Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Why America Is Moving Right

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America is moving closer to being a Republican-governed country even though a majority of its citizens identify as Democrats or Independents. How is this happening?

Largely it’s a result of the dictates of the Constitution and the geographic movement of individuals to large cities. Let’s start with the Constitution. It requires two senators from every state, whether large or small. So Wyoming (population 585,000) gets two senators just like California (population 39.25 million). Utah (population 3 million) gets two senators just like New York (population 19.75 million).

In fact, 50 percent of the population lives in just 9 states – California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Georgia. This means that 18 senators represent half of the country while 82 senators represent the other half.

People are leaving rural and semi-rural areas for cities and suburbs – the places where jobs, education and other opportunities are greater. So it’s no surprise that people want to live there, but it does raise certain problems.

The folks who remain in rural communities lean more Republican than Democrat. So even though the US Congress is re-aligned every ten years after the census – with growing states getting more representatives and shrinking states getting fewer – the Senate is a different story. Those numbers are fixed.

And it’s not just the Senate where this becomes an issue. Recall how we elect presidents – a little thing called the Electoral College, which consists of 538 electors – one for each member of the House and one for each senator, with three extra for the District of Columbia.

We’ve already seen examples of how that will play out in the coming years. Only five presidents have won office despite losing the popular vote – John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), George W. Bush (2000) and Donald Trump (2016), who lost by the greatest margin of any president in history.

These kinds of elections are likely to occur with increasing frequency as the population moves into cities and suburbs. In the not too distant future, I can imagine a candidate winning as much as 65 percent of the popular vote and still losing the election.

Republicans (the winners) will be happy about this, of course, while Democrats (the losers) will not. But whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, this dynamic leads us to a potentially vast problem – and that is the end of the peaceful transfer of power.

If you are one of the two-thirds of the country who voted for the losing candidate, are you going to accept the results without some sort of action? Many will, I suppose. But many won’t. They will begin by marching and protesting, but if their voices are not heard, many will ultimately resort to violence.

It’s hard to blame people for engaging in a revolution when the vast majority of them feel as if the system is rigged against them. That’s because the system IS RIGGED against them. It wasn’t intended to be rigged in this particular way, of course, but that’s what is happening and what will continue to happen.

So how do we stop it? That’s both simple and extremely difficult. We need to revise the Constitution to make the popular vote the deciding factor. Easy, right? Except, if you live in Idaho or Mississippi, why would you want to revise the Constitution to give yourselves less power?

And since we need two-thirds of the states (or two-thirds of both houses of Congress) to begin the process, and three-fourths of the states to agree to revise the Constitution, it’s going to be very hard (perhaps impossible) to get it done. So the only way to get there may be through revolution.

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Who decides what a meaningful life is?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I heard that question asked the other day. The obvious answer seems to be that we do, that each of us gets to decide what kind of life is meaningful and how we want to go about living it. But I’m not certain it’s that simple.

Assume I decide that a meaningful life is sitting in front of the television, watching every episode of every 1970s detective show, while eating buttered popcorn and drinking light beer. Am I right? Is that meaningful?

Well, it has meaning of a sort. It means that what I find important is incredibly trivial to the vast majority of people. It probably means that I shouldn’t be allowed to vote or decide any issue more important than what I want to eat for dinner.

Or assume I decide to do what others tell me I should do – join the military because my family all joined the military and they think it’s what every child should do, or become an engineer because my teacher says I’m good at math and it would be a waste not to follow that path. This seems marginally better, but it still leads to questions like why should I listen to these particular folks?

Listening only to yourself or doing what others expect of you can result in a meaningful life. But a better course of action seems to be combining what we desire with society’s expectations for us.

This isn’t always the path to meaning, but it offers more potential for substance than either of the previous two mentioned. Yet, even this isn’t quite far enough. We must also engage in thoughtful analysis of what we choose and why we choose it.

Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. What does that mean? It means that we need to think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Going through the motions, turning off our brains and just “being” without considering our motivations and the results of our actions is a waste.

