Friday, September 23, 2016

Identity amid sound and fury.

Are we there yet?  I feel like an antsy kid on what seems like a never ending road trip.  Don’t you?  With only weeks to go, we should be seeing some light at this seemingly endless tunnel.  If you see any, do let me know.  I also don’t see much substantive discussion.  At a time of complex global challenges and in the face of an economic present and technology-driven future for which we have yet to adequately course correct, all we seem to encounter is sound ¾dare I say much of it hot air ¾ and fury.  There has been little serious discourse on the campaign trial and, as such, we have learned little.  The fate of the Supreme Court hangs in the balance, but aside from Trump’s list of “qualified” potential appointees and some discussion as to whether Clinton would go forward with Merrick Garland, the subject hardly comes up.  We are on our way to the third consecutive hottest year on record and climate change, beyond the usual platitudes and generalities, is largely absent.  Of course, one candidate talks about reviving the coal industry, a hallow and cruel promise that he knows can’t and shouldn’t be kept.

You may hope that the upcoming debates will change that, but don’t count on it.  This is such a different year than when Hillary Clinton first ran for president.  She faced a vigorous 2008 primary fight, but there was something uplifting about that campaign, often some real joy.  Even in losing she reminded her supporters of their progress in shattering, albeit not penetrating, the glass ceiling.  Not so in 2016.  Trump supporters are the opposite of joyful, they are “mad as hell” even if for different reasons.  In this joyless year, Trump voters are angry while Clinton voters are unenthusiastic.

In both in 2008 and 2012 the parking lots of liberal Chapel Hill where I live were filled with Obama bumper stickers adorned cars.  Today, my Hillary car magnet is more the exception than the rule.  In her case, part of the enthusiasm gap, or certainly some of the things that created it, can be attributed to sexism.  Yes, I know Hillary lacks Obama’s charisma, has made some mistakes and can be her own worst enemy.  But let’s not avert our eyes from the challenge virtually all women still face in the workplace.  If they don’t talk up, they are written off as ineffective; if they do they are often caricatured as “bossy”.  They may get special credit when they behave “like a man”, but must certainly be “having their period” if they are perceived as the slightest bit testy.  NPR reported the other day that experts warn Clinton against being too aggressive in debate because voters don’t like that in women.  Let’s face it, as a society we continue to demand more of women than of men.  We set bars higher than we (both men and women) demand of ourselves, and then disingenuously claim that we are doing no such thing.  Give me a break.

Men continue to be the leadership default in every field, public and private.  Despite making up 50.7% of the population, only twenty women (out of 100) serve in the US Senate and six (out of 50) serve as state governors.  The numbers in industry are even worse ¾ twenty-three of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs.  We could go on, but you get the point.  These telling numbers help explain why there were so few women who might have been considered as alternatives to either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.  Leaving aside a Sarah Palin, do you have any doubt that if, say, two women were facing each other in November the content and nature, not to mention news coverage, of the race might be totally different?  And wouldn’t we all be better for it?

If the campaign is disheartening, in my view the media has a lot to answer for this elections cycle.  Much of the blame is often laid at the doorstep of Rupert Murdock, but I think the man who really deserves discredit is Ted Turner.  CNN came to us in 1980 a full sixteen years before Fox.  The idea that we either needed or that any network could meaningfully provide 24/7 news without resorting to fluff and fillers was on its face absurd.  Fox simply built on Turner’s vision finding a way to keep viewer’s eyeballs by being provocative and controversial, often spreading hyperbolic propaganda grounded in falsehoods.  Murdock at least comes from a newspaper heritage but Turner had no such bona fides.  CNN hired a few legitimate journalists (most notably Bernie Shaw) and still have a few, but show time and show business rule the day.  Broadcast news programs are now generally called “shows” and come to us with all the trappings.  Even on NPR they each have their own often B.J. Leiderman composed theme music.  The anchors at networks especially have become super-salaried celebrity entertainers including those who might have started out as serious journalists.  Entertainment ratings are all that count and the “news” covered is selected accordingly, for it’s entertainment high ratings value.

Donald Trump, who looms frighteningly as a possible winner in November is, if not the creation of, then certainly enabled by a complicit media writ large.  I believe he wouldn’t be with us had the media been doing their job.  Part of that job is filtering, separating legitimate news from promotional hype.  From day one of his outrageously xenophobic announcement, Donald Trump’s has benefited from being consistently headlined ¾ his every deed and action dutifully “reported”.  This 24/7 media hype more than delegate counts gave him the nomination in Cleveland.  He has dominated the front pages of newspapers throughout including such august institutions as the NY Times (“All the News That’s Fit to Print”) for months on end.  Only on the day after the bomb went off in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood was Trump’s name not repeatedly headlined on left hand column of their home page.  To paraphrase PT Barnum, Trump doesn’t care what they say about him so long as they repeat his name.  PT Barnum, how fitting, how much echoes of his bombast and extravagant claims have characterized this election cycle.  The only question is if a majority of November’s voters buy into the delusional circus.  If so, our rate driven media deserves much, though certainly not all, the credit.  Thank you very much.

