self-assured, certain that the world is his for conquest and nothing more. He may sometimes notice beauty, but he probably quickly blinks and hopes it will disappear. The young have no time–or think they have no time–for stopping and paying attention to little things, like the geese on this pond.

“It’s probably not worth it.” He’s old and ornery. He’ll probably just think that I’m an ignorant young man who can’t be bothered to walk around him. He’s probably doesn’t care where he is; probably thinks that he’s old so the rules don’t apply to him. After all, he probably always walked to school, up hill both ways, in the freezing snow.

“Then, maybe he knows.” Maybe he’s taking a look at this pond and these geese. And though he may not be getting everything from it, he’s probably getting something.

“Then, maybe he knows.” Maybe he knows that he’s in the way. Maybe that’s the point. Trying to get me and others to take a second and look at what he’s looking at.

“It sure is pretty, this world.”

“It sure is.”

Dispatches, fiction

Dispatches: The YZ Prize for Peace

Our roving reporter, Steve Finch, has an interesting story today that he asked us to file under “that’s something that would really benefit humanity.”

SANTA MONICA, CA — The YZ Prize Foundation–of no relation to the X Prize Foundation–announced a new reward today which they’ve called simply the Peace YZ Prize. Like all such prizes, the foundation is offering substantial financial reward–they’ve estimated that it will be nearly five billion dollars–to anyone who can accomplish it’s objective.

The prize’s conditions for completion aren’t pinned down exactly, but the foundation assures us that it requires a substantial commitment to peace by two longstanding rivals. They suggested that the resolution in Northern Ireland is a good model for the type and stability of solution they’re seeking.

Asked where they would like this prize won, the chairman said, “anywhere that needs peace.” Pressed he offered that he’d like to see peace anywhere, and agreed that Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Darfur, Columbia, Chechnya, and Spain’s Basque regions were all viable candidates. “And of course,” the chairman said, “we’d love to reward the prize for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

When questioned as to whether those were the only possible candidates the panel admitted it’s ignorance. “Anywhere which has a substantial history of conflict and can muster a meaningful resolution to the grievances is a candidate. We’d certainly consider places other than those mentioned. A favorable solution between Ethiopia and Eritrea could certainly be considered, for example.”

The disbursement of the prize also raised some questions. The rough response was that it would be split between the two parties involved, or given as a lump sum to the government in the case of internal conflicts. This lead to some disappointment that the resolution would not go to a person, as the Nobel Peace Prize does.

Reached for comment, most observers feel that this is a good move. Said Ben Silverburg, a professor of International Relations at Yale, “I’m not na├»ve enough to believe that the prize will lead to a sudden outbreak of peace movements all over the world, but I do think it’s a good idea. Anything that offers increased incentives for peace is likely to, if only a little bit, lead to greater peace in the world.”

The prize has no deadline. If it takes 3, 35 350 years for this prize to have a viable winner, the organizers assert that they will get the prize. How exactly that will work is unclear. Also unclear as we go to print, is how exactly this prize will be paid for. Though some have speculated that The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has financed the prize, there is absolutely no support on that notion.

Dispatches, fiction

Dispatches: A New Way to Fight Recession

In light of recent financial news, Steve Finch files an interesting report that he asked us to file under, “I wonder if that would work.”

Chris Phan (flickr)No Sales Tax

WASHINGTON — The Secratery of the Treasury today announced a interesting plan to combat the economic slowdown that has led many to speculate that the country is in the midst of a recession: a sales tax holiday.

The plan, which would require a great deal of legwork to get off the ground, is rather simple: to stimulate spending and recharge the economy the federal government would eliminate all sales taxes across the country for an entire week.

The problem, which critics were quick to point out, is that the federal government has no jurisdiction to lower sales tax rates. Sales tax in the country is controlled by states and municipalities.

To these critics, the secretary was quick to offer this solution: the federal government will reach agreements with all states–who are then responsible for reaching agreements with municipalities–to reimburse them for all income lost during the holiday. Speaking frankly, the secretary said, “We feel this system will be faster and more beneficial than the tradition plan for a tax rebate, which takes a great deal too much time to create and then reward to citizens.

“We must always remember those words repeated to the point of meaninglessness: targeted, temporary and timely. We feel confident that this plan meets all of those criteria better than any alternative.”

Asked about states and municipalities without sales tax, Treasury’s response was that they’d made the decision that making special exceptions for these cases was impractical, and so they would simply maintain the goal of keeping sales taxes at zero for one week across all the states.

