Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

McCain's V.P. Choice

In response to John McCain’s announcement of his choosing Alaskan governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, Robert Bidinotto posted on August 29 his as-usual excellent analysis. My apathy mixed with antipathy for the candidates on both sides prepared me to expect the worst and to be unimpressed with McCain's choice. However I heartily agree with Bidinotto’s assessment of Palin's demeanor and message. I think this is a clever choice on a number of fronts. It does hamper McCain's early criticisms on Obama's lack of experience but I don't think it's a fatal error. As Bidinotto said, Palin has the most experience actually running a government than any of the other candidates.

Below I have provided some snippets from Robert’s analysis. I particularly agree with his comment on Obama as a self-proclaimed agent of “change.” When I read Obama’s Blueprint for Change there is precious little deviation from the traditional liberal mantra that the government is the cure-all for all ills.

Politically, this is a brilliant move. Absolutely brilliant. I say that with the caveat of my abiding philosophical disagreements with both McCain and Palin on certain issues. But the overarching issues of this campaign for me are national security and energy policy, and on these, the GOP wins over the Dems, hands down.

If a candidate for president is trying to brand himself as a force for political "change," he shouldn't pick as his running mate an aging liberal fossil who's sat in the Senate for 36 years -- an old-boy-network Washington insider. That completely undercuts his "change" message, communicating instead a desire to pander to the Establishment and a clinging to "business as usual." It informs voters that the "change" message is utterly phony.

By contrast, if you are campaigning as an independent-minded maverick, you'd lose credibility by selecting a standard old-school politician as your running mate. You'd want somebody who underscores your outsider, maverick image and message. And if you select such a person, it communicates to voters: I'm the real deal; I mean what I say; you can trust that my actions will match my words.

Ask yourself, strictly from a branding and marketing standpoint, which candidate now comes across as the authentic and genuine agent of "change" -- McCain or Obama.

Obama is increasingly coming across as an empty suit, an ambitious phony with a dubious background; Biden is just another stock liberal. By contrast, McCain is showing independence and daring; his biography backs it up; and so does his running mate.

I’d say McCain’s choice was courageous. We’ll see if it was a brilliant decision after the election.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Some tips on Objectivity

We’re confronted daily with competing demands and claims of people from opposite points of view. Conservatives rail against liberals and vice versa. Creationists fight Darwinists. Pro-life wrestle with pro-choice advocates. How do we decide? There isn’t a foolproof method that ensures everyone will come to the same conclusion. A lot of factors affect our ability to be objective. Since the theme of this blog is about thinking objectively I thought I’d share some ideas on how I try to practice what I preach. In essence I recommend taking the effort to check both sides. (In some cases there are more than two prominent positions.)

  • How do they argue? Do they confront the opposition’s positions head on or do they skirt the issues?
  • Do they fairly represent the arguments of the other side or do they “refute” these arguments by setting up easily-refuted straw men?
  • Do they try to build a cogent argument based on empirical data or do they simply state their final conclusions?

For example, if you’re considering whether global warming is caused by humans or by other causes (assuming there is warming), you could go to a site such as which provides links to global warming advocates and skeptics.

Let’s say you want sort out the creationism-evolution debate. This web page at Cal State Fullerton - - provides links to various sites on both sides of the issue.

On general political issues, check publications such as National Review ( for conservative viewpoints, The New Republic ( for the left and maybe Reason magazine ( for the libertarian perspective. For detailed analysis of policy issues you can go to The Cato Institute [] (libertarian), The Brookings Institution [] (liberal), the American Enterprise Institute [] (conservative), or The Atlas Society [] (Objectivist).

A relatively new site and promising has popped up,, which offers debates on a wide variety of issues: politics, society, health, money and religion.

Another good source of information is The main articles usually refer to other sources on both sides of an issue and provide links to articles in the media and links to related web sites. Be sure to click on the “discussion” tab to see the dialog among the various contributors to the wiki entry. However, you need to be careful with controversial subjects. For instance, an ardent Gore supporter fanatically guards entries on global warming and pounces on any added text that challenges or contradicts the Gore-thodoxy (that global warming is man-made).

