Tuesday, December 28, 2004

A Tsunami Year

A tragically appropriate horrific ending to a horrendous year.  I'm trying hard to think about what good happened in 2004, and must confess to be at a loss.   To be sure, whatever humanly devised disasters, and there were many, everything including the high casualty levels of conflict, pales in comparison to the havoc and devastation that, without warning, befell hundreds of thousands innocents in a matter of minutes across eleven countries on the Indian Sea.   The numbers of dead and displaced are the kind one can't really comprehend or personalize.  The coincident death of Susan Sontag, an individual whose loss we can define and appreciate, reminds us how precious each individual life is, how much the absence of a single human being can mean.  So, too, the nearly 1400 American young men and women who have given their lives in Iraq, another 17 of whose heart wrenching photos were shown this evening on the PBS News Hour – precious individuals leaving behind identifiable grieving mothers, fathers, wives and children in our neighborhoods.   But the victims of the Tsunami are not the only unknown.  Equally anonymous and uncounted are the Iraqi, Afghani or other victims of that pathetic euphemism called "collateral damage."   Be assured someone, if not us, knows their number and mourns their loss as do the survivors of this week's disaster.

It took our President three days to interrupt his Crawford vacation long enough to make a public statement on the Tsunami tragedy.  One can't imagine Bill Clinton having waited three hours.  It reminds me of Bush's delayed reaction to the 9/11 attack so quickly forgotten and forgiven by those who didn't want to think that their President could be absent for so many hours in its aftermath.  It's funny how much more spontaneous human empathy we got from the morally discredited Clinton than from the sanctimoniously faith-imbued Bush who is so obsessed with the right to life of the unborn, but who has no problem with putting the already born (including potential victims of assault weapons) in harm's way.

If you find these words bitter, they merely reflect the total frustration of many of us who can't understand how so many of our fellow citizens were taken in by the shell game that constituted the November election.  A majority of those people believed to the end that Saddam played a key role in 9/11, a myth that the President and his associates saw no reason to correct even if they knew better.  It served their purposes, helped keep them in power.   Now we look ahead to four more years, to that unspent political capital and what it might mean in the context of an ultra-right political agenda.  Meanwhile, even without this most recent natural catastrophe, we find ourselves at great peril, far less safe, with no end in sight -- no light much less sense of an ending tunnel.   Our standing in the world remains diminished and, as Tom Friedman of the Times and others point out, we are concurrently losing our edge in science and technology.   We can borrow billions to wage war, but are spending far less that is necessary on educating our young.  We've crossed the bridge to the 21st Century and half the schools in the country are talking about teaching Creationism along with, or in the place of, Darwinism, the former being proven fact the latter a mere theory.   We've crossed the bridge, but seem to be traveling back toward the dark past not forward to the promise of the future.  I'm normally an optimist, but the realist within me sees no silver lining in that, no quick happy Hollywood ending.  We have a lot of work to do in changing the course of this train that's left the station on its way to the wrong destination.   We better get on with it, without delay.  Where are those damned breaks?

Friday, December 24, 2004

What Kind of Country?

It is Christmas Day.  For the majority of Americans it is a holiday, for some of them a holy day.  For the rest of us – Jews, Moslems, Hindus and others – it is a moment of some ambivalence, a time when we are reminded of our minority status.  We are asked to participate in the holiday spirit and are engulfed in its decorations, music and symbols.  There is festiveness in the air, but beneath the surface a palpable tension.  That is particularly true this year.  Over the past few weeks we have witnessed a series of local controversies and heated debates surrounding public school and place holiday observances and programming.  Not that we haven't experienced this before – similar discussions took place when I was a child a long time ago.  What's different this year is the tone and a new aggressiveness about bringing Christmas – the birth of Jesus Christ – back into a holiday that has been increasingly secularized and thus religiously neutered. 

One of the most unattractive aspects of our time, as my elder son keeps reminding me, is that no one wants to take responsibility any more.  To be sure, Christmas has lost some of its religious edge because of what the complainers see as political correctness -- not wanting to offend, wanting to be inclusive.  But Christmas become secularized many decades before "correctness" even entered our vocabulary.  It has long been taken over as a commercial event, the make or break time for retailers whose fiscal year ends in January so that they can book its sales.  It is a Christmas focused on unbridled gift buying rather than remembrance of Virgin Birth.  The broadest possible inclusion in this frenzy and the resultant holiday neutralization has long been tacitly condoned by people of faith including Churches who in all honesty are driven as much, often more, by economic considerations than by prayer and piety.  Christmas' meaning has been pragmatically hijacked by the almighty dollar not by political correctness and that is sad.   Restoring the meaning of Christmas would be good for everyone, Christians and non-Christians alike.  

But there is something in this year's debate which is not good for all of us.  For the first time, I hear an increasing number of people voicing anger about the neutering of Christmas with the argument that this is a "Christian country."   To be sure, Christianity remains the dominant religion in America, though other religions have been gaining ground.  Only the blind can deny the reality of that dominance, symbolized by a National Christmas Tree and the annual television tour through the decorated people's White House.  Even so, I think of ours as a secular democracy, my place as well as yours, yours as well as mine.  Christians should be proud of their faith, should feel embraced by all in their right to celebrate and to be discomfited by the replacement of Merry Christmas with Happy Holidays.  But not because we live in a Christian country, rather that we live in one which welcomes and protects religion and the religious even as it welcomes secularism and the non-believer.

I have said many times in these blogs that a large number of Americans, including those in high places, see our current geopolitical struggles in religious terms.  We aren't fighting terrorism, we're battling Islam.  We're not defending our democracy, but in their view our Christian country and Christian way of life.  As an American and as a citizen of our small planet, I see that as a prescription for disaster.  As a Jew with a historic memory, I find such thinking ominous.   When people start using code words like correctness for un-Christian and thus un-American, there is good reason for people of all faiths and beliefs to be concerned.  For or against the current foreign policy, let's not forget what we're defending here.  Yes, let's not forget that we're defending the right of individuals in a pluralistic society to cherish their traditions and for our Christian fellow citizens to wish each other a Merry Christmas with all of its meaning and pride.

Thursday, December 9, 2004

Dreams, Why Not?

Philip Roth and I both grew up in Newark. We lived in adjacent neighborhoods, went to the same high school and share many childhood memories and sign posts. If you've read his latest Newark-based novel, The Plot Against America, you know that my father is one of the historic characters woven into his fictional fantasy. It's a provocative "it could happen here" story and, as usual, written in the compelling style. I recommend it. Roth is obviously a dreamer, in this case, subject to nightmares. Perhaps the dreaming part is in the air, because I find myself drifting into that real/unreal world myself. Unlike Roth, however, my dreams are not nightmares but happy fantasies.

My dream also concerns the outcome of a Presidential election. As his, which was built on the reality of the pro-Hitler America First movement in early 1940s, mine centers on the reality of an expected Ohio recount. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, in my dream when all the votes are reviewed Kerry is the winner of Ohio, reversing the results of the November election. Now had we not lived through the bizarre events of 2000, I would totally discount this dream, certainly I wouldn't write about it. But, hey, if fellow ex-Newarker Philip Roth can bring Lindbergh who never ran into the White House, why can't I bring in John Kerry, who did? Humor me.

Can you imagine Christmas in Crawford, in Wyoming or in any of the well healed locations in which our, until then, self satisfied leaders find themselves? Think about Condi suddenly planning a return to California rather than a daily drive to the State Department. Think about a new Secretary of Defense who might actually take some responsibility of mucking up rather than streamlining our military or who might get some blame for an Abu Ghraib on his watch. You can fill in your own fantasies. I must say, just contemplating what such a turn around might mean to these people who have so arrogantly taken us to the brink is more delicious than eating an exquisite piece of "Old Europe" dark chocolate. And don't say it couldn't happen, at least don't say it absolutely couldn't happen. Not that it will.

Philip Roth's book is obviously a nightmarish excursion into what could have happened in the 1940, and thankfully didn't. My dream is sweet excursion into what I wish had happened a few weeks ago. His nightmare is fantasy (even though most people see it as a contemporary metaphor); my waking reality is the nightmare -- not what could have happened but what is happening. Roth's novel comes to a happy ending. I hope our reality will as well. Like Martin Luther King Jr., "I have a dream that someday…" Let's resolve to make sure that is a day certain, one not too long delayed.

Sunday, December 5, 2004

Eye for Eye Insufficiency

Over the past weekend C-Span broadcast a New American Foundation/NYU Law Center forum on Trans-National Terrorism after 9/11.  It was a provocative and thoughtful discussion involving highly credentialed academic and professional experts.  Most questioned both our success in combating terrorism and the underlying assumptions under which we are conducting this so-called "war".  Force, many said, simply is not a solution, certainly not in the long term.  I've always felt that way citing the abysmal failure of Israel's futile use of often overwhelming military power to end the Intifada. Corroborating their views, President Musharraf of Pakistan expressed similar thoughts talking to both the BBC and CNN in which he admitted that, in hindsight, the Iraq war was ill-conceived and that the world is less safe in its aftermath.  As to the war on terrorism, the General, who knows something about these things, suggested that the use of force had only a short term tactical merit.  Long term, the solution to terrorism requires addressing the substantial underlying political and social problems or conflicts that produce it. 

Watching the Foundation/Law Center discussion, I found myself engrossed in their discussion but mostly depressed by the thought that this kind of conversation is unlikely to have taken place in or around the White House.  In an administration that seems bent on corroborating predetermined absolute truths and assumptions rather than exploring possibilities and options, open discourse is obviously unwelcome, much less any notion of the course correction that it might suggest.  While the number of cabinet posts being reshuffled is historically pretty consistent with other second terms, the obvious message of the replacement appointments is clear.  No contrary views welcome here, no dissonant notes in this one-dimensional "patriotic" hymn.  The firmness of this ill conceived resolve is only underscored by the one major cabinet post that will not change.  Donald Rumsfeld and company who, regardless of one's position on the war, botched things up big time has been asked to stay.  If you have any lingering doubts about George Bush's inability to admit mistakes, I rest my case.