We need to challenge ourselves to be better. And this is difficult because humans are essentially lazy. We seek the comfortable path; our bodies always seek to conserve energy. Pushing ourselves is the opposite of that. It’s the expenditure of energy on the possible without the promise of a reward.

So we must create the reward out of the effort we expend rather than from whatever outcome that effort produces. The outcome is merely the icing atop the cake. We give to others with no expectation of a return. And many times we get nothing in return. Yet we can still find satisfaction in the giving, in the belief that our gifts have benefited others.

We ask questions; we engage others; we listen; we suggest. We do not demand or bully. Nor do we disconnect, no matter how futile we believe our efforts will be. This takes work. It’s hard thinking about what we ought to be doing.

And even if we don’t ultimately achieve our goals, as long as we’ve made strides toward those goals, as long as we’ve put in the effort, our failures ultimately are not failures – because we tried. That is meaningful.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Yesterday’s Solutions Don’t Always Fix Today’s Problems

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

There comes a time in every democracy, in every nation, when we reach a crisis that can’t be handled in the usual ways, in the ways that we have traditionally managed those challenges.

We understand the world by examining the past, by looking at how we solved certain kinds of problems before, then extrapolating from those experiences to utilize a similar solution to our current dilemma.

Often this works. A recession? We can increase the money supply as well as government spending. This works to prop up the economy and keep things moving until we work our way out of whatever led us to the slowdown in the first place. It’s not perfect; we still feel economic pain, but it usually eases the suffering.

But there are times when solutions aren’t so easy to come by. The world is almost endlessly adaptable. Which means that we can almost always find a solution to any given problem.

However, any given problem also has the means to find new ways to torment us. Bacteria killed us off for many years until Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and we then developed antibiotics.

Many people believed bacterial infections would no longer be deadly after that, but the bacteria evolved, over and over, until we now have superbugs like MRSA that are either resistant to antibiotics or completely immune to them.

In the same way, economic downturns evolve as sophisticated players learn to manipulate world markets more efficiently. The recovery from a depression or recession isn’t always the same and in fact has generally gotten worse with each succeeding recession as more and more businesses generate their wealth without the use of employees.

If you’re able to create wealth without people, you can also recover wealth without people, which makes for jobless recoveries wherein stocks rise but those who did lose their jobs have difficulty getting new ones, and those who didn’t lose their jobs see slow wage growth.

Inequalities rise. Tensions flare. The haves blame the have-nots for their situations, asserting that they just have to work harder to get ahead, while the have-nots blame the haves for rigging the system to keep the wealth in the hands of the wealthy.

Those of us who have the right and inclination to vote elect people who promise to represent all of us, not just the rich. And on rare occasions those politicians do what they promise, but more often they don’t. Usually they work to maintain the status quo that got them elected. They protect themselves and their jobs, which means protecting the benefactors who helped them win their offices in the first place.

Nothing much changes but the faces of the candidates who promise change. Meanwhile, frustration builds. More and more radical candidates seek and gain office. Compromise becomes a dirty word, an indicator of the same old, same old – even though it’s not. And eventually we lose the ability to get anything done, except in the most extreme circumstances.

So politicians wait for crises, unable to take meaningful action until they’re forced to do so. And when the crisis hits, they do what they’ve done in the past, figuring since it worked then, it ought to work now. But like bacteria, crises evolve. Today’s recession (or healthcare crisis or opioid epidemic or environmental catastrophe) cannot always be successfully fought with yesterday’s weapons.

We’re on the edge of another crisis now. It’s just around the corner. I don’t know precisely what it will entail, but I won’t be shocked if we handle it badly because we’ll be so busy assessing blame and protecting our own that we won’t have the time or the will to properly fix it.

And when we finally try yesterday’s solution, it will no longer work.

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To Cliché or Not to Cliché

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A cliché is generally defined as a phrase that is overused, betraying a lack of originality. And for the most part, speaking or writing with clichés should be avoided like the plague. But in today’s world, I’m not certain clichés are the poison they’ve been deemed to be by the literary elites.

