The Impersonal Society

by Walter Brasch

     Some of my favorite people are the ladies at my credit union. Over the past couple of decades they put up with a lot from me, with hardly an audible sigh, although I am sure there was a lot of cheering when my wife took over balancing the checkbook a few years ago.

     The Credit Union ladies know my account numbers and status better than I do, and have bailed me out of numerous problems.

     Even when they’ve had a tiring day, the ladies smile, joke, and ask questions about how I and my family are doing. The only thing they get from my “small potatoes” accounts is the satisfaction they’re doing a good job and an occasional box of candy or a green plant, which doesn’t even begin to add up to the personal attention they provide to keep my financial affairs in order.

     After several years of trying to convince me to use the push-button telephone, a computer, or an iPhone to log onto a central computer where a digitized voice will tell me the status on my accounts, transfer funds from one account to another, and even pay bills, they have given up.

     With ATM drive-ups, direct deposit, and the phone, which has more apps than politicians’ promises, I don’t ever need to talk to a human again. The reality is I prefer to talk to a friendly voice in a rapidly increasing technologically imperfect impersonal society.

     At one time, all telephone calls had to be made through a local operator who knew as much about you, your family, and the community as you did. Then, technology let us bypass a human, and do our own calling.  Even directory information, once free, now costs-and a mechanical voice tells you to repeat your request because it didn’t understand. Most people, anyhow, now discard phone books and directory assistance to look up names, addresses, and phone numbers on the Internet.

     Call the average business and you are greeted by a digitized voice giving you a menu. Listen to all the choices, push another button, and hear another menu. Some companies have four or five levels of menus, all so you can finally push a series of buttons and hear, “I’m sorry, I won’t be in for the next six months. If you wish to leave a message, press 1; if you wish . . . ”

     We don’t go to seamstresses because we can order by menu-driven telephone from the mail order department of numerous off-shore corporations the same clothes everyone else is wearing.

     From vending machines, we can buy not only candy bars and soft drinks, but insurance, aspirin and condoms-and never have to talk to anyone.

     We speak into a squawk box to order fast food, which we eat in the car on the way to an aerobics class that treats us to a recorded cadence.

     Although most clerks at supermarkets and department stores, many of whom are paid slightly above minimum wage and receive no benefits, make at least an attempt to be friendly, an increasing number barely make eye contact while they languidly slide items past an electronic scanner.

     With the computerization of America, you can now have your iAnything talk to every other iAnything and make airline and hotel reservations, order furniture, get information from data bases instead of the library, and never talk to a human.

     On newspapers, we replaced wise older proofreaders and typesetters with dispassionate computers that have a passing knowledge of grammar and no knowledge of the community. Reporters are already researching and writing stories by calling up data bases, transmitting the finished product electronically to editors who send it electronically to the press-and no one has to talk with anyone else. The era of shoe leather journalism has become as archaic as newsprint.

     We have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, and no friends as neighbors.

     Even the lines that sound as if we care about each other-“I know where you’re coming from,” “I understand your hurt,” and “Thank you for sharing that,” among dozens of others-are nothing but warm fuzzy codes so we can pretend we are communicating while we plan our next truncated sentence of no more than 140 characters.

     About the only time we talk with each other is when we unite at sports events to shout “Kill the umpire.”  Most other human-based communication seems to be flipping fingers and calling lawyers. Indeed, the Age of Communication has now become the Age of Uncommunication.

   Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist and professor emeritus of mass communications. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth analysis of the effects of fracking upon public health, the environment, worker safety, and agriculture. Dr. Brasch also investigates the history of energy policies in the U.S. and the relationships between the energy companies and politicians at local, state, and federal levels. The book is available at,or local bookstores.

Ed Pawlowski Jumps Into Gubernatorial Race

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski jumped into the state’s Gubernatorial primary next year.  He is the latest Democrat to seize on Tom Corbett’s abysmal poll numbers and enter the contest.  He has turned Allentown around and has support from various Lehigh Valley officials but I doubt he’ll be a factor outside that region.  There are simply too many heavyweights in this race.

Judge Halts MontCo Marriage Licenses

Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini put a halt today to D. Bruce Hanes, Montgomery County Register of Wills, actions in granting marriage licenses to same sex couples.  Following the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision Hanes determined that Pennsylvania’s DOMA law is invalid and began pursuing a policy of marriage equality.  Gay and lesbian couples from across the Commonwealth flocked to Norristown to get legal permission to wed.  174 couples did so.

Pelligrini said that Hanes didn’t have the authority to determine, on his own, that the law was unconstitutional and invalidated all of the same sex licenses issued by Montgomery County.  I’m assuming the case will be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  If they decide the case solely on these grounds it isn’t likely to be overturned.  If they consider the case in light of the constitutionality of DOMA it should get overturned.

Remembering 9/11

Four years ago I covered the first public memorial service in Shanksville.  Flight 93 crashed there on 9/11 after passengers overwhelmed the hijackers after discovering their plot.  First Lady Michelle Obama was there along with former First Lady Laura Bush.  After the ceremony the press was allowed access to family members and I interviewed the wido of co-pilot Leroy Homer.  She was apprehensive until she noted my credentials and decided I was safe to chat with.  This has been one of my most watched videos.