In all fairness, however, perhaps Musharraf's critique was a little too harsh.  After all, Bush does have a long term vision - bring democracy to all those countries.  It is prejudicial, he suggested the other day, to think that Moslem countries could not sustain democracies.  I agree that it is, but as usual, the President's words constitute more sound byte simplistic hype than a reflection of reality on the ground.  As an investigative Aljazeera reporter reminded those at the forum, more than 50% of the Arab population is illiterate; not merely poorly educated, but unable to read or write.  No wonder authoritarian regimes hold sway across the region.  How can people vote intelligently, or even have the power to do so, when they are so handicapped.  Think about this tidbit from Richard Dawkins' interview with Bill Moyers on his PBS Now program.  A significant majority of Americans who voted for George Bush believe that WMDs were found in Iraq, not that they might have existed and were somehow removed from the country, but were there.  If such disinformation can prevail among the educated, albeit not up the standards we would like, how can one expect real democracy, which includes informed voting, to take hold in countries of rampant illiteracy?  If we don't begin to address these problems, terrorism is likely to be at our doorstep for many decades to come.  At the very least, we can expect more authoritarian governance, even if it functions under Egyptian-style charade democracies.

Are we safer today than we were a year ago, or perhaps even months ago? Ask the bi-partisan congressional delegation that just returned from Iraq, a follow-up on a similar visit made last year.  Senator Lincoln Chafe, a Republican, confirmed what John Kerry and others said throughout the campaign.  Things in Iraq have deteriorated dramatically despite the presence of over 100,000 US troops.  The delegation simply couldn't visit the same places this time around and even their modest ten kilometer trip from the airport was hazardous as they passed through land that is essentially under insurgent control (as is much of Baghdad and other places around the country).  More troops are on the way, and more who should be leaving will be staying around.  But this show of strength can't mask the fact that, these many months after the war of liberation, Iraqis are not really in charge of their own destiny, have less personal security and a substantially diminished quality of life than before it started.  Is it any wonder that their Intifada is growing along with this reality?  The idea of efficacious "an eye for an eye" coupled with a "see no lack of progress, hear no alternative view" is placing us and the world in greater danger every day.  It's hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel, even harder to imagine new thinking in a now monolithic Washington imbued with mandate and the rightness of their ideas, both large and small.

Post Script: My last blog, a spontaneous reaction to increased prescription drug advertising, appears to have been more timely than I thought.  Suddenly the airwaves are filled with similarly expressed concerns.  Obviously others, far more influential voices, are getting into this and none too soon.  More power to them.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Time to Call Your Doctor

I was so relieved to learn that, in the wake of the Vioxx debacle, Merck's board has acted decisively to financially reward senior executives should the once revered company turn into a house of cards.  I am sure those who have lost loved ones, or who themselves face the potential of Vioxx induced heart attacks, were equally heartened to hear of their thoughtful largesse.  Reading the Merck news over breakfast turned out to be somewhat of a serendipitous coincidence.  Just the night before, I found myself once again being irritated by the ever growing number of prescription drug commercials that, thanks to a compliant FDA, have become impossible to avoid.  While watching an episode of the British mystery Walking the Dead on BBC, I was urged to treat my stomach with Nexium (proven better), rhymed into reducing my cholesterol with Crestor (recently identified as a potential future Vioxx) and, get this, consider a hip replacement with a specific Titanium/ceramic prostheses even though I had no need of such surgery. 

I've spent the last thirty plus years in the branding and marketing business, so I understand the important role advertising plays in building sales for consumer products.  As a professional, I appreciate what it can do and the often inventive executions that emanate from the many talented people in the agency world.  As a consumer, I'm like everyone else, disdaining many of the commercials I see while probably being totally susceptible to their sales pitch.  That's OK when it comes to household cleaners, soft drinks or automobiles.  I'm not sure the same can be said of prescription drugs, and the more I see of those ads the greater my concern.  In 2003, just six years after the FDA relaxed its rules, the pharmaceutical industry spent $3.2 Billion on prescription drug advertising.  Studies suggest that for every dollar spent, more that four dollars are returned in revenue.  That means that in 2003, advertising generated more than $12 Billion in drug sales.  The power of persuasion.  The thing that bothers me is that a basic role of advertising is to induce trial, make us purchase something that we may not have considered before and that we may not need.  Trial is benign when it comes to a new brand of soap or ice tea, but not for a drug that by definition is going to modify the way our body is functioning, often with dangerous side effects. One has to assume that part of that $12 Billion incremental business comes at the expense of competitive pharmaceuticals appropriately prescribed, but it would be naïve to think that some of it, perhaps a significant share, doesn't fall into the category of unnecessary medication.

The fact is that patients are, as the ads usually suggest, calling their doctor "today" to ask whether taking this or that wouldn't be a great idea.  Sadly, the harassed physicians often take the path of least resistance.  How many people are popping Celebrex when Aspirin or another conventional analgesic would suffice?  How many functional males are pushing their doctors to prescribe Viagra or the like when these drugs are meant to assist only the dysfunctional?  And what, from a social perspective, is this $3.5 Billion expenditure doing to further increase the mounting cost of these and other medications?  In a country where we get exercised about someone smoking a joint to alleviate nausea induced by chemotherapy, it seems quite hypocritical that we allow the hawking of prescription drugs as if they were some kind of innocuous confection.  While I certainly have to take responsibility for my own health and do, I don't quite see telling my doctor what drugs are appropriate as part of that task.  Last I checked he, not I, was the one with a medical diploma on the wall.  I'll accept being asked to rush out to the supermarket or down to my car dealer by some actor on TV, but not when and if to call my doctor.  Something about that just doesn't sit well.

We blame the fast food industry for contributing to our national obesity.  All that superfluous fat is taking its toll.  It's time we started blaming the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA for making us a nation that over medicates.  It may take years to know the full extent of damage wrought by Vioxx, once the most heavily advertised prescriptive drug, but we already know it has done harm.  Perhaps I should call my doctor today and ask him why he and his colleagues are not raising their voices against this dangerous trend, this invitation to drug abuse?  Perhaps you should call your physician with the same question.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Reds

History sure has its ironies, and here is one nobody seems to have picked up on.  Anyone old enough to remember the Cold War and most especially the horrendous 1950's has a vivid association with the designation "Red".  To paraphrase that sage Kermit the Frog, "it wasn't easy being Red" in those days when Joe McCarthy and his ultra conservative friends labeled them, or anyone the least bit sympathetic, as "Commies".  Everyone knew that a movie called "Reds" was going to be about Communists and it was commonplace to speak disparagingly of Red China.  So it is especially ironic that today Red States should refer to the Republican (and conservative at that) dominated sections of the country.  How did their language guru Frank Luntz let that happen?  The people he has so influenced on the right pride themselves on discipline especially in co-opting powerful descriptors, "Pro-Life" for anti-abortion activists or the "Death Tax" to discredit the inheritance taxes they want to repeal to name only a few.  One really has to laugh a little that they find themselves in linguistic bed with the much maligned enemy over which they obsessed for most of the last century.  What's worse, they aren't merely "Pinko" sympathizers (read liberals), they are Reds.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving the holiday that is truly ours as opposed to yours and mine.  It's a time when we're not Jews, Christians, Moslems or non-believers, but Americans; perhaps we're not Democrats or Republicans either.  I love Thanksgiving and in large measure because, unlike the synthetically neutralized "holiday season" ahead, it is truly shared by all.  The changed meaning of Red reminds me that history has its ebb and flow, its ups and downs.  It gives me some hope that this distressing time isn't necessarily destined to be forever.  That thought alone makes me thankful.

And I guess one should also be thankful for today's Reds and the many things wrought under their dominion.  We're at war, and not a single one of us has yet had to pay a dime for it.  Indeed, they've cut our taxes so that we can indulge ourselves by buying more, not sacrifice by doing with less.  Not to worry, the kids for whom we have, after all, done so much will pay the bills; even better so will their still unborn offspring.  Countless thousands have died or been wounded, physically or psychologically, and notwithstanding that among them are many of our own sons and daughters, the President tells us that it's better happening over there than over here.  That should make us thankful, shouldn't it?  There is melting at both polar caps and an ever growing thirst for finite energy in a fast developing world (most significantly in the old Red China), but the garage under my New York City building is filled with SUVs.  I am so thankful on this holiday that my urban neighbors and their relatives in suburbia can still have those guzzling Hummers, Escalades and Navigators to transverse the rugged pavement of Amsterdam Avenue, Central Park West and the Garden State or Merritt Parkways. 

Life is good, undeniably good, so why am I so depressed this Thanksgiving?  I must really be a poop.  The latest polls show that a majority of Americans think the years ahead will be better than those immediately past.  I guess that's not surprising since a majority of them voted Red.  Maybe I should get with the program, not feel so Blue.  Now what happened to those rose colored glasses?  They must be around here somewhere.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

An Old Friend in New Clothing

Visiting the Museum of Modern Art, was among my earliest childhood memories, perhaps predating school.  It was there that I was introduced to some of the great paintings and sculptures that have moved me, given me joy and a lifelong passion for art.  I remember the treat of eating lunch with my parents out on the penthouse terrace of the Edward Durell Stone building or walking up and down the interior staircase that is forever etched in my brain.  I remember seeing Picasso's Guernica, housed temporarily there when the artist was on the outs with his native Spain.  Perhaps I wasn't a pre-schooler the first time I came to MoMA, but my sons most certainly were and there is no doubt that the experience also left a lasting imprint.

