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"Word to the Wise"

Philip G. Roets wrote a twice-weekly newspaper columns for the Oskaloosa Herald, Oskaloosa, Iowa, 1982-1994. Full collection is 1300+ columns.

Sample columns: Democracy and Government
Word to the Wise: Selected Newspaper Columns

Political Power.
A handful of cold, hungry, frightened but eager, ambitious immigrants become a nation of 230,000,000 people. Such is the progress line of the United States of America. A nation of power: political, economic, industrial, agricultural, military. Like all power, it must be under surveillance to avoid any self-destruction through tyranny or anarchy.

To preserve and develop this power, the founding fathers spelled out in detail its custodians. Political power is the foundation and this power rests totally in the hands of the people. No matter who is to exercise the authority of this power, that person is chosen by the will of the people. If a scoundrel takes office, he is responsible for his bad traits and dishonest acts. However, the harm done to the common good is the fault of those who put him in authority.

Political power in this country rests with the people. The exercise of this power rests with the officials they choose.

Rules of Speech in Election Years.
I propose rules to govern politicians in an election year.

Rule One: Let your tongue not speak before your mind wisdom does seek. Politicians seem to feel they have to talk a lot so that words will ignite ideas in their brains. A wagging tongue with an empty brain is the author of chaos and destruction.

Rule Two: Let your mouth not promise what your heart does not intend to keep. Americans stand on their word. Where does that leave the politician who glibly promises everything until the votes are counted and he is in office?

Rule Three: Study the questions and the answers so that you can fit both together. Such knowledge does not come by osmosis. Like any student, the politician will learn only by serious, persistent, thorough study.

Rule Four: Be sensitive to the needs and personal dignity of all people. Listen to what people say and give answers in keeping with their personal worth and yours.

These criteria will guarantee wisdom before speech.

Whose Opinion Is It?
Opinion polls abound in the media. Important information is often missing. Who were the people polled? Did they have knowledge of the question? Was this a random sample or were all gathered from one region known to be for or against the proposed question? Were the people approached at a time they could take time to answer? Are the reported statistics accurate?

This is especially true in an election year. News is fine but if it becomes sensationalism, it is distorted and untrustworthy. So I make a plea: Give the readers the facts as they are. Don't try to spoon-feed the readers with opinions that may or may not be valid, knowledgeable and accurate.

Row or Rock the Boat?
A person who rocks the boat makes the oars dip unevenly and the boat veers off course. A person who rocks the boat in a figurative sense interferes in the plans of another.

Rocking the boat can be dangerous if it threatens harm to those who disagree. It can be necessary if demanded by the rights of others. It may be useless if it makes no impact. It may be simply a nuisance if it dredges up only the trivial.

Rocking the boat always disturbs the peace. A rule is: Don’t hesitate to speak up for what is right. Don’t waste time on the trivial. Recognize the impossible. If you are going to rock the boat, always be ready to row.

Conscience Is Not Majority Rule.
“Majority rules” is not a complete picture of democracy. In totalitarian states, the majority may agree with the dictator because they are afraid of terrible reprisals. Democracy must be majority rule of people with well-formed consciences who can agree and disagree in open discussion. The secret strength of a productive democracy is public expression of opinions that proceed from strong, well-formed consciences.

The majority should rule in the public discussion but the individual must form and rule his or her own conscience. The individual conscience is a solo work. Everything that registers a facet of knowledge has input in the preparation. Then the individual has to take over.

Each person must gather, assess, accept or reject every scrap of information and then make moral decisions based on the individual outlook on life. Each individual forms his or her own conscience and then these individuals are capable of living true democracy. Such a life is not the most efficient, the most serene, but it is the most human.

The Power of Fishing.
The power of fishing is so great that a few dedicated relaxed fishermen from every country in the world could easily establish world peace and maintain it. There would have to be an interpreter. Then each fisherman would take his turn telling the story of his most thrilling event in fishing. The fishermen would vie with each other for the biggest fish but they would all laugh and agree that fishing had something in common everywhere. When the fish are biting, no problem in the world would be big enough to be remembered.

There would be harmony because the basic principle of harmony is “Share what you have and grow.” They would be sharing their conquest of the fish they had caught and not fighting over the waters in which they were caught. The underlying cause of war is “What do other people have and how can I take it away from them?” The difference between peace and war is the way in which the hand is extended. In peace, we extend our hands to share with each other. In war we extend our hands to grab and destroy. Extend the open hand of friendship and the closed fist of conflict will disappear.

Honor Old Glory.
Every school child is thrilled at the story of Betsy Ross and her making of the flag. Our hearts beat a bit faster as the “National Anthem” or “Stars and Stripes Forever” thunders over the crowd. We are so proud of our Flag that we have set aside a special day to honor it each June.

