Saturday, December 31, 2011

OMG, here we go again.

With Helen Mirren at Buckingham and Meryl Streep occupying 10 Downing how can the Brits go wrong?  They are clearly in the most capable (and talented) hands.  And with Tina Fey having gotten nowhere near the White House, we have every reason to hope.  We dodged what could have been a fatal bullet.  Some have suggested Streep is more Thatcher than Thatcher.  Easily claimed when the Iron Lady is of such poor heath and diminished mind that she cannot make a case for herself.  As to Fey being more Palin than Palin, the jury will probably always be out because while the lady of Wasilla is good at stuffing her bank account, she has never been able to make a coherent argument about anything, much less for herself.

Republicans go to caucus this week.  Let the serious games begin.  If 2012 will show us anything; it will remind painfully that our election cycles are far too long.  Not only do they go on interminably, they essentially put our governance on ice.  You could argue that this is not such a bad thing, but don’t buy that Kool-Aid.  We have essentially been in limbo since the 2010 off year ballot (the least productive Congress since the 1880s) and the paralyzing result has been anything but good.  Even now, as the President has agreed to put off raising the debt ceiling for a few days, one can almost predict the sound and fury signifying nothing that will present itself with their return from holiday break.  Sorry old Bard for the steal, it was just too hard to resist.

One always hopes that on some small level progress can be made in the passage of time.  Forget that dream.  As the country continues to be devoured by economic stagnation and cancerous income inequality, Republican candidates are again tuning to God about whose stature in the face of evils like same-sex marriage and abortion seems so much more important than all  those struggling families both the underemployed and the jobless.   Of course they have always been close to the Almighty, always tried to outdo each other on that.  Mike Huckabee, God's super pitchman, considered entering the fray.  No need, we’ve got it covered with lovely Michelle Bachmann, the anti-abortion vigilante mother who also fostered those 10,000 wonderful kids.  Who knew she’d flame out so quickly?  Sad, no one seems to have shared that fact with her?  Again, no worry.  Rick Santorum to the rescue, stepping so deftly into the vacuum.  To be fair, Santorum brought God to the Senate’s floor long before the woman from Minnesota brought the divine to the lower House.  So I guess he is really just filling his own vacuum.  Too bad that important handful of American voters in Iowa might, dare I say, abort his resurrection at the starting gate.

Newt is crying at year’s end and we haven’t even reached New Hampshire where Hilary was revived by tears.  Did you know his mother, whose memory brought his on, made him sing in the Church choir?  Ah history.  Wonder if this uber historian of highly valued (very highly) wisdom and perspective realizes that, crying can carry you just so far.  And that’s not to the finishing line.  Think Muskie (historians surely remember Muskie).  And by the way Hilary did have a shot at Virginia, the place where he currently hangs his had and his beloved’s crown jewels, and she still didn't prevail.  By the way, I hear the bathroom lighting is awesome.

Everyone is really excited about Ron Paul, well maybe not everyone.  At 76 (the Chinese have nothing on us) he shows himself to be a man of such underlying youth and vigor.  Move aside Antonin; this guy claims to be the authentic originalist.  No government and certainly no regulations especially against bigots and kooks is definately the way to go.  Paul’s anti-war positions are said to appeal to young Occupiers, his anti-Washington positions to young Tea’s.  My guess is that neither group is reading the small print of his record, which is pathetic since it's in 16 pt. Times Roman, easily read and transparent to any octogenarian.  No reading glasses required.

Meanwhile, the capital rich "bane" (cheap shot) of Massachusetts (or is Michigan) moves along.  Quite impressive really that someone can be so carefully be wrapped in, at once,  a slick and awkward package.  Neat hair.  That said, it’s hard to see him being dislodged from unenthusiastic but still top billing.  By the way, what happened to the other Mormon, the shining star Chinese speaker from Utah?  We all thought he might have been a contender.  Oh, well what do we know?  Go figure. 

Without putting myself out on a limb with a firm prediction, Republicans have historically (Newt, I’m learning) given their nod to the person whose turn it is perceived to be.  Reagan, GHW Bush, Dole, and cranky old McCain to be specific.  W was odd man out in that regard, but…well he was odd man out.  All of these fresh new faces had struck out the first time they came up to bat and the party elders (don’t think they’ve disappeared) felt they were entitled to run the bases if they came up again.  In the old fashioned way, they had earned it.  Each had more or less practiced hard and it’s not polite to turn a guy down more than once.  So an upset notwithstanding (or, borrowing from Gail Collins obsession, that he’s puts his dog on his in-motion campaign bus roof), Mitt will likely be it.

In 2008 the Democrats showed us that the show can go on for longer than we expect.  It ain’t over till it’s over (not Shakespeare, but still a steal that should be acknowledged).  But of course back then there were a lot of authentically substantive candidates, two especially so. Maybe their debates didn’t get big ratings as reality  low rent TV entertainment, but they were for the most part believable as potential Oval Office occupants.  So the show may go on a bit, but if it doesn’t I wonder how the sourpuss Mitch and the sonorous sun-tanned John will feel about that.  Will they have to take a back seat?  Not to worry, not much can be expected to happen under that big dome this coming year.  Little leading required.

And that’s the way it is…Saturday, December 31, 2011.  Oh how I miss Walter.   See you next year.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Thoughts at year's end.

Just days away from 2012, a year likely to be totally consumed by an election still eleven long months away, it’s probably a good time to look back an assess.  After reading Charles McGrath’s enthusiastic NY Times story on Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Margret Thatcher in Iron Lady, I couldn’t help but think of 2008 and the marathon contest between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton.  Thatcher, we all remember, was the first woman to become a head of government in her own right.  The film’s British director Phyllida Lloyd, by no means a Tory, told McGrath, I was sitting in my room at university when the radio announced that she had been asked to form a government, and I went ‘Yes!’ It felt like one for our team.  To which Streep added, I did the same thing.  We all thought if it can happen in England, class bound, socially rigid, homophobic — if they can elect a female leader over there, then it’s just seconds away in America.  Well obviously not seconds, Senator Clinton didn’t make it.

The 2008 primaries were tough for the two candidates but also for many of us in being forced to choose between our equally strong commitments to feminism and civil rights — our dreams of righting inequities and imbalance on both counts.  What a painful choice — the first woman President or the first African American.  As you know, I opted for Obama to some degree because, having experienced the Bush dynasty, I was loath to see a Clinton one.  But perhaps equally so, having sat in the hot sun just feet below the lectern where Martin King spoke of them, I was overtaken by dreams.  I was not alone.

Clinton and Obama were both compelling candidates, both highly qualified to lead the country.  As Senators, a position that has rarely led to the White House, one couldn’t argue that one was more electable than the other.  Clinton rested her campaign on experience, which she surely had.  Obama, focused on change, something the country desperately wanted.  It struck a chord and in the end his argument carried the day, supported in great measure by his personal charisma and star quality.  Cranky old-looking John McCain didn’t have a chance.

There is no more favorite game political junkies play than, what if?  How might things have turned out if the now Secretary Clinton had won in ’08 and Obama had not?  Specifically, how might she have addressed the economy, the still raging wars, healthcare and all the other problems we’ve had in these last three years?  Hilary Clinton, as her campaign and history in public life have clearly shown, is an unabashed Centrist.  She supported the Iraq invasion and is generally hawkish.  Since many of us saw hers as a race for a third Clinton term, one also has to take her husband's presidency, (in which she was deeply involved — part of her experience) into account.  Clearly, some self-inflicted wounds clouded Bill Clinton’s tenure and, like Obama or more so, he was the object of irrational hate from the far Right.  Even so, Clinton had some significant accomplishments including a successful intervention in the Balkans and most notably leaving office with a budget surplus.  Nonetheless, he failed to deliver on healthcare, gave in with the disgraceful don’t ask, don’t tell policy and shepherded the repeal of Glass-Steagall, something that has led to disastrous and fully predictable consequences.

If there is one word that one hears most about the Obama presidency it is, disappointment.  Hilary Clinton might not have suffered the same assessment.  No one had the expectation that she would govern from the Left, and aside from the aspirational hopes for having a woman as president — finally — illusory dreams played little role for her supporters or the country.  Change was not her theme, and when she tepidly tried embracing it toward the end of a campaign falling short, it just wouldn’t play.  So in that regard, Ms. Clinton might have had an advantage relative to the President who, as I’ve said many times, suffers from not living up to our perceptions of him.  He, too, is a Centrist and always was, but I still think one to her left.  He opposed the Iraq invasion and, if reports are correct, has been less hawkish than his Secretary of State.

Bill Clinton campaigned on the Economy Stupid, and has been hailed for delivering on his promise.  He was surrounded by a financial dream team led by Rubin and Summers, men who were seen as walking on economic water.  We all know where that went.  Bush certainly had a big hand in our economic melt down but, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear the seeds of catastrophe were planted deep in the ‘90s, most especially in overturning Glass-Steagall.  Obama has been roundly criticized for essentially retaining Clinton’s economic team.  Is there any doubt a President Hilary Clinton would have done the exactly same?  In fact, I have always thought that bringing in those people was in part a political nod to the woman whose campaign so valiantly and almost successively shattered the glass ceiling as well as his buying into an economic miracle story, that turned out to be somewhat of an overblown myth.  Miracles have a way of doing that.