If I sound discouraged or deeply concerned.  I am.  Eight years ago we seem to have taken a giant leap forward.  Words like progress, a sense that we finally had transcended old prejudices and done so with the boldest of statements prevailed.  Obama loomed larger than life.  Perhaps the most literate president since TR, among the very best presidential orators to all time, a man of intellect ¾ a reader not a Cliff Note skimmer.  What we didn’t anticipate, or want to consider, was that giant moves forward produce if not full throated backlash, then at least considerable pushback.  That happened early on tokened by the Tea Party.  2012 was a test year, but the person and the multiple talents of Obama were at play.  2016 is a new, and in some respects a more profound, test.  Both presidential candidates have been impacted by it.  In the end though, it isn’t Clinton or Trump who are being tested, it is all of us.

Who am I?  That’s a question we should always be asking ourselves.  Chances are most of us have a pretty good idea, a sense of self and being.  On a personal basis, each of us will cast our vote this November and, in doing so, the who am I question is likely to play a significant role.  We will be saying “this is who I am”.  In a sense, who am I is the easy and controllable question.  At the moment, what may be the more important and consequential question is “who are we”.  I think what’s so troubling this year is that we don’t have a real handle on the answer to that question.  Who are we collectively?  The Obama years has forced all Americans to consider our identity ¾ what we think and what makes us tick.  What happens on November 8 may give us a better sense of who we are, at least at this time.  The answer will have consequences; profound consequences I’d suggest.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Missing in action.

This remains a most disconcerting election season.  Trump continues with his outrageous statements and the media — all of it — gives him far more space than he deserves or that can be judged informative, much less remotely evenhanded.  At this juncture, his prospects seem to be fading, but there are still months to go.  We dare not be complacent.  Once on the ballot anyone can win.  Hillary is running a seemingly effective, albeit predictable, campaign, but she continues to suffer an enthusiasm gap.   At this point in 2008 there were endless Obama bumper stickers and lawn signs around the Chapel Hill bubble where I live.  That’s not true now.  Even so, she is up in the high single digits here in North Carolina as is Roy Cooper running against Governor Pat McCrory.  Deborah Ross has taken a small lead against Senator Richard Burr.  A victory for all thee would be a really big deal.

Money continues to play alarmingly large in our politics.  It’s not only what is spent on elections but its corrupting influence on office holders at all levels.  For sure the Clintons are part of that culture having leveraged public office into what made 2015 a $10 Million income year.  It’s a factor in Hillary’s trust problem but, as Mark Leibovich wrote so compellingly in his 2013 book This Town, it is a corruption that is both pervasive and party agnostic.  In fact, it may be the only truly consistent bi-partisanship left.  No wonder so many Americans are turned off, or worse tuned out.  That’s likely the case for many who succumbed to “the Bern” but also for the Hillary followers who support her “despite” not necessarily “because”.

I’m appalled by the money, but truth be told it’s not what really concerns me most about this and other elections.  What bothers me much more is what our elections are not about — the missing conversation.  It’s what isn’t being discussed or, perhaps more to the point, isn’t honestly being discussed.  The Donald has built his campaign around the myth of straight talk.  He isn’t talking honestly about the real issues that confront us in the twenty-first century, and that’s being generous.  Sadly neither is Secretary Clinton or a host of other candidates for high office.  When it comes to campaigns and beyond straight, honest talk is simply MIA, missing in action.

Here money isn’t at fault, rather it’s that we have become so hyper partisan.  Trump loves complain about “political correctness”.  It may surprise you, but I totally agree that we do have a serious political correctness problem.  Of course, it’s not the one he dwells on — the one that concerns women, minorities, LGBTs, and immigrants — the one to which he responds with overt sexism, racism and xenophobia.  My problem is with the political correctness born out of our poisonous hyper partisan time.  Regardless of whether we consider ourselves liberal or conservative (however defined) we have all fallen victim to what may be more accurately branded “partisan correctness”.  Whether Republican or Democrat there are just things you don’t say out loud or with which you can’t agree or even consider.  In some cases, we dare not let ourselves think certain thoughts or ask even obvious questions.  We have become a divided nation marching in lock step to the “party (of choice) line”.  It’s bad enough that some people operate under the uncritical banner of “my country right or wrong”, much worse is “my party right or wrong”.  That doesn’t make for honest conversation, the kind that’s MIA.