I had the great pleasure of previewing the new MoMA last evening.  If its previous expansions sometimes struck a dissonant chord -- seemingly more appendages than integrated parts, this reincarnation is a cohesive exhilarating symphony.  Unlike other efforts, the 2004 MoMA is really new from top to bottom.  Perhaps behind the walls are skeletal remains of the old but, aside from the sculpture garden, you would be hard pressed to identify them.  What you will find is elegant and ample space.  Whether typography or painting, the visual always thrives on the air around it, and the new MoMA provides plenty of that.  You never feel the sense of being crowded or confined and happily neither are the paintings or sculptures.  The architecture doesn't shout with any egocentric "look at me".  Rather it reveals, and in a very intriguing way.  On each floor one can peek over railings or through "windows" and get a glimpse of what was seen or is about to be seen on another level, not to mention the city which it embraces rather than hides.  The walls are filled with old friends, but somehow even those appear as if never seen before.  The new MoMA is visually fresh and more importantly it provides, even demands, a fresh look.

I remember when Yoshio Taniguchi was awarded the MoMA project.  It wasn't that the man wasn't qualified.  He had created nine museums (models of which can be seen as part of the opening exhibits).  But some MoMA loyalists had hoped for a Frank Gehry sculpture-edifice or a Frank Lloyd Wright layer cake – something that would stand out against the cityscape.  It was around the time when everyone was rhapsodizing about Bilbao.  As to Wright's Guggenheim, it's the only museum that I really hate.  To be sure the building is striking, though it still seems out of place in its 5th Avenue context, but that narrow ramp simply isn't conducive to viewing art, especially larger canvases.  I haven't seen Bilbao yet, but its notoriety caused me to think a great deal about the role of museum architecture.  I have been to the new Tate in London, a spare warehouse of a place and to the Getty in LA, like the new MoMA an elegant but visually understated building.  In both cases, the architects seemed more interested in showcasing the works inside (even though the Getty collection disappoints) than in asserting their own signature.  Far be it for me to discount the sheer architectural brilliance of Gehry or Wright both of whom I admire greatly, but I am in the Taniguchi and company school.  I don't want a museum's architecture to distract me but to facilitate the best possible viewing of all those collected treasures.  For that reason alone, I love the new MoMA, can't wait to return and hope you'll get there soon to share my pleasure.

Monday, November 15, 2004

You won't be Missed

Colin Powell won't be part of the last (that has a nice sound) Bush administration and it won't matter one bit.  The man who four years ago joined a President with an assumed weak mandate was widely regarded as the Walter Cronkite of American public life.  If Bush unnerved many of us, and Cheney scared us half to death, Powell promised to be the saving moderating voice.  And, given the trust most of the country had in him, we wrongly assumed his views would prevail, at least most of the time.  These many years later Walter Cronkite is still missed, still trusted.  Colin Powell is unlikely to benefit from a similar legacy.

Powell it turns out, photo ops at the ranch notwithstanding, was a pretty weak player in the Administration from day one.  Despite tours in Viet Nam and leading the military at NATO and at home, he turned out to be inept in the trenches.  Draft evader Dick and "oh things happen" Rummy beat him at every turn.  The only time it seems that they passed him a bone was when it was clear that he would embarrass himself, not to mention his country, and forever tarnish his reputation before the UN and the world community. 

Walter Isaacson points out in a Times Op Ed that George Marshall, another General turned statesman, is Powell's hero.  Marshall didn't step aside when he disagreed with Truman and Powell followed his example even in the face of both foreign policy and military missteps.  Good soldiers both of them.  Marshall at least has left the Western World with concrete accomplishments – think about Europe without the life-regenerating Marshall Plan.  The Powell Doctrine has already been trashed, if it were ever really employed.  No, my guy is the late Cyrus Vance who quit Jimmy Carter's cabinet after the aborted attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran.  He did so on principle (remember that antiquated concept), something that seems to have eluded the general.  Soldiers may salute the Commander and Chief, but apparently Mr. Powell forgot that Secretary of State is a civilian diplomatic post, not another military assignment.

Some people will try to put a good face on the Powell tenure, speaking of the frustrations and valiant behind-the-scenes efforts.  They see his UN appearance as a tragic moment, an aberration in an unblemished career.  All of this doesn't cut it.  People who have reached Powell's level (achieved with considerable systematic planning and personal ambition) don't get free passes.  If George Bush squandered the good will that followed 9/11, Powell squandered what may well have been the myth of his public career.  Good bye Colin Powell, you won't be missed.  Don't get me wrong, Condi won't be welcomed.

Friday, November 12, 2004

A Death in the Family

A break from the global to the personal, the canine.  In 1968 we were blessed with our first son, dutifully named and reared in the traditional way.  Wonderfully, he would have nothing of it and early on established his individuality including rebranding himself Tommy DOG.  His path ever since has been one of boundless creativity and originality, facing and meeting challenges, some of them steep, and in the end conquering.  He is among the most inventive and industrious people I know, and among the most loving.  He life is music, fanciful sculptures – some of them working instruments – and collecting.  It is also revolves around a true love of dogs.

In full disclosure his father is not a dog person, and further is guilty of depriving his children of a canine companion in our New York City apartment when they were growing up; until only recently, a home I shared with Tommy DOG.  Eleven years ago, my house mate announced that he had decided to purchase a puppy, a Rottweiler no less.  It wasn't something I had contemplated nor necessarily welcomed, but his money and certainly his home as well as mine.  Into are lives came Otis.  She, and I'm sure you were thinking he, was named after the elevator that carries us up and down each day.  Did I tell you he is an original?

From her unlikely name (he added to it, but rarely used Pricilla) to her disposition, Otis mirroring her master was a contradiction in terms.  While part of a breed known for its potential ferociousness, Otis decided that she was a lap dog.  Her favorite spot of course was on my comfortable leather couch which ultimately self destructed from years of her loving licking and lying about.  Over the years, knowing my general disposition toward dogs, TD would say to me, "admit it, you like her."  Who couldn't like, even admire, Otis?  Given the subjects I usually write about, I might add that some of the human Rottweilers out there could learn a thing or two from this powerful beast who opted for peace rather than war, gentility rather than confrontation.

Otis' disposition didn't come out of the blue.  It was responsive to extraordinary love and gentleness of her adopted "parent".  From the start, she knew unquestioned love and respect.  She wouldn't have been what she was without Tommy DOG.  But that is only half the story.  He would not have been who he is today without her which is what makes this a beautiful and a powerful metaphor.  I've tried to be a good parent to my two sons and hope that some of their innate character and value systems reflect what they were exposed to at home.  But what I may have given to them – and hopefully will continue to give for some time – pales in comparison to what they have given to me.  I'm sure their mother feels the same way, and hopefully so do you if you are a parent.  Tommy DOG saw Otis as his child and, as he told friends and family in his email announcing her death last evening, "nothing has given me more pleasure and personal satisfaction then raising my Rottweiler from a pup".  He is a different person today than he was eleven years ago, and Otis is part of that difference.

"My life with her has been full and gratifying and I wouldn't have traded it for anything in the world," he said in his email.  I feel the same about my life with Tommy DOG.  Fortunately, I don't have to deal with it as a memory but as a living and wonderful work-in-progress.  We'll all miss Otis and I'll always be proud of him.

Friday, November 5, 2004

The Moral Minority

78% of the electorate did not consider morality the number one issue facing the nation.  Listening to the pundits you would think a significant majority placed it above the combined woes of terrorism, Iraq and the economy which simply is not at the case.  What one journalist characterized on C-Span as "most voters" was in fact 22% that selected morality, which any seasoned researcher knows is an ambiguous descriptor, in exit polls.  Morality, widely used as a code word for the religious right's social agenda, may have polled higher than any other single option but let's not get carried away with ourselves.  Probably more revealing is that after this long campaign there is no national consensus about what is our most urgent problem.  Perhaps even the famously focused Mr. Rove was unsuccessful in providing singular focus, but more likely it's another indication of how complicated are the problems we face going into Bush's second term (even writing those words hurts).  In this world, even the public has to "walk and chew gum at the same time".

I don't for a minute want to minimize the powerful role played by the religious right in this and the 2000 elections.  With their help, the country has been tilting conservative for a long time, most especially on the so-called cultural issues.  The next few months are likely to prove particularly troubling to many of us the President starts paying off his campaign debts, "spending his political capital".  Hold on to your seats, it's likely to be a rough ride.  But the lockstep analysis notwithstanding, we're looking at a influential moral minority not a majority of the population.  Moreover, I simply don't see the religious resurgence now taken as a truism in our media.  The fact remains that in this purportedly deeply religious country less that half of us belong to a church or synagogue.  More telling is that among the affiliated, no more, and often much less, than 40% of them attend religious services with any regularity.  If you don't believe me, stop in at your local house of worship any weekend and do a head count.  I say stop in, because most of you who read this, affiliated or not, also attend only occasionally, if at all.

Without question, religion is playing a huge role in this troubled time, and it is largely its extreme right that holds center stage.  Whether the fundamentalist fanatics who are blowing up the innocent in the name of God or their more docile counterparts who are trying to impose their ideology on the body politic, we find ourselves captives of their designs.  The religion whose face we see in the daily media is pretty unattractive if not frightening.  But to a great degree, we are not merely captives of it, but accomplices.  We complain that Moslem moderates have not raised their voices against the militants who are using their religion to justify violence, and rightly so.  But where are the moderate religious voices, the counterpoints to no less fanatical Fundamentalist Christians and Ultra-Orthodox Jews who want to impose their morality, their world view, on us?  When will the majority and the mainstream religious leaders wake up and challenge this notion that morality belongs only to the fringe or, for that matter, only to believers?  When will we stop being cowed by the hype and offer an alternative, more compelling, view?

