Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tradition in twilight?

After seventeen years, a policy of national disgrace and hypocrisy is finally on its way to the garbage heap where it belongs.  The so-called straight talker John McCain bemoans overturning what isn’t broken.  Speak of disingenuous hypocrites.  Have we evolved into an America where blatant discrimination and forcing sworn truth-tellers to lie isn’t considered eminently broken?  Apparently sixty-five colleagues of the man who bequeathed us that Alaskan unreality show, thought so.  Many see Saturday’s vote as an encouraging moment for America, I among them.  More so, it was a day of correction too long delayed.  In that, repeal just is another step in addressing the unfinished business of upending some of our once cherished, but long outmoded, traditions.

Weeks earlier, Proposition 8 found itself in another California courtroom.  Digressing a moment, it made for two hours of fascinating TV reinforcing my view that the Supreme Court’s refusal to open itself to such coverage is both wrongheaded and a disservice to democracy.  Whatever you may feel about WikiLeaks, it’s clear that the public has a right to know much more, not much less, about the workings of its government.  Transparency, especially when what’s involved has such an enormous impact on the nation and our lives, is essential.  Watching those three Appellate Jurists engaging with litigants over the fine points of law was fascinating, even uplifting.

What’s been striking since Prop 8 has come to court is that its proponents can’t muster a credible case in favor of denying marriage to same sex couples.  Even the argument that there is such a thing a traditional marriage belies reality.  Real life marriages are so varied, so idiosyncratic, so often unstable that to label them traditional is only to raise a question.  What exactly is that tradition?  However expressed, until death do us part, while sincerely voiced, speaks to an idealistic but often unattainable (even unrealistic) dream.  In that, same sex couples probably have no better odds of success than heterosexuals, but they should have the same dream rights.  No one can predict what the tradition-bound Roberts Court with its originalists will do, but some day this bit of discrimination is bound to come to a legal or de-facto end, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Both Prop 8 and Don’t Ask have their roots in a narrow religious ideology still preached in many places across the country.  As with the opposition to abortion and stem cell research, it’s the totally unsubstantiated God’s Will (or way) argument, the one assumed to trump any reality or logic, which is used most.  Expect greater near term support for this approach among the newbies coming to Washington next month, including renewed attempts to erode the Wall of Separation.  But that may not stand in a country where 25% of the young – theoretically the most likely to join the military, to tie the knot and to control our future — have moved from religion not to it.  Some of their alienation can be tied to what they see as outmoded and meaningless traditions.  The God says argument no longer has the force it once had, if any force at all.   That’s something opponents of same-sex marriage should keep in mind.  Rather than protecting marriage, they might actually be undermining the institution.

As recently reported, civil unions in France are growing in such popularity that they may exceed marriages in the years to come.  As in the United States, they were created (in 1999) to accommodate same-sex couples, a kind of faux marriage aimed at containing any challenges to the traditional one.  There were unintended consequences.  Today for every three marriages in France there are two civil unions and the overwhelming majority of them are between a woman and a man.  In one youth dominated Paris district, civil unions already outnumber marriages.  To be sure, there are some compelling legal advantages to these French civil unions especially in the context of that often-unfulfilled death till us part promise.  But there is reason to believe that moving from religion — the traditional — may be at play as well.  Beware of how you define and thus confine institutions.

The bottom line is that the so-called defense of marriage movement may be no defense at all, perhaps the exact opposite.  Ironically one of its byproducts is that the word tradition has come into disrepute — devalued and tainted rather than cherished.  When many of us were marching for civil rights alongside African Americans, we understood that their inequality ultimately threated the equality of us all.  Denying military service to some Americans because of who they are or withholding marriage from them puts the nation and the ideals for which it claims to stand in jeopardy.  Tradition can be a good thing, but only when it’s inclusive and embracing — when it is an enlightened tradition being revitalized rather than clinging to an outmoded, often irrelevant, past.  Let’s hope that overturning Don’t Ask and then putting an end to discrimination in marriage signals our commitment to forging new and more enduring traditions, ones that carry a universal rather than parochial message. That may be asking too much of those who, as with the truth, see tradition as their exclusive property.  If that’s the case, so be it.   More of us than ever are moving on with or without them.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Imperfect it may be.

There is a lot of hand wringing over the still not voted deal President Obama made to extend the Bush tax cuts.  To be sure, the give on upper income tax breaks is most disturbing and disheartening.  But, as David Leonhardt points out in today’s Times, the President exacted a price in the negotiations, effectively getting, he wrote, a second stimulus bill that seemed improbable a few weeks ago.  Another Times piece reports on behind-the-scenes horse-trading led by Vice President Biden.  You may not be happy with the outcome, but this is exactly the kind of legislative process that characterized those good old days we speak of so nostalgically when the likes of Ted Kennedy and Orin Hatch could, as Margaret Thatcher’s would say, do business together.  Among the sound bytes coming out of the President’s press conference, and with good reason, was his reminder that this is a big, diverse country. Not everybody agrees with us. I know that shocks people. The New York Times editorial page does not permeate across all of America. Neither does The Wall Street Journal editorial page.  You don’t have to live in here in North Carolina to know that’s the case — think Christie’s New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan.

I for one wish this country was, at least, left of center, but that’s not the case.  Nor incidentally is it so sure, as some would have it, that it is right of center or even necessarily in the middle.  We see far more evidence that the electorate, torn in asunder by political hyperbole, is more confused than necessarily ideological.  In that, they should first blame themselves for being intellectually lazy and frighteningly uninformed.  It’s has made them an easy target for the systematic disinformation that is unabashedly (and expensively) being delivered up these days.

Obama was somewhat testy in his meet with reporters.  He’s under a lot of pressure from his base; some of it clearly warranted.  But let’s not put all the blame for our frustrations on his shoulders.  We certainly didn’t give him much reason or the facility to drive a harder bargain than he did.  In the so-called enthusiasm gap many Democrats were inexplicably AWOL in November, including those terrific, but obviously fickle, young people who shouted yes we can so enthusiastically before the going got apparently too tough for them to carry through.  It’s conventional wisdom to attribute dissatisfaction to compromises made on the healthcare bill.  It was clearly less than many of us wanted, but let’s not dismiss what it did accomplish nor the fact that it even passed.  And don’t forget that virtually all of those weakening compromises were made to get Democrats on board not to convince Republicans — Bart Stupak in the House; Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln and Max Baucus in the Senate to name a few.  Moreover, the public option that was so very important to many of us, and still is, ranked (as political analyst Nate Silver reminds us) very low as a priority for most Americans.   Finally, a vote on the tax extension should have taken place before not after the mid-term, but the Democratic leader Harry Reid, facing a tough reelection bid, put that vote off for the lame duck.  That bit of Washington self-interest (one of many) cost us big.

This tax cut, across the board, should never have been enacted in the first place.  It, along with two unfunded wars, is largely responsible for the deficit that has weakened us so and whose elimination is being paid pompous lip service by those lobbying hardest for its extension.  Let’s remember that it came about because Bush and the Republicans purposefully wanted to essentially defund the treasury to force a reduction in the size and scope of government.  It was an ideological move.  Keep in mind also that Democrats in Congress (with few exceptions) went along with both the tax cuts and the wars.  Hello, I was for it before I was against it

So where are we?  Democrats are complaining, Republicans are crowing.  Pundits are talking of a one term President; some left activists are urging a primary challenge.  Why can’t Democrats dish it out like Republicans, why can’t they be angry like the Tea Party?  These are legitimate and timely questions.  The simple answer is that they are Democrats, a vastly different DNA.  But here’s the bottom line, the one Obama says probably shocks some of us about America in 2010.  It can be expressed quite simply: President Romney, President Gingrich and…oh yes, President Palin.  We liberals aren’t murdered at the ballot box; we regularly commit suicide before we get there.  I’m just not into that — hope you’re not either.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The multiplier effect.

Everyone’s abuzz about WikiLeaks dumping thousands of confidential State Department and (in October) Iraq War documents on the Internet.  We’ve heard opinions on the import and value of the disclosed information, the role of whistle-blowers and conversely the necessity of confidentiality, especially in diplomacy.  We’ve heard claims and counterclaims about the damage caused.  Even if one agrees that some degree of confidentiality is necessary, which I do, we’ve rightly been asked to consider again whether the government classifies much more than need be, the same issue that precipitated the 1966 Freedom of Information Act.  One thing is clear.  Pontificate as we might, not one of us is likely to read even a fraction, much less all, of the 100 Thousand plus disclosed documents.  That pertains for any indiscriminate information dump of this scale.  So it’s fair to conclude that ultimately the symbolism of disclosure may be more the point than any individual revelation. 