Clinton’s healthcare campaign proposals were much more robust than Obama’s, something that cost him some support throughout.  Regardless, both promised healthcare reform as an early priority and certainly Obama delivered, even if with substantially less than was wanted by his supporters or needed by the country.  Hilary Clinton ran on experience, and when it comes to the White House days her singular experience, managing the proposed healthcare bill, was an utter failure.  She was seen as heavy handed and secretive, pushing against the legislative process to the extent that no bill could be passed, probably partly out of jurisdictional pique.  The irony is that she was elected a Senator before Bill Clinton left office and, despite a skeptical reception by colleagues, turned out to be a highly effective and respected member, dare I say, one of the boys.  With that experience she might have had considerable success with healthcare this time around.  But it is also true that Obama’s decision to stand back, some would argue too far back, during the healthcare process may have reflected his style but undoubtedly was heavily influenced by the Clinton experience.  At the end, he succeeded where no other president had, and the difference between what might have been under her stewardship is probably more marginal than many of us would hope or assume.

We have ended the Iraq War.  Yes I know we have a big embassy there and continue to employ mercenaries who look and act like soldiers — quacks like a duck.  A second President Clinton would likely also have ended the war, which had long lost the support of the American people.  Obama escalated in Afghanistan.  She would have done the same and is reported to have wanted more than he was willing to commit.  Obama essentially turned the War on Terrorism into a hunt for terrorists, and with substantial success.  With the same capabilities of Special Forces and drones at her disposal, a President Clinton might have done the same and as Secretary of State (a very effective one) she certainly has been actively engaged in developing that policy.

The old argument of whether leaders or the times count most always plays into assessments like these.  I happen to believe that who is in charge makes a big difference, but the truth is that the stage on which she or he performs plays a critical sometimes-determinative role.  No one will question that both Obama and Clinton would have been handed the same terrible hand with cards heavily stacked against success.  The public was frustrated when they ran against each other and has shown itself, if anything, more so since.  These are two very different people who share similar political visions, though again I do think Obama leans intellectually and otherwise more to the left.  Having gotten three quarters of the way through a first term, both would be facing a challenging re-election bid.  In politics, especially with a nation bitterly divided, it’s hard to predict with certainty whether Democrats will prevail in ‘12, though I think he will.  Whatever happens, it’s likely the next five years will continue to be tough sledding for whoever is President and for us.  One can always hope things will turn out for the best not the worst.  For sure, there will be much to write about and hopefully with more regularity.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Get over it!

My inaugural 1968 subscription to the then newly minted New York Magazine, co-founded by Clay Felker (accessible intelligent content) and Milton Glaser (crisp design) has long run out.  Thanks to Frank Rich’s move, I ‘ve renewed.  I mostly read online, but a hard copy (albeit belated) does arrive in my mailbox.  What struck me with the first delivery was its appearance.  No not the design (still distinctive), but the sheer physical weight.  NY, at 128 pages, brims with ads, a sign of health that contrasts with, for example, Newsweek’s emaciated visage of terminal illness.  But that’s a digression.  What prompted this writing — yes, I know it’s been a long time — were three thoughtful pieces written by Rich, David Frum and Jonathan Chait. 

The first, What Killed JFK written close to the 48th assassination anniversary, compares the challenges facing the Kennedy and Obama presidencies, most notably the mindless hatred aimed at both men, the first Roman Catholic and the first African American to sit in the Oval Office.  Given my intense interest in both men, Rich brought back a variety of vivid memories.  JFK was my first presidential vote (in those days you really did have to be 21); Obama, in so many ways a fulfillment of my civil rights dreams.  David Frum, W’s former economic speech writer whose critical independent thinking drives some fellow Republicans to distraction writes, When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality?  Not surprisingly, his words ring true to many of us outsiders.  But it is written in a voice of an insider who views his party’s presidential primary with both dismay and despair.  On the flip side, Chait (previously of The New Republic) poses the question, When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?  I urge you to read all three.

My father always said, anti-Semitism isn’t a Jewish problem it’s the problem of anti-Semites.  Of course, anti-Semitism, as he knew better than most, hugely affected Jews.  Likewise the state of the GOP isn’t my problem even though it definitely impacts upon all of our lives.  But the state of liberals, my liberals, is something about which I should have great concern.  I do.  It is my problem.  So, of the three pieces, the one that I hit home most was Jonathan Chait’s. 

In sum, the implied question that he poses is why do liberals (read also Democrats) seem to have such a strong, and he argues consistent, (my words) death wish?  Liberals, he contends, are dissatisfied because they are incapable of feeling satisfied.  We’re all familiar with the ongoing grousing about what Barak Obama hasn’t done and about who he is, or more accurately who he isn’t.  Chait’s point is that the same griping has occurred with each and every Democratic President, back (though to a lesser extent) to the mythical FDR.  It certainly plagued his successor Harry Truman, but equally Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and of course Clinton.  A quote he cites from Bob Herbert sums it up: The disappointment and disillusionment with President Clinton are widespread.  Ring a current bell?

We use our successful Democrats as whipping boys (we have yet to include girls) while the Republicans venerate theirs.  Conservatives, Chait says, are far less likely to turn against their president altogether. They assail the compromise but continue to praise the man…they remained consistently loyal to Nixon and Reagan.  We even turn on our near presidents.  Who can forget the grousing about Al Gore who won a half-hearted popular vote and whose manner and wardrobe seemed to matter more than the substance of his speeches and positions.  In fact, while irate over the Supreme Court’s anointment, many liberals thought that in the end there wasn’t that much difference between Bush and Gore.   Moreover, someone who sat in the White House with less than a popular mandate wouldn’t have much power, much less the ability to do great damage.  We all know how that went.

Perhaps what struck me most about the Chait piece was how very little has changed since FDR took, and then held, the White House through 3 plus terms.  Again to quote from the article, in 1935, Roosevelt adviser Rex Tugwell groused of the liberals, ‘They complain incessantly that the administration is moving into the conservative camp, but do nothing to keep it from going there.’  Well one of the reasons for that is that we seem to be much better talkers than doers — I’m mad as hell and simply will sit this election out or vote my conscience for some sure loser just to protest and make myself feel better.  Another reason of course is that deep down we know that the mover into the conservative camp is in fact doing no such thing. 

If for example, Obama is such a closet retrograde, why are Republicans trying so hard to repeal The Affordable Healthcare Act or to block the confirmation of Richard Cordray because they think the Consumer Protection Agency established under Dodd/Frank is too powerful?  Neither of these pieces of legislation represents purist perfection, but let’s not pretend that such perfection ever existed in our or any other democracy or that we have really lost touch with the reality of compromise for which we are all somewhat responsible.

Tugwell, one of the brain truster architects of the New Deal, was frustrated by his fellow liberals and their lack of action.  While the Republicans rallied around the Tea Party and caused a shift of power in the mid-term elections, Democrats and liberals have yet to figure out exactly what to do, if anything, with Occupy.  Support has been, at best, tepid.  Of course, no one knows how enduring the Tea Party will be, something that might give one pause about any such protest, regardless of ideology.  Also, while the Occupy or 99% phenomenon seems to be focused on issues that concern us generally, there remains something amorphous about it.  Sitting in flimsy tents with no well-articulated timetable or set of specific objectives, certainly not consistent ones, may well stand as a metaphor for the problem.  I don’t mean that as a criticism of the protestors  — they clearly are doing something profound and hope inspiring — but of liberals inability to get their collective act together.

Part of the problem is what I’ve discussed in other posts.  We seem averse to the effective marketing of our ideas, unable to create powerful image-laden slogans.  Tea Party, however it may be misused, harkens back to a mythical event in the American story.  It stands for both protest of the mind and the body.  Occupy embodies no such positive imagery.  The word connotes blocking, even blocking progress which is the last thing those sitting in tents around the country want.  Moreover, occupy is word with decidedly negative non-liberal geopolitical connotations: for example, occupation of the West Bank.  Just to underscore the poverty of our speech, this movement’s identity is the creation of a Canadian journalist.  Not to knock our northern neighbors, but can’t we even find words to articulate our own frustrations or issues?  Just to be fair 99% has some potential.  Let's see if it can sustain, which means be taken up by mainstream liberals.

Okay, fellow liberals (or for that matter fellow Americans), as Bill Clinton would say, I feel your pain and frustration with where we are and more specifically with the fact that Barak Obama has not lived up to our perception of him.  Get over it!  Look at the group that David Frum presents in his piece and who are playing before our eyes every day and understand that our complacency might put one of them in the White House.   Sure hold Obama’s feet to the fire if you want, but watch out for what you might wish or do in not seeing to it that he has a second term.  There are short-term reasons for that, many of which can already be seen in the campaign rhetoric on both sides.   But I’ll give just two words to think about for the long term: Roberts and Alito.  Whatever George Bush did to our reputation and our economy, whatever misbegotten military adventures, all pale in comparison to the long-term impact of appointing young hardline right ideologues to the Court.  Whoever sits in the White House between 2012 and 2016 is likely to shape our future in his appointments.  The stakes are enormous — can’t be overstated.