We live in dangerous times and the religion that presents itself most vigorously is a huge part of the problem.  If we continue on this course of silent acquiescence don't expect our kids, already largely absent, to sign up for faithful duty.  Who can blame them?

Tuesday, November 2, 2004

2000 All Over Again, Not!

Much time will be spent in the coming days weeks and perhaps years analyzing the election of 2004.  In the final analysis, I believe this election proves that being for something and someone trumps being against.  The stark fact is that, while many of us happily voted for John Kerry, few felt any real passion for him.  It isn't as simple as saying we don't like him, for in fact most of us both like an admire him.  But, to use a popular expression of the kids, "he's not to die for."  With the possible exception of Howard Dean, none of the Democrats evoked real passion among their supporters and I doubt if any could have done better including John Edwards who somehow disappeared from the screen during this campaign.  People still vote for Presidents on both sides and even mediocre running mates don't amount to meaningful dragging anchors if Number One is up to his game.  Howard Dean evoked passion, but scared the hell out of the establishment that saw success only in the middle.  But more important, his campaign was largely against and his wipe out in the primaries should have been seen as a significant sign for the perils that lay ahead.  That said, I still don't think Kerry had voter passion going for him rather than against Bush which probably made the margin of difference.

Make no mistake about it; The United States has become a conservative country dominated politically by a right religious tilt.  Political tides change, but that's where we are as the lingering votes are sorted out in 2004.  The frustrating thing about 2000 was that the country as a whole saw no great difference between Bush and Gore (speak about passionless candidates).  When the Supremes cast their vote, many Democrats were saying that it really wasn't a big deal.  What could a mandate-free President do?  Right.  This election was vastly different.  Everyone saw two distinct candidates and two distinct ideologies.  Nobody thought or thinks it won't make a difference, particularly on domestic issues over which in the final analysis President's have the most control.

John Edwards is fond of saying there are two Americas, those who have and those who need.  That may be true, but politically the two Americas don't divide over possessions but over ideology and regionalism.  We Liberals, a term that I use broadly to define the heart of the Democratic Party, are cultural pluralists who are uneasy when our personal and particularly our religious predilections are brought into the public discourse, much less used to determine public policy.  The Conservatives, read Republicans, feel just the opposite.  We Liberals are coastal (which has become somewhat of a cliché but is nonetheless true) and excursions into the heartland are, language and Shopping Malls aside, more akin to visiting a foreign country than a next door neighbor.  The reverse is equally true.  We don't talk to each other, because we don't really speak a common language.

If the religious-cultural thing, what Conservatives like to call values (a term that they have co-opted much as they have "life') is so important than we might look at what role that played in planting the seeds of this election.  This time around I don't think it was abortion, but rather the decision made by the Massachusetts Supreme Court on Gay Marriage, one with which I happen to concur.  More than inclusion of this issue on the ballots of half a dozen states was the unspoken homophobic rage that still exists in our society, particularly in the heartland.  The fact that John Kerry is so much a son of Massachusetts where it all started should not be underestimated.  His remark about the Vice President's daughter which I don't think was either calculated or malicious nevertheless underscored this connection and was even unnerving to many of his supporters.  The induction of an openly Gay Episcopal Bishop, also from New England, didn't help.  Homosexuality in this conservative environment is like Color was (and sadly still very much is) in earlier times.

This was a bad day for Liberals.  I think it was also a bad day for science and, considering the illness of the Chief Justice and an aging Court, a potentially bad day for Choice.  I shudder to think that we are headed once again for back alley abortions.  All of this brings us to religion which may be the bottom line of this election.  Not merely is America considered the most religious of Western countries, functionally we have become a right tilting Christian country which, lip service to the contrary notwithstanding, is increasingly intolerant of other points of view.  Taking an international perspective, this is a very ominous development.  In fact, I would contend that we are moving rapidly toward replacing the Communist Menace that we lost in the Soviet Union's demise with the Moslem Menace.  Perhaps George Bush didn't literally mean Crusade when he said it, but there is no question that for some democracy is simply a code word for a certain religious belief.  That is not good for either the country or the world.  The record of holy wars and their impact upon the world, not to mention on minorities caught in the cross fire, is not pretty.  We dare not let that happen.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

After the Vote – Now What?

The campaign is drawing to a close and I truly don't know what the outcome will be when we go to the polls on Tuesday.  Is it too close to call, or have a majority of Americans decided on change or continuation?  Needless to say, in casting my ballot for John Kerry, I'll be hoping for change, even yearning for it.  However, in a way what really concerns me now is exactly the same thing that troubled me on March 9, 2003 when I wrote a blog about the Iraq war entitled "After".  Millions of words have been spoken during this campaign, but what happens after?  The conventional questions are how many of those promises will be kept and how will governing differ from campaigning?  These remain valid, but my real concern is about something totally different.

We're told time and again that the nation is deeply divided.  Being skeptical about oft repeated truisms, I am prone to suspect such pronouncements.  Sadly, I find it difficult to refute them.  I was struck in this morning's Times Book Review by the title of Ann Coulter's most recent book, "How to Talk to Liberal (If you Must).  Of course, Ms. Coulter is part of that slick group, both Conservative and Liberal, who engage in Crossfire Speak focused as much on provocative rhetoric and entertainment as expressing a coherent point of view.  Nevertheless, the troubling fact is that our national discourse has been poisoned in such a way that most of us old enough to have lived through many of the 20th Century's ups and downs have never before experienced.  This is not to suggest that there weren't times when people didn't speak past each other, but the arguments never got quite as personal.  Also in the Times was the photo of a couple sitting angrily side by side in bed, his wall decorated with Kerry posters, hers with Bush's.  They are staring straight ahead, certainly not talking to one another and that tells it all.

Leaving aside where one stands on the various foreign policy and social issues that hang in the balance as we move toward Election Day, I think all of us should mourn the tragic fact that George W. Bush's single greatest failure may have been not delivering on his promise to bring the nation together -- "a uniter, not a divider".  He made it during a campaign that also was conducted against the backdrop of division, but incredibly what we thought of as polarization four years ago pales in comparison to what we experience today.  What's even more damning is that the President squandered a historic opportunity of binding the wounds of division immediately after 9/11, something that in the long run may have caused even greater damage to the nation than the horrendous events of that day.

I am a Liberal.  I believe in a government that supplies a safety net to those in need, that treats the citizenry with equality, that doesn't impose one ideology over another, that affords us the right to manage our lives and control our bodies and that really goes to war only as a last resort.  Other's believe differently, sometimes diametrically so.  I am convinced of my beliefs, they are convinced as well.  Why can we no longer talk about those differences, defend our beliefs, without acrimonious character assassination?  Ann Coulter doesn't want to talk to me, and I really don't want to talk to her.  That's where we are, and nothing good can come of it.

The campaigns are coming to an end.  I'm glad.  I can't stand listening to another of the same speeches or hearing the predictable scripted spin from each side's spokes folk.  I've given up on hearing about all those unspoken issues and most assuredly won't be burdened with anything thoughtful in the next two days.  I hope John Kerry is our next President.  If he is, then in addition to bringing together his new cabinet, I hope he spends some time, and political capital, in bringing us back together.  I hope George Bush is defeated, and that his loss is decisive.  If he loses, historians may look back to 9/12 and the opportunities cast aside.  If he wins, and despite all the evidence of his ability to do so, I hope he too will look at bringing us together.  The campaign is over.  Now what?

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

God Troubles

This isn't a good time for God.  Listening to those who claim to talk or act upon God's behalf, and who have collectively brought more havoc than solace into our lives, one has to wonder what's in it for all of us.  Let's just mention a few of the wonderful things wrought by Divine direction.  Suicide bombers are being sent into the world and killing more innocents than combatants.  God imbued settlers are occupying the land of their neighbors on the West Bank and in Gaza.  Medieval Crusade-like conflicts are threatening human survival in a nuclear age.  The Catholic Church covered up horrendous sex abuse perpetrated by men of God.  The Anglican Church is outraged that an openly gay priest was elevated to Bishop and now, after denouncing homosexuality as a sin, has essentially adopted a don't ask don't tell position on the subject.  Science, arguably the essential of human survival, is being dragged back into the ideological constraints of the Middle Ages by people who seriously are still fighting Darwin.  We are being taken into war because God wants us to be there.  Well if that's what God is all about, I want no part of Her.

Religion is in deep crisis, not spiritual revival.  It has become, or more accurately reemerged, as a tool of political necessity and agendas.  God has been hijacked and used to justify the imposition of one point of view over another.  Our diverse pluralistic society which was founded on tolerance and a clear separation of Church and State is in danger of being subsumed into broad scale theocratic governance.  We're returning to the world of "some of my best friends" where neighbors of a different point of view or belief system pay lip service to tolerance but move aggressively forward with an agenda of submission.  All this in the name of God.

I don't know for sure if there is a God.  I live under the assumption that there is.  I don't know if there is a God, but I sure know that God doesn't whisper into my ear.  In fact, we all used to think that such a notion fell into the kook category, the hearing of voices by the unbalanced.  I still think that's true, but the bother is that the kooks have truly taken hold of the asylum.  God's whispers are scary.