First of all, except for the most egregious examples, it can be difficult to ascertain exactly what constitutes a cliché. Phrases that were once original and clever are often repeated to the point that they become clichés, but they can then go out of common usage and become fresh again years later.

One of the dictionary definitions for a cliché is an old chestnut. But when is the last time you heard that phrase? I would venture it was quite some time ago. In fact, if you call something an old chestnut nowadays, most people will look at you in confusion.

But even aside from that, another reason clichés aren’t the problem they used to be is that most people read far less than they used to. They might read 3 or 4 books a year – compared to thirty years ago, for example, when they might have read 15 or 20.

As a result, when they read a familiar phrase, they don’t think of it as tired and overused. They think, “Oh, yes, I know what the author is trying to convey here. I’ve heard that expression before. Clever.”

This is not to say that one should use clichés often or even that one should aim to use clichés at all. It’s still wise policy to find creative ways to express yourself as a writer so that what your reader sees is something fresh.

But it also depends on what your goal is: if you are writing for a literary audience, shun clichés with every fiber of your being; if you are writing popular fiction, seeking to sell your work to the masses, a few timely placed clichés can give your novel a leg up by appealing to the familiar in your readers.

So clichés aren’t the death knell some have argued they are. If your story is fresh, if your characters are believable, if you have created a hook that readers find difficult to resist, then a few clichés aren’t going to take your book from success to failure.

But if you’re just re-writing pulp fiction — your prostitute with the heart of gold is forced to care for the precocious orphan while fending off the advances of the evil banker — and if you’ve loaded your story with cliché after cliché, then you’ve got a problem.

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Fix Your Writing Mistakes

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I’ve worked as an editor for over 25 years and have hosted Write On! Radio for the past dozen. I’ve spoken with authors young and old, good and bad, serious and frivolous. So there isn’t much that surprises me anymore about writing and writers. But there is a lot that continues to disappoint me.

Writers make mistakes, just like everyone else. No big deal. But it would be nice if writers would fix the obvious mistakes in their writing before turning it over to their editors or publishers.

Here are some of the most common mistakes I find:

—Failing to include end quotes in dialogue. This is an easy one to miss, and the occasional slip is not a huge deal, but when it happens multiple times, it’s frustrating because it pulls you out of the story. You now have to figure out where the conversation ended. Sometimes that’s easy, but at times it can be difficult.

For example: “I went to the theater, but didn’t see Pete there. I also went to the bowling alley and bowled a few frames, but I’m not going to tell you that.

This second sentence, we learn, is a thought, but we don’t understand that until we get to the end of it. Now we have to go back in order to place in our minds where the end quote should have been, slowing us down.

—Failing to include commas when addressing people. This is more carelessness than anything else.

For example: “You know Jim, we never should have stopped at the bar.” Are you addressing Jim or are you talking about Jim and saying that because we know Jim we shouldn’t have stopped at the bar?

Again, we can probably figure out from context that you’re actually speaking to Jim, especially if Jim responds. But why tax the reader? Why pull the reader from the story? All it does is annoy the discerning reader, who is likely, after seven or eight of these kinds of mistakes, to put the book down and find something else to read.

It’s okay for authors to be vague about what they wish to convey. But it’s generally not okay for writers to be vague about how they present what they want to say. Of course there are exceptions, like James Kelman, who can get away with it. But he does it deliberately, to make a point about the way people speak.

—Changing the tense of verbs in the same sentence or paragraph.

For example: I went to the cemetery. As I kneel beside the grave, I spoke to my father. Yes, we can figure out what the writer is saying. But it leads us not to trust his message. If you’re in past tense, stay in past tense. Simple, right?

—Apostrophes in the wrong spot. Either putting them where they don’t belong or failing to put them where they’re needed. For example: I stopped off at Joes Bar and had a few drinks with the Johnson’s. You need apostrophes for possessives, not plurals.

—Misspelling common words. The one I see most frequently is probably lead – as in, “Abraham delivered them. He lead them to the promised land.” The past tense of read is read, but the past tense of lead is led.