Tempting as it may be to weigh in on these or any other related issues, I’d like to take a longer view of this event and, more importantly, to suggest a context that we may want to consider.  As such, far more interesting to me than any of the many reports and analysis was Time Magazine managing editor Rick Stengel’s November 30 Skype interview of Julian Assange.  The transcript (and accompanying audio) can be found on Time’s website and is well worth a look.  Two things struck me about this interview.

First was Mr. Assange, who claims himself to be a high-minded whistle blower, but comes off as a self-righteous, if not arrogant, self-proclaimed truth teller.  This is not to suggest for a moment that forcing more openness is not a good thing.  But transparency apparently is not WikiLeaks’ objective.  In his words, …it is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it's our goal to achieve a more just society.  In all fairness, he adds transparency and openness tends to lead in that direction, but who makes him the arbiter of what constitutes a just society?  Of course any of us can make that judgment for ourselves and even share our opinion with others. Bloggers (myself included) and columnists regularly do so.  But we’re talking about the effective and (to some large degree) arbitrary wholesale declassification of what in many cases can fairly be called legitimately private communications.  Yes, government must be held to a much higher standard — the public has a significant right to know more than might generally be disclosed — but let’s not be hypocritical here.  Each and every one of us maintains a degree of privacy including what we deem privileged communications.  We would be totally outraged by its disclosure, not only because we see it as an invasion but also because it might result in more unintended than intended consequences.  It might hurt us; more importantly others.

Second is a stark reminder that in the digital age especially, even the largest and most powerful of societies is vulnerable to the action of a small group of people (no one knows the size of WikiLeaks’ organization) or of a single individual like Assange.  While expressing what in another context would be one of those some of my best friends remarks and admitting the Russians and Chinese might well not make his just society list, his objective is clearly to undermine the United States.  Indeed, some have characterized these information dumps as terrorist acts (by implication) analogous to Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks.  Perhaps that goes too far — we use the word terrorist much too loosely.  I’m sure Assange both deplores bin Laden and cringes at any such comparison.  Nonetheless, we shouldn’t discount, intended or not, the effective relationship of the two and the multiplier effect.

Bin Laden may be an Islamic extremist, but he is a strategic thinker.  His targeting of the World Trade Center (twice) was premised on the idea that disrupting financial markets would be especially damaging to the United States.  Adding the Pentagon and (it is assumed) Capital Hill would produce a threefer in that regard.  One could argue (augmented by self-inflicted wounds) that our financial stability has not been the same since.  But it wasn’t only the direct effect on our financial base; he also suckered us into the war in Afghanistan, the mother of all military sinkholes to which (as with the financial debacle) we happily added Iraq.  Bin Laden knew that big powers have trouble doing little things and going to war with boots on the ground was more likely than some focused finite retaliatory strikes.  Both the financial and military consequences are intertwined and have drained us in profound ways.  Together they have called into question our preeminent position in the world and have undermined our internal confidence, not to mention potentially our political stability.

WikiLeaks moves have been no less strategic.  Its Iraq dump brought no new revelations to a subject exhaustively examined by investigative reporting.  In some ways, it served more as a look at what we can do to you boast. The latest revelations again may have produced no big surprises but they cover much wider ground and thus may be far more damaging.  It isn’t, as others have noted, what was revealed per se.  Rather it potentially undermines the trust we have established throughout the world behind the scenes, places not subject to the inevitable posturing evident in many public pronouncements.  Governments across the world, while in some cases expressing annoyance, have largely discounted the impact.  Perhaps, but it’s hard to believe that communications will be as free on either side and that can’t be good.  The end result, especially the multiplier effect, is to weaken the United States.

Superpower nations have been laid low before, and in the context of world history, we’ve had quite a good run.  But in the past competitor nation states have usually precipitated the decline and fall.  This is not to discount internal arrogance or corruption (or in our case the potentially lethal growing gap between rich and poor) that degrade a society from within.  Also, long before the digital age individuals like Gandhi were able to spur a movement that, one could argue, didn’t simply free the Indian continent of British rule, but also effectively brought down the Empire.

Maybe bin Laden and Assange are not both terrorists or even co-conspirators but both are playing a role in undermining and, as such, diminishing our power as a nation.  They may be getting a lot of help as we continue to bicker with one another just as we avoid facing more than today’s news bulletin and ultimately seem in the game only for our individual selves.  We do ask what our country can do for us not the other way around.  We may pay lip service to asking that it do less, but not of course at the expense of doing with less ourselves.  For so many reasons, their vastly different motivations notwithstanding, we are vulnerable to the bin Laden’s and the Assange’s; to the multiplier effect.  That’s what we might really want to think about in considering the now exposed State Department cables.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Why not like me?

Why can’t a woman be more like a man?  Why can’t a woman be more like me?  Those were the words of frustration about Lisa Doolittle uttered by Professor Henry Higgins in Lerner and Loewe’s musical take on George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 Pygmalion.  Shaw’s Higgins was a misogynist and a manipulator and the 1964 Fair Lady lyric rings particularly sexist in 2010.  But the question, why couldn’t she (or indeed he) be like me, or perhaps more so, as I want them to be, is universal, fresh as ever.  I was reminded of that in listening to a couple of pundits voicing their frustration that Barack Obama wasn’t like the idea of what they thought he should be.  He should be more emotional, less cerebral; more down to earth, less professorial.  He should “feel our pain” like Bill Clinton did.  He should communicate more like Ronald Reagan.  He should be less elite, more like ordinary folks — more like us.

Now this is not to question the frustration some thoughtful people have in the wake of the shellacking the President’s party took earlier this week.  In fact, this post is not really about politics.  Let me simply say that, some of us may not like everything he does or how he comports himself, but the Barack Obama who sits in the White House is the same person we saw campaigning in 07-08.  He’s amazingly consistent. Also, similar kinds of complaints were expressed about previous occupants.  Didn’t we want George W. Bush to be just the opposite of he was — more like, say, Obama?  Didn’t we want his father to be less patrician, less detached?  Didn’t we want Bill Clinton to be the perfect and faithful husband, more personally disciplined?  We want our leaders to fit, not who they are, but our image of who we think they should be.  And it isn’t only our leaders.  We have a tendency to do the very same in many of our relationships.  Not only is it unrealistic and frankly often unfair, it gets us, and those relationships, into terrible trouble.

Whether in our marriages, our parenting, our professional or social relationships, we have great problems separating who we are from who they are.  Yes it’s true that we often cherish the differences — sometimes heralded as the source of our attraction — or take pride, for example, in the individuality of our offspring.  But when things go wrong, all that melts away; why couldn’t they be just like us, or at least how we envisioned them?  Or more destructively, we try to contain those with whom we relate into that ideal picture, to force them into a size 6 when they’re a size 8.  And by the way, we knew they were a size 8 from the start, so it’s fair to ask who is in the wrong here?  Are they the problem or are we?  Nothing is as hard as accepting others for who they are, no impulse greater than replaying Pygmalion.

Consider this from the current NY Times Magazine article on Debra Winger, who has returned to acting after a six year hiatus.  Toward its conclusion Mark Harris reports that, Winger agreed to participate in a documentary…called “State of the Art,” about how the industry treats women.  Dozens of women were interviewed so Winger was taken aback to learn it had been retitled “Searching for Debra Winger,” finding herself turned into a symbol…as if her decision to stop acting had been more political than personal and she was now the embodiment of some mystical inner repose. “I’m standing for something that people have a need to feel,” she says, still bewildered, “but it’s not me!”  Winger’s dilemma is one we all share from time to time, the kind of characterization of others we all often impose.  That’s not me, that’s not you.

What is becoming the driving leitmotif of our time, this discomfort with the other whether a different background, skin color, religion or political point of view, derives from the very same phenomenon.  I’ll call it a prime human failing.   We want people to be just like us, or the ideal picture that we have drawn of them.  It’s a picture that fits our needs, often our self-image, not theirs.  We’d be so much more comfortable if everyone around us spoke unaccented English and shared our ambitions and aspirations.  Would that all people of color could have Harvard degrees.  At least then we could kind of accept them as Presidents or the like, sort of.  Why can’t everyone in the world see Jesus as their savior, Muhammad as their prophet or that God is a delusion?  You know, why can’t a woman be more like a man…think, act and behave just like me?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Setback to the future.

Despite disagreements over the role and importance of New Deal programs, there is a general consensus among economists that World War II finally brought a decisive end to the Depression.  This view is borne out by unemployment, which was at about 22% in 1932 when FDR first ran and still almost 15% six years later in 1940, before dropping dramatically to 4.7% in 1942.  That the country took more than a decade to recover from the aftermath of the 1929 Crash should serve as a stark reminder to us that this road is both long and can be frustratingly circuitous.  Let’s remember that despite Roosevelt’s laser-like, even obsessive, focus on job creation during his first term; unemployment was still at an alarming 17% at its end.  Presidents do have limited power in that regard.  Equally significant, is that what is credited with decisively ending the bad times, a war, was the mother of all government spending programs — costing billions in 1940s dollars.  Not only were millions of Americans put on the public payroll in armed services and related wartime government jobs, private enterprise (especially manufacturing) benefited directly from massive spending that energized factories and ultimately provided jobs.  It also enriched individual executives and stockholders.  Our parents and grandparents tax dollars and borrowing paid the bill.