Perhaps worst of all, moderate voices are, for all practical purposes, silent.  Anti-God talk, which is what any challenge is labeled, is an untouchable hot potato.  Moreover, they are frightened, consciously or unconsciously concerned for their personal safety.  You don't have to be paranoiac to be scared of people who murder doctors at abortion clinics or who blow up children at play.  The threat of governmental power used in the name of security – read that protecting the will of God – may not reflect a current reality, but its there hovering in the air.  Philip Roth's chilling it could happen here metaphoric novel is looking less fanciful by the day.  Moderate voices, especially the voices on the pulpit need to be heard, regardless of the risk.

God's trouble?  Only we can redeem what we all know is God's humanly tarnished reputation.  If we don't have the will or we can't, God help us.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Post-Debate Thoughts

What Dan Rather has appropriately termed the "joint appearances" are now history.  Of course I thought John Kerry won -- no I really do think he won, and big, in the larger sense.  Even those who support George Bush will have to agree that either man is plausible as President.  No Franklin Roosevelt, Jack Kennedy or Abraham Lincoln here, but plausible.  That is a big win for a challenger as Jerry Ford, Jimmy Carter, or George 1st will attest.  Kerry, unlike Terry (Brando), is a contender.  He's seriously in the game and now all he needs is a knockout, even a technical knockout.

What strikes me about the joint appearances, and the campaign at large, is not so much what is being discussed, however superficially, but what is totally absent.  In general both candidates seem to be going the extra mile not to offend or stir controversy.  Yes they will make some statement on a hot topic, but it's always nuanced or "caveated" to death.  Bush can't bring himself to say he's against choice and Kerry can't quite mouth the words Pro-Choice in anything much above a figurative whisper.  That doesn't mean that they don't have real convictions about this, they just want to be careful not to rock a boat that is maneuvering through a very narrow channel.  I for one feel that we are less safe since Bush and company began their Iraq folly, but equally feel that we are far too safe when it comes to confronting real issues in the campaign.

Have you noticed, just to use two examples, that there has been scant discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and no mention at all of Abu Ghraib?  It boggles the mind that we are discussing an exploding Middle East and Moslem-Western culture conflict and not seriously addressing solutions to the unending Holy Land turf war that increasingly threatens world stability, not to mention brings death an destruction to thousands of innocents and both sides.  It isn't mentioned because neither side wants to offend the American Jewish Community – my community – which they assume to be single minded on the subject.  I hear Jews saying they are voting for Bush because he so strongly supports Israel and it astounds me.  Speak about the big lie.  Bill Clinton spent inordinate time and personal capital on seriously seeking a negotiated solution that would ultimately safeguard a Jewish State and bring about a legitimate Palestinian homeland.  In the end his time ran out, but there is no doubt that had the Constitution permitted a third them, the effort would have continued.  George Bush has done nothing except to mouth support for a Palestinian State (with which I agree) and bolster his fellow Rightist Arial Sharon (with which I strongly disagree).  Roadmaps, notwithstanding, there has been no peace process under this Administration.  And, to his discredit, John Kerry has not added much to the discussion or risked telling us how he would get it started again.

With the absence of WMDs, the entire Iraq argument has rested on bringing the wonders of democracy, including one would assume moral decency, to the unwashed multitudes in backward Moslem states.  Thank God for America.  Abu Ghraib, more than anything else has sullied those high purpose platitudes, calling into question why democratic states are any different or better than the combination of dictatorships and monarchies in place.  The fact that not a single senior official has paid in any way for this monstrous breakdown in stewardship is shocking and a serious threat to our moral fiber and national reputation.  The fact that abuses have also taken place in Afghanistan and, one must now assume in Guantanamo, speaks to an underlying cultural problem that at the very least seems prevalent in our military, but most disturbingly may also reflect something more wide spread.  The truth is that "everything is not fair in love or war," and whoever is in charge of conveying that message seems to lack a moral compass.  That John Kerry has not made something of this very fundamental issue is disturbing and disheartening.

I'll vote for John Kerry and without any doubt that he is the superior of the two.  America will be safer and better off with him in the White House.  I'll feel more sanguine about the social issues from environment to scientific research.  I wish George Bush had been asked an updated version of the Kitty Dukakis question, "what would you do if Laura had suffered spinal damage and there was a cure developed from stem cell research?  Would you  let the doctors cure your beloved wife?"  With Kerry on Pennsylvania Avenue I'll feel better about Constitutional issues, about a daughter's right to control her own body and about Dick Chaney's daughter's right to wed.  I hope everyone will vote for John Kerry, early and often.  He says we can do better.  I agree and perhaps, if we get our heads straightened out during his days in the White House, we will.  I yearn for an FDR somewhere in the future and for a time when more Westsiders will be wearing buttons for rather than against someone during a Presidential campaign. 

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Joining the Campaign Trail

In what could easily be mistaken for a campaigning running mate, Ayad Allawi the "independent" acting prime minister of Iraq blew into town.  Listening to his carefully nuanced pronouncements, one could not help being stuck by their verbal consistency with the Bush campaign rhetoric.  This was especially evident in an interview given to PBS's Jim Lehrer last evening.  Echoing language used by Bush, Allawi kept on referring to those opposing our occupation, and consequentially his rule, as terrorists.  When asked how many Iraqi's had been killed along with more the now 1037 US service women and men, he responded that about 3,700 civilians had been killed by the terrorists.  Of course that number does not include civilian losses during the heavy bombing of the days prior to "mission accomplished."  But Allawi went further in claiming that rather than a fight against insurgency, this was a battle against terrorism on behalf of the entire world.  After all, Saddam, he suggested as if it were an absolute fact, worked hand in glove with the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11.  I guess the 9/11 Commission which came to just the opposite conclusion should have interviewed him more carefully.  I wish Jim Lehrer had challenged on those self serving, but hardly self evident, allegations, but that's another subject.

There is no doubt that brutal acts of terrorism are being carried out in Iraq and, of course other places.  There is equally no question that all, and perhaps most, of the hostilities should not be described as such.  When people resisting occupation blow up tanks and Humvees these may be lethal acts of rebellion, but it's not the same as a suicide bombing or kidnapping of innocent civilians.  Donald Rumsfeld likes to remind us that war is messy and it sure is.  Part of the way we get clarity is to distinguish between horrible hostile acts, a painful but important process.  Picking and choosing descriptors is complicated.  Are individuals lining up to join the army or police force potential combatants or civilians?  Perhaps both, but trying to thwart the buildup of opposing forces, no matter how we may feel about their potential mission or how awful it is, can't simply be labeled another act of terrorism.  For a segment of the Iraqi community the mission accomplished is simply not acceptable and that includes people who were not the Saddam regime.

There is another dimension to this renewed emphasis on terrorism as the central player in Iraq, one that goes beyond the renewed implied connection with 9/11.  This one has a moral component and a very disturbing one.  It appears that the Administration is now acknowledging that terrorists, not previously there, were drawn to Iraq in the Post-Saddam era.  This is now being portrayed as a good thing because, it's better to have them there than elsewhere, specifically on American soil.  No one wants another terrorist act in this country, but the implications of that thinking are in themselves abhorrent.  Taking Mr. Bush's logic when he makes such assertions, one has to conclude that it is, if not alright, then better for Iraqi civilians to die than Americans.  I find such thinking by a man who likes to talk of his doing God's work to be morally reprehensible.  Sadly, it represents the continuing isolationist strain that has always been embedded in the American psyche.  Better over there than here at home.

We always talk about how a President's hardest decision is to put American military personnel in harm's way.  We rarely mention that, in doing so, he is also putting a much larger group of human beings, mostly non-combatants, in mortal danger as well.  The right-to-lifers who are so bent on protecting the unborn, might give a little more thought to how many viable lives we have cut short in our excursions around the globe, some legitimate but some, like the invasion of Iraq, out of transparent self interest, often economic self interest.  The terrorist card continues to play in this election season and it continues to be its most misleading and disturbing component.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Time for Kerry to Speak

I think there are a lot of people out there ready to jump the Bush ship, but they simply haven't been given the reason to make the move.  They're not happy with W and his policies, but wonder what will really change with a Kerry administration.  It's all well and good to complain that the public and consequently the campaign has been distracted by vicious attacks filled with half truths or even outright lies, but that's no excuse for not getting straight and clear talk from the candidate.  Let's face it, our world is in a real mess and John Kerry has to tell us exactly - specifics not platitudes - what he will do about it. 

Without question the economic issues are real as are the anxieties about healthcare in general and Medicare in particular.  An under funded "No Child Left Behind" can't go on if we are to remain competitive with an increasingly well educated developing world.  That great "sucking noise" of jobs exiting the country predicted by Ross Perot is a top priority in the industrial states and no less so in the corridors of Tech Valley.  A woman's right to choose and the future direction of the Supreme Court can't be overlooked.  On all of these Kerry has spoken out, but in the final analysis I don't think any of them turn the election even though they probably have the most immediate impact upon our daily lives.

The key question for those who might opt out of the Republican column this year, and for most of us as well, is what will John Kerry do about the two burning international issues that have dominated our attention in the past three years: terrorism and Iraq?  How does Kerry view these two life-threatening problems and what specifically is he going to do about them? 

It is now a cliché to say that the so-called war on terrorism will be with us indefinitely.  I accept that.  But what is this war, who are we really fighting and, beyond the preventative measures and reflexive "hit backs," what are we going to do to reduce the underlying causes of terrorism?  What steps will we take to mitigate the desperation felt by young people in the many oppressed lands around the globe?  How will a Kerry administration work toward making the powerless feel empowered, focused on building their own lives not destroying ours?  What will it do to finally bring peace to Palestinians and Israelis, bring it not pay mere lip service to it?

