Saturday, October 2, 2010

Switching Channels

The motivation behind almost anyone who writes an internet blog is the desire to communicate one’s thoughts, ideas, and opinions to others who chose to read those compositions. But since launching this site in May I have acquired several other outlets for my literary urges.

First, I am now writing a weekly opinion column for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, which more than amply imposes my personal viewpoints on a sufficient audience. Those few souls outside of Northeast Wisconsin who still thirst for my weekly bombastic musings can follow them online each Monday at in the “Opinion” section.

Second, I’ve just released my book Who’s to Blame? – Living along society’s “fault” line. Therein lies the summation of my lifelong inquiry into why we are addicted to the blame game, the costs of participation, and how we can quit the habit. I sincerely believe anyone who reads this book will end up changing their life for the better. You can find the book at

Third, I’ve set up a Facebook page “Who’s to Blame?” wherein I hope to foster interactive discussion about blame. Ideally, those willing to share experiences in which they’ve been blamed can help everyone else learn about how to deal with blame. To the extent that venue generates strong lessons I will likely post those stories back onto this blog with attendant commentary.

So I’d like to temporarily sign-off this communication channel for now with a sincere “thank you” for the time you’ve committed to reading its contents. Any resurrection of this blog will be announced on the related Facebook page. Meanwhile, I hope you will follow along on one of these other venues, and help wean Society off the blame habit.

Friday, September 24, 2010

My pledge to you...

This week GOP leadership in the House of Representatives produced a 21-page document they call the Pledge to America. I downloaded the document and took the time to read through it. This move is obviously politically motivated. (All concerted actions by either party are politically motivated.) Predictably, the document is full of patriotic euphemisms, political rhetoric, and vague statements. But it does commit its authors to a set of beliefs and even some specific legislative actions.

As you’d expect, Democratic critics immediately denounced the entire document with a bunch of their own vague, evasive rhetoric. But of more interest and significance, a number of right-wing political pundits jumped all over the pledge wondering why Republicans would want to pigeon-hole themselves into specific future direction. Their logic is that by focusing on what the Democrats are doing wrong (in the economy, border security, foreign policy, and ignoring voters) they will win seats in the coming congressional elections. If Republicans state what they will do, then the Democrats will be able to shift the focus away from their own deficiencies and simply rip holes in the Republican strategy, maybe preserving seats in the process.


Probably no other institution in our society thrives so intensely on blame as our two-party political system. By the time John Adams faced off with Thomas Jefferson in the first Presidential campaign, political strategists began to realize that blaming the other party for national problems was the key to winning votes.

This current GOP strategy of a “Pledge to America” may, or may not, be smart political theory. Its framers obviously believe it will garner favor with voters as did the Republican “Contract with America” a generation ago. But conventional political advisors worry that it takes on accountability and surrenders their attack opportunity. This is an interesting deviation from the norm. Blame (which is the tried and true strategy) is an abdication of responsibility. This pledge lays out in writing, for all to see, the GOP commitments. It will be tough to deny these statements two years from now if they are not achieved, or if they produce poor results.

Whether you consider yourself a liberal or conservative, I think this sort of pledge is exactly what we need from any party. It gives us, the voters, a specification of what we can expect from that party. We get to evaluate those promises, then vote the direction we believe will take us in the right direction – sort of like when you compare bids on two different contractors to re-do your bathroom. We also get a subsequent basis for accountability two years down the road. Did we get what we paid for? Would we hire them again?

Our democracy has survived for over 200 years with the blame game being the dominant political mantra. So, maybe it will survive another 200 years using the same techniques. But wouldn’t you sooner evaluate a few written proposals than watch months of grotesque, mud-slinging, attack ads on television?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Step Right Up

Last Tuesday, primary elections were held in many states around the country. On average, about 25% of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots. What prevented the other three out of every four people from bothering to vote? I’m sure some couldn’t find the extra 5 minutes in their pre-work or after-work schedules. I’m sure some didn’t want to go out in the rain. Some others probably completely forgot. Some likely didn’t have a clue who the candidates were. And then there were probably a bunch that just didn’t care.

On Saturday, parliamentary elections were held in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, in an attempt to disrupt the elections, made it clear that anyone who tried to vote was putting their life on the line. Polling places were bombed. Rockets were launched into civilian neighborhoods and city centers to scare people into staying in their homes. Yet, about 25% of Afghan citizens risked death to get to the polls and cast their vote.

Two points about this contrast really stand out for me. First, America is supposed to be the beacon of democracy in the world. We hold ourselves out as the example for others to follow, and we try to convert the rest of the world to our democratic ideals. But the ugly reality is that most Americans have lost their appreciation for what we have. We thump our chests about “land of the free” but quietly shirk the responsibilities that go along with that freedom. It’s much easier to simply whine about the country being headed “in the wrong direction” as survey polls often indicate, than to spend the time and effort learning about our candidates and issues, electing the most qualified ones, then guiding their actions through our feedback.

The second point is that those Americans who did not vote are probably most likely to be the ones complaining that they are somehow “disenfranchised” by our society. (That seems to be the popular banner of victimization today – is it not?) They are disgruntled that our government does not take adequate care of their special interest. Yet, they shirk the responsibility to organize around their interest and seek solutions to attaining whatever objective they desire. Whatever your level of agreement or disagreement with the ideals of America’s Tea Party movement, you have to admire their ambition in gathering like-minded people, defining their vision, and promoting political candidates who support that vision. That’s a lot tougher than sitting back and whining about being “disenfranchised.”

This truly is a nation of opportunity. But opportunity remains unattainable unless you are willing to mount the campaign to seize it. If you don’t take the time to get involved in our democracy, then don’t complain about the direction it takes.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Who's in Charge Here?