History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself.  Wars of today are more likely to drain an economy than save it, to produce huge deficits not jobs.  Nevertheless, the experiences of the Roosevelt years are worth remembering the day after yet another reactive election.  The results of the vote only underscore our modern lack of patience — we want it now — not to mention how much we have lost sight of reality.  We can add to that a kind of perverse national optimism, a naïve belief in white knights who will wave their magic wand and make things all better.  So we voted for change in 2008 in the person of a heroic savior to whom we attributed almost mythical, and most certainly unrealistic, powers.  People say he disappointed us. I’d argue we’ve set ourselves up in 2010 for much of the same with yet another wave election where the political pendulum gyrates for one direction to another accompanied by overblown expectations, most of them hugely out of sync with reality.

The electorate is said to be angry, not the least frustrated by the polarization of the past years.  Interestingly, among the casualties of their vote this time around were legislators in the center, particularly Democrats but also the Republicans displaced earlier by Tea Party backed candidates in the primaries.  The result is that the incoming Congress is likely to be even more polarized than before — Democrats more liberal, Republicans more conservative.  That of course goes against the conventional wisdom that the electorate is in the center not at the extreme.  Perhaps that’s true for eligible voters but in my book the electorate are those who actually vote and there is little evidence that they are anything but fickle and extremely partisan, albeit for the moment.

One of the intriguing questions about this election, and more so the last decades, is why we have taken such a decidedly conservative turn in this country.  Indeed so-called centrists like the defeated Blanche Lincoln are, by liberal standards, quite conservative.  We have Bill Clinton to thank for pragmatically moving his party as far away from that of FDR as possible and for centrists like Ms. Lincoln.  President Obama’s healthcare bill, reviled by Republicans as a socialist-style government takeover, was equally criticized as a sellout by the remaining liberals in his own party.  What resulted was probably the only bill that could pass, one whose modesty — the absence of a public option — only underscores how far the country has shifted to the right.

Some, including myself, have argued that one of the fundamental problems faced by the Obama administration is that Americans, indeed humans, are change-resistant.  But something more profound is afoot here.  Perhaps we can’t all agree that America is in decline, but even the most enthusiastic we are the greatest folks know it is unlikely to occupy center stage without company in the days ahead.   China and India will surely be sharing the spotlight.

It is with this perspective that we might want to view yet another volatile election.   Admit it or not, we feel threatened by both the reality of change and the realization that it isn’t only political change represented by Obama’s election two years ago, but the kind that suggests our future will be different from our past.  It isn’t that our children may not be financially better off, but that their lives will play out in a much-altered context.  That makes us uneasy.  We can’t quite picture the future that will be with any clarity and even more so are loathe to let go of the past that was with its long established rules and norms, ones that made us feel more in control.  The idea that others may share leadership, or worse take command, makes us want to pull back.  That’s what conservatism is all about, pulling back.

President Obama took full responsibility for Tuesday’s losses in an hour-long press conference.  He cited the economy; specifically frustration that so many remain unemployed and that whatever progress has been made is yet to touch ordinary citizen’s lives.  I totally agree with that assessment.  In their less than three minute session with reporters, the Republican House leaders spoke of voter dissatisfaction over jobs but also about their mandate to cut spending and reduce government, including a repeal of healthcare legislation.  They offered no specifics.  Perhaps the expected Speaker Mr. Boehner has learned that shutting down the government is a no-win proposition, but rest assured he and his associates, among them Tea Party victors, are likely to overreach.  Cutting spending and programs sounds good and prudent, but real people do work in those places and would lose jobs.  With unemployment stuck near 10%, good luck with that.  So too with repealing what they like to call, Obamacare.  Just try to take back protecting citizens from losing insurance over pre-existing conditions or the right to keep their kids under twenty-six on their plan.   The devil is in the…, you bet it is.

The GOP does have one advantage this time around.  Obama and the Democrats have done all the heavy (and unpopular) lifting and much more is known about the extent of the problem than was the case in January 2009.  But it’s a shared advantage with the potential of the President saying, I told you so as he campaigns for reelection in 2012.  Enjoy the gains guys and gals, but don’t count the man from Illinois out just yet.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hiding in plain sight.

It was 86 degrees here in Chapel Hill last Wednesday, shattering a record for that late October day.  Some weeks earlier, there had been Kansas-like tornedos in New York City.  To say it’s been a strange year would be an understatement.  And, of course, it isn’t only the weather, which, unusual as it may be, pales in comparison to the 2010 election cycle.  I’ve been looking for a single word that might describe it best and all I could think of was hiding.

Thanks in part to the Supreme Court we’ve witnessed an extraordinary amount of unencumbered corporate (just plain folks like us) money flowing into the national parties and local campaigns.  I say in part because of those über-rich candidates who have poured eye-popping amounts into their own races, led by eBay billionaire Meg Whitman who managed to outspend Mike Bloomberg, and that’s an accomplishment.  But, as Gail Collins is wont to say, I digress.  What has gotten more attention than the super rich spending to promote their personal ambitions are the big pools of money whose donors are, as yet, unknown.  They are in hiding.

Far more striking, however, are the large number of candidates on both sides who are hiding in plain sight.  These cowardly souls stand as the official nominees of their respective political parties, yet the word Republican or Democrat is nowhere to be found on their literature, campaign signs or TV advertising.  It’s reminiscent of those megachurches where no cross or religious iconography is to be found — Christianity hiding in plain sight.  In some cases, the nominees, especially Republicans, are Primary victors who ran against the establishment and who prefer to hold on for dear life to their outsider identity, as if their name on the ballot won’t be found under their party’s banner.  Others, especially Democrats, who were part of the most legislatively productive Congress in many years, are suddenly pretending that they didn’t take those votes and most certainly don’t know anybody named Pelosi or Obama.  They are hiding in plain sight.

When children are very young and still a bit unsure of themselves, we sometimes play a kind of mock hide-and-seek — they or we hide, but remain in plain sight.  We engage in this charade, co-conspirators as it were who know exactly what’s afoot, but find some mutual comfort in let’s pretend.  But all the players in this election year are adults (even if they don’t always act the part) and know full well that this hiding fools no one.  We may not know the names of all those who contributed to this or that patriotic sounding front organization, but we most certainly have a good idea of who they are.  Special interests can’t really hide whether they are insurance companies, banks, labor unions, the Koch brothers or George Soros.

Perhaps this hiding in plain sight tells us more about the nature of today’s politics than will be revealed in the vote tally on Tuesday night.  It isn’t simply that getting votes seems to be more important than telling the truth, it is that we have a generation of politicians who seem unwilling or, more frighteningly, incapable of taking responsibility.  Democrats or Republicans who are delighted to dip into party and contributor coffers are hiding like those two year olds pretending that we won’t know who or what they are.  The old adage, you can fool some of the people…is bound to catch up with them and, let’s not forget with their enablers as well — that would be all of us.  Perhaps hiding will work in this cycle, but plain sight is plain sight.  Some of us may wink this time around, but the hiding isn’t pretty and is bound to have a limited shelf life.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

After thoughts.

If there is any story of the 2010 election cycle, it is said to be that many 2008 Obama enthusiasts are, if not disillusioned, then disappointed.  If there is one sure outcome of next week’s vote, it’s that a large number of those who so enthusiastically will have flocked to the polls in protest — tea party folks and others — are destined to be equally disappointed in a year’s time, if not sooner.  Within both groups, perhaps the margin of victory in each ballot, there seems to be a common, almost romantic notion, that their wishes will be fulfilled with a snap of the right fingers.   Rest assured, events and outcomes will disappoint.

Thoughtful people across the political spectrum understand that our problems and challenges are far too great for instant fixes.  Even those with diametrically opposite views recognize that the seemingly self-evident solutions they glibly put forward — more spending or less, across the board or limited tax cuts — are no magic bullets. They also know that what has been characterized as dysfunctional in the specific (i.e. the Congress), evidences a much more fundamental and systemic problem, one that ultimately puts into question whether the democracy we have in place can effectively address the 21st Century.  Don’t expect anyone to answer, much less ask, this question any time soon.  Band-Aids will remain central to our problem solving tool kit.  It wasn’t only Richard Nixon who perpetrated the great cover-up.