Many of us vigorously opposed the war in Iraq, but here we are mired in its aftermath.  So what now and what exactly are our objectives in Iraq?  What is the exit strategy and how specifically will we engage the world community in helping fix the mess we have made?  What about the current Administration's inotion that democracy cures all, the modern day reverse domino theory?  Does John Kerry buy it?  Who will he put in charge of righting this disaster and why do they have the smarts and credentials to accomplish success where others have so miserably failed?  How will he personally engage in this process and who among other world leaders does he think are essential partners to accomplish his goals?

There are many questions and a desperate need for answers if we – the decided and the undecided – are to have the confidence that voting for John Kerry is not simply voting change for its own sake.  It's time to stop wearing defeat George Bush buttons and start wearing ones that say vote for John Kerry, but that won't just happen.  We need some answers.  John Kerry, you have the floor.  It's time to use it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Shock and Awe

Bill Clinton is recovering from his quadruple bypass surgery, and while everyone's experience differs to some degree, I personally can imagine what he's going through.  At this point, he's probably in the step-down unit, a room with few beds and lot's of incredible nurses.  He is feeling a little weak and perhaps experiencing some pain, easily managed, but relieved, even exhilarated, to be alive.  In a few days he'll be walking through his front door in Chappaqua astonished at the speed of his recovery, or at least its first phase.  Bill Clinton has just experienced Shock and Awe.

I was also seemingly in great health when suddenly confronted with unfamiliar discomfort (in my upper back) and shortness of breath.  I too sensed something seriously amiss and after an angiogram revealed considerable blockage was operated two days later – a quadruple bypass also in my 58th year and in the month of September; my Shock and Awe.  I've always admired Bill Clinton, happily voted form him, but now we really have something in common.

I know we're not alone in experiencing the Shock of unexpected life-threatening illness.  If you haven't been there and someone tells you it's not that big a deal, don't believe them.  It is.  We all know that life is finite and that people die, often "before their time".  But most of us function under the "it can't happen to me" assumption.  You can say that it's living in a dream world, but in fact it is much more out of necessity.  Were we to live under other assumptions we might not function as well or, for some people, at all.  If someone tells you that having experienced Shock, life simply goes on as usual, don't believe that either.  With it and the Awe that follows comes a new awareness of life's values and, much as we may be prone to discount it, a reevaluation of how we do things, how we use our time.  Even Bill Clinton, who has accomplished so much, is likely to go through that process.  Certainly he's likely to change his diet – radically I hope.

The difference between Shock and Awe is that the latter is much more long lasting.  It's been years since my surgery and I have never felt better.  The truth is that clogged arteries don't come over night and, while you don't realize the subtle but increasing impact they are having, chances are you haven't felt well for quite a long time.  I'm doing physical things today that I never though possible when I was forty.  There is also the Awe of how far modern medicine has come.  I had an uncle who died early from heart disease whom I am sure would have had a long life had bypass surgery been around in his day.  We know a lot more about the impact of diet and exercise and how to keep those arteries clear – to prevent future Shock.  My bypass was a wake-up call for me as was Bill Clinton's for him.  Speaking with some confidence for us both, there has to be a better way to wake up.

That said, I consider what happened to me among the best of life's experiences.  While certainly never one who took life for granted or avoided deeper thoughts about its meaning, it provided a sharper focus.  Adversary, which I never would recommend as preventative medicine, is nonetheless a powerful propellant for human growth and change.  In these times of stress, of national adversity, much of the discourse focuses on the negative, is mired in the Shock.  We would do well to take counsel from the survivors many of whom have moved on to embrace the wonder of the Awe; focused less on what was and more of what can, and must, be.  Recover well, Bill Clinton, we need to see what you'll do with the Awe.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Straight Talk

I'm writing from Chapel Hill North Carolina.  Like many New Yorkers, I've escaped the city and the tumult of the Republican convention as did Bostonians with the Democratic conclave in July.  These conventions have become pure theater, sadly less reality than those awful TV shows that have become so popular of late.  Much of what we'll see in New York, and what we saw in Boston, is aimed right over the delegates heads to the larger mainstream, our election cycle "swingers".  The staged focus of the GOP convention is far more centrist (compassionate is making its quadrennial comeback) than either the delegates or, most significantly, the party's office holders.  The public talk in Boston was far to the right of the assembled, though not as out of sync with post Clinton Democratic office holders.  What we don't have on either side is straight talk.  Messages are delivered in code in this election season, which is probably the last thing we need during these troubled times.

Take for example the swift boat flap.  The focus of the initial attacks which, thanks of intensive repetitive media coverage got so much of our attention, were on John Kerry's war performance and whether or not his citations and purple hearts were earned.  But that was all a smoke screen because it was in the second commercial that the real complaint emerged – John Kerry the anti-war protester is what bothered these people and the Administration ideologues behind them.  What really unnerves the right is that John Kerry embodies a war gone wrong whose aftermath has hung over the military and America's use of power ever since.  And this is not a trivial matter because underlying the current aggressive foreign policy is the notion that at long last we are over Viet Nam and all that unmanly self doubt.  The reason it's important to discredit John Kerry the protester is that every day Iraq is looking more like a Viet Nam style quagmire.  That doesn't suggest that the two wars are the same.  For one thing, however horrendous, the body and casualty count pales in comparison.  For another, connecting the dots of Communist expansionism was much more credible (albeit equally wrong) than linking Saddam to terrorism.  That said, Kerry is a living reminder of our fallibility and of the patriotism of dissent.  He contends that we can't just use our power because we want to or have the capacity which is precisely what Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz have been all about since Bush took office.  Swift boats are a code, not straight talk.

The greatest challenge for Democrats is not in marching against Bush which may feel good but might not result in victory, but in marching for John Kerry which probably will.  Straight talk is not that we don't like what's happening, but what we believe should and must happen to get things back on track.  Straight talk means being willing to say that perhaps in a shifting world our perceived best days are behind us if we mean by that our absolute dominance of the agenda and our ability to make everyone salute when we pass by.  In a world of technology and ever increasing accessibility, we may not be the only ones to invent, may not always be the most successful and capitalizing on what we discover.  Nor, speaking of straight talk, have we been that in the past.  Straight talk doesn't lend itself to sound bytes and simplistic slogans which, however commonly employed, are not how any of us, including our government, functions.  And as to Liberals, of whom I count myself as one, straight talk means saying what we believe, not what we think will play well.  On that, the compassionate bull not withstanding, the Conservatives have been much more successful.  Their ideological straight talk has played well, not because it is right, but because it's been proudly stated and weakly refuted.  Straight talk: we better get our act together.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Much Larger than Life

Few things have caused more partisan outrage and subsequent ridicule as the premature and inaccurate "mission accomplished" fly-in by the Aviator-in-Chief.  Perhaps less remembered, but no less erroneous in its implied promise, were the words "we got him," spoken by L. Paul Bremer last December.  Howard Dean was roundly criticized at the time for suggesting Saddam's capture would not have any measurable positive impact on our safety, a contention that has proved prescient as eight months later we continue to witness ongoing, even escalating, hostilities in Iraq combined with repeated terror alerts at home.  It is Bremer's "promise" that we should think about in contemplating the eventual capture or demise of Osama bin Laden.  While the latest reports suggest even the Pakistanis have no idea where he is, some cynics contend that he will surely materialize in the weeks before the November election — a classic October surprise.  While of practical political relevance, such thinking is ultimately beside the point.  Everyone, on the Right, Left or in between, would welcome eliminating this infamous character from the world scene, the sooner the better.  If, however, we think that ends the story, we are seriously deluding ourselves and missing the most basic lessons of human history.

Heroes, and bin Laden is most surely a hero to his followers, don't diminish but become larger-than-life when they are removed from the scene, most especially when they die.  This should be evident, to anyone who has an understanding of the history and nature of religion, which plays such a central role for contemporary terrorists, not to mention the current administration.  Whatever influence he may have had in life, Jesus became a religious super power only in death.  Without the crucifixion, Christianity may never have become the dominant religion we know today.  The same holds true for Islam even if the nature of the heroic figures are different. Mohammed made significant localized inroads as a spiritual and political leader, but Islam only spread across the world after he was gone. Death can be more powerful than life, far more powerful.

We don't really take control of our heroes until they are gone.  On the most elemental level, a dead hero can no longer take actions that may disappoint or make statements that might contradict our own thinking.  Death provides us with an opening and, more importantly, an opportunity.  We can now begin the myth building process, freely expanding the message and finishing the unfinished or unspoken thought to suit our own purposes and agenda, noble or not.  That is precisely what we can expect from the radicals who have followed bin Laden in life, and even more significantly by the not so radical but highly frustrated who see his movement as their only way out.

Dead heroes are like the global consumer brands that pervade our lives.  They certainly can't sustain without substance, but the real power lies in the idea of them, in their emotional content.  It is that larger-than-life aspect which takes hold of us.  People don't prefer Coke or Nike because the first is an intrinsically better beverage or the second a superior running shoe, but because each embodies a state of mind, something with which we can and want to identify. So, too, Osama bin Laden may once have been a person with temporal human attributes, a man who puts his pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us.  But that bin Laden, due in no small measure to our predilection for personalizing the "war on terrorism," is already gone.  When truly removed from the scene, he is bound to grow in mythical stature, most likely geometrically — immeasurably larger-than-life.  So his movement, far from being neutralized or even wounded, will likely be stronger than ever.  It is this reality that we must face if we have any hope of changing the potentially lethal course on which we have been bound for more years than most of us care to admit or think about.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

It's Downhill for Brands

A little change of pace.

