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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Traffic Light (Part One)

(Editor's note:  This is the first segment in a two part series.)

What may we learn from the cycling of a solitary traffic light from red to green and back again?

Long distance travel by auto remains a favorite family pastime, especially during the busy holiday season.  Often, a pilgrimage to the home of relatives is the only occasion a family may have to spend meaningful time together as a unit, all in one place.  In their children parents anticipate the pleasure of a captive audience.  For children, extended travel offers a host of valuable new experiences.  It is a time when lasting memories are born.

As the family car meanders along one of the nation’s many rural state roads, invariably it encounters a lonely traffic signal.  Often, it is the only traffic light in small town America.  Fortunately, traffic is not terribly heavy, but thank goodness the light is green anyway.  And we speed on through without giving it another thought.

The intersection is often empty.  But sometimes a lone car or two may wait, patiently, for the light to change.  A certain curiosity may develop as to how long these cars have been waiting, what they may be up to.  As these cars disappear in the rear view mirror of our adventures, surely the light which is now behind us must change for them at some point, that they should be permitted to cross.  What is their story?  Occasionally, what may seem like more cars than the little town possesses are backed up to the traffic light.  The first thought of the passing motorist may be how all those cars got there and what the attraction is in the first place.

Eventually, the traffic light turns in a three part cycle, first from green, to the yellow caution, and finally to red.  The yellow permits cars driving at highway speeds sufficient time to properly judge long stopping distances and decide whether to stay on the gas pedal and continue through the intersection or hit the brake and come to a safe, controlled stop.  The yellow light is a product of the country road.  Typically, it does not even exist in the city, where the traffic light contains only a two part cycle, going from green directly to red.  Long stopping distances are of minimal concern in the physical confines of the city, where things happens faster.

At state road intersections the traffic light for the small town crossroad tends to be red for a long time.  The change to green allows as many cars to pass through safely as the short cycle permits, depending on driver reaction time.  Logic predicts better than chance that when reaction time is coordinated, more cars pass.  When it is uneven, there will be fewer.  Those cars toward the rear may be destined to wait for more than one cycle to get through.

The change to green also elicits familiar reactions drawn from the range of driving habits.  The daydreamer returns to earth just in time to barely clear the short cycle before the light is red again.  The impatient floors his older car, the one with the manual transmission, carburetor and loud exhaust pipes.  Invariably the car jerks and stalls out.  He’ll have to await the next cycle, as will the angry people stuck behind him.  The risk tolerant tests fate, taking a chance after due circumspection, and crosses against the red light.  If there are no other cars around, no traffic camera to record the transgression, then what’s the harm?

In a multi-racial, economically stratified, complex industrial society, the traffic light serves as a useful metaphor for the ordinary citizen’s interaction with change.  Some actually prefer a red light.  It represents the safety and comfort of what they know, indispensable to the measured progress of an established order whose inconvenience is trifling and may be overlooked.  For on occasion, when the light turns green, all hell breaks loose, and chaos abounds.  This is to be avoided at all costs.  Others come out on the opposite side, detesting the red light as evil and the mortal enemy of progress.  For them, the traffic light is always, or should always be, green in a perfect world.

But suppose there were a powerful force which had little interest in permitting the traffic light to change.  What happens then?

(Editor's note:  The second and concluding segment in this two part series continues the discussion of change in the context of The Traffic Light, touching upon issues ranging from civil rights, to access to affordable health care, to record levels of wealth disparity in the US today.)

-Michael D’Angelo

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Compromise Is Not a Dirty Word

What is necessary to unite the rigid ideologue with the political expedient who believes in nothing? ...

Success is sometimes merely about getting along. Even when there are issues which divide, consensus is borne of close relationships. The importance of identifying common objectives among those with differing viewpoints on various issues cannot be understated. The individual who shuns consensus and surrounds himself with like thinkers is destined to lead a minority.

Compromise is not a dirty word. Our constitution is in fact the first great compromise, national in scope. The southern bloc would not sign off until a Bill of Rights was secured. In the US Senate, the power of small states equals that of large states, assuring the protection of the minority interest. If Alexander Hamilton wanted necessary support for his capitalist system, he needed to induce southern skeptics by offering to locate and build the new capitol city in the nation’s South.

Those guided by strict adherence to ideology become dangerous, when they are unyielding and their majority moves to dominate self-righteously. They do not compromise. The governed only get to march, the music, cadence and beat pre-determined. Rigid minds leave no room for differing viewpoints, which reflect the spectrum of human needs. Yet in certain respects we do need those who demand more than humanity can deliver, aggravating as they can sometimes be.

On the other hand, some are guided simply by political expediency, believing in little or nothing other than the upward mobility of ambition and self-interest. They are confounding, having risen without commitment to any general ideology. Since they function without program, principle or consistency, they, too, are a dangerous lot.

Between the two extremes lies an area ripe for compromise. Suppose the whole loaf is not available? Does one not accept a slice or two or maybe only just a few crumbs? The democratic system requires that this point be fairly understood.

For some in politics, it is sufficient that “the duty of the opposition is to oppose.” The need to suggest alternatives, to curb internal radicalism and irresponsibility, is irrelevant. Truth and reality have little substance in the shadows of political gamesmanship.

Against this backdrop a president heads the responsibility of government. At home, needed legislation is proposed: a national health insurance program, a comprehensive civil rights bill, labor legislation to raise the minimum wage, investment in jobs creation through infrastructure improvement to spur the domestic economy. Meanwhile, constituents raise cane about employment, adequate housing, education. But taxes must be slashed, expenditure cut from budgets, in apparent contradiction.

What begin as well-intentioned foreign policy initiatives in support of democracy on distant horizons in Asia, the Middle and Far East devolve into confrontational quagmires. Civil unrest erupts and spreads, involving unstable, unfriendly and sometimes hostile regimes. It is right to send troops, but then they turn and we must get out. Apparently, we must be internationalist and isolationist at the same time. The opposition moves further to curb the powers of the presidency. Who can be trusted in government?

Demagogues and irresponsible attackers rarely with substance cause irreparable damage to individual reputations, the State Department, Foreign Service and America’s reputation. Talented people who may be in the position to save us from future agonies are silenced or driven out, as the nation pays a heavy price. Life at the extremes has the awful consequence of compelling otherwise reasonable minded citizens into simplistic, unsustainable positions.

The times require patience, understanding, tolerance. Instead, the rabid demand quick and precise answers according to their own ideology of what is right and wrong. They have little patience with the UN, with diplomacy, with rational talk. It is much easier to claim that our leaders --- weak-kneed and soft-hearted --- are selling us out to the socialists. There is little wonder that the ordinary citizen seems confused or has a difficult time judging just what is going on.

The decade following World War II was perilous by any measure. But President Truman stood up to the grave national security threat posed by the Russians and the Chinese on the one hand, and to the unpredictable trend of harsh domestic critics on the other. It was a testament to an extraordinary display of strength and fortitude.

-Michael D’Angelo