During presidential campaigns we talk around subjects or reduce them to questionable sound bites.  Candidates carelessly attack trade as if there were any chance to avoid global commerce in our interconnected interdependent world.  They talk about restoring manufacturing as if the high employment factories of an earlier time even existed in 2016.  David Ignatius wrote an excellent column last week’s Washington Post entitled, “The brave new world of robots and lost jobs”.  He spoke to the truth of what not only manufacturing but other aspects of our current working world will be in the years to come, and often already are.   His underlying implied message is what we all know: technology changes everything.  You won’t hear that on the campaign trail.  It isn’t only climate change that’s subject to denial, so too is the reality about which Ignatius writes, the one that is full blown now not in the distant future.

It’s totally dishonest to say that manufacturing as we knew it is coming back.   But what’s most dishonest, and fingers need to be pointed in every direction, is that we really aren’t having a serious fact-based conversation about the many issues that confront and will directly impact upon us now and going forward.   The income gap between most of us and Bernie’s, “millionaires and billionaires” is real, unfair and socially unsustainable.   But more significant is the question of how the vast majority of us will be able to earn a living wage and hopefully enter/ remain in the middle class. That is a far more fundamental problem than income inequality.  

We should all feel for all the technology-displaced workers, but feeling is not enough.  I applaud Joe Biden’s effort to find a cancer cure, but what we may need more is a moon shot effort to get our workforce retrained, both the unemployed and the currently employed who will be made redundant by technology in the years ahead.  The unemployed and underemployed workers surely have good reason to complain.  But they also need to accept the reality they know is here to stay.  They must both pursue and demand the training required to compete in today and tomorrow’s workforce.  That conversation is MIA this political season, especially with rust belt and coal country audiences.

It’s very easy for us to blame the politicians for this evasion of truth telling.  To be sure, they often deserve it.  But they only tell us what we want to hear, what we’ve made clear we demand to hear.  So we need a little straight talk about ourselves.  You and I are equally to blame for this MIA conversation, this dangerous denial, and this refusal to get real or serious.  It’s easy to say we’ve not been properly prepared for the brave new world, but it would be more honest to admit that we citizens, like that famous monkey, have had our hands covering our ears, eyes and mouths avoiding the evil called unwanted truth.  In that sense, we play a significant role in corrupting the political class, threatening them with a withheld vote if they don’t tell us what we want to hear, make promises that we both know can’t be kept.

Candidates — the political class as a whole — and we the people conspire together to skirt or totally avoid a candid, truly relevant conversation.  What about the press?   I don’t want to be unfair and David Ignatius’ column cautions me not to paint too broad a bush here, but the media class as a whole is failing us miserably.  Our elections, especially those for high offices, are covered as little more than horse races and we consumers of content didn’t start that ball rolling.  Much of the coverage we see focuses, sometimes exclusively, on who is up and who is down.  Perhaps the candidates themselves take polls, but it’s the media that have made them the central story.  When interest in polls lag just a bit, there is always the gotcha story or, this year especially, the outrageous attention getting rhetoric.  Just look at the front/home pages of our newspapers, the stories given airtime on our TVs and the leads of our magazines, print or digital.   Ask yourself, is that really news, or as the NY Times would put it, is it really ”fit to print”?  Too often my answer is, “I don’t think so”.   Leave aside some opinion pieces and serious investigative reporting, how often do you really encounter something of substance as opposed to one of those unending horse race stories.  You can say that Americans are often uninformed, but is the media contributing to the conversation we need or are have they blurred, even forgotten, the line between entertainment and news?  You know the answer to that.  I think our public corporations have been undermined by Wall Street’s demand for quarterly earnings.  So, too, has our press has been compromised by an insatiable pursuit of ratings.  Both have left all of us in a very precarious state.

The crazy thing, and perhaps the conversation most avoided, is that a lot of people upon whom we rely are being paid and not doing their job, properly or at all.  Speak of MIA, Congress, many of whose members pontificate about fiscal responsibility, heads that list.  Harry Truman famously railed against the “do-nothing 80th Congress”, but we now know that “he ain’t seen nothing” when it comes to an abrogation of responsibility.  We may see them mouthing off on C-Span, but it’s a mirage.   When it comes to fulfilling their employment contract, they are nothing more than highly paid “no-shows”.  Serious talk being MIA is a failure on the campaign trail. But the lack or serious honest conversation and carrying out the duties for the Congress we have hired is nothing less than criminal — in my view, an indictable offense.  Not listening to one another is for sure disrespectful, but all of us are paying the price for a bunch of slackers who think they are entitled to the seats that they occupy.  And we the people aren’t talking about that, aren’t demanding that they simply do their jobs, holding them individually to task.

It’s an old cliché to suggest that we get the government, and relative to this post the press, we deserve.  I’ve made it clear that we are not total innocents in the avoidance of the conversations we so need.  True, but looking back at the primary season and the 2016 general election campaigns so far, I feel we deserve more, we deserve better.  I despair about the conversation that’s missing in action and the high cost of that silence.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Ah, the gender card.