Why do some people seem to be chronic “blamers” while other people accept the tough situations the world throws at them? Is it possible that those with a certain psychological profile exhibit a greater propensity towards blame? If so, a possible place to begin looking is within a concept called “locus of control.” Largely attributed to Julian Rotter’s work in the 1960’s, locus of control essentially means that some people view their experiences as a result of forces outside of themselves (an external locus of control) while other people believe that they control their own destiny (an internal locus of control). For example, one traveler (external locus of control) who just missed his airline flight might believe that the cause was due to the traffic jam on the way to the airport, the long lines at security, and the date being Friday the 13th. At the same time the other traveler (internal locus of control) who missed the same flight is saying to herself, “I knew I shouldn’t have hit the ‘snooze’ button on my alarm for the third time.”

Rotter proposed that we all lie somewhere along a continuum. Those at the “external” extreme believe that events occurring in their lives are largely beyond their influence, and that fate, or destiny, or the gods, or luck, determine what happens. Those at the “internal” extreme believe that events are primarily due to the actions they’ve taken to shape those outcomes. Most people do not lie at the extremes, but probably do have a tendency to lean one way or the other. (There are several fun and informative online surveys you can take - some free, some not - to determine your own locus of control.) Try the one at:

What might this have to do with blame? In general, those with an internal locus of control are less likely to blame others when things go wrong. They believe that their own actions have contributed to or shaped the current problem in some way and are quick to begin looking for how to change the situation instead of blaming. Those with an external locus of control are more likely to blame forces outside of themselves for the problem. They believe that some person or event is responsible for the problem and that they are merely the victims of circumstance.

Bert and Ernie were each recently issued speeding tickets while driving along a 4-lane boulevard in a commercial district. The speed zone was 25 miles-per-hour. They were both ticketed for going 40. Both were frustrated. However, Bert (an external) blamed the municipality for setting such a low speed limit on such a wide-open street; he blamed the officer for not considering the lack of other traffic at the time; he blamed the person whom he was driving to meet (if not for that appointment he wouldn’t have been there); and he blamed all the other speeding drivers who didn’t get ticketed. Ernie (an internal) said to himself, “Dang, I finally got caught.”

Next time you find yourself blaming someone else for your misfortune, think about whether you are feeling in charge of your destiny or feeling a victim of circumstance. Then, think about what you could have done to alter the situation.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Church Controversies and American History

Note: The post below was published in the Green Bay Press-Gazette. However, several key concepts were edited out. So here is the full, unedited version.

Today’s controversy surrounding the proposed mosque near ground zero has an interesting parallel dating back to colonial Boston. Most early Bostonian colonists were Puritans, having fled England to escape persecution by the Church of England. To emphasize the ideological canyon between themselves and Anglicans, Puritans called their places of worship “meeting houses” instead of “churches.” They also banned public Anglican worship within Boston. However, not every resident of Boston was Puritan. Royalists, who were typically appointees of King James II to various colonial positions, often remained faithful Anglicans. Naturally, they wanted their own place of worship.

By 1685 tensions between the Puritans and Anglican King reached a breaking point. The King revoked Massachusetts’ charter of self-governance, and installed a Royal Governor (Sir Edmond Andros) with full authority over the colony. Governor Andros quickly organized an Anglican congregation and demanded that Boston Puritans sell land from their first cemetery to the congregation for a church. The Puritans refused as the cemetery contained the remains of their first generation settlers and was thus considered sacred ground. Exercising his legal might, Andros used eminent domain to confiscate a portion of the cemetery, then dug up and moved the remains of those buried there.

A few years later, when King James was overthrown, Bostonians imprisoned Governor Andros, then, sent him back to England. But by then, the Anglican church had established itself and found acceptance within the community. Although the original wooden church was eventually replaced with a more elaborate granite structure, and the congregation evolved into America’s first Unitarian congregation, King’s Chapel, and its legacy, still remains a vibrant part of Boston’s community.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the lessons that can be learned from those who’ve gone before us. With each new crisis or controversy we face, there seems to be a relevant parallel in our not-too-distant past. Drawing from the story of King’s Chapel I’ve come to this conclusion:

Construction of this Muslim center is an important step in surfacing the underground debate about Islam in America. Visibility into the operations of this center will be unprecedented because of the publicity received. Why not allow its members to show us their true colors? We’ve been promised a multi-cultural center where all are welcome to come, learn, and share. Perhaps this becomes the place where an American brand of Islam takes root that publicly denounces Sharia, Jihad, oppression of women, stoning, and all the traits that run counter to American ideals. Evolution of other religions has pivoted on similar events. If this turns out to be true, then the “sensitivities of families of 9/11 victims” will have been unfounded – much as the paranoia towards Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. In this case we can score one for American-style freedom and the wisdom of our forefathers in creating the First Amendment.

If, on the other hand, this center becomes the breeding ground for radical elements of Islam, and anti-American sentiment, then Muslim credibility will have been seriously eroded, and we will need to begin debate on whether Islam is right for America.

Governor Andros, who defied colonial Boston, was disgraced and deported back to England. But the church once viewed as unacceptable to Bostonians has now become a celebrated part of its heritage. Let’s see what comes of the current project. This may be a defining moment for America, and for its Muslim community.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Not so fast!

This past Sunday eight people were killed and more than a dozen injured at an off-road race in California’s Mojave Desert. One of the competing trucks crested a hill, became airborne and lost control, then rolled into the crowd. Definitely a tragic Sunday for all involved. So, who’s to blame?

Let me be clear, I’m not asking, “Who’s to pay?” Lawyers will have a field day with this one, and damage awards will easily be in the tens of millions. Our tort system of legal liability dilutes our sense of personal responsibility, replaces it with a culture of victimization, and fuels blame for tragic incidents like this. Most likely those with the deepest pockets will pay, because that is the system of laws we have developed. But who is really responsible for the deaths and injuries?

The main players are: (1) The Bureau of Land Management who approved the race on federal property, (2) Mojave Desert Racing, who organized the event, and signed an agreement that they’d be “responsible for the safety of participants and spectators,” (3) Brett Sloppy, the driver, whose racing rules included “slowing to 15 mph when passing within 50 feet of any social group,” and (4) the hundreds of spectators, who ignored the 100-foot safety setbacks and stood within touching distance of the racing vehicles.