I continue to believe this election is about only one thing.  Yes, James Carville remains the ultimate wise man.  It’s the economy, not the jobs alone but our national sense of economic insecurity.  Everything else is noise and distraction.  Whether Obama did too much or too little on healthcare and financial reform, whether he communicated well or responded inadequately to Republicans is worth considering, but ultimately irrelevant.  If unemployment were at 5% and real estate values were ticking up, all of that would not even come into serious play.

The problems we face as a country are complex and where we’ll be a decade from now remains uncertain.  But what will be going on next week, regardless of the numbers, is no mystery.  Whatever gains or losses will occur, no one will be satisfied.  The real issue at hand is whether, as a country, we’re prepared for the change that Obama spoke about in 2008 and probably much more of a change than we allowed him to address or suggest.

Monday, October 18, 2010

I'm angry too.

If recent history is any predictor, more than six in ten eligible voters will stay at home on November 2nd.  These paltry participation numbers give new definition to the greatest democracy on earth.  The last time more than 40% of us voted in an off year was back in 1970.  Even in Presidential contests, 2008’s 56.8% was the highest since 1968 (60%) and it’s been fifty years (JFK vs. Nixon) since we have seen 63%.  Contrast that with the 65% who only recently voted in the UK when New Labour was voted out or the almost 78% in 1997 when Tony Blair first came to office.  Only 49% of Americans had voted the year before when Clinton beat Bob Dole.  84% of French voters turned out when Nicholas Sarkozy was elected President in 2007.

To put my gloomy assumption about 2010 in some perspective, it’s likely that (given a split electorate) not much more than 20% of us will have voted in the Congress that will be enacting our laws for the next two years.  To put it bluntly, thanks to us, our representative government is hardly representative.  The next time you hear a legislator pompously say she or he speaks for the American people, remember how few people (their voting constituents) they are really talking about.  In this year of anger and rebellion, tokened by the much-hyped Tea Party, it should be noted that their primary victories came from a scant 8% of eligible voters — that’s right, 92% of us had no part in it.

So forget Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and their patron Rupert Murdoch, what makes my blood boil are the millions of Americans who just can’t engage themselves enough to spend the few minutes it takes to pull a lever or fill out a paper ballot.  In his speech before the assembled at the March on Washington, my immigrant-citizen father warned that we must not allow ourselves to be a nation of onlookers.  Well, when it comes to exercising our most precious right, onlookers are exactly what we have become.  His words in 1963 reflected the experience of someone who had watched the citizenry of his native Germany stand by complacently as their country was overtaken by a murderous totalitarian regime.  Not surprisingly, he took both his gained U.S. citizenship, along with the responsibility to vote, seriously teaching his children and grandchildren to do the same.

We’ve all seen the stories lately of Hispanics, African Americans and, most disturbingly, young people who are sitting out this election.  Somehow Barack Obama just didn’t live up to their expectations or push their agenda’s hard enough.  What a lame, self defeating, if not infantile, reason for not exercising your rights.  It isn’t only that our national attention span and patience is that of two year olds, it is that we seem perfectly willing to let a tiny minority determine our destiny, to be onlookers.  We like to complain, to say how our elected officials are letting us down, but in fact they are delivering the kind of governance that we deserve, in some cases much more than we deserve.  Do Hispanics, our fastest growing group of fellow citizens, really believe that staying home will produce legislators ready at long last to enact progressive immigration laws?  With all the talk about burdening the next generation with debt, do young voters really think they have no stake in 2010’s outcome, that voting in 2008 was the total fulfillment of their obligation to the rest of us, not to mention themselves?  Enthusiasm gap — give me a break!

Yes these are hard times.  Yes it’s difficult to buy into the platitudes that our best years lie ahead when so many people’s personal prospects look so dim.  But that’s a reason to engage, not to stay at home.  The sixty-plus percent of eligible voters who will be AWOL on November 2nd, are no friends of our future.  Their prophecy will be of the self-fulfilling kind, and that’s inexcusable.  It’s what makes me really angry two weeks before Election Day.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Still don't know what for.

Bette Midler can belt them out, but so too can she deliver with a resolute quiet that brings you almost to tears.  I have always been particularly taken with her rendition of John Prine’s Hello in There.  It’s a poignant song about aging, both the process and resulting loneliness.  But the line that always stops me short concerns something else entirely.  It speaks to warfare and remains as fresh and disturbing today as it was when written in the early 1970s — we lost Davy in the Korean War.  I still don’t know what for…

Prine’s lyric, much as did Robert Altman contemporaneous film Mash, references Korea, but is a proxy for Viet Nam, a conflict still too raw and real for linking Davy’s loss with futility.  Midler’s Hello evokes life-fatigue where seemingly matter-of-fact reporting poses the most provocative question, one that haunts so many mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives and children.  We lost Davy or Suzy in the war and, truth be told, have no idea what for.  Of course, it’s a question left unspoken by both loved ones and the larger society, its implications too unbearable to contemplate.

Stand-in or not, the stalemated Korean War exemplifies the futility that became Viet Nam and extends into the present day Iraq and Afghanistan, all unwinnable conflicts.  The victories of the twentieth century World Wars are a dim memory.  Replacing them is the image of Kim Jong-il and his pudgy twenties-something heir apparent Kim Jong-un reviewing a military parade in Pyongyang.  Korea was a war that never ended and whose lessons remain strikingly unlearned.  Viet Nam’s senseless 47,424 combat deaths put that unlearning into sharp focus. But apparently not sharp enough to prevent our repeating its errors and deluding ourselves into thinking wars, especially of the current kind, are even remotely winnable, much less lending themselves to any semblance of reason.  Perhaps this stubborn resistance to learning can be attributed to the American psyche, not to mention a good dose of national hubris.   The former prevents us from letting go — still seeing Viet Nam as a moment of shame and disgrace that somehow must be redeemed.  The hubris, allows for the delusion that the world’s most powerful military is at once invincible and essential across the globe, if only in our own minds.

In these more antiseptic days when mostly other people’s children wage wars, few of us experience the personal anguish and bewilderment of Davy’s mother.  A hired professional military and unmanned drones permit us to avert our eyes, become complacent and, most of all, avoid assessing the cost or waste of war.  So we delude ourselves into thinking about bad wars and good wars, more a mind game than having any semblance of reality.   That it’s a game is evidenced by another Bob Woodward bestseller inside storyline, profiteering if not on the war itself then on our insatiable appetite for the gossip of court squabbles.  Who’s up and who’s down?  It is life as a TV reality show, allowing us to pretend we were flies on the wall in the room where history was being made.  It’s the all consuming world of make believe, or as Ecclesiastes would have it, vanity of vanities.

Sure the players on both Wall Street and Main Street brought our country to its economic knees, but they got a good head start from the twin unbudgeted wars whose foreseeable cost is now estimated to be as much as $2.4 Trillion.  We have begun our exit from Iraq and perhaps, the generals kicking and screaming notwithstanding, we’ll start withdrawing from Afghanistan this coming summer.  These wars, or our involvement, will end.  No peace treaties will have been signed, no victories proclaimed.  Most likely none of us will have the courage to say at long last that war doesn’t work.  At some time in the future, a mother will report on the loss of her Davy, admitting that she knows not what for.  But what should worry us most is the finish of Prine’s lyric line: we lost Davy in the Korean War, I still don’t know what for — don’t matter any more.  Sure it matters and that’s what we should be thinking about.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Slogans and sound bytes.

January 20, 1969, the day Richard Nixon was sworn in as President was also when Harry Robbins Haldeman became White House Chief of Staff.  Haldeman is best remembered as a central player in Watergate (for which he went to jail), but of interest here is that in the twenty years prior to joining Nixon, he was at J. Walter Thompson, one the country’s largest advertising agencies.  In the modern vernacular, Nixon needed help and called upon one of the mad men.  Ronald Reagan, a onetime pitchman for GE, put his trust in an ad hoc group of mad men superstars called the Tuesday Team including BBDO’s Phil Dusenberry (who created later GE ads) to hone his message and image.  Dusenberry’s subsequent News Hour interview provides great insight into the role of advertising in modern campaigns. We brought a perspective, he said.  Political strategists often [believe they] must cram everything there is to cram into this piece of communication. We believed just the opposite, that less was more…the way to go.

In recent years the GOP turned to Frank Luntz, a deft user to research to identify the most concise, compelling and persuasive language to sell ideas whether for political, commercial or other purposes.  It was Luntz whose research showed that, in campaigning for its elimination, death tax was a more powerful descriptor than estate tax.  In that regard, he also advocated climate change over global warming, a term that, while accurate, suggests less urgency with the obvious legislative consequences. As Luntz maintained in a 2007 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, all of the words and slogans he suggested (and that can be claimed by others like him) are truthful.  Indeed, death does precipitate the tax, but it is the impression that counts.   Words are pregnant with suggestive meanings that often transcend narrow definition.  That’s what advertising, not to mention much of effective (even private) communication, is all about.  Think about how many people won’t say that a loved one has died but prefer the euphemism that she or he passed away.  To be sure there are some theological implications in that terminology — passed onto eternity — but for the most part passed seems gentler, more transitional, less final.

