Monday, June 21, 2010

"Fatherhood And Apple Pie" from The New Republic

Most everything associated with President Obama—his policy platform, his public style, his personal story—have become grist for intense partisan conflict. I had thought that the one remaining uncontroversial scrap was his endorsement of fatherhood, which he has been doing periodically since he appeared on the public scene. But even this can now spur outrage, at least by Ira Stoll, who has attracted a lot of attention with a column denouncing Obama's fatherhood initiative:

President Obama interrupted my Father's Day with an e-mail announcing the launch of "The President's Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative" ...So I ignored my children for a few minutes of Father's Day and did what the president asked which was to check out the Web site, and especially the government's "Tips for Parents." They were infuriating.

I'm no technological wizard, so I am not sure how an email "interrupted Father's Day." I have one of those email systems that you only read when you want to check email. Perhaps Stoll has his email set up to buzz loudly every time a message arrives, and he hasn't figured out how to disable the feature. I would suggest that, if the arrival of an email is going to interrupt Father's Day, try leaving your computer or smart phone off, or in a different room. (I thought about emailing this suggestion to Stoll, but I worried the message might interrupt his sleep.)
Also, I'm pretty sure that when Obama suggested readers check out the web site, the implication was that they should do so when they had some available time. It was probably not meant to be read as a demand that readers check out the site right then. But I blame the government for failing to spell this out. The disclaimer should be made explicit, the way consumer products feature warnings like "Do not jab this product into your eye socket," in order to account for the wide variety in reading comprehension levels of the American public.
So I can see why Stoll was upset that the government set off his email buzzer, and was further upset by a message that could easily be interpreted as a federal demand that he leave his children and look at a website immediately. What I don't understand is why he proceeded to ignore his children further by composing a column on Father's Day. Perhaps he did this as a collaborative activity with his children—which, come to think of it, would explain a lot.
Let us proceed to Stoll's objections with the website:
Here was tip number two: "Watch a game on television with your children. Cheer for your favorite team and chat about the plays. Mute the commercials and use those minutes to talk about what's going on in your lives." Here is the government telling Americans to "mute the commercials." Suppose I work at an advertising agency and earn my living making commercials, or own a company that has just invested millions of dollars in those commercials in the hope of winning customers and making a profit? Suppose I own a television network that makes its money by selling those commercials? Suppose I am a taxpayer who has just shelled out major bucks for the Army or the Census or some other branch of the government to buy these commercials, only to have another branch of the government instruct Americans not to listen to the same commercials my tax money was just spent to purchase. If I had any advice for fathers, it would be to mute the ballgame and turn up the volume for the commercials, or turn off the tube altogether and go play a game with your child. But now the government wants us to mute commercials? Really.

He is upset that the government is urging fathers who watch sports with their children to mute the commercials and talk with the kids. The free market system apparently requires that the young tykes obediently watch the commercials so they can determine which brand of light beer to drink when they turn 21. Is there no corner of American capitalism Obama doesn't want to destroy?

Here was tip number three: "Take a virtual vacation with your children. Decide on a 'destination' then borrow a library book that features facts and photos of your dream locale. Prepare a meal based on the native cuisine and enjoy it together while you watch a documentary about the country or a movie that takes place there. Let these fantasy voyages be your passport to lasting family memories." The assumption seems to be that the dream destination is outside America, unless by "native cuisine" the government means corn and venison.

In Obama's defense, I'd note that he is not urging parents to actually visit foreign countries, which of course would be grounds to impeach him and deport him to his native Hawaii Kenya, but is merely suggesting they imagine doing so. Still, it is true: Obama is presuming that people dream of vacationing in foreign locales over the good old U S of A. Stoll's own honeymoon took place in Youngstown, Ohio.

Another tip: "Buy compact florescent light (CFL) bulbs, which last about 5 years and use less energy. Switching just one standard bulb to a CFL can help you reduce your electricity bill by as much as 75 cents per month." I used to believe in this idea. Then, after putting CFL bulbs all over the house, I found that they don't last five years. They may last a couple of years.
Stoll has temporarily moved on to "green tips," but his outrage remains unabated. The government is relying upon studies comparing CFL bulbs to old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. I'd be willing to believe that Stoll's one-man focus group could produce superior data. But his inability to solve technical challenges like the buzzing, can't-be-turned-off-or-walked-away-from computer gives me pause.

(via Jonathan Chait)