Watching the amateur video of the crash reveals this was a senseless tragedy. There was no evil terrorist intending to kill and maim people. Just typical human craziness. Off-road vehicles bouncing across desert terrain at high speed, combined with crowds pressing into the race course, seems like a recipe for disaster.

Seeing this, the event organizer likely sensed the risks. Calling off the race would have been the smart move. Why wasn’t it called? At the moment, that would not have been an easy decision. The promoter would have incurred the wrath of the racers, the spectators, and any live television coverage. And he would likely have faced personal financial losses in the six-figure range. Moreover, this type of situation had been occurring at many off-road races and had squeaked by without incident. Poor judgment – definitely. Contributory responsibility - certainly. But somewhat understandable.

The driver certainly knew that loss of control is common in such races. Why did he continue to push the limit when crowds were lined on both sides of his path? In the heat of competition race drivers tend to focus on one thing – winning. Slow down, even for a moment and you become the loser. Besides, other vehicles had passed through here in front of him. Poor judgment and contributory responsibility – definitely. But also understandable.

I really have to wonder, though, about the hundreds of spectators who willingly walked past the safety barriers and stood arm’s length from 2-ton chunks of iron hurtling past in uncontrollable conditions. Aren’t they ultimately responsible for their own demise? The lawyers seeking damages will portray these people as innocent victims. But if one ignores all sense of self-preservation is he still innocent? Doesn’t putting oneself into clear and present danger mean taking responsibility for the possible outcome? Certainly there was mob mentality at play: “Everyone else is doing it.” And I’m sure the adrenaline rush was extreme. But it seems that the spectators demonstrated no judgment at all, had the most immediate control over their own fate, and thus are ultimately responsible for the tragedy.

The Bureau of Land Management announced yesterday it would no longer permit this race in the future. In a world where we increasingly need to guard ourselves against liability for the dumb actions of others their decision is understandable.

If you take to the streets in the annual running of the bulls should you expect to blame the event organizers when you are gored by a bull? I suppose sooner or later that tradition will be eliminated as well. At one time or another we all seek thrills. And once in awhile we all do dumb things. Too bad we just can’t accept the outcome when it happens. I guess the option is to live in a totally padded, protected, and monitored world where all risks are systemically eliminated.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Am I Blue? (Jet Blue, that is)

Blame is influenced by a number of situational variables. One of those variables is the blamer’s degree of empathy with the situation. If the blamer is very familiar with a situation and the circumstances around it, the degree of blame attributed to the “culprit” is likely to be lessened or eliminated altogether. So, in Wisconsin, when someone slides their car off the road in a winter blizzard, most local folks don’t get too worked up about it because many have been there, and everyone has almost been there. They understand how it can happen.

In contrast, when a situation is foreign and unfamiliar, blame tends to be more severe. If a pilot slides his airplane off the runway in the same blizzard, even without noticeable damage or injury, a lot of finger pointing takes place. Most people aren’t familiar with the cockpit environment, and they don’t realize that it’s much harder to control a large airplane at 150 miles per hour on an icy runway, than a car at 50 on an icy road.

This week when a JetBlue flight attendant blew his cool, cussed at a passenger over the intercom, then opened the airplane door and jumped out the escape chute, reaction by the general public was pretty forgiving. Flight attendants are trained to be calm and collected, and are supposed to be the vanguard of in-flight passenger issues, coping with any kind of emergency that arises. Well, Steven Slater wasn’t. He also violated some pretty serious airport security regulations by running out onto the tarmac.

But instead of blame, the public made Slater a momentary folk hero. Within the day a Facebook page was set up honoring Slater, and thousands of fans weighed in. News commentators on all the networks shared humorous quips about the incident. Why? Because anyone who has flown more than once or twice can relate with the crazy intensity that accompanies boarding and de-planing on today’s airlines. Even a routine flight requires a solid dose of patience to cope with people cramming the overhead bins with their oversized carry-ons, then trying to jump out of their seats 15 seconds before the plane docks to grab that carry-on and heave it to the floor (before anyone else can even stand up). So, even though Slater is the one who lost it, most of us have secretly harbored thoughts of playing out similar reactions.

If a baggage handler who got fed up with overstuffed bags popping open on the tarmac decided to park his tow motor in front of an arriving airliner, and blocked it’s access to the gate, we might be more inclined to blame him for his actions. We’re simply not as familiar with the frustrations of the job.

I certainly don’t blame Slater for his actions. They’re perfectly understandable to me. And the passenger involved in the altercation probably had it coming. However, you can have accountability without blame. And this is a good example.

Slater was a 20-year veteran of a job that requires enormous self-discipline. His actions totally disregarded the interests of all the other passengers on the plane. We can all appreciate the exhilaration of the moment. But Slater should be terminated from his job, and pay whatever appropriate consequences result from his security infractions.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Decisions Have Consequences

Assigning blame for something that has gone wrong feels like the righteous application of accountability. We believe we have identified the “culprit” who caused the problem, and punishment solves (or at least resolves) the problem. This is understandable since, when things go wrong, we feel victimized. But in reality we are often victims of our own choices and decisions. Blame then becomes the abdication of personal responsibility for the event.

Recently a middle-aged woman competing in a triathlon suffered a massive heart attack during the swimming portion of the event, and died. The family is now suing the event organizers, blaming them for the death, and seeking unspecified compensatory damages. The petitioners allege the event organizers did not have enough life guards stationed along the swim route to respond quickly enough to save the woman.

The pain of the family, and their sense of victimization, is understandable. Mom was taken from them in the prime of her life. But are the event organizers truly to blame for this death? When one competes in an intense activity aren’t the risks implied? If someone bungee-jumps off a bridge and is injured or killed, should the bridge owner be held liable for not providing adequate medical response? To what extent are we responsible for the outcome of our own voluntary behaviors and choices? If we stick our finger in a flame we know it will get burned. But if we stick our finger in the flame of a gas stove, and it gets burned, why do we blame the stove manufacturer?