Of course, the use of slogans and sound bytes in American politics is nothing new.  When Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders in 1957, he was commenting on a phenomenon long in place, even if it had then reached a new level of sophistication.  As early as 1840, in what has been called the first modern presidential campaign, Whig Henry Harrison, the log cabin candidate, ran on the slogan Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!  It was a reference to a victorious 28-year-old military battle and to his running mate.  It was a slogan that lacked relevant substance, but one that carried a suggestive punch.  Pepsi started proclaiming Twice As Much For A Nickel Too in 1939 literally meaning that they were offering more ounces of cola for the same money, but implying that their product was certainly on a par, if not identical, with Coke.

In 2008, President Obama’s campaign developed one of the most powerful, albeit totally ambiguous, assertions of all time, yes we can! The words resonated because they implied empowerment that transcended the candidate and his team to include the audience — the message in the word we was citizen power.  Given how difficult the execution of change, one might argue that yes we can was an overpromise that has come to haunt the administration since.  But more important, is that Obama’s use of this powerful slogan coupled with the single sound byte word change was for Democrats the exception and not the rule.  For decades now, Republicans have been far more successful in both sloganeering and staying on the message, and that’s a gross understatement.

Republicans, whether with the 1994 Contract with America (in which Luntz was deeply involved) or characterizing their opponents as tax and spend, have taken control of the conversation.  They repeat their sound bytes with unshakable discipline until both the public and the media adopt them, effectively defining issues as they would like.  There is no revelation here.  The wordsmith skill employed by Republicans over that last decades have been widely written about and discussed by analysts and pundits for years.  What mystifies me is how inept the Democrats have been in responding and how lame their attempts have been in using language as a preemptive tool.  Think about the healthcare battle where probably the most memorable (totally disingenuous and misleading) term was death panels.  That characterization brought attention to seniors and Medicare, which were not the primary focus of a bill aimed covering the uninsured and containing unsustainable escalating costs for all Americans.  Democrats were at a loss to find the right words, which not only has led to a misunderstood bill but one that likely and unnecessarily fell short of what it might have been.  It’s hard to believe there is no Frank Lutz on the left.  I must conclude no one is really looking for one.

Without question the susceptibility of Americans to slogans and sound bytes has deep sociological roots.  As the Pepsi example suggested, and Vance Packard wrote about back in the 1950s, we are all subject to a constant barrage of images and words aimed at influencing our behavior.  The new episodes of the popular NCIS TV shows employ suggestive product placements of iPhones and iPads that reinforce the messages of Apple’s commercials during the breaks.   They expand an already powerful cutting edge user imagery brand into the heroic.  This is not to say that advertising is bad per se — I’ve spent most of my career in branding — but that the simple message, the most powerful, most suggestive and least offensive, does by nature blur, if not skirt, the truth.  Democrats generally believe Republicans use clever slogans to promote blatant lies.  Not that Democrats are guiltless in this regard, but maybe they are more uneasy about it.  Perhaps it’s a a matter of feeling obliged to explain the details, not wanting to dumb them down to some simplistic phrase that might leave the wrong or a bloated impression.  That of course is putting the best face on it.  Were that it was so simple.  For some reason, probably for many reasons, Democrats, including another cerebral President (and I mean that positively), simply can’t bring themselves to get in that game of obfuscation and disinformation.  Perhaps that’s admirable, but it sure does put them, and I would argue as a result the country, at a disadvantage.  We may soon be paying the price.  Again.

Monday, September 27, 2010


Eddie Long has much at stake in clearing his name of sex abuse charges, not the least a substantial amount of money and that ostentatious lifestyle — home, cars, jewelry and custom made outfits.  In a story on his current troubles, it was reported that in 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published tax records showing that from 1997 to 2000 Bishop Long had accepted $3 million in salary, housing, a car and other perks from a charity he controlled.  This was from just one of his multiple enterprises.  He likely also draws as generous salary from his 25,000-member megachurch. 

In the most immediate sense, Eddie Long’s saga brings to mind the 2006 downfall of Ted Haggard, leader of another blockbuster megachurch, this one in Colorado.   It isn’t only that each regularly inveighed against homosexuality from their pulpits — Long also conducting seminars promising to “cure” homosexuals — both were accused of engaging in sex with, in Haggard’s case a male prostitute, and in Long’s with what were then four boys.  Upon the advice of counsel, he won’t deny the allegations, but told congregants that he will fight.  Our system is built on a presumption of innocence and we should leave judgment of the specific allegations to the legal process.  That said, Long’s situation is an opportunity to consider anew the megachurch phenomenon. 

Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute has written extensively about it and is well worth a look, but just consider this.  Haggard’s and Long’s churches bear very similar names — New Life and New Birth — and that shouldn’t be surprising.  Theirs and all the megachurches around the country have much in common.  All share nearly identical narratives, a kind of religious Horatio Alger story of humble beginnings with a handful of followers that over time become behemoths with thousands of members. Robert Schuller’s Garden Grove California church, now housed in Philip Johnson’s imposing Crystal Cathedral, stared in a drive-in theater parking lot; Joel Osteen’s huge Lakewood Church (the largest) began in an abandoned feed store and now occupies the $75 Million renovated stadium in Houston, once home to the Rockets.  While some have connections with larger denominations, many are freestanding evangelical ministries, all led by a charismatic leader (often accompanied by his wife as co-pastor), some holding self proclaimed ecclesiastical titles like bishop.  These are often family businesses — Osteen’s father founded Lakewood, Schuller’s daughter now leads Garden Grove.

Given the notorious fall of Haggard, and before him Jim Bakker, one is tempted to liken these ministers to Sinclair Lewis’s fictional Elmer Gantry, played so compellingly by Burt Lancaster in the classic movie translation.  But I think the more apt and timely figure to consider is the greed-driven Gordon Gekko, currently taking a curtain call in the just released sequel to Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street.  Long and many of his counterparts preside not only over large congregations, but also in over vast empires that include charities (some clearly doing good works), commercial businesses and substantial real estate holdings.  They have become, and are unashamedly, personally wealthy.  Many, like Bakker in his day, are televangelists whose syndicated programs combining sermonic fire and brimstone with unabashed entertainment reach far beyond their own communities.  This provides them with great leverage and a built-in audience for, among others, books that in Osteen’s case have brought in millions.  In more the Gekko than the Gantry tradition, these ministries would better be described as religious enterprises, more akin to business conglomerates than what we think of as churches.  In fact, while Long and his counterparts would vehemently deny any such notion, it may fairly be said that the church effectively serves more as a cover for their activities than its essence.

Eddie Long protests that the media is responsible for his current problems, just as the Vatican has done in their defense of now well-documented sexual abuse by clergy.  In both cases, the protestations have as much to do with protecting their enterprise as in protecting their personal (or church’s) integrity.  The Roman church has vast real estate and other holdings and its hierarchy maintains (in contrast to the average parish priest) lifestyles that, while perhaps paling in comparison to the megachurch leaders, can be quite lavish.  They’re called Princes of the Church for good reason.  In Gekko theology, the stakes are extraordinarily high when anyone dares question the moral compass of either the leaders or the institution.  As recent events across multiple faiths have shown, hypocrisy abounds.

The members of New Birth who so heartily applauded their leader during his Sunday remarks may consider Long’s alleged wrong doing and practices internal matters.  The Catholic Church certainly has made that point over and over again.  But, especially with regard to megachurches who have sought over the last years to exercise substantial influence on the political landscape, I think their doings should concern us all.  They are our business.  Remember how Pastor Rick Warren sought to influence the 2008 Presidential election.  These mega pastors have substantial power and clearly evoke fear among our elected officials.   They play an often-critical role in what legislation is passed.  The pastor accused of having sex with boys lobbies against same-sex marriage and of course is opposed to gays in the military.

The New York Times reported last week that religious congregations were suffering a major decline in contributions.  As expected, part of the shortfall can be attributed to our deep recession.   Many members who have lost jobs or whose homes are in foreclosure simply can’t afford their dues or weekly contributions.  But the decline, it reported, may also be attributable to the growing number of Americans who have left religion behind.  Some no longer believe in God or in what religion teaches.  A good number are just turned off by the religion they see around them or read about in the press.  Eddie Long, not only what he might have done but his enterprising activities and what they token, throws coal on that fire of alienation.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

All politics.