Just as Newt is the challenger of the moment, the idea of a third party is the new talk of the moment.  Have you noticed that its primary proponents are a mega millionaire coffee mogul and a less wealthy but still millionaire journalist/author?  99%, right.  They probably believe in what they’re proposing (or implying) and are both decent people with whom I often (but not always) agree.  That said, I sense a little promotional hype — one is using his brand as a platform and the other hawking yet another new best seller.  I won’t even mention that billionaire mayor of my former but still beloved city.   Perhaps we do need a third party, but if you’re serious, start talking it up on November 7, 2012 with four years to prepare for a viable chance, not to mention for proper thoughtful vetting.

Liberals, it’s time to get reasonable, to shed our overstated disappointments.  Time to get over it and whip up our enthusiasm.  Our future and welfare may, and probably does, depend on it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Class warfare...but who started it?

When President Obama proposed raising taxes on big earners, Republicans quickly called it class warfare.  The only problem is that their name-calling was pointed in the wrong direction.  Don’t’ get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that they should have been pointing at themselves.  Truth is that, their vastly different approaches to governance notwithstanding, Republicans and Democrats alike are merely tools and themselves victims of profound class warfare.  It is one that, even after the big bust of 2008, continues to be shamelessly and systematically waged by a group of individuals and corporations whose greed and bounty has reached unprecedented heights. 

It is a war in which a tiny minority of Americans have used their wealth and leveraged the complacency of others to tilt public policy in their favor.  Whether wealth is itself corrupting or not, unfettered wealth has been employed to corrupt the system, rendering much of our government effectively dysfunctional.  Money determines who will occupy public office from county sheriff to the Supreme Court.  It should not escape our attention that the controversial Citizens United decision, agree with it or not, reflected a harsh truth.  Corporations are not really organizations but the personal fiefdoms of their absurdly overcompensated and empowered upper managements — individuals — supported by far from independent boards.  This is not meant as a generalized anti-business assertion, but to deplore what so many of our businesses have become — what we have let them become.  It is a system uncontrolled and corrupted.

Let’s just consider the wage gap between those very few at the top and their company’s employees.  In 2009 average CEO compensation was $8.47 million, the average worker just over $32,000.  For Viacom’s 2010 fiscal year Chief Executive Philippe Dauman was awarded salary, stock and other benefits totaling $84.5 million.  Sure these are leaders with great responsibility, but do they work that much harder and smarter than everyone else?  While there are good reasons to respect and admire him, Warren Buffett made about $62 million last year.  Was his work worth more than say the President, whose decisions impact on all of our lives, and who received a comparatively paltry $350 thousand (plus a $50K expense allowance)?  Let’s not even talk about the failed chief of Hewlett Packard Leo Apothekerther who walked off with about $25 million for less than a year on the job.  What was it that Willy Sutton said?

As documented in a just released CBO study, the top 1% of the population have increased their wealth by 275% in the last thirty years.  These same people have also seen their portion of after-tax income rise while most Americans have suffered a decline.  That will come as no surprise to the average family.  I’d venture, that in many of those companies where CEO compensation has escalated and cash on hand ballooned, overall payroll is down.  Jobs have disappeared.  Those who glibly talk of class war piously decry income redistribution.  Hello, what do you call the statistics I just cited?  Redistribution can go both ways and guess whose coming out ahead.  In the class warfare that has engaged us for three decades the very rich can comfortably claim victory and they won’t be blowing smoke.

The problem is that our political leaders, regardless of party, don’t really get it — or if they do, can’t afford to say so.  The opposite is true for those at the barricades of Occupy Wall Street and similar protests across the globe including the tent cities that were erected in Israel (the subject of an earlier post).  University of Chicago political scientist Bernard E. Harcourt, writing in an October 13 NY Times Stone essay characterizes what’s happening in Zuccotti Park as Political Disobedience.  He calls it a paradigm shift and, while still early, I think it runs far deeper than what we’ve experienced before.  It’s about time.  Further, I’d suggest that what we’re witnessing here is not the instigation of class warfare, but a reaction to it. 

Paul Krugman and others have suggested that Occupy Wall Street is finally pointing in the right direction both figuratively and actually.  Others say the protest is vague with no cohesive list of grievances or demands.  Harcourt addressed that issue in his excellent Times piece, so I won’t try to repeat it here.  Rather let me try to put these protests and expressions of outrage in context.  In various postings I have suggested (as have others) that the problems we face today are systemic.  That makes them, as the President constantly reminds us, very hard to address, much less solve — certainly with any dispatch.  But more important, if they are systemic than it’s difficult, and perhaps unproductive, to apply conventional norms — including making specific demands — to the protest.  Doing so would imply that addressing this or that detail would suffice, make things all better.  The problem is that the system to which such conventions apply is itself so deeply flawed.

In that regard, even the idea of class warfare seems inadequate to describe what we — and that includes the vast majority of us — are experiencing today.  We usually think of class as a closely defined and homogeneous group, say the rich, the middleclass, the poor, the educated, blue collar, white collar etc.   In fact virtually all of those, people with very different backgrounds and even aspirations, find themselves in the same boat.  So the OWS protesters most recent expression 99% may express it best.  It should serve as a wakeup call, as if we really needed one.

We Americans pride ourselves on building a great democracy and creating an economic engine that has powered our own success and that of many others around the world.  We have set forth the notion that both dreams and fulfillment are within the reach of every citizen.  For sure that doesn’t work for everyone, but it has for more individuals and families than has been the case in most societies.  Sadly the past doesn’t insure the future.  Current trends are, to say the least. discouraging.  They are discouraging, but we need not fall victim to them.  Occupy Wall Street, if only as a material expression of outrage transformed into activism should give us some hope.  The question is if the rest of us are ready to face where we are, not the dream of it, and do something to get us back on track.  Remember those inalienable rights?  They need to be exercised. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Israel at the crossroad.

What do many years of conservative/tilting ever more to the far right rule do for and to a country?  Well just look at what it’s done to us since Ronald Reagan took the reigns of government three decades ago.  Even Barack Obama is hamstrung by a seeming fear of being too bold, not that anything really progressive could pass the current Congress.  And the Republican 2012 race is shaping up to be about which candidate can be more radical and regressive than the other.  Translated: bring back the policies that brought us to our knees, only more so.  The result, as I’ve suggested in previous posts, has been disastrous for our national discourse, economy and place in the world.  We probably have less influence and moral authority today than at any time since the end of World War II.  That’s most disheartening, but The United States will survive and perhaps even recover much of of what we had.

The same can’t be said with confidence about the State of Israel.  That is not merely disheartening — it is deeply, if not tragically, depressing.  My last writing, reflecting on the decade after 9/11, suggested that …the ironic, and ultimately saddest, thing is not what Al Qaeda did to us that September day, but what we have done to ourselves since.  I was not letting those terrorists or their leader off the hook.  No one can or should diminish what they did then or have since.  So let me make it clear that Israel’s past adversaries, Arab countries that sought in unison to abort the State at its birth and those among current Palestinians who shoot rockets into civilian neighborhoods and their supporters have by no means clean hands, quite the opposite.  All the same, it is hard for any objective observer to deny that Israel, governed by right wing conservatives and held hostage by fundamentalist religious zealots, has not brought much of the current situation on to itself. 

Interestingly, religious fundamentalists also play a significant role in America’s hard right turn and they are among the most vociferous supporters of Israel’s policies, perhaps even more so than AIPAC.  Of course their agenda is grounded in something entirely different, the theological not the political.  They need Jews governing the Holy Land to facilitate their end of days prophecy and they are, admit it or not, morbidly anti-Islam, a religion whose very existence, beliefs and scale challenges their own.  Jews in Israel and here should take note that their loyal supporters do not believe, absent conversion, that we will have what Jewish tradition calls a portion in the world to come (however defined).  Some friends.

Jews as a community seem reluctant to criticize Israel and not without good reason.  I just finished Edmund de Waal’s wonderful book The Hare with Amber Eyes telling the story of his once enormously wealthy Jewish family that ultimately lost it all to Hitler.  His few pages recounting their wrenching and demeaning last days in Vienna were painful, almost impossible, to read.  Whatever success Jews have had throughout most of history has come at great expense; Israel’s founding in 1948 the highest price ever paid.  It would never have happed had it not been for the guilt felt by of those nations who waited far too long to intervene against what became the Holocaust.  Many good people stood by in silence, eyes averted, as six million women, men and children were slaughtered like cattle.  Politicians of all stripe, but particularly on the Right, seek to capitalize on Jews’ visceral loyalty by shamelessly manipulating the Jewish Vote for their own purposes.  An animated ad on the NY Times home page the day before the special vote to fill Anthony Weiner’s seat, portrayed Obama as anti-Israel.  I have to assume similar lies went out in the heavily Jewish district and we know with what result.  The bottom line is that the sometimes seemingly blind loyalty of Jews (or other Americans) isn’t helping Israel survive; it is ultimately undermining that survival.

In his September 18 column, Tom Friedman, long a supporter of Israel and an expert on the Middle East, opens with these words: I’ve never been more worried about Israel’s future.  Nor have I.  Friedman adds that the most diplomatically inept and strategically incompetent government in Israel’s history have put Israel in a very dangerous situation.  During the past months, some of the most tumultuous and game changing in the region’s modern history, Israel has stood by as an onlooker rather than a participant.  As a direct or indirect consequence, once friendly regional neighbors like Egypt and now Jordan have distanced themselves or, like Turkey, have been driven away. 