Each year an organization called The Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch holds a contest and awards recognition for the wackiest warning labels that have resulted from lawsuits predicated on victimization and its abdication of personal responsibility. When a five-inch fishing lure with three large steel hooks requires a label that reads, “Harmful if swallowed,” or when a washing machine at a Laundromat requires a label that reads, “Do not put any person in this washer,” or when a baby stroller requires a label that reads, “Remove child before folding,” then we have evidence that we’ve become a society that abdicates personal responsibility in favor of blame.

So, the next time you are about to blame someone for something, ask yourself, “In what way did I contribute to this outcome?” You may discover that you are the victim of your own decisions.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Presidency Goes Tabloid

Some people complain about the President taking vacation when America faces so many unsolved issues. But if a President is spending 14 hours a day, seven days a week, tending to the fate of America, then I think periodic retreats are essential to remaining effective. If, on the other hand, he’s using the office as his personal fantasy-land to impose personal ideology, wield enormous power, increase his own celebrity status, exploit the perks of the position, and gain individual capital that can be converted to financial wealth after leaving office, well, then extravagant Air Force One vacations are just another abuse. You can be the judge of how any individual President is using his office.

But why should any President of the United States spend his time making an appearance on a gossipy daytime talk show like The View?

Is it to communicate important information to the public? At any time of his choosing, when important information needs to be communicated directly, the President of the United States can make a broadcast address to the entire world that will be carried on all major news outlets. No other person in the world has access to such communication power. Presidents have used this mode of communication for as long as we’ve had instantaneous media. The President also delivers a weekly address to comment on current issues. In addition, he has a full-time press secretary who makes daily briefings to the press corps to share any relevant information.

Is it because there’s nothing more important on his plate at the moment? Let’s see… The economy is in the tank. Our national debt is rising millions of dollars every hour. Soldiers are dying in Afghanistan trying to stabilize a nation where most of the population would like to see America destroyed. Our borders are wide open to human and drug traffickers crossing by the thousands, and completely accessible to terrorist infiltration. Iran and North Korea are posing such a nuclear threat that sales of personal bomb shelters are skyrocketing. Our national transportation infrastructure is crumbling. Hmmm, maybe spending a half-day making an appearance chatting with the girls on The View is not the highest and best use of his time.

Unless, of course, the purpose of the visit is self-promotion and propaganda. Polls show the President losing favor among one of his strong political bases – women. So, get on The View, turn on the charm, and tell the audience how everything is going in the right direction. Yes, forget about all the real issues. Let’s make sure we prop up those sagging poll numbers.

If citizens of the United States tolerate this from their President, then they are to blame for the sad state of current affairs.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Life in the Fast Lane

When you write a blog you sometimes wonder if anyone is reading your masterpieces of intellectual discourse. The urge to throw in something off-the-wall is tempting. I wonder if anyone will notice?

So… Who’s to blame for the unfortunate lock-up of America’s starlet, Lindsay Lohan? Restrained in that tiny little cell, surrounded by felons and criminals, the distraught woman is “doing the best she can” according to her lawyer, Shawn Chapman Holley. OMG! She may need to spend 13 or 14 days in that horrible place where she needs to pay $1.33 for her own bag of pork cracklins.

This is a travesty of the American justice system. How could a celebrity of Ms. Lohan’s stature be forced to spend two weeks in the slammer for something so innocent as, like, you-know, driving under the influence, violating her parole conditions, and failing to show up promptly for her court appearance? If the Supreme Court wasn’t weighted in favor of old conservative guys, maybe they would agree to hear an appeal. And what about the President? Couldn’t he issue a pardon? Presidents always do that at the end of their terms, why not now?

At least she’s arranged a 7-figure contract for a television interview upon her release, and will share all the dreadful stories of her incarceration. At least that’s some consolation. (It will help pay for those port cracklins.) And I’m sure a book deal and movie rights will follow. We’re all to blame when someone as precious as Lindsay is treated like a common criminal. Search your hearts. Then send your non-tax-deductible gift to the Lohan Foundation for Celebrity Lifestyles.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Guess who's coming to dinner?

Recently, Americans have divided themselves into two camps again. I guess a two-party political system does that to people. We either shout-out to support our Democrat-supplied viewpoint, or counter-argue with our Republican-supplied viewpoint. Either way, very little creative, independent thinking takes place. This time, the camps are about whether Arizona’s immigration law is: (a) a courageous response to the federal government’s failure to secure the border, or (b) a renegade, racist attempt to profile minorities that usurps federal powers. So, one camp promotes boycotting Arizona – don’t hold your conventions there, don’t buy products made in Arizona, don’t allow the Major League Baseball all-star game to be held there. At the same time, the other camp is contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to Arizona’s legal defense fund. This seems to be a lot of unnecessary energy spent on the issue, since our court system will ultimately decide the outcome anyway. But I guess it’s like rooting for your favorite soccer team in the World Cup – emotions greatly overweight common sense. Fans of sporting events also spend a lot of energy thumping their chests about which team is best. But, ultimately, the outcome of the game will determine who wins and who loses. So I’m just going to enjoy the spectacle.

What does concern me about the illegal immigration debate, is that it’s so heavily focused on racial issues and illegal workers. Yes, these are important issues for America to resolve. But they’re also distracting us from a much bigger concern. America today faces one of the most insidious enemies encountered in our brief 250-year history. And that enemy, of course, is al-Qaeda. For the past nine years we’ve been waging a “war on terror” largely focused on the middle-east and south-central Asia. Currently we are committing enormous resources (both fiscal, and American blood) to eliminating al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. And if we manage to clear Afghanistan, (outcome uncertain) our politicians in control at that time will declare “mission accomplished.” However, al-Qaeda will simply have shifted their major center of operations somewhere else. After all, there are a lot of lawless territories in this world.

