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.