If in Tip O’Neil’s day all politics was local, today all is politics.  In a profound sense that isn’t only what’s energizing tea party folks in their purported anti-establishment movement but equally what’s enervating the Left, especially the young.  With all the noise about upsets in Republican primaries and the heightened often-ugly rhetoric of people like Newt Gingrich, one wonders what’s happened to the minions of enthusiastic Obama supporters who filled those stadiums to capacity and showed up at the Mall on Inauguration Day?

The easy answer is that it’s the economy stupid, the persistent unemployment and the growing sense that even the not so good old days aren’t coming back soon.  Some will argue that the President and Democrats under-delivered on their promised healthcare and financial reforms.  From a purist standpoint they did, but given the realities of what it takes to get bills through Congress, they actually may have done better than expected.  Some will say Obama himself hasn’t been forceful enough, that he should have abandoned any attempt at bi-partisanship early on, should have let the bastards have it with both barrels.  Maybe, but I don’t think its in his character and, more importantly, his entire campaign was focused on bringing people together, closing the divide.  Did he perhaps fail in sufficiently reinforcing that message with the electorate, in leveraging the Bully Pulpit?  Probably.

But for me, the overarching turnoff is that we have become, perhaps to a greater degree than ever before, mired in politics — all politics 24/7.  Just look at the state of our media, the domain of shouting-heads where any modicum of dispassionate and objective journalism has been replaced by rank entertainment, headlining political theater.  Newspapers are dying but the likes of Politico are thriving.  If a story doesn’t have political value it is either ignored or artificially politicized.  Look at the Islamic Center in lower Manhatttan that quickly went from what might have been a legitimate discussion to a partisan free-for-all. Indeed the torrid Right/Left debate has become so heated that it’s virtually impossible to have any serious discussion about the systematic problems that, if not addressed, could lead us over a cliff.  The unprecedented weather patterns of the summer just ending — we’re experiencing late September temps in the mid 90s here in Chapel Hill — haven’t produced a single moment of doubt among those who dismiss global warming, most likely because they fear being clobbered at the polls for opening their mouths.

For sure, the tea party movement evokes a mix of in some ways naïve and over simplified libertarianism, but their expressed outrage against the political establishment and politics as usual strikes a chord with the broader public.  As to the Obama supporters, particularly the young, many flocked to him because he was different, hoped he was not a traditional pol.  In fact, he is and he isn’t, a nuanced complexity that is too much for a lot of people who have been weaned on keep it simple, whether the tag line of a commercial or the catchall labels that we apply to people.  They are also a fickle group, notorious for being less than dependable one-off voters.  Well I voted last time around, worked my butt off, did my piece — on to my life.  But to be fair, they seriously engaged with politics in the name of change and have spent most of the time since watching same-old, same-old as if it was all for naught.

So, it wouldn’t at all surprise me if, despite the noise, we’re headed for an extremely low turnout on November 2nd.  That’s makes for a very unpredictable outcome and the likelihood that a very small minority might control our destiny for the two years ahead.  It is potentially very bad political news for the President and the Democrats, but a low turnout is ultimately bad news for democracy and for us all.  But the more serious problem is that there appears no single individual or group of leaders out there who are ready to standup and call a time out.  It isn’t only that our unemployment bespeaks systematic and structural problems that no degree of tax cuts or stimulus can quickly fix, but that with the rampant politicization of everything our governance is broken.

It is often said, think Israel/Palestine,  Afghanistan or any conflict, that solutions require partners.  I for one am not sorry the President spent so much energy, and yes perhaps valuable capital, on seeking bi-partisan — beyond politics — solutions to pressing problems.  The problem has been, and continues to be, that he lacks partners in that endeavor and that includes a significant number in his own party.  In the short term scoring political points may give the appearance of victory to partisans on both sides.   But once again, Lincoln had it just right; A house divided against itself cannot stand.   In that, the clock is ticking.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The silence is deafening.

We're coming onto the eve of the Jewish New Year.   Jews are an ancient people with an elephant like memory.  Sadly much of what we remember is not pretty.  When book burning raises its ugly head, as it has in the last days, we don't have to dig deep into that memory bank.  Adolf Hitler burned books.  Book burners are always a company of hooligans, — sometimes ruling hooligans.  They are small-minded people who in the end seem more afraid of ideas than anything else, especially the ideas of others.

I’m happy that General Petraeus has spoken out.  His concern about the safety of our troops is legitimate.  But threatening to burn the Quran isn’t the only thing going on.  Not only is the Islamic Center in New York being challenged, similar centers and houses of worship are under attack across the country.  Forget the affront to religious liberty, the freedom we beat our patriotic breasts about.  One has to really wonder what these people, many of whom mouth concern for national security, are thinking.  A growing number of Muslims around the world are convinced that America is at war not with terrorists as it claims but with Islam.  With the blatant bigotry now being displayed in many parts of the country, why shouldn’t they come to that conclusion?  In a time of Tea Parties and generally in an economic climate that provokes genuine frustration and understandable anger, these acts are not merely wrong they have the potential of being literally explosive.

General Petraeus has spoken out.  Bravo, but where are the voices of America’s religious leaders?  On October 25, 1962, Ambassador Adlai Stevenson asked his Soviet counterpart Valerian Zorin if he denied that the Russians had placed missiles in Cuba.  When Zorin put him off saying his answer would come in due course, Stevenson famously retorted, I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over.  Would that I had his patience.

All I know is that Lady Liberty is shedding tears again and many of those who should know better, whom we expect to know better, aren’t there to give her, and us, comfort.  Shame on them.

Addendum  Shortly after this post, a significant number of religious leaders including from Protestant, Catholics and Jewish groups, presented a very forceful denunciation of attacks on Islam in the country.  Their statement, and more importantly promised follow-up, is encouraging.  Equally strong words from the still silent people like Rick Warren would be welcome. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

God is Beck

Jewish law prohibits public viewing of the deceased, considered an act of disrespect.  In essence, the reasoning behind this prohibition is that the dead can no longer speak for themselves and are thus subject to manipulation by the living.  The same holds true for God.  Whether or not you believe in a God — and I confess profound doubt — claimed revelations notwithstanding, what we know of the divine ultimately derives from human attribution.  Big surprise: those attributions tend to coincide with the particular beliefs and views of the attributor; more often than not, serving her or his own purposes.  When all else fails, we justify our actions with a God says, directs or wants, all declared with absolute and unquestionable (how dare you) certainty.  I like to call it the arrogance of attribution.

Which brings me to Glenn Beck.  Perhaps the most significant bit of news by far out of last weekend’s Lincoln Memorial gathering was not the crowd’s size or any particular speech but his decision to shift from the expected theme of politics to one of God.  Perhaps the broadcaster was moved by the sage advice given months back to attendees at the February Tea Party Convention.  As Sarah Palin put it then, it would be wise of us to start seeking some divine intervention again in this country so that we can be safe and secure and prosperous again.  Of course to many in this group God and politics are an indivisible one.  God has been integral to the Conservative playbook, and perhaps to its success, since the Reagan years.  Sure the economy sucks but playing to anger goes only so far; playing the God-card is so much more attractive and potent.  How exactly this crowd would address high unemployment if in power takes some concrete explaining, invoking the divine invites no questioning.  As such, it’s a political no-brainer. So take careful note, George Bush may be gone but God is back.  That may not be good news.

Before going further, let me digress to identify the God in question.  The one of this particular arrogant attribution is an ultra Conservative God as largely seen by a certain group of Christians — a Libertarian God would be a stretch even for them.  Beck and company have made it clear that this definitely isn’t an Obama kind of God — even if he is a Christian and a citizen, the President, they proclaim (inaccurately), follows that alien liberation theology not the real faith.  Theirs is the God who is opposed to abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage.  To be sure it’s the same one resolutely opposed to any separation of church and state.  And that brings me to the larger implications of God’s return that transcend Beck’s gathering.

For starters, let’s consider the June 26 NY Times column by Yale’s Linda Greenhouse, Nine Justices and Ten Commandments.  In it Ms. Greenhouse, who had the Supreme Court beat for thirty years, uses the backdrop of the still not completely resolved issue of displaying the 10 Commandments on public ground to suggest that at least four and perhaps five sitting Justices have no real commitment to separation, certainly not an absolute one.  This of course has major implications for the likely Proposition 8 appeal and the abortion rights cases that will come before the Court, perhaps sooner rather than later.  Add to that the August 14 decision by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth halting President Obama’s Executive Order modestly relaxing the Bush restraints on stem cell research.  By the way, that decision has stopped much of ongoing stem cell research dead in its tracks.