Which brings me back to our immigration policy with Mexico. What good does intense screening of passengers at airports do in preventing terrorist entry to the U.S.? They can simply walk across the border by the hundreds from Mexico. Do we think al-Qaeda leadership is so stupid they haven’t already figured this out? Do we think that the drug and human trafficking cartels of northern Mexico aren’t perfect allies for the strategic interests of al-Qaeda? We are exposing ourselves to perhaps the greatest threat to national security in American history, and we don’t seem to care. But I will guarantee this much: when the next major terrorist attack happens in America, (and it will), everyone will once again be playing the blame game. The mayhem, loss of life, collapse of our financial markets, and all the other side effects, will need to be pinned on some scapegoat who failed to prevent it. But the primary cause will be our collective lack of attention to an uncontrolled border. When will we learn that we create our own destiny by the wisdom or foolishness of our own decisions?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Al Greene sings the campaign blues

Complaining about politicians is a national pastime. We blame them for everything. Then we sit back and respond to surveys whining that the country is headed in the “wrong direction.” But who puts these people in charge? Who gives them the authority to make and enforce laws? Who tells them what direction to go? We do. And we do a pretty lousy job of it. Election time rolls around and we see a few campaign ads on TV, or we catch a few clips of a candidate speech, or we see a picture of the candidate and we decide, “Oh, he/she seems like a nice person. Nice smile. Honest face.” And off we go to the polls. More research and deliberation goes into hiring a waitress at the local truck stop than we put into selecting people for the highest political offices in the nation.

When we “hire” someone as president of the United States we are placing the fate of the nation in the hands of this person. Yet, qualifications take a back seat to “likeability” when election results are tallied. So coming out of the Presidential primaries in the last election we were left with two candidates, neither of which had any serious executive experience. You can argue all day long about whether Obama or McCain was the better choice. But neither of them was objectively qualified for the job, neither had experience running a large organization of any sort; however, both were “likeable guys.” We just don’t take our responsibility as voters seriously.

A few weeks ago South Carolina voters hopefully embarrassed themselves when they elected Alvin Greene as their Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. If you don’t know who Alvin Greene is, then you really need to brush up on what’s happening to our democratic process. But you’re not alone because apparently the 59% of voters who elected him didn’t know who he was either. Alvin Greene is a down-on-his-luck indigent. Unemployed, involuntarily discharged from both the Air Force and Army, facing felony charges for showing pornography to a female college student, barely coherent, Alvin Greene filed campaign papers but didn’t run any kind of campaign. And yet, voters elected him as their Democratic candidate for one of the highest political offices in the nation.

Some are alleging that this must have been some kind of Republican conspiracy because they’re certainly having a field day with this bizarre outcome. But I think there are more frightening explanations. In the midst of the last Presidential primary I was teaching college business courses to juniors and seniors. One day I asked the students in each class to list on paper as many Presidential candidates as they could name. Then I collected the papers. 78% of students knew Hillary Clinton was a candidate. Only 55% of students listed Barack Obama as a candidate. 29% identified Rudy Giuliani, 20% identified John Edwards, 12% identified John McCain, and 12% identified Mitt Romney. Other candidates (Biden, Huckabee, et al) had less than 10% recognition among the students. How could upper-level college students not know who the Presidential candidates were? The answer: Apathy. So, in like fashion, I think many South Carolina voters saw a picture of Greene a day or two before the election (he does look sharp in a suit) and liked him. I think some preferred a black candidate (his opponent was white). Some may have selected his name because it was the first one on the ballot. Some may even have thought that this was the Reverend Al Greene, famous R&B recording artist. But clearly, 59% of the voters didn’t know who the heck they were voting for.

This fall we in the U.S. will elect all our Congressmen, one-third of our Senators, many Governors, and thousands of local officials. Please take the time to learn about your candidates and choose based on their qualifications – not on their smile.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Otis McDonald Gets His Gun

This week in a landmark decision on the American Constitution’s Bill of Rights the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) applies to individuals nation-wide, and not just in federal jurisdictions. The case was brought on behalf of a Chicago resident who wanted to own and keep a handgun in his home for personal protection.

For nearly three decades the City of Chicago outlawed the private ownership of handguns. The rationale for this ban was to minimize violent crime committed with handguns. But as with so many other social policies this control was driven by the search for a simple, black-and-white solution to a complex, systemic problem. Gun control advocates often blame gun ownership for violent crime, but the real problem is crime, not guns.

If we want to solve violent crime we need to alleviate the interrelated underlying causes. Unemployment, poverty, and social ostracism all create incentives to take by force what cannot otherwise be obtained. Weak and ineffective enforcement, including low likelihood of arrest, low conviction rates, and trivial sentencing removes key disincentives. Destructive gang or reference group value systems encourage criminal behaviors. Low quality education inhibits the vision of one’s potential constructive opportunities. And lack of positive intervention systems to assist with mental health and emotional guidance limit the ability for preventive measures. But all of that is rather overwhelming to understand. Trying to fix it all is even more daunting. Wouldn’t it just be easier to ban guns?

Washington D.C. banned handguns in 1977. By the 1990s the murder rate had tripled. In the years since handguns were banned, most murders were committed with handguns.

Chicago imposed the registration of all handguns in 1968. However, murders with handguns continued to rise. To tighten control the city implemented a handgun ban in 1982. Over the next decade handgun-related murders doubled.

With the promise of curbing violence, England confiscated all privately owned pump and semi-automatic shotguns in 1988. By 1998 they had also confiscated all handguns. By 2001 England had the highest violent crime rate among the top 17 industrialized nations.* And in 2002, London's Sunday Times reported that: "Britain's murder rate has risen to its highest level since records began 100 years ago, undermining claims by ministers that they have got violent crime under control."**

Sometimes the search for “Who’s to Blame?” can lead us to inanimate culprits. In the case of violent crime, those who want a simple answer choose to believe that guns are to blame. Until we aim at the right target, we will continue to miss the mark.

* John van Kesteren, Pat Mayhew and Paul Nieuwbeerta, "Criminal Victimization in Seventeen Industrialized Countries: Key findings from the 2000 International Crime Victims Survey," the Hague, Ministry of Justice, WODC, Onderzoek en beleid, nr. 187, 2000.