President Obama will address the nation tonight about his burning desire to start a new war in the Middle East.  Intervening in the Syrian civil war would be an act of madness.  Through talk of a “limited strike” and the McCain/Coons resolution which would allow us a broad, “boots on the ground” intervention on the side of radical Islamists, we must first remember one fact:  once you start a war its course is out of your hands.

A military strike on Syria, however limited, would be an act of war against that nation.  Their civil war has devolved into a conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims.  Are we really prepared to side with Iran?  Is it wise to get involved, once again, in another nation’s internal conflict?  Did we learn nothing from Vietnam?

The Senate resolution proposed by Senators McCain and Coons is dangerous and allows broad latitude for a major intervention.  The Russian proposal is very promising and, thus far, there has been no concrete evidence presented that the Assad government used chemical weapons.

The country is very apprehensive about believing anything our government says regarding weapons of mass destruction.  Once burned, twice shy.  One interesting facet of the debate is the opposition of right wing conservatives to react to a supposed use of chemical weapons.  They widely used Saddam’s use of them ten years previously to justify invading Iraq.

Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico sent a wisely thought out missive about this issue yesterday:

Dear Friends,

The last week has been the most difficult I have experienced in my more than eight years in public office.  What I share with you now will not win me any popularity awards, and some of you may well never forgive me for my decision today. All I ask is that you read this entire letter and seek to understand how I came to make this decision.

I have always believed that my decisions in public office should reflect my best judgment and what I believe to be the best course for our nation. Most of the time that leads to votes that are well aligned with most of you as constituents.  Just as importantly, it means that I can look my children in the eye and explain my positions with honesty, never having to explain why a vote was the result of politics or pressure. Today, I am taking a position that I believe is in line with those values.

From my position on the Intelligence Committee, I have been briefed regularly for eight months now on developments in Syria. Those developments have been very difficult to watch. Most people only hear about these things on a news report, where it is difficult to imagine the scale and intensity of this violence. I have had a much closer view.

Bashar al-Assad is a dictator who has shown a willingness to reduce residential neighborhoods to rubble, to imprison and torture children, and who has watched callously as his actions have killed over a hundred thousand civilians and displaced millions of Syrian refugees.

Despite that, I remain of the belief that as a nation, we cannot become directly entangled in a civil war that we do not fully understand. It is for this reason that I do not think we should arm the Syrian rebels and I do not support sending American troops into this conflict.

However, over recent months I also learned of the facts that are now the subject of so much debate here and around the world. What I can tell you from my perspective, having seen the public evidence as well as much that remains classified, I do not have any doubt about the following facts:

One: a chemical weapons attack occurred on August 21;

Two: that attack was planned and carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s regime; and

Three: that as a result, hundreds of children and non-combatants were gassed to death in the suburbs of Damascus.

I have seen how Assad incrementally tests the international community as he employs more and more brutal tactics in order to cling to power. And I can tell you that August 21 was not just some anomaly, but that it is part of a long and predictable pattern of behavior.

What’s more, I believe that when any country chooses to ignore the international norms against chemical weapons, they have made a deeply immoral decision with worldwide implications, implications that the United States and the international community cannot ignore. If you want to understand why chemical weapons were singled out for international actions, you can watch videos that were taken in the aftermath of the Damascus attacks. These videos show the real effects of chemical weapons and are completely consistent with international forensic evidence showing that the agent was Sarin nerve gas.  I would warn you not to view these with children in the room. They are real and they are horrible.

I know that we are a nation that is not only rightfully weary of war, but also jaded by the dishonest use of cooked intelligence reports that led to terrible mistakes in Iraq. But this is not Iraq and we have a moral obligation to deter Assad and every regime watching him from thinking that they can gas their people with impunity, commit genocide, or employ internationally prohibited weapons.

It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that I will support President Obama’s request for the authorization of use of military force.

I will seek to make sure that the resolution before the Senate remains narrow in scope and does not put American troops on the ground in another Middle Eastern war. But I believe that President Obama and the international community should be able to send a message to Bashar al-Assad: that he is not above international norms and that he will suffer real, military consequences should he choose to gas civilians.

I will continue to support additional foreign aid to alleviate the humanitarian and refugee crisis in Syria and neighboring countries, and I will also continue supporting diplomatic options so long as they are credible, verifiable, and enforceable.

While I know that my vote on this matter will be controversial, especially among some of my closest supporters, I want you to know that I have little doubt it is the right decision.




United States Senator

I stand with Sen. Heinrich, opposed to any war with Syria.

Same Sex Marriage Rolling Through New Mexico

Led by Dona Ana County in conservative southern New Mexico, same sex marriage licenses are spreading like a wildfire through this state.  Las Cruces and the rest of Dona Ana County issued over 200 licenses in about a week.  New mexico’s marriage laws are not gender specific and the state constitution outlaws any discrimination based on gender so county clerks have begun treating same sex couples the same as straight ones.  Judges in several counties have ordered clerks to issue the marriage licenses and now six counties have joined in the effort including Santa Fe, Bernolillo and now Los Alamos (soon to be the 7th).

The New Mexico County Clerks Association is going to court to clarify the law statewide and Republican State House members have sued to stop the licenses.  Whether or not they have legal standing could be an issue.

Meanwhile back in Pennsylvania the legal fight to halt Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes gets under way Wednesday in Commonwealth Court.