Economists’ views on the topic were mixed. Some felt that the plan was innovative and as likely to work as anything else. These “optimists” made the point that all stimulus plans fail, and this one’s failure is likely to as insignificant as all the others.

Others made clear that the plan would be a logistical nightmare. “Not only must the states and municipalities reach hurried agreements with rough projections of earnings for what is meant to be a week of extraordinary spending. But the headache it will be for businesses whose computers are built to assess sales taxes automatically is hard to imagine,” offered Bob Davis with Americans for Simplified Taxation.

As with all such plan, this must be approved by Congress. Both the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader are hopeful that they will be able to quickly pass the program without much hassle. Speaking frankly, the speaker admitted, “But I don’t know the last time that happened.”

fiction, personal

My Problem with Fiction

RparleNew Fiction

Everywhere I see people who don’t understand how the world works. This includes, but is hardly limited to, when I’m standing in front of the mirror.

To my limited understanding, the world is wonderfully complex place full of wonderfully interesting people doing their absolute best to live the most useful lives they can. And I don’t understand even half of what happens out there.

And I don’t much see how fiction helps me or anyone else to better understand anything.

In that paragraph is the fundamental hangup I seem to have with fiction. It’s fictional. There’s a tautology if ever one existed.

I’m certainly no lover of literature, so perhaps that’s the simple nature of this beast. After all, I’ve also never been much a fan of any form of art.

Paintings. Drawings. Oils. Giant pieces of abstraction. It all seems rather dead to me.

If we were to accept the fairly reasonable, if not necessarily true, premise that art is fundamentally a window into the artist’s mind, then I suppose my fundamental dissatisfaction with fiction is that the people who write it don’t seem terribly interesting to me. They’re mostly–at least of the authors I frequently hear of–white, middle-aged, and male. These men are like me, or like what I’m going to be. I’d much rather have insight into the mind of a Russian housewife or a Congolese general than into the mind of a middle-aged white American.

But I like to read journalism. I usually struggle to read fiction. In some way, I would argue that even when the two are written by the same person, the first explores others, while the second explores nothing more than the self.

I’m certainly devaluing fiction. It’s an exceptionally useful tool to elaborate your personal understanding of the world. And when you understand something about the world differently than most others, that’s a tremendously valuable gift you give. Your fiction is then a way for people to learn about the world.

So too is it tremendously useful if you lived quite long ago. Roman fiction is often seen as more useful for understanding the world of the empire than are the histories made by friends of the emperors.

But most fiction I see, and most fiction I see people read, is dull. It’s John Grisham. It’s Tom Clancy. It’s Danielle Steele. And I can’t seem to understand the value in that. And I wonder: Am I the only one?

To be fair, I don’t mind watching a good fictional movie. And part of my dissatisfaction with fiction in print is probably that I read slowly. Or not at all. But those aren’t the only reasons.

I feel like most fiction is situated so close to the world I know that I won’t shun it as unknowable. It’s a drama about twenty-something Americans that I’m expected read because I’m a twenty-something American. And something about that just rubs me wrong.

fiction, OPW

OPW: Hemingway on Parental Infallibility

I briefly mentioned parental infallibility recently, and that lead me to seek out a story related to the topic from Hemingway, called “Indian Camp.” I should warn you, though, that if the story were a movie it would probably need an “R” rating for language and violence.

But today’s “Other People’s Words,” are the last few lines of the story, which are neither profane nor violent. They’re about the complicated issues of parenting, place, and dying.

“Is dying hard, Daddy?”

“No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.”

They were seated in the boat, Nick in the stern, his father rowing. The sun was coming over the hills. A bass jumped, making a circle in the water. Nick trailed his hand in the water. It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning.

In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quire sure that he would never die.

Dispatches, fiction

Dispatches: Lying Well

Steve Finch has finally gotten around to filing another report. He asked that this one be filed under: “Is every lie a deception?”

HOLLYWOOD — In a town made famous for the lies it tells to both itself and the world, this reporter found something quite expected: a class about lying well. The surprise wasn’t finding a class which aimed to teach students how to lie, but the way it taught to do it.

Joanna Saltin had nurtured quite an interest in “radical honesty”–the ethic of never telling a lie no matter how minor or face-saving–before she broke away from her mentor, moved to Hollywood, and decided to teach Californians the secret to lying well.

Ms. Saltin makes a quick and careful distinction between what she called “lying well” and “lying successfully.” As you may expect, lying successfully is when you convince people to believe an untrue story.

Lying well is very different, as she explains: “To lie well, you must alway remember one simple and important point: Everyone must know that you are lying. Better still, someone good at lying well will be able to avoid an embarrassing answer because they lie so well.”

