When Something’s Wrong, Say So

On Saturday, I attended a Proposition 8 evening protest in Los Angeles. Our protest was part of several across the state, coming to more than 20,000 people protesting the passage of this discriminatory amendment to the state Constitution. There were over 12,000 people in the Los Angeles protest alone.

I had never attended a political rally or protest before. It was a wonderful thing, to march along in this sea of people unwilling to permit the loss of the civil right to marry. The vast majority of them were peaceful, passionate, loving, and even positive: they emphasized the value of marriage and what participating in it means to them. Some of the signs were funny (such as the ones noting wryly that chickens command more public support than gays do–a reference to Proposition 2, which requires more humane treatment of chickens and pigs on farms and passed with 63% of the public vote. Some protesters wore beaks and tailfeathers and carried signs expressing a wish that they could be as lucky as the chickens.) and some were heartbreaking (“Married 6/7/08; Segregated 11/4/08” and “How do you ‘protect’ marriage by banning it?”). Some expressed the inevitable anger: “Keep your Jesus to yourself!” and “I didn’t vote against your marriage!”, or sarcasm: “Protect marriage — ban divorce!”.

The LDS church in particular drew a lot of negative attention due to its massive support for the proposition and encouraging its members to donate in support of it. Signs like “Tax the church!” and chants of “Keep your hate in Salt Lake!” were depressing, both for what they indicate about the church’s activities and for the sentiment they indicate in the protesters.

But overall, there were so many, many people involved, such a large and … oddly … almost happy crowd. Not happy with Prop 8, obviously, but happy to be out in public, sharing views and camaraderie (and drumming and dancing and cheering). I was proud to see them all, proud to march with them and join in the chanting:

What do we want?
When do we want them?

Because even if this proposition does not personally target me, damn it, I still believe in equal marriage rights for all.

List Formatting (It’s for Political Candidates, too!)

I’m having a ball listening to Grammar Girl’s podcast. Much of what she covers is already a part of my internal writer/editor/proofreader, but she has a nice, conversational approach that’s enjoyable regardless. Sometimes the episode I happen to listen to is particularly timely, as happened today with Formatting Vertical Lists. Useful tips I gleaned include

  • Don’t use a colon to introduce a list, unless the introduction is a complete sentence. (I think I’ve been violating this one for a while. But see how I reformed my ways in this post!)
  • Capitalize and punctuate list items if they are complete sentences.
  • Use bullets for unordered items, numbers to indicate sequence (steps), and letters to indicate choices or labels you can refer back to later.
  • Use parallel construction.

So, what was timely about this episode? Yesterday I had the pleasure of reading through candidate statements on my sample ballot. One in particular stood out for its egregious abuse of punctuation, overuse of capitalization, and general incoherence. Here is a verbatim excerpt that highlights multiple violations of Grammar Girl’s list formatting recommendations:

Donald Williamson Has The Experience and ECONOMIC RECOVERY PLAN to:
Stop Foreclosures! Help Families Save Their Home! (Recast Loan).
Cut State of California’s Dependency on Foreign Oil.
Wording on Reducing Gas Prices.
Balances California’s Budget: Cuts Fat-Waste, Stops Excessive Spending, No New Taxes!
Establish Health Care – Pharmacy Plan For All Californians.
Economic Recovery Plan: Creates Business, Jobs, Reduces Unemployment.

Oh, where to start? In terms of formatting, Donald has forgotten to use any sort of bullet at all for his list. He included the leading colon (I’m willing to forgive this one). He bolded and underlined each initial word, which only makes the lack of parallelism more grating. He would also have us believe that all of California’s families live in a single home. The vacuous content is even more alarming. I’m still utterly puzzled by #3 (“Wording!”). I’m not sure what “Fat-Waste” actually is, but it sounds pretty gross. Thank goodness Donald’s there for us with his blizzard of buzzword “solutions”, up to and including “No New Taxes!”

I read on, eager to learn how he was going to “recast” loans, do something to gas prices, provide a “health care – pharmacy” plan for all Californians, create “business” and jobs—all without introducing new taxes! Sadly, no details were forthcoming. Nor is any additional content available on his website, which features two bonus non-parallel lists, more families living in that single home, use of “that” instead of “who”, “receive” misspelled, etc.