Point any fingers you like, Israel has allowed the inevitable Palestinian State to hang in limbo while the status quo of an untenable occupation continues.  I know, friends of Israel are not supposed to use the word occupation, but it isn’t the word that’s wrong, it is the reality.  If the change in the surrounding political dynamic were not enough, for Israel (and as Friedman points out, the United States) an impending crisis is anticipated for the week ahead when Palestinians will petition the UN for statehood.  This hasn’t come out of the blue.  Palestinians have been talking about it for many months, a desperate, perhaps last ditch, tactic when all else seems to have failed.  What is it about their long expressed intentions that the Israeli government, and Americans, didn’t understand?

Now to the merits of their case: as Al Gore might put it, the inconvenient truth.  Perhaps the move is ill advised, but were the positions reversed — a Palestinian state but no Israel yet — be assured frustrated and disenfranchised Jewish residents would undoubtedly be on their way to the United Nations and likely would have made the trip much earlier.  One might hope that Jews would never have allowed themselves a violent Intifada and certainly not firing rockets into civilian populations.  But let’s remember that the founder of Netanyahu’s predecessor party was involved in bombing the King David Hotel in the late days of the mandate.  Also, Ben Gurion unilaterally declared a state before the UN had intended it.  Only quick recognition by the US and, yes, Iran, gave force to his doing so.  Desperate people do desperate things.

Here is another reality.  A Palestinian State will come into being.  With every passing day, its future and chances for survival looks brighter.  Time, the current dynamic in the region and demographics are on their side.  The opposite is the case for Israel.  Rising democracy should be it’s best friend but with an unresolved Palestinian situation, a denial of their democracy, the impending democracy of more Arab states could be Israel’s worst enemy.  Settling more of its population beyond the 67 lines undermines and may ultimately obviate a two state solution.  Here is the nightmare that should keep Israelis (and those who support Israel) up at night.  Palestinians are so frustrated by the current stalemate that they opt to cede all their land in exchange for citizenship in a single state.  Israel’s current track could make theoretical talk of a future Jewish minority in the Holy Land a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now I certainly don’t want to put all the blame for Israel’s predicament on its shoulders.  That would be unfair and is definitely not the case.  But who is right and who is wrong, who was willing to give more and who less, who had conditions and who didn’t, has ceased to be relevant.  Israel, like the United States, may be militarily and even economically more powerful, but in the end such power may not matter.  History moves in different directions at different times and winning requires being on its right side.  At present, the Palestinians are under Israel’s control.  One could make a very strong argument that their moral position relative to the Jewish experience in general and Israel’s position in specific is the lesser.  It doesn’t matter any more, because the past no longer has the relevance it might once have had.  Perhaps Israel has always been isolated by others but so too, in following its current path, has it isolated itself.  I for one am mystified by how this could have happened, how a country founded by progressive secular idealists could have put itself in the hands of hard right politicians and the most extreme of religious groups.  How could it have said no so many times or, perhaps worse, let opportunity slip by?

I started by asking what hard right conservatism does to a country, the kind found here and in Israel these days?  Well there is a connection.  The real agenda of our Right, which they would proudly admit, is to weaken the federal government and perhaps government in general, most especially the secular kind.  The underlying thrust of their budget (job) cutting agenda is to impoverish and starve governmental institutions at all levels until they no longer function.  Ron Paul, whose political fortunes may be no more promising than in the past, has nonetheless had a huge ideological impact on current Republicanism.  In the same way, Israel’s Right and most particularly its Religious Right, aims to weaken the secular state.  In fact, its Ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem antecedents refused to recognize the State upon its founding.  They were a tiny minority then (no longer thanks to post founding immigration and high birth rates), but important enough to exact critical compromises.  Religious matters were ceded to their control, something the secular leaders mistakenly considered relatively unimportant.  The contemporary Settlers and other like-minded Religious Right Israelis have no real interest in peace with the Palestinians but dream of a real Jewish State, all the land governed by religious law if not all out theocracy.  That’s Israel’s current reality, not the dream of Israel, and that is what asks, or often gets, blind support.  But not my blind support, for us or for them.  I want more for both of us.

Israel is at a crossroad.  Make no mistake about it.  It’s time for a bold move either by its government or by its long excessively silent majority.  Everything is at stake.  Maintaining the status quo has run its course.  Deep down everyone knows that’s so.  It’s time to do more than dream the impossible or to be awakened by nightmares.  Religious rightists may believe the future is b’shert — destined.  Nonsense.  It is, and always has been, in human hands.  One can only hope mortals meet the challenge and take the right turn at this crossroad intersection, that they will head down the right road.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I was so wrong.

Early last week, Carol Bartz sent a four-word email blast to all Yahoo employees: I’ve just been fired.  It caused quite a stir in the corporate world where both executives and companies are wont to spin firings with face saving euphemisms.  The now former CEO told it like it was — the bold and simple truth.  Only time will tell if she will follow-up with a more extended explanation of her tenure, including what she may have done wrong.  By all accounts, Dick Cheney’s new book In My Time doesn’t include admissions to any wrong thinking or wrongdoing during his time in Washington.  Telling the unvarnished truth, as Bartz did, and admitting being wrong, as Cheney didn’t, is rare in our world.  That’s sad.  We desperately need the truth, but perhaps even more so, we need to admit to what Kathryn Schulz so thoroughly explored in her excellent 2010 book Being Wrong.  We can learn and teach so much from being wrong, and we should.

The narrative and images of September 11, 2001 are forever embedded in our minds.  They require no repeating.  For those of us who lived Manhattan at the time, the memory is particularly vivid: where we were, what we saw and what impact it had on us, personally and as a community.  To get a sense of the unique experience endured by those who lived in real proximity, read Neil Tyson’s harrowing email written from the refuge of his parents’ Westchester home the day after.  And then of course there was the endless written and spoken analysis.  The opinion consensus: everything had changed for America — we would never be the same.

I dismissed what had come to be that conventional wisdom.  In blogs I even rebelled against the term 9/11 and refused to call the place Ground Zero.  To me both smacked of the tabloid-speak that has so overtaken, cheapened and impoverished our language.  Mine wasn’t a matter of denial or a sense that what happened wasn’t profoundly important.  No American, especially living in New York, could dismiss the stark reality of those days.  It was rather that I felt we were getting ahead of ourselves in predicting things would never be the same.   To me it constituted of-the-moment analysis driven by sensational 24/7 coverage.  We were prematurely making a historical judgment before we had the necessary time and perspective.  This is not to suggest that I felt we would be untouched.  That would be impossible.  The Civil War, Great Depression, and three major 20th Century conflicts (hot and cold) all left indelible marks.  Nonetheless, we had always picked ourselves up, not merely recovering but gaining even greater strength — better than before.  American ingenuity and exceptionalism I thought would win out as it always had.  I was so wrong.

We are not what we were.  To be sure we certainly can’t attribute all of our now diminished state to the 9/11 attack.  The seeds of change were sown much earlier and more broadly than a single event, no matter how wrenching, and it will likely take historians many years to unpack and sort through them.  Some of the decline can probably be attributed to the natural ebb and flow of history.  Empires and the like have always had a finite shelf life — ask the Romans or the Brits.  In our case, losing the edge can in part be attributed to a systemic rebalancing of a once dominant economy upended to a degree we never fully anticipated by post-industrialization, lightening speed technological advancement and truly competitive globalization.

But Bin Laden was a player here.  Despite one major miss, the targets his suicidal agents hit — icons of our economic and military might — were astute and in their way serve as tokens for the never-be-the-same prediction.  Ten years out our undisputed financial preeminence is severely challenged and, all our high tech weaponry notwithstanding, we are increasingly seeing the limits or our military power.  But the ironic, and ultimately saddest, thing is not what Al Qaeda did to us that September day, but we have done to ourselves since. 

There is an odd kind of euphoria that accompanies collective trauma, an emotional high that draws us together.  We certainly experienced it in the first days after, when even a president and a mayor not known for eloquence were somehow able to unify and inspire us.  That this togetherness dissipated virtually overnight should have been a tip off.  I may not have been in denial about what happened in my city ten Septembers ago, but I was blind to what would happen and with what consequences.  So this writing in September 2011 isn’t a matter of I told you so, but rather a reminder that I didn’t.  I was so wrong.

Would things have turned out differently had Al Gore rather than George W. Bush been in the White House?  I’d like to think so, but am by no means sure.  I doubt we would have gone to war with Iraq, but would we have done any less in Afghanistan?  Perhaps it would have not been so named, but a war on terrorism would likely have been declared.  It’s hard enough to parse what actually happened in the past — memory is selective — but speculating on what might have been is a waste of energy.  In fact, it can be distracting when we have to deal with reality, the product of what did occur.

Of course the leadership we had in place played an enormous role in how we reacted to 9/11.  It always does.  But in a democracy, as I have written often in these posts, we the people share fully in that responsibility.  Let’s remember that post Afghanistan and Iraq George Bush was reelected with 50.74% of the popular vote.  Moreover, no meaningful, much less sustained, protests on either the Civil Rights or Viet Nam scale have been mounted on our streets or in Washington.  That is striking given the unpopularity of our wars, but not that surprising since so few of us, as I and others have said before, have skin in that game.  And there may be another reason for our lack of activism, this one directly related to 9/11.  The first attack on mainland American soil, one that mostly took the lives of our fellow civilians, has cast a shadow on protests against military action that, despite Iraq, continue to be seen in the context of retaliation.  Protesting Viet Nam, a war rationalized by some theoretical and distant domino theory and a questionable Communist menace, is different than protesting one that avenges our personal hurt, even if opportunistically exaggerated.