Let us recall the basics of the flag. The white stars on the field of blue remind us of the unity and individuality of each of our 50 states and all the citizens living in them. The 13 stripes remind us of the 13 tiny groups of people who struggled in colonial America to give us our start. The red tells us of all the blood that has been shed in the defense of this country and its ideals. The white tells us how high those ideals really are.

Every citizen has an obligation to respect the flag and the ideals for which it stands. Honor and respect are due to this banner of our country every day of the year in the life of every citizen.

Basic Skills of the Worker.
The basic skills needed by the ordinary worker include:

1. LEARNING TO LEARN: Effective learning in any situation;

2. READING: Improve reading comprehension because most workers will spend up two hours a day reading charts, graphs, forms, manuals, computer screens;

3. WRITING: Writing is still the primary means of contact between employers and employees, salespeople and customers;

4. COMPUTING: Strengthen math skills to work on inventories, make reports, do measurements;

5. LISTENING: Pay attention to people so that you understand not only the words, but the emotional context, the detailed directions;

6. SPEAKING: Respond appropriately to suppliers, customers, co-workers and use proper inflection, correct language, and body language.

Who Is Doing the Dishes? Who Pays the Taxes?
Children bicker about who will do the dishes. Then comes a big holiday. Friends and relatives come and the table is groaning with many dishes. The meal is a huge success. As people leave the table each offers to help with the dishes or simply pitches in and gets the work finished. Nobody grumbles, argues, whines. Each enjoys the meal and clean-up is part of the feast.

Change the scene. This time the government spreads the table. All want to be an invited guest. Then comes the end of the meal. Who does the dishes? Each disappears or has an excuse for not helping. The moral is clear: Every hand is out to receive but no one likes to pick up the tab. The tab is taxes.

The government should not waste public funds. It is just as true that it is the duty of every citizen to pay his way. Remember: the greatest threat to democracy is a freeloader. Don't destroy yourself and others by freeloading.

The Right to Vote.
Voting is a privilege, a right, and a responsibility.

Each adult citizen must become a serious, well-prepared and sincere voter. The voter must have clear knowledge of the issues. What solutions are offered? Have the solutions been tried in the past? Are the solutions worse than the problems? Each voter must answer these questions with personal conviction.

The voter must know the record of the candidates. A good television appearance, clever repartee, and glibness of tongue are not enough. Constant sniping at the ideas of the other candidates often means a negative person, glib with excuses for not acting. Beware of the candidate who is omniscient, infallible, and unbending.

Preparation is fruitless unless it bears fruit in the ballot box.

Stand up. Be counted. Vote.

Publicity: Too Much, Too Little?
A sea turtle lays a thousand eggs and no one knows about it. A hen lays one egg and cackles until the countryside has received the news. The turtle trundles back into the sea and avoids publicity; the chicken seeks it.

People have always seen the need of publicity and devised ways to accomplish it: from runners to satellites. Hermits go into seclusion. Exhibitionists can’t stand to be alone.

Society suffers from either extreme. Too many hermits atrophy progress from lack of ideas. Too much publicity drowns progress in a tidal wave of facts. Your minds are bombarded with news. When do you get time to assess, evaluate, and appreciate the news?

There is danger in the extremes of the turtle and the hen, in the secretiveness of the recluse and the steady din of the exhibitionist. We need news -- but not too much!

Who Wins Wars?
The story of the human race is defiled and tarnished with wars. Nobody ever wins a war. The final legacy of every war is genocide. Wars proliferate destruction, poverty, famine, disease, orphans, widows, nameless waifs, uprooted people, discouragement, frustration, despair and hatred.

Of all these effects, the worst is hatred. Destroyed buildings, lands, resources can be rebuilt. Poverty, famine, disease can be conquered. Orphans, widows and homeless people can strike new roots. Hope and new beginnings can counterbalance discouragement and despair. Hatred alone seems to be irremovable. From this hatred rise new wars.

Nobody wins a war. Wars can be stopped only if blind hatred is put on a leash or is removed from the plush chairs of rulers.

Wounded Soldiers.
We think of wounds as physical. But wounds of the spirit are far worse because they last longer, go deeper, and often are incurable. If we lose a leg, the wound heals and we learn to compensate. When a person’s spirit is hurt, it is really never cured. In war, whether the combatants like it or not, everyone suffers wounds of the spirit.

The next hurt of war is to property. Beautiful works of art and industry are turned into heaps of ruin in a few seconds of bombing. What is left is the brutality of war. Property is sacred and respected - except in time of war.

There is the hurt of emptiness. Why dream if dreams can so quickly be destroyed? And wars are repeated over and over - justified by someone for some reason. Each war is fought “to settle all disputes.” A generation later, the same destructions flare up allover again.

The deepest hurt comes to the sacredness of life.

These war wounds are seldom mentioned. War wounds strike at the very nature of people in society. These wounds shake the foundations of society and civilization. They are never healed. War leaves no unwounded soldiers.