The general election is on, the one that counts, that will impact the four years ahead and beyond.  If part of what pertains this time around is playing the gender card, definitely “deal-me-in”!  

With all the Donald Trump bluster and nastiness, the import of having the first female nominee of a major political party may be lost in the noise.  We dare not let that happen.  Bringing a woman to the Oval Office is long overdue — an essential missing step in perfecting our democracy.  Barack Obama broke important new ground on the way to putting the sin of slavery behind us.  There is still a long way to go and he has paid a price for that audacity.  Remember, among others, Donald Trump’s relentless and disgraceful racist Birther attacks.  Hillary Clinton’s election will move us toward mitigating the different, but in some ways no less painful, sin of sexism.  She has been paying the price for challenging the all-male club since being vilified for not fitting into the “traditional” wifely role back in the early 90s.

Not since the days of Eleanor Roosevelt have first ladies been criticized as much as Hillary and, especially early on, Michelle.  That didn’t happen to Barbara, Laura, Nancy, or Rosalind.  Isn’t it interesting that the two accomplished attorneys — Yale and Harvard — who had established meaningful careers predating their husbands rise to the presidency, were the objects of resentment.  Hillary was considered an outrage for not being into baking cookies and Michelle was branded as an angry black for daring to say in 2008 that it was “…the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country”.  Hillary has been criticized for her voice; Michelle for wearing sleeveless dresses.  For Hillary it was not to have the vocal equipment to lead — read that not authoritative male voice to which we’re accustomed.  For Michelle, as a woman told NPR’s Ari Shapiro, in 2012 “…It’s about time we get a first lady in there that acts like a first lady, and looks like a first lady. …I mean she’s more about showing her arms off” — read that too much exposed, OMG, black skin.

Of course, Hillary Clinton committed the ultimate audacity in seeking to shepherd her husband’s healthcare initiative through Congress.  It was an unsuccessful effort, to some degree in how she handled it, but so too was it for all the men who tried it before her.  How dare she undertake a man’s work?  Perhaps she wasn’t given to sleeveless dresses (though Chelsea appeared in a red one last Thursday night), but those pant suits.  Oh, is that presidential?

Clinton’s greatest weakness as a candidate is that many people just don’t trust her.  It’s become a truism, one that is hammered home by the press in almost every mention of her name.  It would be foolish for her supporters to ignore it.  For sure part of that trust gap stems from her use of a private email server while at State, perhaps the dumbest and most mystifying decisions she ever made.  It is said that she guards her privacy, perhaps more than any other political figure.  Where might that come from?  Most of us are old enough to remember the invented scandal of Whitewater that plagued the Clinton’s during Bill’s first term.  It was a claimed dirty deal that just wasn’t.  Then there was the tragic suicide of Vince Foster — for sure he was murdered on orders of the First Family.  More recently, we’ve seen the trumped up Benghazi scandal on which malicious Republican Legislators wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on nothing short of partisan showmanship.  And so it has been throughout her career.  Perhaps what appears to be a bit of paranoia on her part is merited. 

The fact is that Hillary Clinton has had a long and distinguished professional career.  She was a partner of a respected law firm, was a widely esteemed United States Senator, (elected and re-elected) and a tireless Secretary of State.  As the president said last week, “there has never been a man or a woman -- not me, not Bill, nobody -- more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.”  When I tell people it’s about time we had a woman president, some are quick to say, “yes, but she must be qualified”. Leaving aside that Obama put that to rest, hearing such comments always makes me mad.  It’s like those who feel they have to respond to “Black lives Matter” with “all lives matter”.  They just don’t get it.  Sadly, there are too many people left here and elsewhere that don’t think or act like Black lives specifically do matter.  Let’s be honest, we’re way behind the curve in having a woman leader.  Isn’t it the least bit embarrassing that we’re still playing catch up on gender equality at this late date?  Think of all the countries large and small that have elected female leaders, among them India and Israel in the 1960s, more than half a century ago.

Hillary Clinton’s candidacy as a woman is a very big deal.  It’s one of the reasons I’ll be excited to vote for her in November.   The idea that within a matter of eight years we voters have had the privilege of helping our country brake the race and now the sex barrier makes me proud.  I’m also humbled that it has taken us so long.  I wrote in my most recent post about the dreams that take hold during presidential campaigns.   2016 holds a dream to which many of us, women and men, can happily take hold.   Is Hillary an unblemished candidate, a woman who has accomplished but has also made mistakes?  Absolutely, but can any of us claim perfection?  Of course we can’t.  Like or not, imperfection is integral to the human condition.  I’d like to see us make history this November. That’s a big part of why I’m with her.