The Politics of Second Sons

Yesterday, I attended Catholic Mass.

Don’t worry; this isn’t one of those posts where I explain why I’ve decided to convert.  I attended Mass for as simple reason:  I was visiting my in-laws and they, and my partner, are Catholic.  Regardless, something struck me as very timely for our American experience this fall in relation to the gospel reading and our midterm elections.

The gospel reading was from the Book of Matthew, chapter 21 verses 28 through 31 (NLT):

28 […] A man with two sons told the older boy, “Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.” 29 The son answered, “No, I won’t go,” but later he changed his mind and went anyway. 30 Then the father told the other son, “You go,” and he said, “Yes, sir, I will.” But he didn’t go. 31 [Jesus asked:] “Which of the two obeyed his father?” They replied, “The first.”

The homily by the priest focused more on the second son and the lip-service offered to his father.  This son said the right thing in the moment to make his father happy with no intention to follow through with that statement.  And, while this specific parable comes to us from the Bible, I think it’s clear that it’s a story that transcends any specific religious or non-religious culture.  Honesty, trustworthiness, and honor are the back bone of many of our religious teachings as are respect for ones parents and elders, for example, all of which are touched upon in this specific passage.

Regardless of the source material, the dishonesty we see around us is not something that’s always easy to see.  Especially when it’s kept hidden from us.  On September 26 on the Rachel Maddow show, Ms. Maddow revealed that Shell Oil is actively seeking to relax the rules related to drilling in the arctic despite their abject failure to succeed in doing so the last time they tried it.  This, of course, was (and is) happening behind the scenes as President Obama spoke to the world at the UN about the need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels.

If the Shell is allowed to return to the arctic, regardless of the rules they need to follow while they’re there, does that mean the President’s speeches to the UN are nothing but lip-service related to the dangers of climate change?  I would argue yes; one should not be both for a reduction in oil consumption and still seek to extract more of it from the ground.  But, ideology is too often sacrificed on the altar of reality.  If we can’t keep the lights on while we seek the diplomatic and technological means by which to enter into an age post-petroleum, can such an age be reached?

Other times, lip-service is more easily seen.  Let’s keep discussing the words and deeds of our current President.  Way back in 2007, then candidate Obama promised his support for network neutrality.  Of course, we fast-forward to more recent times when Obama appointed Tom Wheeler to lead the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in November 2013.  On the surface, this seemed a fairly routine use of executive power, but looking deeper into Wheeler’s history one quickly finds out the he was formerly a lobbyist for both the cable and wireless industries.

Wheeler didn’t waste much time before announcing plans to allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to charge companies for faster delivery of their content.  In effect, allowing some content to be delivered to the public at a slower speed and other content more rapidly.  On a computer, this difference may be imperceptible, but more and more people access the internet on mobile devices over 3G and 4G networks.  A change in content delivery speeds on those devices may very well mean that customers would be either (a) forced by wireless carriers to pay more in order to access the fast lane and/or (b) inclined to receive information only from the faster services rather than the slower ones.

In either case, the blow to the open and equal internet — to net neutrality — would be swift and devastating.  Luckily, the word spread about these ideas and they were rejected by pretty much everyone.  Rather famously, John Oliver used his stage on HBO (and later YouTube) to present the story and a call to arms for Internet denizens to contact the FCC during its open comment period related to these rules:

In 2007 we were told that candidate Obama supported net neutrality.  But, by 2013 he was appointing FCC chairpersons who were previously lobbyists for very companies who provide us with our access to the ‘Net.  That person then quickly moves to create a two tiered system whereby ISPs could charge not only content contributors for more money but potentially even their general customers, a system that would undoubtedly increase (perhaps vastly so) their income and profit.  Will support like that, I shudder to think what would have happened had our president outwardly opposed net neutrality from the outset!

The debate over net neutrality is ongoing; the administration (at least according to Ms. Maddow) continues to hear arguments from Shell Oil related to arctic drilling.  And we’re all to often left in the dark hearing only what our leaders want us to hear and not able to study what it is that they’re doing.  And, this all plays out against a backdrop of the 2014 mid-term elections.

If you have cable, I suspect you’re tired of campaign ads.  The onslaught of point and counterpoint in 30 second sound bytes is ongoing and (seemingly) never-ending.  Worse, the moment these elections are complete, every one of us knows that the media will pivot toward 2016 and our next presidential election.

I can’t tell you who to vote for, but I do hope that you’ll try to do a little research into the candidates on your own.  You’ll never get the unvarnished truth out of a commercial (political or otherwise), but we have tools–especially at the federal level–to look into the actions of our elected officials.  Sites like OpenCongress let you look at an incumbent’s voting history so that you can get a sense not of their words but of their actions.  At the state and local levels these tools maybe harder to come by, but they’re out there.  At the very least, you can get a copy of your state’s ballot online and you can use that as a way of finding out what your options are and, from there, you can often do more research about each candidate.

Trustworthiness transcends religions.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to permeate politics, and most of our politicians, even the ones we like (I voted for Obama twice and campaigned for him door-to-door in Iowa), are all too often like that second son I heard about yesterday.  It’s up to us to hear their words but to seek to know their past actions and to make our decisions accordingly.