She is absolutely clear, the secret to lying well is to come up with an answer that is both funny and outrageous. If asked where she’s been, she says that “Oh, I was shopping…” is among the worst possible lies. She says that the lie must be so outrageous as to not have any possibility of being true. Rather than suggesting traffic as cover for embarrassing tardiness, Satlin suggests that she was engrossed by the architectural details of the Great Wall of China.

Many proponents of radical honesty–who won’t lie about their view–see Satlin as a turncoat who couldn’t stand the difficulty of radical honesty. She has, they claim, purported to take the ethical integrity of the honesty movement and use it for lies. “It doesn’t matter if a lie is successful or not,” Mr. Diller, a psychologist, suggested, “it’s still a lie.”

Ms. Satlin, well-acquainted with these criticisms, offered a different answer. “What lying well does,” she contended, “is prevent lies. Because the lies I champion are always transparently false, the deception that’s absent in radical honesty also goes missing when someone is lying well.”

And fleeing deception, it turns out, was the reason Ms. Satlin found radical honesty so interesting in the first place. Her father, who she called a “chronic philanderer,” managed to hide his infidelity from her mother with lies of working late. When she discovered the truth, Satlin, who had been especially close with her father, was devastated. From that day forward she pledged never to tell a lie.

With time, that view softened to allow for the transparently fraudulent lies she currently champions. Though she seems to sincerely believe in the usefulness of “lying well,” there’s one question Ms. Satlin had trouble answering: if her father had been regularly admiring the Great Wall rather than “working late,” would his infidelity have hurt any less?

Confronted with such a question, Satlin reverted back to her training in radical honesty, “I don’t know,” she said. “I really don’t know.”

big ideas, fiction, personal, world

The Myth of the Magic Bullet

I’ve long been seeking one thing–a song, a poem, a quotation, even a book–that once found will magically save all people–save them from their greed, their fear, and their unnecessary antipathy for one another.

One day I met my anti-prophet, who told me this:

I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t exist, it can’t exist, and most certainly won’t. It hasn’t been made, it won’t be made, it can’t be made. Perhaps, having made these proclamations, it is incumbent upon me, the prophet, to provide good reason that such a claim is true.

Don’t forget that people still hate, kill, steal, and rape–literally and figuratively–other people. If a peaceful and harmonious world hasn’t arisen in the 5000 years of Abrahamic religion, in the 5000 years of Buddhist tradition, in the 2000 years of Christian practice, and the 1300 year since the death of Muhammad, religion certainly is not the magic bullet. Pogroms, crusades, jihads, and all stripes of fundamentalism show viscerally that religions are both the cause of and reason for a great deal of strife.

The secular heritage of science and the academy have always offered some refuge for those distrustful of religious strife. But it’s also hard to deny that some of the most intelligent people in this world are also the most driven to do things that are, at best, morally abhorrent. Hitler was no academic slouch–even if he was a poor writer–nor were the scores of scientist, Nazi and otherwise, who advocated for the eugenics-based policies of population control that only Hitler was ever powerful and audacious enough to carry to its deeply unsettling climax.

The public sphere–typified by democratic politics in most countries of the world–is hardly much in the way of grace giving. Surely democracy is a good form of government and when exercised in open societies it’s the very articulation of the desires of a society’s public sphere. But you don’t have to look far to see that politics, even the most open and democratic, leads to no small measure of strife and systematic unrest, both in its home and elsewhere.

But surely, you’re saying, the most grievous failures of monolithic institutions aren’t sufficient to mean that there can be no magic bullet. After all, most of the best ideas come from hermits, writers, and philosophers divorced from religion, the academy, and the public sphere. You are not wrong in think that, but your missing a crucial point. Those divorced from religion, the academy, or politics lack a crucial element in the magic bullet equation–a gun. Without a pulpit, conference stage, or spaker’s podium from which to spread their transformative message, they’re effectively impotent. Were they to ever create a bullet, or even some insight into how to make it, they would lack a mouthpiece through which to tell the good word.

There can be no change, for the world is lead by dreadfully dull paper-pushers whose very survival depends on sustaining the status quo. They’re both powerful and unwilling to accept even the smallest change. Their power disempowers the rest of us, who can aspire to no better than a peaceful life for ourselves. We can’t give others such a life, we just have to do our best to wrest one for ourselves.

Having listened to the anti-prophet, I wasn’t sure what to think. Part of me wanted to surrender immediately. To give in, say he was right all along and that I was a fool to hope for something different.