** A. Travis, "England and Wales Top Crime League," the Guardian, Feb. 23, 2001.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

On the Cover of Rolling Stone

Long, long ago, in a culture far, far away, coverage in Rolling Stone magazine was a coveted symbol of having arrived – at least for budding musicians. Dr Hook’s 1973 hit record portrayed in colorful fashion the glories bestowed upon any musician to attain that milestone. But that was then, this is now. Today one former top military commander is likely regretting his coverage in Rolling Stone.

I’m not sure it’s a good thing for our long-term welfare when a pop-culture, pseudo-news magazine has the ability to directly impact foreign policy – especially military operations. I can envision that capability trending to very scary conclusions. Personally I wish Rolling Stone had stuck with being the flagship media source for the world music scene instead of trying to become the beacon of light for far-left ideology. I guess I’d feel the same if UFO Magazine beamed-down Ben Bernanke from his Federal Reserve position by revealing a bar-room conversation where he considered the possibility that aliens were siphoning off our Treasury funds. To me it’s unsettling that an entity with no expertise in (and highly biased opinions on) critical world affairs can impact them so dramatically. Yet, this week Rolling Stone accomplished what Al Qaeda could not - eliminating the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Few people are thrilled by this outcome (other than the stakeholders at Rolling Stone who reap the financial benefits) because we all realize it’s a black eye for the United States, and even jeopardizes the lives of soldiers in that theatre. But who’s to blame? Michael Hastings, the reporter, was successfully making a name for himself with a shocking article that was a blockbuster for his editors. Rolling Stone is trying to remain viable in a print industry that is struggling for its existence and this piece generated enormous publicity for them. President Obama couldn’t let this pass without undermining long-standing code that military commanders respect the political direction set by their civilian leaders; and, as a politician he undoubtedly calculated the political impact of his decision. Finally, it’s understandable that General McChrystal’s frustration with trying to implement a political strategy (nation-building) using military force would come to the surface in what he believed were confidential moments. So it’s hard to blame any of the individual players.

Many powerful figures throughout history with long records of achievement have been toppled in a few short moments when personal thoughts escaped into the public domain. So General McChrystal is not alone in the consequences for what may have seemed a harmless lapse in prudence. For a while many others will learn from this incident and be more wary of what they say to whom. But eventually another prominent leader will fall victim to the same fate. The most interesting blame question here is this: Most of us have muttered unfavorable comments about our own authority figures, or those with whom we work. But if those comments did not fall into the wrong ears we incurred no consequence. So the blame arises from being exposed, not from the underlying values or beliefs held. What benefit derives from a culture wherein getting caught for expressing understandable and ordinary thoughts can ruin you, while proficiently concealing your thoughts allows you to be a hero? I’d love to read your comments. (But be careful who else sees them!)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Their Finest Hour

Seventy years ago today England faced a spreading calamity that threatened to wash up on its shores and destroy not only the livelihood of coastal residents, but the existence of British sovereignty itself. No, it wasn’t an oil spill, but the rapid expansion of the Nazi Empire. Big mistakes had been made that contributed to this threat. A month earlier as Hitler moved against Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France the Allies possesed superior forces in place to defend against the attack. But the German “blitzkrieg” of swift movement and coordinated communications caught the Allied commanders off guard. Rapidly pushed back to the coast near Dunkirk, 338,000 British and French troops only escaped annihilation through a miraculous evacuation across the channel. On June 17 France sued for peace, which allowed Hitler to shift his focus to Britain. An uproar echoed throughout the country, “Who was to blame for this blunder that now exposed England to potential doom?”

Prime Minister Winston Churchill could easily have blamed the French for bumbled strategic decisions. He could have blamed his own military planners for not anticipating Germany’s actions. He could have blamed previous administrations for not preventing the rise of the Nazi machine. Instead, on June 18, 1940 he appeared before the House of Commons and appealed for suspension of blame and a re-directed focus on moving forward. His speech was perhaps one of the most stirring examples of a leader setting aside blame, laying out the current predicament, and calling for unity in the face of a dark and ominous threat with uncertain outcomes. After a brief synopsis of how the predicament had evolved, Churchill said,
Now I put all this aside. I put it on the shelf, from which the historians, when they have time, will select their documents to tell their stories. We have to think of the future and not of the past. This also applies in a small way to our own affairs at home. There are many who would hold an inquest in the House of Commons on the conduct of the Governments--and of Parliaments, for they are in it, too--during the years which led up to this catastrophe. They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This also would be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine. Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.

After outlining the risks faced and assessing the resources available to counter a potential German invasion Churchill went on to allay any blame directed towards France.
However matters may go in France or with the French Government . . . we in this Island and in the British Empire will never lose our sense of comradeship with the French people. If we are now called upon to endure what they have been suffering, we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains, aye, and freedom shall be restored to all.

Instead of trying to assure citizens that everything was under control Churchill said,
. . . if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

I made the mistake of watching some of yesterday’s Congressional hearing (or blame-fest) of BP’s CEO. There was no sign of the kind of leadership portrayed by Churchill seventy years ago today. Only bleats of victimization by fearful sheep, and pot-shots of opportunism by those hoping to win favor in the media. The blame game continues. You can find the full text of Churchill’s speech where I did, at:

Friday, June 11, 2010

Oil in the Gulf - 2

Another Fine Mess was a 1930 film by Laurel and Hardy. It also aptly describes the Gulf oil spill which has turned into a comedy of blame. Even President Obama played a starring role with his “ass-kicking” rhetoric suggesting that BP President Tony Hayward should be fired. Time magazine unveiled its “Dirty Dozen” culprits to blame for the oil spill. Not surprisingly the list included people from BP, Haliburton, Transocean, Minerals Management Service, along with Obama, George Bush, Dick Cheney, and the American Driver.

