Monday, October 17, 2016

Reboot required.

The election, marked by a most deplorable and frightening campaign, is but weeks away.  Polls suggest Hillary Clinton is likely to be our next president.  If so, we will have collectively dodged a catastrophic bullet.  But let’s not start raising our celebratory glasses.  We should have no illusions about what’s happened here.  When it comes to the country’s future direction, much remains unresolved.  We will be left with fundamental questions not to mention deep, still not fully understood, scars.  I for one draw a direct line between Donald Trump and John McCain’s astounding selection of the highly unqualified opportunist Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008.  His unforgivable folly almost immediately gave way to the Tea Party and a total radicalization of the Republican party.  Some might argue that it all began with the so-called Reagan Revolution or even with Richard Nixon.  Those roots are undeniable, but it really wasn’t until eight years ago that things turned so absolutist partisan, or that one could even imagine a Donald Trump leading a national ticket.

The election notwithstanding, celebrations are unwarranted until we resolve what has been set in such poisonous motion.  So long as we refuse to engage with each other, to find some common ground, we are likely to see continued frustration and gridlock.  That is virtually guaranteed if the GOP retains control of Congress, especially the Senate.  In a time of global flux, the increasing threat of still denied and not fully addressed global warming and gaping economic disparity we will face continuing danger.  Nothing less than a total reboot will do.  That’s going to take both leadership and our collective will.  It won’t be easy, most especially since we’ve gotten so accustomed to taking sides and self-righteously proclaiming to always be in the right.

While we have heard less talk of it this election cycle, conventional wisdom has long held that there is some kind of predominate “middle” across the land.  If so, it hasn’t shown its face in quite a while.  There certainly seem to be few if any “middle” Republican office holders and, albeit perhaps less so, even among Democrats.  In fact, in this hyper-partisan time those of us who are active or who follow politics closely often show disdain for anyone who doesn’t hold absolute faith with either our liberal or conservative ideology.  Perhaps we are becoming more secular, but this kind of attitude mirrors the religious fundamentalism that claims for itself ownership of “the” truth.  That doesn’t lead anywhere good in either faith or politics.

Barack Obama came into office facing an overflowing plate ¾ Iraq, Afghanistan and an almost unprecedented excess driven recession.  Eight years later, despite considerable accomplishments, the Middle East remains in conflict and the residual effects of the downturn continue to impact on too many Americans.  Our assumed “can do” and “land of opportunity” ethos is in question and many citizens of all political stripes are both frustrated and angry.  The challenges facing a President Hillary Clinton may be somewhat different, but they are no less daunting.  In fact, I would argue that the state of our national psyche is so fragile in that in some ways, they may be greater today.  Given the limitations of any president to bring about substantial change or progress, she will have to make hard choices and set some priorities.  Addressing our challenges abroad and economic challenges at home are obviously on the to do list, but bringing about a reboot may be equally or even more important.

Much attention has been paid in recent weeks to the challenges facing the Republican Party in the face of its 2016 fracturing.  But let’s not forget Democrats have their own challenges evidenced by a very anemic 2016 presidential bench and the extraordinary response to independent Bernie Sanders candidacy.  That he properly opted for unity and campaigned for Clinton does not mean that what drove his insurgent campaign was not real or that what drove it will have gone the morning after.  Very many of his followers were and are young and the future ¾ theirs and ours ¾ depends on them and addressing their issues.  There is good reason that politicians have become suspect and business as usual has been so discredited across party lines.  The enthusiasm gap of this election dare not be ignored nor can the very fact that one of the two major parties could turn to such an extreme candidate.  That’s not a GOP problem, it’s an American problem.  We should read it as an ominous warning signal.  All is not well and we pretend that it is at our own great peril.

Is a seasoned senior pol like Hillary the right person to address these issues, to launch a credible reboot?  That remains to be seen of course, but she may turn out to be exactly the right agent.  Who better to self-judge, to understand that what we’ve been doing no longer works?  A Clinton led reboot could represent real reform, an affirmation that she is of the future rather than the past.  It would give special meaning to signal that she is not just a second Clinton or even Obama Administration, but one of the world that exists today and will be with us moving forward.  It’s a tall order to not merely think “out-of-the-box” but to act out of it as well.  She will be entering the presidency at a time of a messy and often dysfunctional country and world. 

Other countries question whether our time of leadership is at an end and many at home question what the nature of that leadership should be and where.  Among the many complications, the UK with whom we have always had that “special relationship” is in flux after the Brexit vote.  Israel our closest ally in the Near East still has not been able to make the peace it needs for survival as a Jewish state.  Isis remains a threat to stability complicating the neighborhood in which both Israelis and Palestinians live.  China is facing economic challenges and Russia is aggressively trying to reassert itself.  The list of challenges at home and abroad abound.  Where our desperately needed domestic reboot fits into that puzzle remains the yet to be answered question.  Other problems have a way of making their way to the front of the line, but she shouldn’t let that happen.  We need a reboot and we need it today not tomorrow.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The noble ability to grow.