Speaking of military conflicts, another thing that may never be the same after 9/11 is nature of war itself, previously fought between nations.  Again that change, in which the opponent is a rogue band of terrorists, had been in the works years earlier.  Much has been made of the warning signs missed by the Bush Administration, but in truth few of us recognized a sea change that had already taken place.  Bin Laden exposed what was potentially our, and with it most nation states’, Achilles Heel.  We, like major powers throughout history, have (mostly) been good at fighting big.  We were relatively unprepared and inexperienced at fighting small.  Shock and Awe was our way and its ineffectiveness was not only missed by political and military leaders but by a public that had happily bought into the notion of antiseptic quick wars.  Bomb the hell out of them and it’s over.  Right.

Some analysts have pointed to the Arab Spring as a repudiation of Bin Laden’s way.  That may be true relative to exploiting religious extremism and employing terrorist tactics to intentionally kill civilians, particularly non/wrong-believers.  But what Al Qaeda also demonstrated was that relatively few people could cause real and effectual havoc even in an authoritarian country.  I would suggest that what we’re seeing now, Libya excepted, is a non-violent manifestation of insurgent people power, another new normal if you will.  For sure Gandhi deserves some credit here, but Bin Laden’s contemporary example turned on its head may be more, even if ironically, to the point.  That it’s taken this particular less violent turn is heartening, but let’s remember we’re still in the early stages of a still moving target.

Other than in a metaphoric sense, it’s hard to attribute our never will be the same economy to the destroyed Trade Center.  Whatever disruptions that event caused were fleeting — a precipitous market drop with a quick recovery.  At the same time, Bin Laden certainly had a beef with the economic hegemony of what he considered the godless West.  But our economic woes have much deeper roots and are largely of our own, not his, making.  What is true is that the decade following 9/11 certainly has exposed them, perhaps like never before.  We may still mouth that this is land of opportunity, but can no longer be certain.  Things may truly never be the same.

Being diminished or experiencing decline, whatever you want to call it, is hard to take.  It brings with it an environment often described as one of uncertainty.  In fact it’s any thing but uncertain.  The wars our troops are fighting abroad may be remote, but our economic downturn is not.  The unemployed live or lived next door and they often include our near and dear.  That's certain and it makes us frantic.  That certainty about our dire condition may best explain the poisonous political atmosphere that abounds, and the increasingly vitriolic blame game.  It also accounts for monumental swings in voting that may have more to do with unrealistic wishful thinking than anything else.  Both parties seek to exploit this situation.  Republicans ask for power, holding out the promise that they have the magic bullet solution to all our problems.  I think many, if not most, of them honestly believe that to be the case.  And Democrats are no different.  Just replace Bush and presto, Obama will fix it all.  Such promises, made or imagined, are not only unrealistic they lead to huge, often unwarranted, disappointment.  Perhaps before, using 9/11 here as a token, there were fixes that could make a relatively immediate difference.  A drop or rise in interest rates could do wonders.  But today everyone is stretched and even the experts are flying somewhat blind.  I think Obama’s jobs plan (forget if you feel its big enough or perfectly focused) generally makes sense.  Conversely, the detail-poor Boehner Jobs approach seems much of the same old Republican formula that helped get us into this mess.  But who can say so for sure?  That the old rules seem obsolete and that things are not what they used to be and may never will be again is all I’m willing to say with some certainty.  

I was so wrong about the future back in 2001.  With that lesson in mind, I could be wrong again in 2011.  At least that gives me some modicum of hope.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Our bubbles abound.

We all live in a bubble.  Yes all of us.  The bubbles may be different.  In my case, living many years in Manhattan and now in Chapel Hill, both locales not necessarily indicative of their surrounding areas or the country as a whole.  But so too are many other places across the land not to mention the United States itself —all bubbles.  There are also the more personal bubbles of family, friendship circle, political ideology, ethnicity and religion.  Few of us inhabit a single bubble.  Instead, we navigate multiple, often seamlessly interwoven, bubbles working in tandem.  Nonetheless, there are times when one of our individuated bubbles may emerge as a primary determinant force that, if only in the moment, colors everything we see and do.

Much like mirrors, bubbles reflect inward, confining and thus limiting our vision.  As a result, we may think (even if we know better) that our particular bubble represents all that is.  We don’t appreciate or fully understand what lies beyond its walls and, on some visceral level, come to believe that ours embodies the only truth —the only valid worldview.   So those beyond our sphere are somehow seen as clueless, often leading to misguided actions on our part.  They feel the same about us and with the same result.  Bubble myopia, has always stood in the way of productive communications, but I would argue is particularly problematic and harmful today.  The irony is that communications have never been more enabled, access to a broad range of ideas at our fingertips.  That we are in such a state of misunderstanding, mistrust and hostility may be a tribute — albeit a sad one — to the strength of the robust bubble system in which we function.

Bubbles can be instruments of deception.  If our personalities are strong enough, or the noise we make loud enough, we can momentarily draw others into our bubble mindset convincing them that our narrative is of outsized importance.  The media, always on the hunt for news, real, imagined or even fabricated, is particularly susceptible to this delusion.  They emerge from a visit to our bubble as co-conspirators, not merely enablers but also active mythmakers.   In fact, so much of what they do these days is to draw us all deceptively into synthetic bubbles whose breadth and consequence they exaggerate and whose message they either misread or distort.

The bubble mentality has been particularly damaging to our political process.  Not only are we locked, fortress-like, into singular positions; we also have become convinced that ours is the only tenable approach to addressing opportunities and problems alike.  We, after all, possess the truth.  It isn’t only that this kind of bubble thinking has cut off meaningful dialogue; it has also provided fertile ground for fringe groups.  Perhaps because the ideas they espouse are so far at the edge, their influence may have a short shelf life but not before they do great damage.  No political party has shown itself more vulnerable to fringe movements than the Republicans.  In this presidential cycle, the most radical of its members are running rampant while, for example, Mitt Romney lays as low as possible hoping to emerge out of the dust to save the day.  Who knows where his gamble will lead?  Regardless, In all of this bubbles play a significant role.

Take the one called Iowa where about 17,000 rank and file Republicans, whose dance cards are underwritten by individual campaigns, conduct a quadrennial presidential straw poll.  Given the airtime, ink and digital coverage one might think this was a truly momentous event, a predictive gage of how Republicans across the country think and will act.  In the end, a winner is declared and boldly memorialized in headlines — in 2011 that would be Michelle Bachmann.  Well, it’s fair to ask, what exactly constitutes a winner?  This year it means garnering a humble 28.5% of the Ames vote.  Reality check: about 71.5% (an overwhelming majority) voted for someone else, one could say against her.  Perhaps she is a winner in the sense of getting marginally more votes (Ron Paul a hairbreadth behind) than anyone other individual, but imagine if such a victory would bring her to the White House.  Italian or Israeli style fragmented government anyone?  To be sure, Bachmann is the current darling of some voters including the hard religious right and she might do well in real go-to-the-poll primaries, but it remains that the Iowa Republican caucus is a bubble.   

Speaking of the religious right, there is the bubble housing Texas’ Rick Perry and the participants in his Response Rally in Houston.  Governor Perry proclaimed August 7th as a day of prayer and fasting.  As detailed on a Terry Gross Fresh Air program, two ministries of the extreme, I’d say revolutionary, apostolic prophetic end of times movement planned and orchestrated the event.  Let’s not concern ourselves here with either this disturbingly radical group or the church-state issues raised by Perry’s official proclamation, but rather with the prayer day bubble.  According to Focus on the Family, 22,000 gathered to share the experience.  It was widely covered by the media.  Given the announcement Perry was to make in South Carolina only days later, I look at Houston as the trailer for the new movie, Mr. Perry runs for President.   Others may see the gathering as a sign of a religious right resurgence.  After all, that’s a big crowd gathered together for public prayer.  Not so fast.  Remember Perry’s sponsors rented a stadium seating 71,000 and tickets were free.  It’s hard to see how any promoter or performer would call filling less than a third of the available seats a resounding success.  To put this turnout in perspective, consider the 300,000 out of Israel’s 7.5 Million who took to Tel Aviv’s streets (my last post) compared with 22,000 out of 26 Million Texans who gathered in Houston.  I’d suggest a bubble not a groundswell or resurgence.

Bachmann and Perry occupy the Republican bubble, one not to be underestimated, but they also share a place in the bubble called religion.  Many millions in America and around the world live in that bubble in all of its diverse expressions, few as radical as theirs.  Nonetheless, religious bubbles share the characteristics of all others and most especially for people sometimes described as social conservatives.  Seeing beyond that bubble is simply not in their playbook.  If they would just look out, they would actually find an unmistakable trend among Americans, especially young people, of moving away from rather than to religion.  Since the last election, for example, attitudes have changed radically regarding same sex marriage, long a favorite wedge issue.  The majority (53%) now support such unions.  But don’t expect either of these candidates of the religious right bubble to be quoting this statistic on the campaign trail.