Why is this stuff a big deal? For several reasons. First, in today’s publishing industry, there are way fewer editors than there were in the past. Fewer eyes looking at the text, fewer chances to catch mistakes. So if you don’t find these mistakes, there’s a good chance no one else is going to either.

Second, if you want to be taken seriously by readers, editors, agents, publishers, journalists, etc., you need to demonstrate mastery of the basics. If you can’t do that, how are you going to convince them that you can master the more difficult aspects of storytelling?

Third, reviews are vital to sales. All it takes are a few nasty reviews from readers who talk about how poorly a book is written to doom it to oblivion. Yes, there are exceptions – books that are poorly edited and written that still reach tremendous sales goals (e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey). But those are rare.

In short, clean up your writing. Edit it and proofread it, then do it again and again until you’re sick of looking at it. When you’re no longer finding any mistakes, then there are probably not that many left.

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What Is Our Duty to the Planet?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I’ve been thinking about people quite a lot lately – how we influence the planet and its denizens – and I find myself questioning things I used to believe. Like how much we should try to mitigate the damage we have done to our various habitats.

Animals and even plants in the northern hemisphere are moving north. Trees that used to thrive in the southern US are faring better farther north, dying off in their southern ranges, drifting into colder climes as the warming planet has made those new territories more palatable.

There will be winners and losers in this new reality, even among humans. Those living in coastal areas and deserts seem destined to lose out, while folks in the northern plains probably will do better.

A mass extinction seems a real possibility – the sixth extinction. The question becomes: is that necessarily a bad thing? We’ve already had five mass extinctions in our history, which made it possible for humans to become the dominant species on the planet. Life cycles on and off, up and down. Humans currently reside in an upward cycle.

There’s a chance we could make things better for those more fragile life forms by altering our lifestyles. But should we care about animals and plants that are so specialized, so unable to adapt, that we have to go to extreme lengths to save them?

The murrelet, for example, lays an egg on a platform of moss or lichen on an old-growth conifer branch. A heavy wind can knock the egg off. The more we cut down old growth forests, the greater the impact of wind on the remaining timber. Similarly, the giant panda prefers eating mostly bamboo. Changes to the environment that don’t necessarily harm the panda can nevertheless harm bamboo and hence the panda.

I could cite many examples of endangered plants and animals: the Bornean orangutan; the Amur leopard; the pika; the Sumatran rhino. The point is, it will be almost impossible to save them all, and very difficult even to save most. Incredibly expensive. That money might be better spent on endeavors that make life better for us at the expense of these exotic animals and plants.

I don’t advocate that, but I understand the arguments. With change, some species will win and some will lose. And some of these changes are inevitable; others are just extremely likely.

What responsibility do we bear for our fellow creatures? What is our obligation to save a frog in the Amazon basin or a plant on the side of a Mongolian mountain? If the vaquita goes extinct, how will we be diminished?

Perhaps it matters only to our pride, our sense of self-worth. Perhaps our focus needs to be on only the plants and animals that give us the most joy rather than trying to preserve them all. For it seems certain we cannot save them all.

The best argument for trying to save them all seems to be that there may be medical marvels hidden away in obscure flora or fauna that once lost will never be regained. Yet if we pour our energies into the myriad creations that need saving, we risk spreading ourselves too thin. And we may end up saving fewer species as a result.

I don’t know the answers, but I do know that I have to try to save at least a few of these endangered creatures, if only to depart this world with a smaller stain upon my soul.

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Holidays

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Most of us love the holidays. We see them as a chance to relax and spend time with loved ones, setting aside the pressures and negativity that can threaten our health. And regardless of whether you like Christmas or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or New Year’s, or whether you abhor everything about the upcoming holidays, there is undoubtedly some holiday sometime during the year that you like.

Perhaps you only like Labor Day or Arbor Day or Festivus. Maybe you only care about the days you take off from work for mental health reasons. Regardless of how you define them, we all have holidays we enjoy.