Part of me wanted to condemn him as a hopeless cynic. A man sure of nothing but the impossibility of anything worth doing. He was, after all, oversimplifying. Certainly the world hadn’t changed as much as I’d like over my lifetime, but some steps had been made. Poverty and hunger are less rampant than they were 20, 200, or 2000 years ago, and that’s certainly a change.

He did make me realize that I would probably never find a magic bullet. That no single thing is likely to suddenly make all citizens of the world come to their senses and stop hurting one another. He strengthened in my mind the resolve that change is always and necessarily gradual, but it’s absolutely not impossible.

The anti-prophet wasn’t completely wrong, but for now my optimism has won out. I hope it’ll manage to holdout for 5, 15, or 50 more years. But in my weaker moments I can’t help feeling that it’s easier to give in and give up than to hold out hope.

Dispatches, fiction, politics

Dispatches: The Evolution Party

Our roving correspondent Steve Finch has finally gotten back to us with another story. He asked us to file this under “Wouldn’t it be scary if…”

Elkhart, Indiana — The rise of the Evolution Party and it’s unconventional platform has left at least a few unsettled and scratching their heads. The leader of the small political party is Albert Hillman, an Indiana man running for both mayor of Elkhart and President of the United States.

Mr. Hillman is in his mid-forties, and says he’s been a Republican his whole life. He said that after seeing how “unconservative” George W. Bush has been since elected, he’s convinced the party no longer represents any of his views. “I liked the small-government view of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater, but the Republicans don’t represent that anymore. Frankly, I’m not sure what they represent.”

But if the party left Mr. Hillman behind, many critic think he’s completely left behind the American mainstream. They say that though Mr. Hillman still supports small government, his justification has gotten more and more unconventional.

Originally, they claim, Mr. Hillman was for small government because he disliked taxes. But as the presidential candidate says, he’s now for small government “as the only way to ensure that our species keeps evolving.”

“With government programs supporting the poor and lazy, and modern medicine prolonging the lives of the infirm, even letting them reproduce, it’s no wonder we see increasing mental illness and strange medical conditions in our society.”

That statement frames exactly what many find so upsetting about Mr. Hillman. Not only does he support the abolition of all social-welfare programs, but he believe that the government should prevent doctors from providing all but the most rudimentary care. “Such a government would be much better for the evolution of the species, and would enable the creation of better Americans.”

It’s ideas like those that have led people to condemn the candidate as an anarchist, a social Darwinist, an “ablist,” a eugenicist, and a neo-Nazi.

Despite such criticism, Mr. Hillman has some supporters. They’re mostly young, though a few are as old as Mr. Hillman. One supporter, Chris Franklin, justified his position, saying, “We are the product of millions of years of evolution. That our society now does its best to stifle that process means Americans will be weaker as a result.”

To the comfort of many, analysts doubt that Mr. Hillman can win either the mayoral or presidential election. James Merriwell, a political scientist at the University of Indiana, made clear that third parties always struggle in American politics. “Not only that,” he said, “but Hillman’s taking a very unpopular position when many in Indiana are concerned about how they’ll pay for health care. The movement of industrial jobs abroad has harmed more in Indiana than it has helped.”

Despite the unlikeliness of success, some have been upset enough to file suit to prevent Mr. Hillman from even competing in the elections. The Federal Election Commission has yet to comment on the case, but Elkhart’s election commissioner says she has found no way to prevent Mr. Hillman from running.

fiction, personal

Banks, Money, etc.

“Hello,” said the piggy bank I’ve had since I was two. He was sitting in a box on the floor.

“Yes?” I asked, slightly irritated.

“We don’t really see much of each other anymore. I was just wondering why.”

“Well, it’s because I don’t need you anymore. I keep my money elsewhere. And besides, you look silly. I’m not six anymore.”

“I look silly? Silly? You think I chose to look like this?!”

“Hey, I’m sorry.” It was my best attempt at caring.

“And I can still hold money. I can.”

“You’re right, you can,” I said, unswayed.
My piggy bank
“You know, that’s not all I ever was…”

“Go on.”

“Remember when you were in the third grade? You wanted nothing more than that Super Soaker 100. Every week, you’d tear me open and count all the money I held.”

“What are you saying?”

“Just that it’s not all about keeping money. I used to hold your aspirations too. And perhaps I’m being presumptuous, but I think I should do it again.”

I could only stare at him.

“You need a place to keep your dreams,” he said. “And I know that Wells Fargo doesn’t have an account for that.”


“Just think about it,” he said.

I set my piggy bank over the fireplace.