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.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

This side of the bridge.

In accepting his 1996 second-term nomination, Bill Clinton pledged to build
a bridge to the 21st Century
.  His White House years, which would end on the other side of
that bridge, had witnessed transformational advances in technology, economic
prosperity, a successful war in the Balkans and the first budget surpluses in
three decades.  So, with
understandable optimism, Clinton held out the expectation of even better times
to come.  As we move into
summer’s dog days, we should take a moment to consider the impending end of
this century’s first decade.  Specifically,
how have things gone so far this side of Clinton’s bridge?

The short answer is, not very well.

The closing months of the 2000 set the tone for what was to come.  During more than a month following a
cliffhanger November vote, America found itself in electoral limbo.  While Article 2 of the Constitution had made
provision for such a situation by ceding resolution responsibility to the House
of Representatives, it was rather the Supreme Court that cast the deciding ballot,
effectively selecting our 43rd Chief Executive.  It was a stunning act for a judicial majority that
deplored activism and whose most
vocal member calls himself an originalist
who to this day rejects
the idea of a living constitution

In early September of the following year, with the new president
having spent much of the summer whacking underbrush on his Texas ranch, the
country experienced a wrenching, and heretofore unthinkable, attack on its most
iconic city.  The myth of fortress
America, a landmass surrounded by formidable and ever-protective ocean waters,
was shattered in a matter of minutes. 
That event changed the mindset of a nation and fundamentally reset an
Administration that, aside from having enacted a huge tax cut that June with
bipartisan support, seemed rudderless.

What followed with stunning speed and only minimal questioning by the
Congress, the media and the citizenry, was what might arguably be described as
a Wag the Dog march
toward multiple wars including an amorphous one waged on real but equally
abstract terrorism.  If the generous tax cuts enacted
earlier had not yet done so, this off-the-books expenditure on national security quickly turned a fiscal
surplus into deficits of historic proportion.  In the final year of the decade, wars in Afghanistan and
Iraq, not to mention that less defined one against terror, still hold us

The economy boomed in the early years of the decade, or so we were urged
to believe.  The old chicken in every pot wish was updated as home
ownership in everyone’s life.  As
it turned out, the real boom was exceedingly narrow and many more than the
clients of Bernie Madoff
found themselves victims of an enormous Ponzi scheme.  While one party accused the other of tax and spend, both happily encouraged the far less prudent
approach of borrow and spend — and on
a massive scale.  When the roof
caved in, virtually everyone could be
held accountable.

It was, we should not forget, Bill Clinton, the man heading us toward
the bridge, that presided over the dismantling
of the very symbol of financial regulation Glass-Steagall
on Nov 12 1999 just a short sprint from its entrance.  Needless to say, he had substantial bi-partisan
encouragement in and out of government. 
In many respects, the seeds of what emerged below and above the surface
as an unraveling of the economy in this first decade had been sown and nurtured
for many years on the bridge’s other side.  Part of that unraveling was the stand still or decline of
most Americans’ real income, a structural loss of jobs, the decimation of the
middle class and a growing, almost third world-like disparity between the very
rich and virtually everyone else. 
Again that didn’t start in the new century, but it has come to full
bloom in this first decade.

Beyond the active wars that are talking such a toll on our treasure
and, more importantly on human life, the international problems we faced on
January 1, 2000 remain with us. 
Israel and Palestine are still in national limbo with the assumed solution still beyond their and our reach.  Iran’s hostility and potential danger to its neighbors and
itself has only escalated.  Energy
resources continue to be spent and no meaningful better way forward has been
either fully articulated or accepted by the me
generation here and abroad. 
The snow caps are melting, the summers are sweltering and we remain in
collective denial.

Was it all bad — these first ten years?  Certainly not. 
We elected our first African American president and as of this writing
three women sit on the Supreme Court for the first time in our history.  While neither racism nor sexism has
been eliminated from our country, psyche or culture, the watershed character of
these steps forward should not be underestimated.  Nor should we overlook the march toward marriage equality,
which regardless of who we are and what we believe is likely to accrue to our
collective benefit. Despite what has become a dysfunctional political system,
landmark legislation has been enacted, more than than by any Congress in

But in the end it’s hard to sugarcoat the decade that will soon come
to an end.  Put what we have
witnessed — of which we have been an integral part — on a scale and badness simply
outweighs goodness.  In fact, it so
overwhelms that those who would seek to set straight the road on this side of
the bridge find themselves ham strung and, to make matters worse, ridiculed for
not doing enough.  By all accounts
we, and that means each and every one of us, are frustrated, if not
infuriated.  Sure the level of that
frustration differs depending on where we sit, whether we’re employed or not, whether
our politics are liberal or conservative and whether we lead or follow.  But it is there, and it is realistic.

I am by nature an optimistic person, but this decade is testing that natural outlook.  Perhaps the ray of hope that I do see
is exactly to be found in where we are. 
All of these frustrating things didn’t happen by themselves.  We have, to one degree or another,
played our part — each of us have been substantial contributors.  If so, logic would suggest we might
also be able to get ourselves out of this mess, but let’s not look at the other
gal or guy to get that started. 
The first step is up to us, our move.