We need them, in fact. They provide solace in a world that seems increasingly hostile. Whether the world is actually more hostile than it used to be is an open question, but it sure feels that way, probably because of our increased connectivity and social media platforms.

We cling to those who are similar to us, spreading around the real and fake news we get everywhere, particularly online, maintaining our opinions in the face of all evidence to the contrary (at least for a long time) until we finally come to accept the truth, grudgingly.

Many of us feel like we’re being bombarded by folks telling us lies or at least half-truths, certainly things we don’t want to hear. Undereducated and jobless whites feel like they’re under attack by foreigners who are willing to work for less; immigrants feel like they’re under attack by people who are afraid of change.

The LGBTQ community feels like it’s under attack by mainstream America, while Christians feel like they’re under attack for wanting to celebrate Christmas. Everybody feels surrounded by enemies. And our friends assure us that we are, because they feel like they’re under attack too.

The truth, of course, is that we ARE all under assault by a few loudmouths who are convinced we ought to live their way. There are Bible thumpers and gun nuts and liberal commies and aggressive feminists and people who advocate that women need to be protected from the world by men who know best.

Most people aren’t this way. But it’s those few with extreme positions, who spew their narrow-mindedness across the internet, where it gets picked up by like-minded trolls and dispersed to the universe at large, where it settles onto someone who rightfully takes offense at it. Those are the ones who make us feel vulnerable.

So we cling to our holidays, connected to our tribes, as a way of holding onto the comforts of our past –anchors that keep us grounded in the face of increasing onslaughts on our notions of what the world ought to be.

We gather with the people who make us feel better about ourselves. We gird our sense of self-worth before heading back into battle. The holidays serve as bandages to our egos and our mettle. Afterwards, we can once again join the fray, fight back against those who tell us we’re living our lives wrong, who insist they know best and we need to fall in line behind them.

Too bad every day can’t be a holiday.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Everyone’s a Poet

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Or at least everyone should be. Playing with words produces joy and helps expand our vocabulary. Trying to find creative ways to say the same old things benefits our brains. So I try to write at least a few poems a year to keep the old gray matter in fine fettle. They needn’t be great; they needn’t even be good, but they must be effortful. They require tending. You can’t just slap them together like a ham sandwich. Here is my latest:

Cup Plants

Yellow petals explode

A summer supernova

Compelling 6, wait, 8

No, 14 goldfinches to appear

Most of them male

All alighting gently

Hopping from flower to flower

Stems swaying

Bobbing precariously to their combined weight

While the plants surrender their nectar

Without complaint

As if the sole reason for their existence

Is to sustain the birds

And not the soul

Of the man who planted them.

 

November stems and desiccated leaves remain

Cluttered against the graying skies

The impending winter

Promising snows

To crimp and topple them

Until they lay flat upon the ground

Trampled on

Crushed beneath the boots

Of the man who passes.

 

April emerges

Broken stems finally discarded

By the man who tends the patch

While roots

Having patiently endured

The indifferent bitter chill

Now sense the need to soar again

Regenerating, pushing upward

Into Sol’s freedom

Where new buds

Open their eyes for the first time

Welcome.

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Comedy Is Hard

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They say comedy is hard, and they’re right, but why? I think it’s because there is no universal understanding of what is funny. Everyone agrees that the death of a child – particularly if it is horrific – is tragic. The loss of a beloved pet or an ill-fated romance (Romeo and Juliet), the undeserved bad outcome for a good woman or the success of a monster: all these are tragic in some way and understood by the vast majority of the population as such.

However, there are fewer examples of universal comedy. Slipping on a banana peel is one of the most obvious; cream pie in the face is another. But even these don’t draw laughs from everybody. A few find the scenes unpleasant or too close to what happened to them in similar situations. Those past experiences make comedy more difficult to appeal to all.

That said, there are three standard methodologies one can employ to derive laughs. First is cruelty: slipping on the banana peel, a football to the groin, a cream pie to the face. Think Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges. Their humor is mostly physical, mostly cruel. What makes it funny for most is that no one is seriously hurt by the torture inflicted, so we can watch it without feeling sadistic.