But perhaps we should all take a deep breath and suspend finger pointing for a moment so we might actually learn a few things. Clearly nobody on the planet was prepared for this spill – not BP, not the government, not Gulf shore communities. Why should they be prepared – nobody expected this. So it is not surprising that those trying to battle this disaster are struggling. No proven technology or strategy existed to deal with this situation. There are probably a number of people who anticipated the possibility, but how does a minority voice warning of calamity convince a large oil producing and consuming system to take heed? We have a huge oil-thirsty nation demanding cheap fuel, pushing global producers to find and process oil as quickly and inexpensively as they can, while at the same time providing shareholders with an acceptable return on their investment. None of this is bad. But that is who we are.

If you think a comprehensive spill response system should have been ready to go, who should have developed and paid for this multi-billion dollar contingency that nobody expected to need? BP? If so, then Chevron, Exxon-Mobile, and Shell should all have paid for duplicate systems. Do you really think that shareholders would have sacrificed their returns for a few quarters to develop a system that no one expected to need? Should an oil industry cooperative have been formed to do this? Should the Gulf coast states with the most at risk have been responsible? How about the federal government? The reality is that we don’t spend much time, energy, and money preparing for events we don’t think have a high likelihood of occurring. And yet, unlikely stuff happens.

There have been thoughtful discussions about risk that have led to decisions. Some believed that drilling close to the coastline was too risky and that we should drill way out on the “deepwater horizon.” Others who thought deepwater drilling was too risky were overruled. Some people believe that any offshore drilling is too risky so we should import our oil from the Middle East. Others believe that depending on foreign sources creates too many risks and that we need to tap our own sources. Some believe we should wean ourselves from oil dependence, others are not willing to give up our behemoth SUVs. All of these decisions create risks. And it is the “collective we” who make these decisions.

BP is accountable for this leak, but are they really the enemy as CNN contends? Aren’t they the ones we are relying on to stop this leak? And after all, who is BP? BP is not some obscure demon, but a few thousand regular people trying to produce oil products. And the shareholders are not simply rich capitalists living in opulence. Look inside your 401(k) or pension and see how many of you actually own shares of BP. If you think BP is the enemy I suggest you consider the quote from the cartoon strip Pogo, “We have seen the enemy and they is us.”

Friday, June 4, 2010

Oil in the Gulf

Blame is about “who dunnit.” Causes are about “what happened.” As problems get more complex they no longer lend themselves to simple black & white explanations. “What happened” may expand beyond our mental capacity to comprehend. And if the consequences are tragic the pressure to nail it on a culprit increases. That way we can rest easy knowing justice has been served. But often hundreds or thousands of people had at least a cameo role in the plot.

The images of dolphin carcasses and dying pelicans coming out of the gulf coast are infuriating, and our gut reaction is finding who’s to blame. (Yesterday a commentator on CNN actually said, “BP is the enemy.”) But if you want to blame someone for the gulf oil spill you can pick from a wide-ranging menu. Let me offer people who:
  • manufactured the shut-off valve that was out of commission
  • allowed the well to operate knowing that the valve was out of commission
  • built the platform that wasn’t supposed to sink
  • believed that any oil platform was unsinkable
  • issued permits for platform operation
  • were involved in the initial explosion
  • poured so much water on the platform as to cause it to sink
  • designed rigid piping from the well-head to the surface instead of flex tubing
  • designed each of the failed attempts to stop the leak
  • executed each of the failed attempts to stop the leak
  • should have anticipated this type of disaster
  • should have spent the money on preemptive solutions for this kind of hazard
  • pushed for restricting oil drilling to deep water environments
  • drive cars that use oil
  • dug the first oil well in 1859 and switched us all off of whale oil
  • are members of BP, Transocean, or Halliburton management
  • are BP, Transocean, or Halliburton shareholders
  • work for the Departments of Interior, Homeland Security, Energy, Coast Guard
  • are members of Congress
  • are named Barack Obama
  • are named George Bush
Everyone on this list (and more) played at least a supporting role in the disaster. The interesting thing about complex events is that they involve many interconnected links. Often, if you remove one of those links the entire event fails to materialize. So, perhaps if someone on the assembly line where the errant shut-off valve was produced had rejected a certain spring or bushing and installed a different one there wouldn’t be any leak. Or perhaps if foam was used instead of water in fighting the fire, the rig might not have sunk. Or perhaps if we had all taken up the challenge to reduce our dependence on oil after the shortages in the 1970s this rig might never have been built. This tragic event is the result of many, complex, interconnected pieces. Pinning the blame on someone may feel good. And maybe more significantly, blaming someone takes us off the hook for our role in this mess. But sending someone to the gallows does nothing to improve our understanding of the problem, find a solution, or prevent a reoccurrence.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Conflict Near Gaza

In my last post I stated: “It is our own willingness to be caught up in these kinds of blame that provide the political, financial, and human support necessary to wage war.” I didn’t realize that within 48 hours an incident near the Gaza strip would ignite an intense example of such emotionally-charged finger-pointing, or that so much of the world would get caught up in the blame. Over the weekend the Israeli navy intercepted a flotilla of boats attempting to run a naval blockade and deliver aid to Palestinian residents of Gaza. On one of the boats an Israeli boarding party was attacked while rappelling from helicopters and responded by opening fire. Nine people on the boat were killed. In the following 24 hours the Turkish president condemned the incident as a bloody massacre and violent protests broke out across Europe and the Middle East.