The Tea Party they actively court is the most notable political fringe bubble currently on the scene.  We all now know how fiscal matters — most especially deficits and taxes — play in their conservative political agenda, but how about religion?  It turns out, according to Professors David Campbell and Robert Putnam that the Tea Party and religion are closely bound together.  In an August 16 NY Times Op-Ed, they wrote…next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter…[is] to see religion play a prominent role in politics.  Teas …seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates…are much more interested in social conservatism than anything else and often personally active members the religious right.  Teas, most especially, may be living in a delusional bubble.

A recent CBS/Times Poll suggests Tea Party disapproval ratings have more than doubled (from 18% to 40%) in the last ten months.  Campbell and Pitman reported that the Tea Party ranks lower than any of the 23 other groups we asked about — lower than both Republicans and Democrats.  It is even less popular than much maligned groups like “atheists” and “Muslims.” Interestingly, one group that approaches it in unpopularity is the Christian Right.  I’m not surprised that the two groups track closely together — are part of the very same minority bubble.  If the two researchers are correct in saying that religion (specifically social conservatism) ranks number one on the Tea’s agenda, then all their talk about deficits and debt ceilings may be a smoke screen, a political calculation that issues like government spending sell better than God.

It’s striking that Teas in Congress speak little of jobs, except in criticizing the President for not producing them, but focus on spending cuts that actually are likely in increase not alleviate unemployment.  The Tea’s demographics tell us why.  These are not, the researchers tell us, a group of nonpartisan political neophytes, but rather were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born and they are mostly white and, I would guess mostly employed or part of a wage earning family.  If we live in a culturally and ethnically diverse society, which includes religious and not religious people, the Teas do not.  Their bubble is a closely defined homogeneous circle kept in tact.

While certainly not obliged to give equal time in this blog, I do think it important to focus briefly on the bubble inhabited by those of us who consider ourselves left, progressive or liberal.  You chose what fits.  We may be correct in our thinking — bubbles give you that confidence — but we tend to be just as myopic as anyone else.  Republicans have lionized Reagan, we Franklin D. Roosevelt.  That we have to reach that far back is interesting, but that’s for another day.  As with the hero in any bubble, we like to engage in a glossy and selective reading of history.  We hail FDR’s for heroically ending the Depression and Defeating the WWII Axis.  Left out of this lofty story is that far from being an idealist or ideologue, FDR was a pragmatic patrician.  His misjudgment and capitulation to conservatives almost took the country back into Depression.  He was charismatic but largely cautious and slow to act.  Churchill had to drag him kicking a screaming into intervening in the European theater, and only a sneak attack forced him to so engage in the Pacific.  It took Give ’em Hell Harry to integrate the armed forces — that, after the war had ended.  From within our bubble, all Republicans seem wrongheaded and blindly pro-business, a large percentage of them just plain kooks.  In contrast, we’re self righteously for the workers and of course against the indulgent rich.  That may be the case, but many of our number are just as interested in success, accumulation of wealth and the very good life.  Does that make us all disingenuous hypocrites?   Certainly not, but we do live in a bubble with its own narrow view and prejudices.  We are as intolerant of other bubble dwellers as anyone else.

The point here is not to say that all bubbles are wrong or that they are not an inevitable part of life.  Perhaps with all the possibilities open to us, they are the only way to manage things and maintain our sanity.  The point rather is to say we should recognize our bubbles for what they are and seek to overcome their natural barriers, to look beyond their walls with some modicum of an open mind.  Only then will meaningful discourse be possible and ultimately only then will we be able to address the vast problems that lay before all of us regardless of what bubble we may call home.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Oh, let's not talk about it.

…earlier, those who worked — and almost all the women and men worked very hard — could make a modest but respectable living for themselves and their families. …But all that has been destroyed in the past 30 years, as the big-capital governments encouraged and inflamed the economic jungle laws of grab as grab can.

Don’t these words perfectly describe the current condition of our United States?  In fact they are from an August 2 Haaretz essay by Amos Oz.  The eminent Israeli writer was commenting on the state of life in Israel where tents of protest have sprung up across the country.  There have also been a series of Saturday demonstrations, the largest on August 6 when an estimated 300,000 citizens took to the streets in Tel Aviv.  That’s an astounding number for country of Israel’s size — the equivalent of 13 Million of us marching in an American city.  For sure the specific issues facing the Israelis and us are somewhat different, but what strikes me is an underlying commonality. 

Frustration and a lack of proportionality — that very few have it all while very many have so little — is what’s making ordinary people angry.  I’ve been waiting for the Arab Spring, the power of peaceful citizen protest, to infect the Palestinians.  Instead it comes to Tel Aviv, which tells how universal/catching it is and as both Gandhi and King demonstrated in their day, how potentially  powerful.  That’s especially so for the young who drove the Tahrir Square uprising and are playing a considerable role in this protest.  As Oz put it, …this protest…was born out of the devotion and enthusiasm of hundreds and thousands of young people who swept in their wake the best people in the country.

Interestingly these protests in Israel (joined in by Jews, Muslims and Christians) are coming from, or at least attracting the attention of, the country’s left.  It’s too early to tell, but that may suggest a long overdue reawakening for the once dominant but recently dormant political ideology eclipsed for years by the right and far right.  Sound familiar?  Significantly this rebellion seems the polar opposite of our rightist Tea Party, a movement characterized by self-righteous anger.  Just look at the joyous protest exhibited in this YouTube video (brought to my attention by Gadi Jacobson).

In an August 5th NY Times report correspondent Ethan Bronner opened with these words: The tent protest movement dominating Israel for three weeks focuses on the cost of living but is really about something deeper — the nature of the country’s social contract.  That may be the case, but I would suggest that for Israelis and indeed for Americans, the issue facing us today transcends social contract.  It goes to the very heart of national identity.  Who are we and what do we want to be?

For Israel, as articulated by Oz and others, what’s on the table includes specifics like Israeli-Palestinian peace, West Bank settlements and the government’s financially underwriting the Ultra-Orthodox who have contempt toward the state, its people and the 21st-century reality.  You might accurately call them the enemy from within and we surely have some of those as well.  Among our issues are: a commitment to unwinnable wars that drain our spirit and treasure, a growing imbalance in income and standard/quality of living, the allocation of shared national resources, the relative importance of deficits at the time when even qualified millions can’t get a job and, I might add, a still unresolved role of religion — specifically a particular kind of religion espoused by Rick Perry types — in our local and national public life.

These questions are of a time as much as of a place.  Similar ones are confronting countries throughout the developed world, especially in the West.  European countries once ethnically and religiously homogeneous societies are facing pluralism, natural to Americans (or so we tell ourselves) but alien to them.  This identity crisis has hit especially hard in the most open and progressive societies across Scandinavia, but they are hardly alone.  Even in China there is the obvious disconnect between the economic miracle that makes for headlines and the political stagnation that is kept out of them — unbounded entrepreneurism vs. authoritarian rule.  It is a dichotomy yet to be faced, at least openly. 

Just as the protests in Israel are exposing major flaws in that society and an urgent need to address more than the immediate symptoms, so too is it with our current and surreal debate about deficits and spending.  Any economist or political scientist, regardless of ideology, can tell you that there is noting more revealing about a society and its values than how it spends, or doesn’t spend, its resources.  The allocation of funds is a window into our national soul as reflected in our priorities, even those dictated by the inevitable circumstances beyond our control.  Not every nation answers terrorist attacks by launching major wars.  Not every country will unquestioningly spend money it doesn’t have to save victims of natural disasters, even those knowingly living on a flood plain.  When spending on defense continues at extraordinary levels and beyond what seems reasonably required while funds for education are cut to the bone, it tells us a lot.

But the details of any of these things, however important — and they are — is not the issue at hand.  In fact, I would suggest they are a distraction, often a purposeful one.  Dealing solely with the immediately pragmatic, even if it requires inventing a crisis (like the debt ceiling fiasco) to keep our mind fixed on the wrong target, is all that counts.  We simply don’t want to face, much less talk about, the underlying fundamental issue of identity.  Nowhere is that more evident than in watching an American election season unfold.  Nowhere is talk more laden with silliness, obfuscation and non-sequiturs then on the campaign trail.  Presidential debates tend to be everything but.  Instead of engagement, dare say the discussion of anything really serious, these performances are nothing but canned speech making, posturing and, whenever possible, headline grabbing punch lines.  Most striking, as seen in the current Republican field, candidates exhibit an astounding level of like-mindedness, each one assuring the audience that she or he tows the party line, whatever that may be at a given time.  I believe in God, oppose all taxes, hate government spending or in the case of Democrats will protect and defend Social Security and Medicare, regardless of cost.

Recent polls suggesting the low esteem in which our government is held are usually read in political terms.  Who is likely to win in 2012 and what especially are the implications for incumbents including the President.  I look at them differently.  To me these low numbers and the declining trend line of which they are part indicate there is little we can hope for from our politicians.  I hesitate to call them leaders.  It isn’t just this year but perhaps for much of our history that the last people we can expect to think big thoughts or to articulate anything but pabulum, or today vitriol, are those we elect to govern.  Who is up and who is down, who is a real American and who is not, who favors this or that is all we get.  Who are we, where are we going and why?  Let’s not talk about that.