Second is exaggeration: think of Maxwell Smart eyeing a magnet the size of a house and saying, “That’s the second biggest magnet I ever saw.” Or think of the piano in the Laurel and Hardy film that magically stays on the stairs as it descends back to the street, bouncing and jouncing and ending up where it started.

Third is the unexpected: I recently saw an episode of Will & Grace, where Karen’s maid Rosario dies. Karen is standing next to the casket speaking in a heartfelt way when she notices a spot on the exterior. She rubs at it for a moment, then reaches into the coffin and pulls out a spray bottle. She sprays the spot, replaces the bottle, then reaches into the coffin again and pulls out part of Rosario’s dress to wipe down the area.

Not everyone will find these examples funny, but you get my point. By doing the unexpected, or doing the expected in an exaggerated way, you can impart humor. However, there’s one final element required for comedy, and that’s the ability to see the world in a twisted sort of way.

It derives, often, from twisting anger into humor. You see something stupid and instead of getting mad, you exaggerate or twist it into something funny. This is a gift shared by the best stand-up comedians.

Rodney Dangerfield saying: “I stuck my head out the window and got arrested for indecent exposure.”

This is a gift not all possess. I certainly don’t have it. I occasionally try to write something with a little humor, but for me it’s a struggle. I just don’t see the world that way. When I get angry, I don’t immediately deflect that anger in a way that others find humorous.

It takes work to get there. And sometimes it takes more effort than I’m willing to put into it. So, hats off to those writers, like Christopher Moore and Douglas Adams, who can pull it off. But if you’re not one of those types, like me, then if you want to write something funny, you at least have to know the structure you need to follow.

Now get out of here, I’ve got serious work to do.

Where’s my manuscript? Who stole my manuscript? If somebody destroyed my manuscript, I’m gonna go absolutely … oh, there it is.

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The Fall of Democracy

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Democracy is having problems around the world, under attack by both the left and right fringes as being inefficient and weak at a time when decisive strength is necessary. But that’s the nature of democracy. When the many (instead of the few) lead, when mass consensus is required for change, nothing comes easy.

Totalitarian regimes come with certain advantages – like being able to adjust to a situation instantly. Leaders don’t have to check with their constituents before engaging in some sort of action. Kim Jong Un doesn’t need to feel the pulse of his nation before deciding to test fire a nuclear weapon. Bashar Al-Assad doesn’t need to check with local legislators before deciding to deploy chemical weapons to defeat an insurgency.

These things may be bad for the citizens of the countries at issue, but they’re good (at least in the short term) for their leaders. And in times of crisis, they allow for decisive action without dithering – which our democratic leaders often do in situations that don’t demand rapid solutions.

This is our fault.

We let it happen because we are so divided about what kind of nation we should be. We listen to the voices of extremism that promise we can have it all if we just exert more strength, more insistence on doing things our way. Rigidity of thought becomes the norm.

And with that inflexibility comes the refusal to compromise, which some call appeasement (never mind that the term is incorrect – the people who spout off at the mouth don’t care about that kind of accuracy).

So with the slow decline of prosperity and increasing dissatisfaction with the status quo, we allow ourselves to be seduced by magical thinking, to believe that we can have a stronger defense, no cuts to Social Security or Medicare, and at the same time, massive tax cuts.

We buy into the lies because we want to believe there are easy answers, when we know in our hearts there aren’t. We reject the voices of moderation because they ask us to give something up, while the extremists say, that’s stupid, we can have it all. We can eat our cake and in the morning it will still be there for us to eat again.

We elect politicians and tell them they’d better not surrender even one inch or we’ll find someone even more fanatical to replace them. We win on a few issues and think, if we just dig in harder, we can win on all of them, so we push and push the envelope, growing ever more unwilling to accept that we might not know best.

And our “leaders” follow our example, becoming more and more totalitarian. It’s a recipe for disaster and it’s just about done. We need to step back and find moderates from both parties to run our country. If we don’t, we may not have a country to run.

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