This incident is full of errors and situational mistakes on both sides. It was the ninth time this aid organization tried to forcefully run Israel’s naval blockade. Israeli intelligence misjudged the cargo. The aid organization ignored warnings it would be intercepted and refused to route the cargo through an Israeli port for inspection. Members on one of the six boats attacked the Israeli boarding party. Israeli forces were not prepared for physical resistance to their boarding efforts, so ended up using lethal force instead of riot-suppression tactics like tear gas. Moreover, this particular incident is only one small act in a much larger, and much more complex story with root causes going back nearly a half-century. Consider this brief background:
· 1967 - Israel seizes control of the Gaza area as part of the Middle East War. For the following 27 years continual conflict waged between the Palestinian residents and Jewish settlers.
· 1994 – Israel officially recognizes the Palestinian Authority and withdraws its military from the population centers but continues to control the borders.
· 2000 – An uprising of Palestinian residents in Gaza begins launching rockets into Israel. Israel responds with military strikes.
· 2005 – Israel evacuates all Jewish settlements in Gaza and withdraws all troops.
· 2007 – Hamas seizes control from the Fatah ruling party. Israel closes its borders and imposes a blockade of Gaza to prevent the build-up of arms by Hamas. However, the blockade also creates severe economic hardship on the residents of Gaza.
· 2008 – Israel allows six boats of aid into Gaza but suspects that shipments also contain weapons. In December Israel invades Gaza in an attempt to halt years of rocket fire. But the conflict further impoverishes Gaza’s population.
· 2009 – Israeli navy captures one boat headed to Gaza and blocks two additional flotillas.

The accumulated emotions of the Palestinians and Israelis living within this scenario understandably drive them to blame each other for every new incident. But nobody is really to blame. And there is no innocent victim. Over the past 50 years an enormous number of individual decisions and actions taken by individual people have brought us to the present moment. Each of those individuals thought they were doing the right thing to support their cause at the time. But many of those actions aggravated the larger problem. Solving the conflict will require thoughtful solutions that provide for the economic welfare of Gaza residents while also providing for Israel’s security against cross-border rocket and terrorist attacks. It will also require dissipation of the hatred built up between both parties.

Those of us watching from the outside have a moral obligation to mitigate blame and to call for calm, rational thinking focused on a viable agreement over Gaza. Incendiary protests or inflammatory patronization of one side while blaming the other only hardens positions and drives further escalation of the conflict. To that extent we become partially responsible for the aggression. Blame is a powerful emotional reaction when things go wrong. It stokes our sense of righteousness. It allows us to vent our frustrations on the chosen scapegoat. But it doesn’t solve problems.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Memorial Day

In the United States we dedicate the last Monday of May in honor of all American soldiers killed in combat throughout our history. First celebrated nation-wide in May of 1868 after America’s bloody Civil War, Memorial Day attained official national holiday status by a congressional declaration in 1971. Today many Americans view Memorial Day as a kick-off to the summer season – a three day weekend for camping, boating, parades, festivals, and home cook-outs. In a moment of reflection some might also pause to consider the 627,000 Americans whose lives were snuffed out in military combat. Each year I’m one of those who, while being thankful for the courageous sacrifices paid by those defendants of American ideals, can’t help but wonder, “Who’s to blame for this carnage?”

Of all the bad things that happen in life, war may be the most difficult to truly understand. Ordinary people all over the world share much more in common than any ideological differences they may possess. They all raise families whom they love, they all strive for some kind of happy existence, they all want to feel respected. What drives them to hate each other to the point of mass slaughter? I must confess I find it hard not to blame the rulers of the opposing forces. Those who initiate war in order to expand an empire or propagate an ideological belief seem pretty blameworthy for the ensuing destruction. But waging war all by oneself is a difficult proposition. What dynamics convince a collection of ordinary people to assault a neighboring country or tribe, or even to turn upon their own people in civil war? Such hatred is often spawned by blame. We blame the “enemy” for their failure to honor our chosen religious deity, for their immoral way of life, for their undeserved wealth and conspicuous consumption, for their disregard of civil rights, for trying to undermine our economic stability, for adulterating our race, for spreading their ideology, or for resisting our ideology. It is our own willingness to be caught up in these kinds of blame that provide the political, financial, and human support necessary to wage war.

You might respond that half of those killed in war are defending themselves from aggression, and I can buy that argument to some extent. But history has shown that the best defense is more aggression than the opposition can muster. So when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese fleet in 1941, the result was escalating aggression that concluded with the nuclear annihilation of two entire Japanese cities. On that week in August of 1945 millions of Americans at home were routinely going about their business, and I doubt most of them were feeling particularly threatened by the residents of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. But they clearly blamed Japan for the war in the Pacific and had developed sufficient hatred to self-justify the horrible toll in human life.

As long as humanity wages war, we will need courageous soldiers willing to risk their lives in preservation of the principles our societies deem essential. And it is right that we honor those who have made that ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield. A “Memorial Day” should be a solemn moment of recognition. But let us also contemplate how we can allow ourselves to develop the animosity needed to wage war against others – others who are, at their core, so much like ourselves. Without that aggression memorial days would not be needed.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Over the past 50 years I’ve watched with interest as people blamed other people for maladies ranging from running out of peanut butter in the home cupboard to nuclear proliferation of rogue nations. Most fascinating to me about these observations is that blame never solves the underlying problem. So over the past five years I launched a concerted effort to examine blame from a variety of perspectives. I chronicled its costs to individuals, families, organizations, and society at large. I researched blame’s cultural origins, its psychological underpinnings, and its situational influences. I analyzed how in a systemic universe blame is simply irrational. But most importantly I came to understand how by reducing blame we can displace its costs with positive outcomes for ourselves, our families, our workplaces, and our social institutions.

A few weeks ago I completed the draft manuscript of a book summarizing these findings and passed copies to a few select individuals for intense critical review. Consequently, the next few months will be consumed with editing, indexing, contracting for publication, and arranging distribution. But with any luck, Who’s to Blame? - the book, will be available to the public around the time the leaves drop from the trees and frost coats the pumpkins here in Wisconsin. At that time I hope to use this blog as a forum where readers can comment on contemporary issues related to blame, share personal experiences, and find ideas on how to reduce blame’s impact in their own lives.

In the meantime, the world of blame continues and perhaps we can begin to chip away at it here. (I just finished listening to a presidential press conference discussing the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and I can assure you blame is alive and well!) So I hope you will choose to be a regular visitor at this site, and to contribute your comments and ideas. If we all begin to unmask blame for the unproductive and destructive habit it truly is, then I have high hopes that, collectively, we can change the world for the better.