Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Searching for understanding


"All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them."

—Galileo Galilei

Understanding is a process, not a destination, as is life itself. Or at least so it seems to me. To extend Galileo's insight, keep on discovering, keep on expanding understanding, keep on growing, keep, as the lyrics to more than one song have it, on keepin' on.

As a writing member of humanity, I have a writer's range of tools to aid the never-ending process of understanding, from the Internet to the library, to a walk in the woods, to conversations with people of both like and unlike minds, to observing (from afar) the smearing skulks of innuendo who lack the courage of dialogue, to a good book, to morning meditation, to the national and local newspaper, to watching the herds of elk and an occasional wolf on nearby hillsides and the constant flow of the Big Wood River.

One of my favorite Internet tools is called World Clock—it is found at It helps one understand certain truths about living on a planet of finite space, resources, forests and clean water and air. At World Clock, for instance, you can learn that, depending on the speed at which you read, somewhere between 50 and 75 more human beings will arrive than depart the earth in the time that it takes you to read this sentence. According to the Clock, there are nearly 35 million more people on the planet than there were at the beginning of 2011, and almost 15 million acres of forest are cut every six months, contributing to nearly 7 million acres of new desertification in that same time. No matter what one thinks of such statistics, their causes, significance and both long- and short-term consequences, knowing about them helps one appreciate that the world is changing faster than our understanding of those changes. That is, the working mechanisms of understanding the "good old days" are not entirely workable or even relevant today. Whether the good old days were actually as good or virtuous as some good old boys would have you believe is, of course, another issue.

Another wonderful source of information is the Environmental Working Group's Farm $ubsidy Database, which can be found at http// On this site one can find out who has received how much of the nearly one-third of a trillion dollars of U.S. tax money given as federal farm subsidies to U.S. farmers and ranchers between 1995 and 2009. Ken Cook, president of EWG, has written, "[T]o characterize the programs as either a 'big government' bailout or another form of welfare would be manifestly unfair—to bailouts and welfare. After all, with bailouts taxpayers usually get their money back (often with interest), while welfare recipients are subjected to harsh means-testing, time-limited benefits, and a work requirement, all in order to receive modest-to-pitiful government benefits that are more or less uniform for every applicant. None of those characteristics apply to America's farm subsidy system, a sui generis contraption that might have sprung from the fevered anti-government fantasies of Tea Party cynics if Congress hadn't thought it up first."

A bit of research in the Farm $ubsidy Database reveals that even little Blaine County in central Idaho is a significant recipient of government largesse. Since 1995, Blaine County farmers and ranchers have been given more than $14.6 million in subsidies, with five of them collecting more than half a million dollars each and 29 receiving more than $100,000. Some of the recipients of farm subsidies across the country are proponents of states' rights and a smaller (and weaker) federal government, and some other recipients' connection to farming or ranching is difficult to discern. Such information helps one better understand that consistency is not a hallmark of human thinking, especially when money (or power) is involved. Upton Sinclair's famous quip is a useful tool for understanding such things: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it."

One of the easiest and most time-saving Internet tools for understanding the world and the clouds of misinformation that constantly blow across its surface is to be found at Any time something crosses the radar that seems even slightly questionable, I check with Snopes to see if it is another urban legend passed along as fact to obscure understanding or if it is actually something worth contemplating.

SourceWatch, found at, is invaluable in sorting out the issues, people, mechanics and economics of stories in the news. Published by the Center for Media and Democracy, SourceWatch describes itself as a "collaborative, specialized encyclopedia of the people, organizations, and issues shaping the public agenda." It profiles the activities of front groups, PR groups, industry-friendly experts and think tanks trying to manipulate public opinion on behalf of corporations or government.

As mentioned, understanding is a process that can sometimes be dismaying, sometimes joyous, but always interesting, constantly flowing and never boring.

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