Sunday, November 25, 2007

Even in Election Years Not Everyone has a Party

In little more than a month, the presidential caucuses and primary elections will begin. These are basically state-by-state competitions designed to narrow the field of candidates down to one from each party who will then run head-to-head for the presidency.

For the last 150 years there have been two major political parties in this country, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. People often identify with one party or another, and vote accordingly, but they may not actually be members of either party. Others vote only a candidate’s stand on the issues, without regard to party affiliation.

What does it mean to be a democrat or a republican?

To understand what the two major parties represent, it might be helpful to take a broader look at the entire political spectrum. It might help to visualize a long stick, like a yardstick, that is balanced in the middle by your finger. Everything to the right of your finger represents the "Right Wing" of the political spectrum, and everything on the left of your finger represents the "Left Wing."

Starting on the far right would be political parties such as the Nazi Party. Far Right-Wing ideology is generally termed fascism. Fascism, as it is typically defined, is marked by extreme nationalism, with a tendency toward a desire to create ethnic purity. However, it is also marked by varying degrees of capitalism, but not democracy.

On the opposite end of the stick - the far left - there is socialism, and its more extreme incarnation, communism. Communism is the philosophy that the community (or nation) is central, and that individuals are not so important. It contains the premise that each individual should labor according to his abilities and be paid according to his needs.

Even though fascism and communism are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, they both require an authoritarian form of government. Both forms of government repress the individual in favor of a centralized and all-powerful state.

Closer to the middle of the yardstick you will find the radicals on the left and the reactionaries on the right. These are the typical "left-wing" or "right-wing" fanatics. Those attached firmly to the left are often called liberals. Those on the right are conservatives. But it’s close to the center of the yardstick where one finds the more moderate forms of government that most Western nations enjoy.

But everybody in America is not exactly dead-center on the yardstick. Those that tend toward the right wing are republicans, and those that tip the balance slightly to the left are democrats.

Although this is an over-generalization, democrats tend to be more liberal. They tend to favor equality of status. And to achieve this goal, they vote in favor of laws that create social programs such as welfare, Medicaid, and affirmative action.

Democrats tend to favor less government and greater individual freedoms, at least in theory. Most minorities tend to be democrats.

Republicans are more conservative. They generally believe in equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of status. They are more capitalistic. They believe that everyone should have an equal chance to succeed, but that government has no place helping them out.

Republicans also tend to restrict certain freedoms that democrats tend to grant. These include things such as abortion rights and freedom to make certain personal choices.

And republicans tend to have less tolerance for religious differences, being more dogmatic. Most conservative Christians are republicans. And far-right republicans like George W. Bush believe it is their God-given imperative to intertwine their conservative Christianity with government programs.

The most thoughtful among us tend to take the best characteristics of both parties and meld them into a third option, that of being politically independent. Being independent doesn’t mean you have no opinions, it just means your opinions are strictly your own.

Independents never play party-line politics. Of course, they seldom get elected to office, either.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Can We be Too Politically Correct?

Nobody’s ever accused me of being too politically correct. When it comes to labeling people, I tend to be conservative. I think the political correctness craze is a fad that has overstayed its time.

First of all, with respect to gender differences, I realize that our society’s language has always been male-centric. In modern society, it is accepted that neither gender is superior over the other. But in the past, it has been a man’s world, so the use of male-centric terminology has prevailed.

The term mankind has always been understood to include women, too, as has the shorter version, man. Neil Armstrong used it when he first stepped on the moon in 1969 and nobody thought he was referring only to the male of the species. Humankind might be more politically correct, but females should not be offended by the term mankind, simply because of its historic use.

In historic English usage, it has always been correct to use the pronoun his when referring to mixed-gender situations. For example, in the past in a classroom of boys and girls, if the teacher said, “Ok, will everyone take out his textbook,” it was proper usage. Today, most authors prefer the more cumbersome, “will everyone take out his or her textbook.” But that is still preferable to the grammatically incorrect, “will everyone take out their textbook.”

From the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s to the political correctness fanaticism of the 1990s, many gender-centric words have been changed. “Chairman” has been replaced by “chairperson;” “workmen” has been replaced by “workers,” and “waitress” has been replaced by “server.” There are also no more stewardesses, only flight attendants.

Ethnonyms are words used to refer to a specific race or ethnicity. Due to fads and the political correctness movement, terms that used to be just fine with everyone are now considered defamatory. The term Oriental historically referred to someone from eastern Asia. It was not meant to be, nor was it taken to be offensive. Today, we best use the term Asian for fear of offending someone from that region.

Prior to the 1960s nobody who didn’t mean to offend would use the term black in reference to someone of African heritage. The correct term was Negro or colored person. Negro refers to someone of the Negroid race. But both those terms are now considered offensive. In the 1960s black became the new Negro.

Today, although black is not considered derogatory, African-American is the preferred ethnonym. And while it’s perfectly ok to say “a person of color,” it is derogatory to use the term “colored person,” the NAACP notwithstanding.

Two similar phrases, one is derogatory; the other is not. What’s the difference?

“Well, I’m not sure. We’re just going to have to assume there is one.” That’s a quote from one of the characters in Richard Greenberg’s play “Take Me Out,” who was responding to the same question.

I don’t mind most of the changes in usage; they are all rather innocuous, and if it makes people feel better about themselves, that’s fine. One ethnic term that hasn’t changed completely is the single one that I feel should have been changed a century ago. An Indian is really a person from India, not a Native American. And for sports teams to use an Indian, a Brave, or a Chief as a mascot should be severely frowned on.

I draw the line, however, at the ridiculous notions of some of the feminists of the 1970s when they attacked words such as hymn, menu, and history for being sexist.

