Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Planets apart.

Kathleen Harriman Mortimer died on February 17th.  A nonagenarian as was her late father W. Averell Harriman at his passing; she was born to great railroad wealth and married to a Standard Oil heir.  As such, she lived a rarified life unimaginable to the still impoverished underclass of which Michael Harrington wrote in his 1960s classic, The Other America, and vastly different from the one experienced by almost everyone else.  Kathy Mortimer never had to meet (much less miss) a home mortgage payment, fret about a child’s college tuition, consider how much gas a car trip might require or live in the fear of some unexpected medical bill.  Perhaps her situation is best summed up in a memorable line from an episode of Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abby.  Distant relative and working lawyer Mathew Crawly tells the dowager Violet about something he can accomplish over the weekend.  Clueless about the working (real) world, she gives him a puzzled look and asks, what’s a weekend?  What most of us consider normal life is seen, if even noted, by such dowagers past and present as some sort of alien unreality.  They reside, or so they might believe, on some other planet than ours.

All of this is not to suggest that Mortimer lived a useless or uncaring life — in fact it was an interesting and, for someone of her station, at times an unconventional one.  The Times obituary noted that she was part of a tightly knit society in which people were separated by far fewer than six degrees.  But all I could think of in reading of her death and the privileged life she led was how sharply it contrasted with and how far she was separated from the concurrently being reported people gathered on streets and squares across the Middle East.  Perhaps even more so I thought of the potential powder keg upon which we sit in this country.  Despotism is not restricted to harsh and violent dictatorships.  It can be equally repressive, though obviously in a very different way, when the disparity between the very few who have everything and the many who essentially live on rations — dolled out or meagerly earned — is becoming the norm not the exception in our dream deprived America.

Nothing illustrates this disparity more than the much quoted but still shocking statistic that, as of 2009, CEO pay was 263 times that of the company’s employees.  If young people in far away Egypt have been empowered by information and social networking, what makes one think all those deprived or undervalued people unfamiliar to the Kathy Mortimer’s in our own country will forever sit silently by in the face of this glaring disparity.  Doesn’t it stand to reason that our unemployed, underemployed and relatively underpaid, especially the tech savvy young among them, will reach similar conclusions about their own seemingly powerless lives?

While labor protests are hardly new in America, it’s not a stretch to believe that the current demonstrations in Madison Wisconsin may well foretell something more profound and widespread to come.  At the moment, demagogues of the right are trying to play up an alleged unfair disparity between the salaries and benefits of public and private workers.  It’s a divide and conquer strategy that has become standard to their playbook, thus far having succeeded in convincing working folks that, for example, lower taxes for the wealthy are actually to their benefit — perhaps the most blatant illusion pulled off since Houdini.

The Saudi monarchy is terrified about what thoughts the revolutionaries in Cairo might put into the minds of their population.  Our often personally well-healed politician deficit hawks might do well to consider how their proposed cuts in social programming will negatively affect a generation to whom a Google search is second nature and connectivity a way of everyday life.  The watershed civil rights movement and the protests against the Viet Nam War that effectively brought down Lyndon Johnson’s presidency took place without any of the informational or communicative tools that exist today.  When things go terribly wrong, even if in a democracy, the word gets out and change not delivered is taken.

When Warren Buffet and Bill Gates initiated their Giving Pledge, they weren’t simply asking fellow billionaires to follow their example of extreme philanthropy.  Interestingly, meant or not, these especially smart men (each with personal fortunes that dwarf those of the Harriman’s and the Mortimer’s) were acknowledging and sending a not so subtle message to their counterparts that the disparity between the very rich and everyone else could not forever endure in the world that is taking shape.  It’s no wonder Mark Zukerberg (the newbie billionaire) was quick to sign on.  He knows that, while his FaceBookers may originally have been satisfied with knowing which friends were doing what and when across a college campus, the current crowd wants to know what we’re all doing — what is being done for or to us — and, most importantly, why.  That knowledge alone, as recent weeks have shown, has consequences.