The issue discussed by Greenhouse reflects the generalized power of those, like Beck, who would impose their God-attributions on the rest of us, which includes a growing number of citizens who don’t believe in God or whose faith doesn’t include the big Ten.  But the others are even more to the point.  Abortion and stem cell research are ultimately medical/scientific issues.  The only reason to outlaw them is on religious grounds, what is attributed to God.  The stem cell issue is particularly troubling because however important reproductive choice, and I consider it fundamentally important, it can be said to impact directly on only a portion of the population.  Embryonic stem cell research has the potential of impacting on every one of us.  It boggles the mind how one can be pro-life and not leave a single stone unturned in an effort to prolong or improve its quality.  Forget the hypocrisy of opposing the destruction of embryos for medical research while happily dumping the same life-matter into the laboratory dustbin.  So, too, with the definition of marriage and opposition to same-sex unions, which are solely based on religious grounds, very narrow religious grounds to boot.  Why do all these things?  God says so, the arrogance of attribution.

The return of God in our politics is made possible and legitimized in part by the continuing myth of America a religious country.  This is not to suggest that many Americans, perhaps still a majority (if only in name), are not personally religious.  But that is not the same thing.  Part of the reason the political Right, particularly those with a religious agenda, have been so successful is that the media buy into that myth and fall into line even if the facts don’t match the words.  Once spoken, the language is set.  And the wordsmiths’ influence is powerful.  While not related to God is back, a case in point is that even now, and despite its own reporting discrediting that description, the august NY Times still headlines stories on the proposed Islamic Center as pertaining to the Ground Zero Mosque.  More on point is the headline accorded to a twenty-two and a half minute interview given by the President to NBC’s Brian Williams.  The setting was New Orleans on the 5th anniversary of Katrina and beyond that subject there was considerable discussion of the economy and of the exiting troops from Iraq.  For less than a minute of that long exchange the subject of religion came into play.  What was the headline of the video on the Washington Post’s website? Obama discusses his faith.   Glen Beck wants to change the subject and he’s getting a great deal of help from people who should know better and upon whom we rely for accurate information.

If each an every one of us believed in God or even if those who held such a belief shared the same attribution and the same consequences, perhaps that God is back wouldn’t be so bad.  That is not the case, and without diminishing or disrespecting the rights or questioning the heartfelt belief of Beck and others on the Religious Right, overtly and aggressively bringing God and religion back into our shared national space is no step forward.  Forcing your attribution of me, or for that matter mine on you, can lead to no good, especially in a society so bitterly divided.  Instead of taking Ms. Palin’s advice of bringing God back, perhaps we should consider that of Lyndon Johnson who lived in another time of deep division.  Let’s reason together, and leave God out of it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Can we?

In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower ran on a simple message: time for a change. Euphoria over defeating Germany and Japan had given way to economic anxiety, concern over a growing Soviet threat and strong opposition to a war in Korean that the General promised to end.  Helping his cause was Harry Truman’s meager 22% approval rating and the voters having come to believe two decades of uninterrupted Democratic rule was enough.  When Barack Obama brought his message of change in 2008, Republicans had also held the presidency for all but eight of the previous twenty-eight years.  So, too, were we engaged in at least one very unpopular war and George Bush’s approval ratings stood only in the mid-30s.  Even more telling, 81% of us felt the country was on the wrong track.

So, while every time is different, there were clearly enough similarities between 1952 and 2008 to account for the same change call.  Markedly different, however, was what the respective campaigns asked of the voters.  In ’52 the GOP had a familiar war hero as its standard bearer and, the change message notwithstanding, voters were asked little more than to remember they liked Ike.  In contrast, Barack Obama was still introducing himself — a totally new and untested leader.  While a majority of Americans seemed to like him, that was hardly enough.   So Obama’s message of change carried with it a call for the public’s help.  After telling them he believed we can change, the Senator asked his audiences if they (and the country) were up to the challenge.  Their answer came in three simple words, yes we can.  That they responded in that hopeful way and believed it so totally may explain why the now elected President’s approval rating has fallen to 44% in the August 26th Rasmussen tracking poll and why the Democrats face such a difficult mid-term election.  Yes we can?  At this point, we’re not as sure as was the case in those heady days of ‘08.

We Americans are an impatient lot.  Long before 24/7 news, the Internet and Twitter we, in contrast for example to our friends in China, demanded, and came to expect, instant solutions.  To us a long view was weeks and months not years and decades.  Had Korea not ended the summer after Ike’s inauguration he too might have faced some buyers’ disappointment, if not remorse.  We are impatient and we can be unforgiving, sometimes acting more like sulky teenagers than adults.  Moreover, we seem to suffer from a kind of collective early Alzheimer’s, romantically remembering the good old days, but drawing a complete mental blank on what actually happened just yesterday.

It is true that Senator Obama always coupled his message with a cautionary note, change…won’t come easy, but yes we can was any rally’s ultimate takeaway.  It is a promise that sets an enormously high performance bar, especially in an instant gratification imbued society.  Yes we can glosses over the natural complexities of governess, and more so the grim reality that faced this administration in January 2009.  It is a truism to say that campaigning is far easier than governing, but in some ways the nature of our particular democracy — the need to glibly appeal for votes — makes that almost a self fulfilling prophecy.  Truth is, Obama has probably kept more campaign promises than most of his predecessors, but it seems not to matter.  In these times, the yes we can promise was unfulfillable in the short term, even if everything had gone his way, and for sure it didn’t.

Perhaps in retrospect the President wishes his campaign had not come up with that powerful rhetorical flourish, but instead had given even greater voice to the won’t come easy part.  I’d bet it's crossed his intellectual mind, but then he might not have been elected.  Regardless, twenty months after the inauguration, yes we can rings less plausible as we watch unemployment numbers rise and housing sales fall.  We’re all less sure of ourselves and polls suggest, at least for the present, that the country is measurably less sure of him.

Republicans are angry and many Democrats are disappointed.  In a super partisan milieu the angry part is understandable.  The disappointment may be less so.  For starters, while we may not be happy with some of the compromises that have been made to pass legislation, its worth repeating that the President has delivered on his promises.  That healthcare reform won’t take instantaneous effect is nothing new — Medicare was passed in 1965 and came into being only in 1967.  It takes time to implement change, especially in what has become a complicated and largely broken system.  So our disappointment only evidences that unrealistic American impatience.  More to point, and certainly not letting Obama off the hook, some of our disappointment should be self-directed.  We all stood there shouting yes we can or putting it on our car's bumper stickers.  We didn’t say yes he can, but we can.  That implies taking some responsibility.  If he has fallen short, so have we.

The Tea Party people (with a big help from Koch money) are organizing. The Republicans are energized.  Many of Obama’s ’08 supporters are just inertly looking out horrifid at a quickly reemerged conservatism, only more extreme then before.  So where is our ideological tea party equivalent, the one in support of that change we said could happen?   Where is our energy?  Is one campaign all we have within us?  Wringing our hands in disappointment won’t do the trick.  John Boehner, in criticizing the President’s economic team, recently said it was time to put grown-ups in charge of the economy.  Well, I won’t go there, but I do think it’s high time for the American electorate, and most especially all of us who supported Obama, including so many young people, shouting yes we can to begin acting like grown-ups.

The problems we face are serious and — aside from the very rich who seem to be living in their own self-absorbed fantasy — they touch virtually all Americans affluent, middleclass and poor.  We can’t dismiss the anger that produces as irrational. It’s not.  The outlook at times seems so dire that we understandably lose heart.  But grown-ups do understand that there are sometimes more pits encountered in life than cherries.  Change is hard, but no harder than life itself.  Sure, yes we can may now ring as an unrealistic promise, but don’t you think it deserves a little more patience than we’ve given it?  Don’t those who we put into office to accomplish change deserve our foul weather support?  Most of us wouldn’t like to be President at his time, to have coming across our desk what he sees every day.  The least we can do is begin by telling him that when we shouted yes we can, we meant it.  That won’t solve our problems, but a little more follow through on our part is a  decent start.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Perhaps he's Jewish.

Maybe Barack Obama is not a Muslim after all, but have you considered
that he might well be Jewish? 
After all, the Jews are really running everything in the country, so
wouldn’t make sense that they put one of their own in the White House?  Of course, these are not serious
questions, but the idea that the President is Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Yorba or
anything else you can think of is no more farfetched (or in this instance
insidious) than his being a follower of Islam.

Let’s remember the notion that Obama is a Muslim didn’t emerge out of
the blue.  It emanates from
disinformation carefully planted and latched onto by an electorate that is
shockingly illiterate when it comes
to politics, not to mention national and world affairs.  And it is misinformation that in this highly charged environment only two types of leaders can correct: Republican and religious.  What’s happened to all those good
Christian Republicans like Senator Mitch and Representative John who piously
invoke God at every opportune moment? 
Does their religion not value the truth?  Okay, I understand where they are coming from, hypocritical
as it may be, but it is really hard to give a pass to America’s clergy.