And I had to laugh at the feeble attempt at being politically incorrect by some Republicans several years ago when they suggested renaming french fries to freedom fries. The term “french” with a small “f,” refers to cutting a food in narrow strips, not to the country of France.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Starting Holiday Early Means More Time to Get Sick of It

The Christmas season is the favorite time of year for many people, including me. In fact, I love the late autumn and early winter period, from October through December. It typically isn’t bitter cold, even in early December. There is a cozy crispness in the air. And I like the harvest symbols such as the cornucopia, the pumpkins, and the autumn colors.

The Christmas season has traditionally begun the day after Thanksgiving. It was the time when stores really geared up for the holiday shopping season by offering specials and by playing holiday music.

Many stores would always put up Christmas displays sometime in early November or even late October. But it was only to make sure everything was ready and in stock prior to the official beginning of the Christmas shopping season.

In more recent years, and this year in particular, it seems that the Christmas season begins the day after Halloween. Department stores have been pumping non-stop Christmas music onto the sales floor since November 1. All the holiday displays are up and have been for weeks.

Every holiday season, I always hear people protest that Christmas begins earlier and earlier every year. I don’t think that is the case. But over the past few decades, it is true that the retail side of Christmas has gotten earlier.

Back in the 1930s, Pres. Franklin Roosevelt moved the date of Thanksgiving up a week, from the last Thursday in November to the next-to-last Thursday. His reason for doing so was to enhance the economy by making the Christmas shopping season last a week longer.

So the pressure has always been on for retailers to increase their revenue by starting the Christmas season as early as possible. A couple of years after moving Thanksgiving up, Roosevelt moved it back again, thanks to protests from those who didn’t think commercial interests should determine the date of a traditional holiday.

A decade later, Congress intervened and made Thanksgiving an official national holiday and set the date as the fourth Thursday in November, sort of a compromise. That’s been the official date ever since.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that often gets lost in the transition period between Halloween and Christmas. Halloween is second only to Christmas in the amount of decorations sold for a holiday. Many homes are strung with Halloween lights throughout the month of October. These are replaced by Christmas lights sometime during November. But there are no Thanksgiving lights, and few decorations.

Pumpkins, cornucopias, posters of turkeys and pilgrims are sometimes on display in homes and stores for Thanksgiving. But largely, the holiday has become just a kickoff for the Christmas holiday season. It is one of the most underrated holidays, owing to its calendar position halfway between the two commercial big ones.

It’s kind of like those unfortunate folks whose birthday falls on or near Christmas day. Even if they are given birthday parties and presents, it all just blends together into one holiday celebration and sometimes gets completely muddled.

I guess the question really is whether or not starting the holiday season earlier gives us more opportunities to enjoy and appreciate the most festive time of year. Or does it just give us more time to become sick of it before the big day even arrives?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Format Wars are Disservice to Consumers

Format wars – they are a menace to the consumer and everyone knows it. Well maybe not everyone; there are, of course, the money-grubbing industry players who manufacture the warring formats of various consumer media products. The electronics companies have always put their own proprietary narcissism before the good of their customers.

Format wars are the things that make consumers choose between two competing formats of a particular technology, knowing that if they should choose the ultimate loser, they will have sunk perhaps hundreds of dollars into a device that is prematurely obsolete, not because of poor design or technological prowess but because of market pressures.

The first real format war in which there was ultimately a clear winner was fought in the 1970s and early ‘80s. Video tape recorders were just becoming popular among consumers, but there were two incompatible formats, VHS and Beta. VHS, which stands for Video Home System, is a system that uses the familiar video tapes everyone is familiar with. Tapes can store up to six hours of video and audio, typically television programming.

The Beta alternative was championed by Sony and could store only five hours. But, according to most videophiles, the Beta produced better quality video and loaded faster into its player.

VHS won that battle. The Beta was relegated to the also-ran hall of fame, along with the 8-track tape. So those who invested in a Sony BetaMax player were stuck with a $700 paperweight.

For audiophiles, the late 1990s brought the beginning of a format war that is still raging. Sony’s Super Audio CD, or SACD, is competing head-to-head against the industry standard DVD-audio format. SACDs look like regular CDs but they contain very high quality sound reproduction and, typically, six channels of audio for surround sound. The discs can only be played on SACD players unless they also contain a standard CD component. These are known as hybrid discs.

The DVD-audio discs are just like DVDs and will play on any DVD player. But to get the best sound reproduction, they must be played on a proprietary DVD-audio player, which delivers uncompressed audio in six channels. DVD-audio discs also typically have some video content, such as lyrics and photos. SACD discs do not.

The latest format war that consumers are now caught in the middle of is the one being waged between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. Both can produce high-definition TV pictures and surround sound audio. But you can’t play an HD-DVD disc in a Blu-Ray player and vice-versa.

Thanks to the Play Station game console, which also plays Blu-Ray discs, the Blu-Ray format has gained ground in the battle. But HD-DVD forces are not giving up. They have waged a counter offensive at Wal-Mart and Best Buy where one HD-DVD player is selling for under $100 for a limited time. The cheapest Blu-Ray player is still around $400.

Movie companies are taking sides in this battle. Most are lining up in the Blu-Ray camp, but some have opted to release their titles only in the HD-DVD format. Some release titles in both formats.

Both formats could coexist in the same market if player manufacturers would produce a hybrid player, one that will play either format. That is what has happened in the DVD-audio vs. SACD war. Several player manufacturers are now producing players that will support either format, so consumers can purchase either type of disc with the surety that whichever one ultimately loses, they can still play it.

So far, no company in the high-definition format war has waved a red flag nor offered a compromise hybrid player. Meanwhile, consumers are still waiting for things to shake out.