The mantra of getting government out of our lives and the focus of those impassioned deficit hawks on social programming translates into policies that largely disadvantage those with less, not more.  To compound the error of an essentially misguided and heartless approach is what seems to be a frontal attack on labor in general and on public employees in particular.  Somehow this group that includes the people doing the grunt work of teaching our children, protecting our domestic peace and cleaning up our trash is being scapegoated, personally responsible for our national debt and problems.  Just break the blood-sucking unions and promote a more business-friendly environment and all will be good.

Aided and abetted by an ideologically right Supreme Court majority, corporations have been given citizen status while real citizens are being shafted by politicians financed by, yes, the very same corporations.   And the companies that benefit most are exactly those whose CEOs are raking in millions while workers salaries are held in check to keep profits high (justifying those unseemly rewards for the top).  Wall Street has recovered, and then some, while bright and able recent college graduates are struggling to find jobs and unemployed 50s are coming to grips with unwanted, very early and untimely retirement

There was a disconnect between the life story of Kathy Mortimer and the news from both Cairo and Madison.  It was the gulf between the castle and the street.  Don’t get me wrong, this is not some kind of socialist rant nor is it a call for class warfare.  The rich are not bad because of their wealth and people are not de facto noble just because they have less or little.  To be sure there are value judgments to be made, but that’s not at issue or the point.  Dictatorships can’t stand in the world in which we now live — all are likely to fall or be drastically reformed — but neither can the current economic gulf between citizens in a democracy.  Presidents, governors, mayors and legislators may be narrowly focused on their budgets, but they seem to be missing the real problem.  It’s not even a topic of conversation.  And you thought people like Kathy Mortimer with inherited wealth were out of touch.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Debunking myth.

Beyond all else, what struck me in watching Egypt’s revolution unfold was that it totally surprised  pundits and well-seasoned students of the region alike.  This reminder of how very little we sometimes know and understand should humble us all.  Part of what led us astray was the myth of an invincible Mubarak rule poised to glide into the second generation.  All countries, including our own, have myths that, however powerful, fail to match reality.  For example, the overwhelming number of Americans whose present and future prospects are locked into their miserable status quo belies the mythic idea that anyone of us can make it in this land of opportunity.  Myth making evolves over time often out of the history we chose to remember or from opportunistic ideas and slogans repeated so often that they are no longer challenged.  Even in a democracy, legitimately elected political leaders use repeated myth to advance their careers and to mold public opinion.  That is doubly true for totalitarian regimes.

Look at any dictatorship and you will see the systematic crafting of self-serving national myth. Monarchies, whether found in Arab countries and elsewhere, are constructs of myth — the infallible ruling family that so often is either dysfunctional or corrupt.  Mubarak sustained his regime on the myth that he alone stood in the way of Egypt becoming a theocratic state.  What happened to Iran and perhaps more so that Al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri is Egyptian born and ideologically trained provide testament to this mythic truism.  If that were not enough, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood was painted as a radical Islamic organization bent on ending secular rule.  It was a powerful myth bought for a long time by his own people and by the United States, most especially after 9/11 and the Hamas electoral victories in Palestine.

It is far too early to tell what will become of Egypt’s stunning turn around, but the myth that without Mubarak it is destined for Islamist rule may already have been debunked.  To be sure, among the masses who gathered in Cairo and elsewhere were people of all ages, many among them devoutly religious Muslims.  But this was a young people’s led movement, those who Egyptians began calling the Facebook youth.  Among its identified leaders was Wael Ghonim, the 30-year-old Google executive and others like him, well educated and tired of being dehumanized by a repressive archaic regime.  But perhaps more encouraging was Anthony Shadid’s February 15th NY Times article, suggesting that freedom and a better life, not religion, was on the mind of the revolutionaries.  College graduate Ahmed Mitwallim, is of a different time than his once Islamist and still religious parents.  The last thing youth are thinking about is religion, he told Shadid.  That sounds a lot like the one in four of his American contemporaries who have moved beyond religion of any kind.   Will people like Ghonim and Mitwallim prevail?  Just as Mubarak used the myth of a threatened theocracy to bolster his regime, Egyptians have no further to look than headlines from Iran and its response to protest to see what rule by Ayatollahs and Mullahs might mean to them.