People say they are very disappointed in President Obama.  He gives far too much ground in negotiation, he fails to inspire enough, he should be more of a fighter…you know the conventional narrative.  I’m not sure that he is anything other that what he promised to be (if we were really listening): a conciliator more than a partisan, a person of change, yes, but pragmatic change in the spirit of Teddy Kennedy who ultimately went with what could be accomplished.  But that’s really another conversation.  What’s important here is the even from one of the most thoughtful and articulate Presidents in our history, a serious discussion about our identity seems too much to ask, much less expect.  Matters of fundamental import are just way beyond the pay grade of any political figure, regardless of party or ideology.

The problem is that they seem to be above everyone’s pay grade, that includes you and me.  It’s just not a conversation that we are having on any meaningful level, if at all.  Perhaps such talk is heard in the academy, but if so it’s a strictly private conversation conducted in whisper tones and shared with others only on a need-to-know basis, if that.  And it isn’t a matter of silence because there is probably more, or as much, spoken (or digital) noise today as at any time in history.   It is that our discourse and subject matter, regardless of who is engaged, tends to be largely parochial, if not outright self-serving and petty.  What does it mean to ME right at this very moment.  So if we ourselves aren’t having this conversation, how can we fault others?  In truth, much as we’d like to deny it, those disdained people measured in the polls mirror the very citizens who put them in office — both the voters and perhaps most especially the non-voters.  But again, that isn’t the point here.  This issue of identity isn’t partisan or even political.  It is a matter of the group’s — in our case Americans — collective human purpose and consequently condition.

It has been suggested that in the end it seems to matter little which individuals get elected in America or which party is in control.  They’re all the same.  I don’t really buy that broad and simplistic conclusion, but again that’s another conversation.  The sad fact is that on one important level — concerning the matter of identity — they are the same.  Who are we?  Let’s not talk about it.  Even Amos Oz isn’t really addressing transcendent fundamentals, not talking about that.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


In 1976 Alex Haley published Roots his landmark novel inspired by The Saga of [his] American Family.  For sure Haley was not the first writer to explore his roots and other portraits had been written about the lives of African Americans.  Haley admitted later to have incorporated some of that writing in his book, but he was making a statement.  All of us come from somewhere; we have a deep history without which we would likely not have come to this place or to who we are.  Focusing on his ancestry that way — giving a Black family the gravitas of a written biography — Haley was taking the civil rights struggle to a new and transcendent place.  In a sense, Barack Obama’s 1995 Dreams of my Father built on that foundation.  It said he too came from somewhere, a necessary grounding and a powerful credential for his political career to come.

The horrendous travail of the past weeks also has its roots and sometimes we forget what they are, how deep and how much past actions predestined this moment.  Democrats like to say the current economic climate is rooted in the years of Reagan excess and deregulation culminating in the infamous Bush tax cuts and unfunded wars.  I’ll stipulate to those roots.  Republicans have to live with their lineage, but let’s not pretend Democrats come to this moment without their own history or, more importantly, with clean hands.

We Democrats pride ourselves on the fact that, when he turned in the White House keys, Bill Clinton left the country in surplus.  So he did and so our self-congratulatory story line goes, almost with mythic proportions.  We accuse the GOP with squandering Clinton’s prudence and do so with much justification.  But we also suffer from selective memory.  Sadly, much of what we’ve experienced in these dreadful years can be traced directly to the policies and crucial decisions of the Clinton Administration.  Those good years led to a culture of excess in which the government may have experienced a fiscal surplus but many of its citizens were sinking deeper into debt, some on their way to inevitable insolvency.

Clinton was carried into office with the assertion that the economy under George Herbert Walker Bush was in deep trouble and with a promise to focus all his attention in righting the ship.  It’s the economy stupid.  Truth is the economy was already on its way toward recovery laying the foundation for the boom days from which Clinton (and we) happily benefited.  Attributing its success to his economic term, albeit in hindsight with more credit than was due, we bestowed virtually walk-on-water status to Bob Rubin and Larry Summers.  How could one argue with such success?  We were happy and so too was the business community, most especially Wall Street.  They had good reason.

Capping off what turned out to be Clinton’s too pro-business stance was the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the 1933 legislation that had successfully separated commercial banking from other financial businesses, particularly stock brokerages.  The purpose of Glass-Steagall was to once and for all break the back of speculation and inevitable conflicts of interest.  Without its 1999 repeal those mortgage-backed securities would probably never have been possible.  Let’s not even consider that Rubin, under whose stewardship it took place, went directly from government service into the employ of Citigroup whose very existence (a combination of Citibank and Travelers/Smith Barney) had been enabled by the legislation.  They had lobbied hardest and had gained most from the repeal.  Clinton himself would be profoundly rewarded.  A man who didn’t even own his own home until months before leaving public office, emerged wealthy a year later thanks to out-sized lecture fees paid mostly by banks and other business heavyweights.  So, too, has the Clinton Foundation been bankrolled by many of those who benefited from his policies.  It may do some excellent and commendable work, but that doesn’t change its roots.

The consequences of gutting Glass-Steagall were entirely predictable.  Just as President Obama has been saying in the last weeks about a crisis manufactured by Washington, the great recession, fueled by the house of cards collapse of the real estate market, was bestowed upon us by reckless policies, private and public.  Many of the critical missteps were bi-partisan in nature.  Hurray for that!  It isn’t only that Reagan or the Bushes failed us, it’s that our leaders including Bill Clinton failed us, and did so in a monstrously big way.  Where we are now reflects from where we came — from our sadly misbegotten roots.

The votes just taken in the House and Senate along with the President’s signature have left a bitter taste in our mouths.  Yes Democrats and Republicans signed on, but it would be better to describe their action as a survival Hail Mary (for themselves) rather than anything we can call bi-partisan.  Our house is deeply divided and we have no one to blame but ourselves.  This is not to give those who claim to lead a pass — none of them, repeat none of them, deserves it.  But let’s be honest with ourselves.  To one degree or another the vast majority of us play along to get along. 

We game the system and in the end are gaming the country.  All of those predatory come-ons from banks and the like were (and still are) despicable, but we signed on.  Sure predators’ prey most and do best with the untutored, but many of those now in default should have known better.  And I don’t only mean in default on a mortgage, but default on our common responsibilities.  No demonstrations were held against our financial institutions, no sense of urgency about the kind of people we elected to office or whom many of them really represented.  We deplore how money buys our elections, but too many of us fail to use our no-cost right to vote.  In the end votes — the number of them cast — do count.  Deficits aren’t always enumerated in hard currency.

I’ve suggested several times here that what’s happened to us was determined by our roots, that consequences have been predictable.  But I’m no determinist, not by a long shot.  I do think that somehow we will get out of our current mess; at least I hope that to be the case.  But to do so will require that we stop pointing fingers and begin to take some responsibility.  Did Obama give away the store?  Should he have invoked the 14th?  Should he have been more vocal and assertive?  Should he be the man we had in our dreams rather than the person he probably always has been? 

Perhaps all those things, but then again should we have done things differently ourselves.  Did we in fact inflict upon ourselves that costly 2010 enthusiasm gap, premised to some large degree on disappointments in our own dreams, misconceptions and unrealistic hopes?  Is 2011 the result of a self-inflicted wound?  Say what you will, but it is we who rendered our President weaker than he could have been, made it harder for him to deliver.  Some good friends think I am not hard enough on Obama and that probably is true.  Like many others I had incredible hopes for him thinking that he was the solution to all our problems.  He would instantly get us out of Iraq, refuse to escalate in Afghanistan and perhaps most of all wave his wand and make our economy better.  Has he done less in these areas that he might?  Probably, but only probably.  Was a less than perfect, some say imperfect, healthcare bill worth doing or was it a fools errand, an unnecessary distraction from the economy stupid?  Wish I could say for certain.  The point is that all these things are more complicated than we’d hope, and that talking, including blogging and campaigning, is far easier than executing and governing.  That is hardly news.

When talking of roots, it’s probably fair to say that Martin Luther King, Jr. as much as Barack Obama, Sr. was integral to what took Barack, Jr. to the White House.  These were both men of great ideals, especially Martin.  I am among the privileged to have crossed his path and shared his fight.  The thing about King was that he was free to speak his mind, to strive for the ideal.  That doesn’t mean that he didn’t have a practical side and be assured he made some compromises to accomplish his goals.  But ultimately, Martin King in the White House or even the State House would have been someone totally different, and we would have been sorely disappointed.  Governance in a democracy just isn’t ideal and it certainly isn’t pure or pretty.  The streets have to be paved and the sewers cleaned of our waste.

Our power as citizens is sorely limited, but we are not impotent.  If we want Obama to do better, the country to do better, he will need a lot of help.  We’ll also have to think seriously about from where we came.  That’s not from where we wish we had come or from some fairy tale.  Let’s be honest about our own resumes, our own roots, and perhaps we’ll better understand the work that has yet to be done.  We’ll soon have a chance to do our part and hopefully to make a difference.  Yes we should hold his feet to the fire, but only if we hold our own to it as well. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

A third party taking us over the edge.