As I said at the beginning, checking these sources won’t automatically spoon feed you with answers. What I have found, however, is that people who honestly and fairly look at more than one viewpoint before settling on their own tend to be more reasonable than those who only look at sources with which they already agree. If we are confident in our ability to think critically and objectively we won’t be threatened by exposing ourselves to opinions that might differ from ours. At the very least going through this exercise will better prepare you for counter-arguments.

My main point, which is a theme running through this blog, is that maintaining objectivity isn’t easy! It involves hard work and resisting the temptation to latch onto conclusions. If you work through issues like health care, global warming, abortion, and intelligent design by carefully evaluating the different viewpoints, by comparing the facts each side musters for their case and by looking at how they argue, you stand a better chance of reaching a sound conclusion. Who knows? You might even end up changing your mind? THAT, I believe, is the threat of checking your premises: the possibility of abandoning a position and even disagreeing with friends who share your overall beliefs. Another drawback is that objectivity doesn’t carry the sex appeal of being an ardent advocate of [insert your favorite “ism” here]. It might even sound boring and dispassionate. Yet the overall purpose of being objective is to get you closer to the truth which ultimately can improve the quality of your life. And, if you have done the hard work to sift and digest the facts and arguments you can be justifiably certain of your position. To me that’s the exciting part of trying to be objective!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Happiness Trap Review

The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris is one of the best self-help books I’ve ever read. Yes, that’s a bold claim, especially with how many books of this kind fill the shelves of bookstores. I’ve read a lot of these books over the years. Almost all of them offer variations on one of several themes. Think positively. Repeat affirmations to counter negative thoughts. Bolster your self-esteem. All of them, according to Harris, share the same trap. “To find happiness, we try to avoid or get rid of bad feelings, but the harder we try, the more bad feelings we create.” This trap comes from the shared definition of happiness as feeling good. The Happiness Trap
adheres to a different definition of happiness: living a rich and meaningful life.

Living such a life doesn’t automatically mean we’re feeling good all the time. We will still have negative feelings and challenges to overcome. The goal of The Happiness Trap then is to give us strategies to deal with negative feelings without denying them. Harris offers six core principles.

1. Defusion. Painful or unpleasant thoughts are defused by various techniques such as labeling them. When one notices such a thought instead of suppressing or denying
it we create some distance by saying “I’m having the thought that …” In doing so we put some distance between the thought and us. In other words, we strive for objectivity.
2. Expansion: consists of making room for unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
3. Connection: being fully aware of your here and now.
4. Distinguishing between your thinking self and observing self. The various techniques in The Happiness Trap get us out of our thinking self and into our observing self.
5. Values: what kind of person are you and want to be? What is significant and meaningful to you? What do you stand for?
6. Committed action. All of this business about being objective and mindfulness must be followed by a commitment to action if we truly want to change.

These principles form the core of Action and Commitment Therapy (ACT), developed by Steven Hays. While Hays and others have published a number of books on ACT they were written for therapists applying ACT to different conditions. The Happiness Trap
translates ACT’s principles for laymen interested in applying these principles. As Harris points out ACT also stands for something else:

A – Accepting your thoughts and feelings and being present in the moment,

C – Connect with your values, and

T – Take effective action.

The Happiness Trap holds a lot more insights and techniques than I can do
justice to here. Overall I like several aspects of The Happiness Trap and ACT.

1. They don’t try to suppress or ignore emotions. The recommended methods aim at honoring these emotions while trying to get beyond them.
2. They emphasize mindfulness and objectivity.
3. The end goal is to get us to act, not just to idly analyze our feelings.
4. Values play a key role because ultimately this is what motivates us to action: what is important to us.

As I said at the beginning The Happiness Trap has joined the small group of my favorite books. It offers a realistic guide with a number of helpful activates to get us to move beyond self-limiting thoughts and emotions so we can obtain, express and enjoy our values.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Obama: Saving us from us?

I recall earlier this year Michelle Obama took some heat because she said Obama was going to save our soul (or something to that effect). At the time I figured her comment was just election-year hyperbole, magnified by talk-show hosts who like to create controversy. Well, looks like I was wrong. To see what I mean please check out Robert Bidinotto's excellent analysis of Obama's recent behavior and statements, "Obama the Presumptious continues his premature victory lap" (dated July 31), complete with humorous animation.