With all that's going on in the world these days, we tend to be distracted from things that impact more directly on our way of life.  A changing geopolitical world coupled with the information age, have given new meaning to nostalgic remembrances of the good old days and the comparatively simpler life that accompanied them.  One of our most cherished ideas that seems to have lost some of its luster is the power of big brands.  We're a long time from when Wall Street accorded high multiples to companies that owned these icons of commerce.  Indeed some of the once nifty dozen, brands like Coca-Cola, American Express and Marlboro no longer are the revered names they once were.  Coca-Cola has suffered from uneven management and changing lifestyles, American Express no longer has exclusive right to wallet cachet and Marlboro, along with other cigarette brands, has to hover in the shadows of embarrassment rather than in the spotlight of manly pride.

I won't suggest that brands or branding have become irrelevant, but it seems to me that a lot of consumers are simply moving on past their former fixation with reliable names.  Decades ago, brands faced what seemed like severe competition by retailer house and generic entries.  To be sure, some of their business was lost in that period, especially to the cost conscious and constrained.  But the truth is that the hey day of brands, the time when everyone was speaking and writing of their incredible value, came after the onslaught of value competition.  No, I think what troubles brands today is a combination of changed times and most especially of self-inflicted wounds.

Brands have been whipsawed by a series of social and health trends and by an increasingly well educated (in the practical sense) consumer.  Whether greater sensitivity to the consequences of high cholesterol, the growing awareness that obesity and even simple overweight is becoming a major health crisis or the more widely accepted risks of smoking, Americans have become readers of back panels and cautionary notices.  A pretty picture on the front simply won't cut it any more.  Moreover, many have discovered the true parity between most competitive products.  Perhaps people once bought into the idea that Bayer delivered something superior, but most know that aspirin is aspirin whatever brand name appears on the package.  Pepsi, because it was in second place, discovered long ago that cola (as most people's one and only) may have run its course, and has been rolling out the alternative beverages that consumers have grown to include in their daily life.  And specialty stores like the ever growing Whole Foods that opened a blockbuster destination flagship in New York earlier this year and Trader Joes that is expanding rapidly are offering an alternative to the traditional supermarket.  Brands, including their own, are present but no longer playing the starring role.  Finally the increase of channel options on TV, the threat of Tivo-like filter systems and the still unresolved challenge of the Internet as a medium has put somewhat of a lid, even if temporary, on the power of advertising.

But these are all externals.  Much of the problem comes from the marketers themselves.  What ails the branding giants can be ascribed to two intertwined phenomena, lack of true innovation and greed.  Together they have commoditized product offerings and diluted brand franchises.  When something is new only because it claims to be on the label, then at some point in time the Emperor's nakedness will reveal itself.  When a new kind of cleaning or of eating is just more of the same old, the promise becomes empty.  When a brand is deemed so powerful and profitable it is interminably leveraged and ultimately milked to death by line and franchise extensions, one begins to forget where it all began and why it mattered.  I can develop an attachment to a one and only, but not to a variety some of which don't ring my bell.  If Oreo is so many different things, what makes the original so special, not that a newborn will even know that one of them was its version of the real thing.

Perhaps even more damaging is the continuing and ever growing trend of me-too copycat marketing.  Today's fad is low carbs and it's a wonder we haven't been offered a low carb cleanser, air freshener or allergy medication.  There is a kind of shameless silliness to all of this that bespeaks a disturbing degree of branding bankruptcy.  Innovation and creativity seem to be headed for Chapter 11 and that's really sad.  Perhaps I am in the minority, but somehow an unending series of disappointments has made even me, a curious early adopter, lose interest.  Take for example the Gillette Mach3 razor which was introduced so effectively by BBDO close to a decade ago.  Mach3 was a demonstrable improvement in shaving; at least I found it so.  Next came Mach3-Turbo whose incremental benefits were so invisible that the only improvement I could discern was a higher price per blade, good for the company but certainly not for the consumer.  Finally, the most recent entry, Mach3-Power, a battery powered razor that supposedly reduces the number of passes and improves the shave.  Really?  Well I certainly see the benefits to Gillette of a twofer – replacement blades and Duracell batteries in one product, but my own experience with this new "system" was disappointing to say the least including that two of the even more expensive blades broke in half while I was shaving.  I probably won't even try Mach4 or whatever it is called when it inevitably hits the market.

I don't mean to either pick on Gillette (who incidentally never replied to my complaint email), nor to use personal anecdotal information as the proof of anything.  That would be unprofessional.  But I do think it's an example of a much larger problem spread across all categories and businesses.  If we don't start focusing on our own unique mousetraps and making them, not to mention their communications, distinctively different then say goodbye to brands.  Perhaps the end won't come in the next few years or even in my lifetime but, absent some change, I see it happening within this still young new century.

Friday, July 30, 2004


Watching John Kerry the other night reminded me why he, and not any of the others, ended up with the nomination.  All of them might have used the exact same words in their acceptance speech; none could have carried it off.  Certainly not with any credibility or so comprehensively.  Being an unrepentant Liberal and Dove, I could have done with a little less General-speak.  However, it seems to me that having a proclaimed tough guy candidate who will probably be more of a talker/negotiator than a haphazard shooter is far more attractive than having a proclaimed man of compassion who turns out to be the world's most notorious bully.

Pundits suggest that the Democratic Convention, which most see as having been a success, was playing to the undecided rather than to the faithful.  That is probably true, though given scant coverage I really wonder how these generally uninterested folks could possibly have gotten the message.  Surely, they can't have divined it.  In fact, I don't fully buy this analysis believing instead that the message was as much directed inward as outward.  One of the problems with Liberals, Progressives or however you may want to describe them, is that we have generally ceded patriotism, military readiness and moral values to the Right.  It isn't that Conservatives have taken hold; it's that we've handed them the reigns.  What this convention did, in the most aggressive and overt fashion was to reclaim ownership.  Unlike Republicans who often seem to think of themselves as the sole proprietors of flag and country, Democrats made it clear in the past week that they, like all citizens regardless of ideology, were equal stakeholders.  John Kerry and company also proclaimed that we were prepared to defend both that ownership and whatever it might bring.

John Kerry did what Howard Dean could never have done.  As his wife said, "he earned his medals in the old fashioned way."  I know Dean understands what made Kerry potentially electable and what would, at this time and place, have put him and the Party at a disadvantage.  The day will come when Democrats will have to remind the world that Chaney, Wolfowitz, Ashcroft, DeLay, Santorum, and cheerleaders like Ralph Reed, Bill Kristol, and Bill O'Reilly are all ready to send young men and women into battle but never served themselves.  Unlike John Kerry, they didn't say "send me" and none of them have any real idea of what it's like, especially what it's like in an ill begotten and poorly prepared conflict.  Yes Max Cleeland, left with only a single limb after Viet Nam, was shamelessly smeared out of office in Georgia for being "soft" on defense, but that kind of mud simply won't stick nationwide, especially with the Homeland still vulnerable and Iraq still a mess, both on the accuser's watch.

God Bless You ended every speech.  It's become the "have a nice day" of political talks, and frankly I find it most distasteful, a kind of knee jerk disingenuous piety.  That said, John Kerry can talk about moral and family values in a way that Bill Clinton, no matter how much I may think of his enormous intellect and talent, never could.  The Kerry and Edwards picture-perfect families with the obvious deep internal connection in each of them suggest these people know something about the substance of relationships.  They don't have to say anything on this subject, which I truly wish they would not have to do; one simply has to look at them.

Is John Kerry perfect?  Of course he's not.  It's a besides the point question.  None of us are perfect; especially those who profess to have all the answers and find being asked about their mistakes a trick question.  The thing about John Kerry is that he seems to be someone who knows how, and wants to, win.  You can't govern unless you can win.  If we haven't learned that lesson, we haven't learned anything.  He gave a powerful convention and a compelling speech.  I'm excited about what he might do in the months ahead and about the prospect of what may follow if we see to it that he is elected.

Monday, July 26, 2004


While looking for a misplaced something the other day, I came across a little box filled mostly with Adlai Stevenson-for-President Buttons.  It reminded me how long I've been a political junkie and an avid watcher of our quadrennial conventions.  To be sure the Democratic convention that is playing itself out on my TV is a far cry from the days when platforms were hotly debated, delegates were contested and speculation about a Vice Presidential pick carried through almost to the end.  In 1956 Stevenson left the choice up to the delegates, which provided John Kennedy an opening to launch his national career.  He lost out to Estes Kefauver, but emerged four years later as the party's successful Presidential nominee.  In earlier years, I watched the proceedings on CBS or NBC, but this time I am happily exiled to C-Span which, unlike the Networks, doesn't interrupt with "analysis" and inane sound byte interviews.  In fact, even if I wanted to put up with that kind of filtered coverage, I couldn't.  All the Networks opted out of substantive coverage, seemingly marginalizing the convention process, but actually further marginalizing themselves.  Even the 24/7 people who have no problem providing wall to wall coverage of OJ, Cobey, Michael and similarly transformational "news" events, fail the gavel to gavel test.  That's the pathetic state of things.

It may be that the Democratic and Republican conventions have taken on an infomercial quality, but I think the media is doing a great disservice to our democracy by their arbitrary censorship of these Democratic and Republican gatherings, however choreographed it may be.  It's hard for them to argue that summer reruns, the Network's own infomercials for the coming season, are a more important use of the public airwaves.  Shame on them!  No wonder many of us look increasingly to PBS and BBC for our broadcast news. 

Perhaps, today's conventions are theater, but that doesn't mean they are not revealing and reflective of where our political parties stand.  I'm always struck by the differences in the audience and in the tone,  nature and content of the speeches in each.  This year the Democrats opted for a virtually unknown keynoter, Barack Obama, running for the senate in Illinois.  I feel sorry for anyone who missed that speech, read that most Americans, and who must be satisfied with the few second long snippets they may hear on the evening news.  Some pundits are already speaking of Obama as our most likely first African American (in his case literally since his father was form Kenya) President, but forget that premature hyperbole.  Beyond having put forth a hugely talented and charismatic orator, the Democrats and John Kerry who is at the controls were sending a message.  Some will say it was an appeal to minority voters, but I think it speaks much more to the fact that the party wanted to put everyone on notice that  it has a strong bench, leadership for tomorrow not merely today.  Like the choice of John Edwards, it is another example of Kerry's willingness to send forth the best with little concern that he'll be upstaged, which some fear will be the case.