Perhaps only future historians will be able to fully assess why voters cast their lot with Tea Party candidates in 2010, effectively changing the dynamic of American political life. As we have witnessed in the last few weeks, it was so much more than Republicans retaking the House.  By the way, all of this was set in motion by a small geographically contained minority.  A mere 17% of the eligible participated in the primaries that ultimately determined the general election outcome.  Don’t ever say getting out to vote isn’t important. Whether or not these new folks have staying power remains an open question, but for the moment it doesn’t much matter. 

Again it may be too early to understand why this happened and what it means.  That said, I’d venture that one way to look at the Teas is as a stealth third party.  It’s true that their ascendency came through the established primary process, but that may have been more opportunistic than out of any special loyalty to Republicanism.  It was an expedient and quick way to power.  Just consider how they have functioned once in office, especially how unresponsive they are to old guard GOP leadership.  They have shown themselves eager to diss norms of legislative governance — norms established by generations of both Republicans and Democrats.  And, at this point, they steadfastly cling to their differentiating Tea Party identity.

Whether Teas are a stealth third party or just old-fashioned insurgents pursuing a palace coup, the class of 2010 has turned the GOP (and one could argue the country) on its head.  The Reagan-Bush party known for its discipline and ability (unlike Democrats) to stay consistently on message now seems in disarray.  The Teas go along only when it suits their agenda and ideology, is in their self-interest.  Whatever the future may bring, at this point they sure act like a party within a party.  And it’s one far to the right even of the Republicanism of the W years, dangerously close to the edge.

So the rise of Michele Bachmann should come as no surprise.  More than her presumptive rival Sarah Palin, she represents Teas who come not from the frontier but mostly from America’s traditionally conservative Midwest and Southern heartland.  What’s lost in the current news cycle is that the Tea’s have much more in mind than budgets and fiscal responsibility.  For one, there is immigration some how conflated with fear of the Other (think Arizona and Birthers).  Then too, many among them want to restore the essentially fundamentalist religious ideology that seemed to recede with Bush’s exit from the White House.  No one (see NY Times July 16, For Bachmann, Gay Rights Stand Reflects Mix of Issues and Faith) is a more suited standard bearer for these multiple causes than the lady from Minnesota.

I happened to be thinking about the religious side of the Tea Party just at the moment when news broke of Anders Behring Breivik’s murderous rampage in a usually peaceful Norway.  What caught my attention was his being identified by that country’s press as a right-wing fundamentalist Christian.  Since September 11, 2001, we’ve become accustomed (conveniently so) to equating religious based violence with Muslim fundamentalism.  Even with Oslo, much like Oklahoma City, early reports assumed Islamists had carried out the bombing.  That’s a tribute to an Islamophobia that now pervades much of the West and especially in Europe.  In fact, the potential for going over the edge has little to do with one religion or another, but with fundamentalism of any ilk.  And in the case of Breivik, whose writings suggest resurrecting the Christian-Muslim holy war, that fundamentalism may also include rightist political ideology.   Breivik, seen in a larger context, reflects a disturbing swing toward the extreme right in many places, our own country included.  Among others, this rightist trend manifests itself in growing Xenophobia especially evident across Europe where it has extended to traditionally progressive countries like Denmark.  It constitutes an eerie déjà vu that echoes Europe’s dark past when fascism took hold with disastrous results.  What should further raise a red flag for all of us is that sharp turn to the right was also born out of harsh economic times.  History can repeat itself.

I’m certainly not suggesting that Michelle Bachmann or the Tea Party either advocate or intend violence.  Nonetheless, both in rhetoric and in action they are clearly putting additional logs on an already hot fire.  That can have unintended consequences, ones that even they may not wish.  We continue to suffer high unemployment, a sputtering recovery and an ever-growing disparity between the very rich and everyone else.  The seeds have been sown and the ground made fertile right here for the kind of at-the-edge rightist politics that she and they represent. 

Those to the left of the Teas (and I’m including a wide swath of the body politic) seem both flummoxed and out maneuvered.  President Obama may head that list for obvious reasons but it includes the likes of Mitch McConnell who, in this new environment, seems like a moderate — perhaps not in fact, but you get the point.  I would argue that one of the things working against the President and everyone else is the misguided idea (reinforced by the media) that they are grown-ups while the Teas are infantile.  Nonsense.  To take that view is to miss the point of what’s happening and more self-destructively to underestimate the opponent — the kiss of death in any conflict.

The Teas are adults with a clear and perhaps even revolutionary agenda.  Their vision of America is different and, in my view, dreadfully wrong, if not dangerous. It’s one that can potentially undermine much or all of that we cherish, not the least of which is a nation and cares for those in need and welcomingly opens its doors to immigrants.  The irony is that there are powerful and contrary forces at work these days, especially among the young, whose minds and hearts are more open than perhaps any preceding generation.  That’s encouraging, but open minds and hearts won’t be enough in this high stakes game.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

L'affaire DSK.

None of us really know for certain if Dominique Strauss-Kahn is guilty or innocent of rape.  What we do know is that since his arrest at JFK Airport, he has been the story de jure.  Perhaps it hasn’t reached the OJ level, but coverage has been both sensational and obsessive.  To be sure, such a rapid fall from grace for the IMF’s Managing Director and a presumptive candidate for the Presidency of France is legitimate news.  DSK was expected to mount a defense that the sex was consensual — there appears to be some physical evidence that it took place.  But isn’t it fair to ask what brings one of the world’s top financial leaders, a married man to wit, to have sex with a 32-year-old Guinean hotel housekeeper?  What was he thinking?  Inexplicably, some in DSK’s party in France have indicated that, if exonerated, his career might well get back on track.  Right.  He also remains popular in the country’s opinion polls.  Go figure.  Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, Mark Sanford et al take note.

However intriguing the particulars may be to some, I see l’affaire DSK as an opportunity not to be missed.  Rape (an often white-collar crime) deserves far more of our attention than it gets.  The real take away from this unfolding story is familiar to any woman in America and probably throughout the world.  Rape is a crime rarely witnessed, one that boils down to that already doubt-casting characterization: she says, he says.  That dubious premise is compounded by the predictable claim of consensual sexshe wanted it.  Once a defense is mounted by the accused, it almost always focuses on the credibility — and perhaps more so background and reputation — of the accuser.  In contrast, the accused’s history is often deemed inadmissible and prejudicial.  So inevitably it’s the victim who is put on trial.  In this case, the New York District Attorney’s office is also being put in the dock, accused of a rush to judgment, of excessive reaction.  The point is to focus attention elsewhere and to blame anyone but the accused. What’ we’re witnessing here follows a classic pattern.

Indeed it is this predictable course that accounts in part for rape being the most underreported crime. Moreover, according to a CBS study only 25% of accused rapists are arrested (much lower than for other crimes) and of course just some of them end up in court, much less are convicted.  But the difficulty of gaining a conviction is just one problem.  Rape, especially for some cultural and religious groups, is a mark of shame.  Just as defense lawyers focus on the victim’s past or culpability, many women feel themselves, or are made to feel, guilty.  How could I let that happen to me; how could I do that to my family or to the man in my life?  In some societies, raped women are punished, even killed, transformed from victim to the criminal who had sex with a man other than her husband.  Even in America, married women or those in a relationship can feel too ashamed to report their rapes to a partner assuming (often with good reason) that he may think less of them or consider them damaged goods.

The perpetrators of rape are often men of power — people like DSK but also fathers or, as we have learned in the past years, trusted priests.  One of the defense points being made in this case is that the woman delayed in reporting the attack.  She went on to clean perhaps another powerful guest’s expensive room before coming forward.  In fact, counselors and other professionals dealing with rape will tell you that delayed reporting is not at all unusual, and we’re talking here about a matter of hours, fast enough to prevent DSK’s takeoff on the same day.  Just think of the still uncounted number of rape victims of predator priests who waited not hours but years, even decades, before reporting their abuse.  Again, I have no way of knowing if the victim in this case is telling the truth, but challenging her credibility because she didn’t run to a supervisor or immediately phone the police is, in context,  ridiculous on its face.

As information unfolds regarding his accuser’s misstatements to police about her life, it has been reported that many in France are expressing indignation over how their beloved DSK has been treated and anger in general about our system of justice.  Again, absent all the facts, it’s premature to know if this was indeed a rush to judgment or even if the case will ever be tried.  When it comes to rape and the hurdles that must be overcome, even a not-guilty verdict in court doesn’t necessarily mean that the accused is innocent.  Rape is more often than not a serial crime.  One of the reasons New York authorities were so quick to act is that DSK has a reputation and indeed a French writer, Tristane Banon, is expected to file an attempted rape complaint against him in the next few days.  Father rapists with more than one daughter often repeat their crime with the younger sister and those priests all abused multiple youngsters (in this case boys), often over a long period of time.

The French may be angry because they, like many Europeans, claim to have a less Puritanical view of sex than do we, including a tolerance for infidelity. Mark Oppenheimer’s June 30 Times Magazine piece on infidelity may shed some light on whether that perception holds water.  It is a fact that, while President François Mitterrand openly maintained a mistress (and a second family) without penalty, we impeached Bill Clinton for Monica.   I’ll let you judge whose mores on infidelity make more sense, but even the open-minded French should know that rape falls into an entirely different category.

What is it that these men don’t understand about the word no?  Whether Strauss-Kahn is guilty or not, it now appears that he may very well walk.  In doing so, he’ll be following the norm, the rule not the exception in rape cases.  There is something terribly wrong, no rotten, about that.