The saddest part? Donald Williamson cites himself as an “Educator.” America’s future is in his hands, even if he loses his bid to represent the 59th District in the State Assembly. Please, Donald, next time devote just a few dollars to a good proofreading of your campaign materials. If nothing else, it sets a good example.

Presidential Candidates Failing at Prior Commitments

I remember being surprised to learn that U.S. senators maintain their positions even when their time is heavily consumed by other activities, like campaigning for president. I had naively assumed that any senator in this position would resign, since their heavy travel schedules and appearances at town halls and debates would surely prevent them from continuing to provide good representation for their constituents. Yet in the current campaign, at least, no resignations have occurred. Well, how much senatorial activity have Clinton, McCain, and Obama been able to muster over the past year? Wonder no more! govtrack.us tracks congressional activity, including each senator’s vote (or missed vote) on each issue that is raised. And here’s what we find:

Senator Votes missed in 2007 (of 442) Votes missed in 2008 (Q1-Q3) (of 196)
Clinton 103 (23%) 103 (53%)
McCain 247 (56%) 160 (82%)
Obama 166 (38%) 124 (63%)

In each case, it seems that the senator was absent a significant amount of the time, presumably due to campaign activities. On a typical grading scale, the successful vote rates would give each one an F in 2008. And there’s more to being a senator than just appearing for a vote; there’s discussing issues with other senators, debating and discussing, interacting with the voters you represent, and so on. I’m curious as to whether the citizens of New York, Arizona, and Illinois find this at all dissatisfying. These senators aren’t anomalies, nor even the worst offenders; for example, John Kerry’s missed vote rate averaged 72% in 2003-2004, spiking to 100% in Q3 of 2004. In what other occupation can you consistently fail to perform your duties, over the course of a year or two, be absent up to 100% of the time, and still retain the job? Still get paid?

I would expect that the senators would in good faith attempt to be present for the votes that matter most to their electorate, but if it comes down to a choice between canceling a public appearance or missing a particular vote, which one wins? Do candidates for office, who have other existing obligations such as representing those who previously elected them, schedule their campaign activities around those prior obligations? Were the presidential candidate debates timed so as not to conflict with congressional roll calls? I’m guessing that this was not a consideration. Further, the problem is aggravated by our continually lengthening campaign period prior to an election.

Our earliest representatives frequently spent six months to a year away from their families, suffocating in humid Philadelphia to forge a national identity and independence. Family emergencies sometimes could not even call them away from their positions as delegates. John Adams, where are you now?

What I learned from the Democratic debates

Being for “change” is good, as long as it’s change in other people. Actually changing your own opinion is bad. To paraphrase part of the New Hampshire debate on Jan. 5:

Obama: I’m for change.
Edwards: Me too!
Clinton: Obama has changed his position on health care, the Patriot Act, and fifteen other issues in the past 3 years.
Obama: No, I didn’t. [Maybe he’s not for change?]
Clinton: Yes, you did. And you said Edwards was “unelectable” because he changed his position on other issues.
Obama: I never said he was “unelectable”… Anyway, I’m for change. [Maybe he is!]
Edwards: Me too! The evil forces of the status quo want to stop us.
Clinton: What do you mean, evil? I’m for change, too!
Richardson: When did experience become a bad thing?

Now, inconsistency generally isn’t a good thing, as it lies a little too close to “lying” for most people’s comfort. But I have no problem with a leader changing his or her mind over time, as new information comes to light; in fact, I consider this a good attribute of a leader. Why is no one willing to step up and say, “Yes, I changed my mind on that issue. Here are the reasons.”? Do we really want a static leader with frozen opinions that don’t respond to the current state of the world? Haven’t we had enough of that already?

In my opinion, one of the major strengths of humanity is our ability to adapt to changing environments and to come up with new strategies and ideas when old ones don’t work.

And as for the near-hackneyed concept of “change”, it cannot be characterized as an unadulterated good or bad thing. Does it even make sense to say that you’re for “change”? Changing the status quo could result in improvements or in things getting worse. It’s the quality of the proposed change that matters. I would like to see the candidates stop picking on each other for being for or against “change” and simultaneously for “changing too much” (I’m getting confused as to what the real issue is, and I’m sure I’m not the only one). Instead, how about focusing on what kind of changes they each propose?

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