Someone Has to Watch the Parade!
The Fourth of July is a day weighted with deep emotion, brilliant dreams, and glorious memories. At the same time it is a day of close friendship, favorite foods, and simple fun. All these ideas are bound together in parks, picnics, and parades. It is a time to recall our debt of gratitude to all the people who have made the present possible. It is a time to recognize heroes.

Who are the heroes of our country? We know George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale, Susan B. Anthony, Betsy Ross, Harriet Tubman. These are the people who had glory thrust upon them and they responded willingly and fully. There are myriads of other heroes. They are the ones who sit on the curb to watch the parade and clap for the heroes. Without their cheers, encouragement, and support, the parade wouldn’t mean much.

“That this government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish...” Abraham Lincoln spoke these now immortal words.

Dictatorial governments point the finger of scorn at democracy and talk about inefficiency. As the dictator sees it, one person making decisions and seeing that they are carried out is far more efficient than thousands of squabbling voters trying to decide what to do and then not being able to accomplish the goal even when it is agreed on.

Efficiency is good but it is not the primary goal of government. The goal of government is to rule the people only as far as is necessary. The people’s independence in thinking and acting must be maintained and their sharing and cooperation encouraged. Robots are not free and robots are the effect of despotism or dictatorship. If the people are content as robots, they are already destroyed. Efficiency without freedom makes slaves. Their dignity as people is destroyed. Freedom is the ability to think, discuss, decide and live by decisions. This freedom is the fruit of our democracy.

Capital and Labor.
A distinction is between capital and labor. One definition for these is: Capital is the money another man has and Labor is the work it takes to get it.

Society is built on both. Sometimes capital and labor are in one person. Sometimes capital and labor are pitted against each other.

I often think such fights are as ridiculous as one of our legs fighting with the other leg over which is more important in walking. Both legs are needed to walk. Capital and Labor are needed for success and they have to work together in true harmony if the walk is to be enjoyed.

An Activist.
The activist, in the good sense, is the person who gets something worthwhile finished. Here the activist is contrasted to the mere talker who points out needs but does no work to fill the need. This type of activist sees a problem or evil and then decides what he can do to solve the problem or correct the evil.

The activist, in a not-so-good sense, is one who stirs people’s emotion about an issue or condition, but does nothing to help solve it. They are “all talk” and no work. Such an activist lacks sincerity of purpose.

Be an activist for the causes you support and work to promote them.

Ballots or Bullets?
What a difference two vowels in a word can make! Ballots mean everyone makes a conscious, free choice in a situation. They choose a representative, a leader, or decide on the outcome of an issue. They think, learn, and discuss the pros and cons of the question. They make personal decisions and the outcome is a well-balanced result.

Bullets mean force. Some person or some group is crazy for power. They don’t want thinking people; they want muttering robots. Bullets cut off speech but not thought. Bullets build roads but they crush people. Bullets create destruction, resentment, fear, hatred and malice.

Our founding fathers used bullets to stop force. They used ballots to establish our freedom, write our constitution, guarantee our liberties. Bullets replaced ballots once and we suffered the ravages of a civil war. The rights of an enslaved people were proclaimed in 1863 but it took a century to unscramble the harm done by the bullets.

Bullets disagree and destroy. Ballots disagree and build. Cast the ballots and melt the bullets.

Honest Abe.
Many years ago I read the story of Abraham Lincoln, the boy, and the borrowed book. I was so young, I had a hard time figuring how he could have put the book in between the logs in the wall or how the rain could have come through. I could easily imagine his eagerness to get the book to read, his horror when it was ruined, but above all, his honesty in going back to face the owner and accuse himself of neglect.

Some historians say the story is spurious and made up to glorify Abe. That makes no difference to me. The story still gives a real picture of a great man who had to take the two halves of this nation in his hands and bring them back together. His heart bled for the North and the South. He knew the fighting would settle nothing. He hoped bargaining table was possible.

Finally, the war was over and Abe could go about the terrible task of rebuilding. He went to a theater to relax and a coward’s bullet ended his life. His life was over but his strength and influence go on. His homespun wisdom still charms and leads those who would listen. We salute a man who walked from behind the plow to walk in front of the nation in its most trying hour.

Music to Live By.
Musical lyrics are a powerful source to communicate ideas and ideals. World War II was a tragedy but look at the great lyrics that came to the American people. The songs did not gloss over the problems but they also spoke of courage, love, endurance, kindness, trust and cooperation.

Each year we can see many heartrending problems. The news media present these hardships in all their reality. Now we need lyrics to stress what should be done to correct these perplexing issues. See the plight of the farmers. The problem has been clearly stated but where are the song lyrics that express positive ideals rather than wallow in the depths of self-pity? Human rights are being eroded and destroyed in many places of the world. We hear about and see the gruesome details. Who will write song lyrics to give a positive outlook?

This is a challenge to budding lyricists and musicians. Give us the music to live by. Flood the airwaves with courage, cooperation, human equality, perseverance and love.

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