Wasn’t it just yesterday when Rick Warren commanded the presidential
candidates to stand before him at Saddleback?  That was when he pointedly asked, what does it mean to you to trust in Christ?  In case you’ve forgotten it, here is
what the then Senator Obama
: As a starting point, it means I
believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins and that I am redeemed through him.
That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis.  I know that
I don't walk alone, and I know that if I can get myself out of the way, that I
can maybe carry out in some small way what he intends. And it means that those
sins that I have on a fairly regular basis hopefully will be washed away
.  That seems quite definitive.  In fact it
is far more information than we all need or that frankly I want to know.  But perhaps it still isn’t enough for
Pastor Rick.  Unless I missed it (which
is possible), he has been totally MIA when his President’s religious
affiliation – the one he confessed so openly before the country and, one must
assume before God --  is being miscast. 
Not to put the entire burden on this single mega-pastor, the same can be
said of much, if not all, the other clergy?  I guess they are busy with more important and sacred matters,
but their silence is so audible that it is shatters our moral eardrums.

Of course the more fundamental question here is not about which religion
the President follows, but why that matters?  The Declaration of Independence may give God a nod, but I
know of no requirement in the Constitution that the nation’s chief executive be
a Christian or that she (one can still hope) has to follow any religion at
all.  The widespread notion that
you can’t trust an atheist, and probably even an avowed agnostic, with
governess is simply born out of ignorance.  There is no experiential or scientific proof that following
a religion is any more a guarantee of good performance or for that matter
honesty than following none. 
Even the most pious among us can't miraculously right a very sick economy.  Moreover, we should r
emember that making religion a requirement effectively renders 16% (and
growing) of our citizens ineligible for the highest office.  That includes 25% of our young people, our future.  Put differently, the only way any of
them can rise to the presidency is to lie about their beliefs, just as gays and
lesbians had to lie about their identity to make it in our world.

The sad thing about the Obama is
a Muslim
myth is that it is yet another opportunity for us to avoid any serious discussion about why
we insist on this religious litmus test.   Think for example if we made religious beliefs or
practice a requirement of all people in decisive positions.  We might not have many of today’s
medical advancements, scientific discoveries, technology and so much more.  Does that mean you have to be
non-religious to work or create in these fields?  Of course not, and there are religious people in all of
them.  But it does suggest that
believing in God or going to Church, Synagogue or Mosque isn’t a prerequisite for
making a major, indeed essential, contribution to our society or well being.

We’re not going to have this conversation, just as we’re unlikely to
have a serious one about race or so many other important things.  We’re too devoted to our truths and our prejudices and are
clearly in mortal fear of having any of them disproved or even cast in the
slightest doubt.  This isn’t about
President Obama’s religion, which is simply one of the issues of the moment
that come and go on cable news. 
It’s about us and about the fantasies with which we live.  They’re of the stuff that gives us the
right to demand of others what we wouldn’t, god
, demand of ourselves.  Perhaps you can live with that.  I chose not to.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

All we're missing is Joe.

When you want prevail in an argument, wrap yourself in 9/11, the
Holocaust or, better yet, both.  That
seems to be what Newt Gingrich had in mind when he asserted that building a
mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks would be like
putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum
Wow.  It seems that his PhD in the subject notwithstanding, the
former House Speaker has little understanding of history.  To even remotely equate the action of a
handful of terrorists on a single morning with the State-sponsored systematic
persecution and murder of millions over a period of years and in multiple locations built
especially for that purpose is, to put it kindly, patently absurd.  This is not to minimize the horrific
attack in lower Manhattan that September day nor the value of even a single
life lost there much less nearly three thousand.  But what occurred in Europe during the Hitler years was something
entirely different.  To connect the
two, to assign them even implied equivalency, is offensive in the extreme. 

Reasonable people can differ on the appropriateness of placing an
Islamic Center near — though not as some rhetoric and headlines suggest within
— the site of the destroyed Trade Center complex.  Rebuilding there at all was hotly debated, but in the end
commerce, rationalized as a symbol of resilience, trumped hallowed ground.  You
can draw your own conclusions about that.

The specific dispute now being magnified from as far way as Alaska
evidences far more political opportunism than of any reverence for the dead.  Indeed Republicans
have latched
onto the proposed Islamic Center (within which there will be a
prayer space — something many of us would call a chapel) as a perfect distraction
from any message the President or Democrats might want to put forward in an
already difficult mid-term campaign. 
They’re absolutely delighted — for the wrong reasons — to see him talk of
religious freedom, which at this moment seems of very little concern to
them.  They are thinking November
and how mass hysteria hyped with opportunistic disinformation can work to their
benefit. I guess that’s politics 2010, but in the end it’s of only peripheral

We must look beyond the hypocritical bluster to see what’s really
afoot.  One hears a lot of that some of my best friends… talk from the
opposition, but as usual such protestations are disingenuous.  The center in question is merely a convenient
straw man.  Hardly hidden in the
give and take is a pervasive and seething hatred/fear of Moslems, one that
outweighs any proclaimed reverence for all those innocent victims of
terrorism.  It is a nurtured and
calculated disdain, a manufactured hysteria reminiscent of our often
over-the-top obsession with Communism in a former time.  And there is a significant connection.

My good friend Professor Gordon Pitz reminds me that we always need an
enemy.  True, but this goes even
further than that. During the days of George Bush’s crusade rhetoric one
might have thought our double invasions of Moslem countries constituted a specifically
Christian vs. Moslem conflict.  But
that may be an over simplification. 
Indeed, Sam Harris, a leading voice of the new atheism (who has written
about the mosque
) rejects all
religions (including Christianity) but most especially Islam.  To paraphrase Orwell, in his view it
would seem that all religions are bad,
but some religions (Islam) are even more bad than others.
  Harris sees radical Islamism as a
natural outgrowth, not an aberration, of Moslem teaching.  The recent Taliban
stoning young lovers
with at least the tacit approval of other Afghan
clergy may support that view.  Reasonable
people can come to different conclusions, but what we’re witnessing right now
in the United States is not an academic discussion of what naturally flows out
of the teachings of Islam.  So what
is really behind the furor over the projected Islamic Center?

I would suggest that to understand that we have to look at two
separate but interrelated dynamics. 
The first has to do with those enemies and the analogy of Communism and
Islam.  During the Cold War, and
particularly in the 1950s, a very broad guilt by association brush was employed
by Senator Joe McCarthy and others for their own purposes.  Anyone who even evoked some sympathy
for those in the Soviet sphere or, for that matter, espoused left ideas was branded a Communist or at
the very least a sympathizer (fellow
).  In those days, the
way to discredit an opponent was to call her or him a Communist.  Such guilt by association was nothing
new (think the Japanese Americans interred in camps by the Greatest Generation), but it caught many innocent people in its web
of identity destruction.

The tipoff to today’s mindset can be seen in opponents of President
Obama.  To be sure they question
his policies, but their real weapon is to question his religiosity and more
pointedly to suggest that he is in fact a (not born here) Moslem (read
Commie).  The key here isn’t merely
religiosity (which harks back to the idea that you can’t trust atheists) but the right religion.  That this particular slur (in their
view) is aimed at our first African American President can’t be overlooked, but
let me not digress. 

The second is more generalized.  Many (though certainly not all) of those who argue against the Islamic
Center because of location present a dishonest case.  In fact, they don’t like having a mosque anywhere in this Judeo-Christian
land, most especially in their own neighborhood — which happens to encompass their entire country.  As suggested in my April post, He’s not
like me
, we have a growing problem with the other, someone we perceive as posing a threat
to our way of life.  Again, that’s what they said about the
Reds — not the current red state Reds, but those who followed Lenin and Stalin.

This theme of threatening our
way of life
goes deep and is finding its insidious way into other,
seemingly unrelated, areas.  For
example, Bobby Jindal incorporates the way of  life threat in many of his utterances
about the oil spill.  Notably, he
seems to imply that the Federal government (Obama’s people) is posing that
threat as much if not more than BP. 
Is it any wonder that, as Dr. Irwin Redlener told
, Columbia University School of Public Health’s researchers doing a study
on the effect the spill on Gulf residents found nine-year-old children talking
about their way of life being over?  Given that adults all around them are
repeating those very words, he shouldn’t have been surprised.  With our way of life actually under
threat these days (consider my recent posts), it’s convenient to have scapegoats
— people/outsiders — we can blame.

It isn’t that terrorists flew airplanes into the Towers, it’s the
broader idea that terrorists are Moslem ergo all Moslems are, conveniently by
association, terrorists.  
That they logically and in reality are not is of no consequence.  They are of the other and that’s all we care about.  The bottom line: an Islamic Center in lower Manhattan is
threatening our way of life much as (in their view) is that other sitting in the White House.  Consider that when you think about this
unseemly manufactured debate raging in our land.  Worry not Joe, we’re doing just fine without you.