Dwight Eisenhower was among the leading warriors of the “greatest generation”.  A career soldier he emerged from World War II as supreme commander and hero.  It brought him to the presidency in 1952.  Throughout his tenure, he remained a warrior, this time with aid of the Dulles brothers, in an oft times chilling Cold War.  For sure Ike had accomplishments during his tenure, perhaps most notably launching in interstate highway system that connects us, east to west and north to south.  But perhaps most quoted and thus remembered was the general’s brief end-of-term speech warning about the dangers of “the military-industrial complex”.  He lived in a time when points of view and ideology were less fixed and where evolving and sometimes dramatically changing opinions were lauded not scorned.  He appointed two Republicans and two Democrats to the Supreme Court, a notion that would be unthinkable today.  Two of those appointees, one of each party, moved sharply from the middle or right of center to what would today be considered the far left ¾ Chief Justice Earl Warren and Associate William Brennen.  Their votes in Brown, led to the civil rights revolution that ultimately facilitated electing Barack Obama our president.

I’ve been thinking of Eisenhower’s era in the last few days and how very much has changed in our politics, especially as we face the presidential election just weeks away.  How rare it is to see our politicians or our judges being compelled by experience to modify or even radically change their views.  But it isn’t American history that brought all this to mind.  Rather it was the death of Shimon Peres who was buried in Israel on Friday.  This 93-year-old was a most modern man with his mind on the future tokened in part by his excitement about technology.  Looking at his story, and having personally watched it unfold over so many years, I was struck by how much of a throwback he was to an earlier time when change of mind and heart in the face of newly learned realities was a badge of honor.

Like Eisenhower, Peres’ career was formed in warrior days.  He was of that generation that faced an immediate and urgent need to defend itself with no established support infrastructure.  At founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion’s behest, a very youthful Peres essentially fathered Israel’s impressive military-industrial complex.  He is considered responsible for the country’s never acknowledged nuclear program and later for joining in the ill-fated decision to allow Jewish settlements on the West Bank.  It was these life’s experiences and an ability to stand back and evaluate their consequences that compelled Peres to take a sharp turn from warrior to hopeful peace advocate.  In fact, like Eisenhower but much more so, Peres now is remembered most as the man of peace, Rabin’s partner and keeper of the flame in advocating a two-state solution.  Peres sought intellectual and economic partnership with Israel’s Palestinian neighbors, seeing their children as his and wanting them to have an equally dignified fulfilling life.

It’s no wonder the President Obama eulogized “Shimon” as a friend and a kindred spirit.  “I took great pleasure”, he noted, “in my friendship with this older, wiser man. We shared a love of words and books and history. …Beyond that, I think our friendship was rooted in the fact that I could somehow see myself in his story, and maybe he could see himself in mine. …Both of us had lived such unlikely lives.  It was so surprising to see the two of us where we had started, talking together in the White House, meeting here in Israel. And I think both of us understood that we were here only because in some way we reflected the magnificent story of our nations.”  Obama saw Peres among “the giants” of our time impacted by necessities so that “…the child who had wanted to be a “poet of stars” became a man who built Israel’s defense industry, who laid the foundation for the formidable armed forces that won Israel’s wars.”  But, he went on, “For a younger generation, Shimon was probably remembered more for a peace process that never reached its endpoint.”  Some, Obama said, considered him na├»ve in holding on to the dream of peace, but Peres, more than probably anyone of his generation, had faith in those young people and in the future, in the human ability to change and adapt to new information.  What a crazy radical idea.

Peres’s end came days before Jews in Israel and around the world prepare to greet a new year and prepare to make resolutions for the time to come.  You may associate this with the kind of resolutions talked about when we celebrate our common new year on January 1.  It’s totally different.  It’s not about losing those excess pounds, doing more exercise or even finally reading those books at our bedside.  Rather the resolution demanded by Rosh Hashanah and the days of contemplation that follow ¾ “the days of awe”¾ are much more fundamental.  They start with an evaluation of who we are ¾ what kind of people, what kind of actions mark our lives.  After asking forgiveness for what we have done wrong, we resolve to be better and to do better.  The assumption here is that in evaluating where we are relative to the real and ideal world we can change; we can alter our previously held notions.  How refreshing that would be if our leaders and perhaps more important we ourselves thought in those terms, if we all could be more like Shimon Peres.  He was human, imperfect as are we all, but he made the effort and opened his heart, at 93 still actively working for and dreaming of a better world.

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.