The tone of the convention I'm watching is upbeat which in large measure was made possible by the dramatic, albeit short lived (Obama take note) candidacy of Howard Dean.  Beyond providing a wakeup call which finally energized a hibernating party, he laid out the harsh particulars of indictment on the Iraq War and other issues in such a clear way, that they are now accepted as givens freeing Kerry to focus on the tactics of victory.  Dean got the warmest of welcomes, a sign that everyone on the floor knew that they owed him a lot, perhaps the victory that many feel could come this November.  Some, in what the former Governor calls the Democratic wing of the Party, may feel the convention messages are too safe, too mainstream.  Perhaps so, but this convention isn't simply one about "the economy stupid."  Criticism of the Bush foreign policy and misbegotten adventures runs through along with social values, environmental policy, health care and, thanks to Ron Reagan's entry into the conversation, embryonic stem cell research.  He made it abundantly clear that social conservatism of his father's successors has gotten us off track in its narrow and selective view of the right to life.

We have yet to hear from the two Johns.  We are being told that they will give the most important talks of their political lives.  How many most important talks can there be?  Hopefully Americans will be able to hear their words from start to finish even at the expense of a missed Law and Order or ER.  Hopefully, they will be listening.  To be sure, I will.  How about you?

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The Happy Warrior

I'm of an age when it's nice to know that some things were before my time, to wit the Presidential campaign of 1932.  But thanks to the many photographs of candidates Hoover and Roosevelt, I have a pretty good feeling for how these two men projected themselves.  Hoover, in almost every shot, looked dour; FDR had that infectious full smile.  For a guy who couldn't even walk, he sure was upbeat.  I'm reminded of those images in contrasting Dick Cheney and John Edwards.  Cheney always looks dour, even when he affects a smile.  Edwards can't contain his happy disposition.  For a guy who lost a child, he sure is upbeat.  And boy do we need upbeat in these troubling times.

George Bush is fond of characterizing himself as a War President.  Perhaps we are at war, but it wouldn't be so bad to have a Peace President.  In fact, I think that's exactly what we need, a president who is committed to leading us out of conflict into peace.  I am not naïve enough to think we can simply wish our conflicts away, but sometimes I feel the current gang on Pennsylvania Avenue has a vested interest in keeping us unnerved and armed for conflict.  Indeed, with their regularized threats of imminent danger and reminders that bad things not only can but will happen here, the American public finds itself on the edge.  What was that about "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself?"  Again, I am not discounting the possibility, or even the probability, of terrorist attacks, especially if we keep on our current belligerent course.  But I do think that we all need encouragement and a reminder of how blessed we are relative to most of the world's population.   Edwards, like Roosevelt knows of real personal trauma, and with that experience in place, he understands the importance of what the late Norman Vincent Peale called "the power of positive thinking."

John Edwards was exactly the right choice and his upbeat outlook and commitment to positive campaigning seems to be rubbing off on the other John.  Kerry is very smart and he knew exactly what he was doing, and its ramifications, in selecting the attractive North Carolina senator.  Perhaps he doesn't have the gravitas of Dick Chaney, but look where that got us.  A little less gravitas and we might actually survive individually and as a nation.

By the way, as a follow-up on my last blog, I saw "Marty" today.  He cuts perfect turkey breast.  Guess what?  He's changed his hat again.  Bill Bradley is gone, replaced by John Edwards.  And, he confided, "I think we have a real shot this time."  Voters, listen up.

Saturday, July 3, 2004

Marty, Bob and Michael

I've been away in a place where news doesn't dominate the day and mind.  It's always a relief.  What strikes me upon my return each year is how little has changed which makes one wonder why we need all this 24-7 noise.  Being away from it all, really away, also gives you some perspective.  Looking ahead as we move into the pre-election summer, we find ourselves in a kind of suspended animation.  Those of us who have been troubled about where the country has been heading in these last years wonder if other Americans, those who seem to be asleep on the sidelines, are going to finally awake from their slumber and, more importantly what action they will take?  None of us really knows, but I have some anecdotal evidence that the tide may be turning.

Marty (that's not his real name) is behind the cold meat and prepared food counter at one of my favorite Upper West Side specialty shops.  He has been a fixture there for years and has long been dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country.  Four years ago the name Bill Bradley appeared on his paper service hat.  Marty favored the former New Jersey Senator and wanted everyone to know it.  He was relentless and long after Al Gore won the nomination, Marty still stood his ground.  Bill Bradley was the man and his name remained on his hat.  It's still there, but significantly now below the name John Kerry.  Marty's hoping Bradley will get a shot at the Vice Presidency.  Regardless, he wants Bush out, and in that regard knows he must get behind Kerry regardless of his beloved Bill's fortunes.  But here is the punch line.  I discovered the other day that all this time Marty has been a talking, not a doing, activist when he declared, "I am going to vote for the first time in thirty years."  Marty has been a closet sideliner, but that will end with this November.  One vote, but somehow I suspect he's not alone.

Bob (also not his real name) is a sharp guy with a distinguished high level business career including sometime abroad.  Like many of his peers, he's been voting Republican pretty consistently over the years and the two of us, good friends, have long accepted each other's different politics.  Bob has voted Republican, but not this year.  I think his disillusionment began with the economy, but it probably crystallized with the way in which George W. Bush and company have been systematically dismantling generations of international cooperation, have mucked up the war on terrorism and have ill advisedly opened a hornets nest in Iraq.  Bob is not someone who takes these things lightly.  He's also a reader and this year he has been reading a multitude of devastating books by insiders who know what's really going on down there in and about 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Bob is pissed (I can use that word now since the Vice President has lifted the bleep rule).  Unlike Marty, he always votes and this year, like him, it will be for John Kerry.  Perhaps he won't be attending any rallies and won't switch his affiliation, but the GOP has lost him this time around.  I suspect he's not alone either.

And then there is Michael.  The lines to see Fahrenheit 911 even in places you'd least expect it have been astounding.  I'm going today as a kind of Independence Day celebration.  Sure much of the audience is made up of the already committed, but I think film may constitute more than preaching to the convinced.  Like Marty, a lot those people who profess unhappiness with the status quo never moved themselves to the polls.  People do go to movies and do watch television, both of which have big influences on their thinking, and their doing.  Just consider the powerful role of advertising on purchases. Michael Moore may just stimulate enough of the heretofore talkers rather than doers like Marty, to pull some levers this fall.  He may even convince some more Bobs.

Marty, Bob and Michael.  Perhaps I'm dreaming, but think of the possibilities.  Happy 4th and best wishes for what's our America too.

Monday, May 17, 2004

What About Me?

The election in India, the world's largest democracy, may turn out to be among the most significant events in recent years.  Most assuredly it will be analyzed by many including people who, unlike myself, really know something about the sub-continent.  I see it as sign of possible things to come.  On the simplest level, much ink and many words have been devoted recently to the miracle of the Indian economy, to its brilliant well educated middle class and its aggressive move into technology.  Indians answer the phones when we call tech support representing a major endpoint of all the outsourcing that has become an issue in our Presidential campaign.  But the real story of India is that, despite years of democracy and of economic growth, the vast majority of its citizens remain mired in abject poverty.  This election appears to have been about them, those many left behind, truly left behind.  In bringing back the Congress and other Leftist parties, these people were asking, what about me?

It's an important question and if you put it in a global context, one that can be posed by the majority in most places.  As an American, it's hard these days not to be obsessed with our conflicts, external and internal.  Aside from aggressively flexing our muscle and promoting global trade, we have little time for the world at large.  Even when we venture out; we do so awkwardly without any real conviction about engagement in any substantive way or necessarily assessing the near or long-term consequences of our actions.  Today there are people in Washington and on Wall Street who are ringing their hands about the Indian election results and the potential impact they might have on us.  Interestingly these are the same people who insist that the Almighty wants everyone to live under democracy.  Right, so long as they don't think about exercising it.  Remember the kind words spoken about the Spanish electorate after they translated their opinion into votes?  While I don't think God is its advocate or sponsor, I do believe that democracy is a great thing and truly wish it were more widespread all over the world.

What if that were the case and all the disenfranchised could, and more importantly would, vote?  Contemplate that and you'll see why the election in India was so important, perhaps prescient.  We all talk about the growing disparity between rich and poor, or even middleclass and poor.  We bemoan it, but we don't do all that much about it.  We rightly criticize the Bush Administration for its lack of after-planning in Iraq, which has turned out to be so costly on every level.  The fact is that nobody in any party here or elsewhere around the globe seems to have a strategic plan in place to transform this planet into something that at least puts everyone on the playing field.  In fairness, I don't know that such a plan is even feasible, but don't you think we should be taking a stab at it? 

Go into the neighborhoods of poverty in the United States and in many other places.  Visit the homes and what will you see?  A television set.  Walk the streets and you'll probably see some cell phones which are morphing into post-computer powerhouses of capability and connectivity.  Images and ideas are multiplying faster than the families of fundamentalists.  Perhaps they haven't pulled themselves together yet, but they will and they will most assuredly be asking, what about me?  That shouldn't come as a surprise to us who ask the very same question almost every day.  In fact, what about me is our favorite question, the icon of our times, at the very moment when we should be asking more vigorously, what about you?