Religion may provide sustenance to much of the world’s population, but it has proved itself terrible and often repressive in governance.  Our Founders were right to erect a wall of separation between church and state, their wisdom reinforced every time those on the far right try to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of us.  Even here it remains a continuing struggle, often a depressing one.  The push and pull of religion is bound to play as Egypt seeks to reinvent itself.  But whatever happens, Mubarak’s myths have been debunked and the autocratic system he imposed on his fellow citizens has been discredited.  All that happened without the United States or anyone else imposing shock, awe and destruction on one of those places where civilization as we know it was born.  That in itself is refreshing and hopefully will be a lesson learned.  We owe all those young people our thanks.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Take a stand.

The choice in Egypt, we have been told for years, is between Hosni Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood.   It is a proposition of fear, a myth that plays into our ever-increasing hysteria about Islamism.  I’d hate to think that the choice we will be asked to make in 2012 is between Barack Obama and right wing extremists.  In 2008, after years of compromise, I finally voted for and not against someone.  What’s happening in Cairo may tell us what kind of choice it will be in this country two years hence.

The Obama Administration was dealt a terrible hand when it took office in 2009.  All the adages about the difference between campaigning and governing could not have been brought into sharper relief.  For those caught up in the promise of the former the reality of the latter was destined to be disappointing.  So for many of his supporters, all of the President’s accomplishments — and they were of historic proportions — were viewed not so much for what they produced but what they failed to accomplish.  It wasn’t the passage of landmark healthcare legislation, but the fact that it lacked the essential public option.  I share those disappointments but, knowing the limits of Presidential power in the jungle that is legislative Washington, have remained supportive of Obama.  I still am.

That said, I think the President has thus far failed to meet the challenge of what my last post called a moment of truth.  Diplomacy is an art that often requires nuance and a good bit of dancing — all those frank and useful discussions.  The State Department is good at that and its entrenched ways account not only for Hilary Clinton’s cautions statements but also in large measure for policies that seem so inconsistent with American ideals.  The President is not the Secretary of State.  This is not a time for measured double talk.  It’s time to state the obvious — that Mubarak is done and must go now — and to finally take a stand on the side of those whose ideals we proclaim to share.  At a time like this there is no excuse for not getting and doing it right.   We need  straight and unambiguous talk.  Barack Obama, we're waiting for you and getting impatient.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Moment of truth.

In watching the news unfold in the last days, a persistent image came to mind.  It was George W. Bush walking hand in hand with Saudi King Abdullah.  And it wasn’t the picture or the particular president, but the perfect metaphor for American foreign policy over the years, most especially in the Near East.  Republicans and Democrats alike have happily engaged in a similar embrace.  Of course that photograph (and all the others like it) comes with a caption: hypocrisy.

For longer than any of us can remember, our country — that include its citizens — has beaten its collective breast about democracy for all, while at the same time winking at, or totally averting our eyes from, the dictatorships in the oil patch.  Not only do we business with these friends, we engage in the most reprehensible moral relativism, all with a straight face.  Iran’s Supreme Leader is bad (he has nothing we need); Egypt’s Supreme President is good (Suez).  Democracy is the Holy Grail; the election of Hamas is the ultimate catastrophe.  I sometimes feel the same way about people we elect in this country, but let me not digress.  So now we’re left scrambling, which includes a good measure of wishful thinking.  Mubarak should go, but let’s make it orderly — no rush to the polls.

You can say that what we’ve done over the years is just how it goes in international affairs.  Call it Realpolitik.  After all, how we feel or what principles we may advocate, doesn’t give us license to interfere with another nation’s politics and system.  Right.  Caption that one hypocrisy too.  Not only is this excuse is laughable; it’s contained by a leaky vessel that can no longer hold water. 

Finally, and one wonders (while at the same time knowing) why coming to the moment of truth took so long.  It may not yet be game over but only a fool doubts that Cairo is a fundamental game changer.  We are clearly unnerved by it and, after years of deaf, dumb and blind, not brilliantly prepared.  It is a major test for President Obama who once again is left to clean up the mess others have left behind.  His famous Cairo speech suggests that he comes to it with a better mindset than his predecessors, but only time will tell.  No one knows better than he (or should) that rhetoric is the easy part.

Needless to say, the weakening and potential collapse of the old order in their neighborhood has enormous implications for Israel.  As of a few days ago, their reaction has been to pull inward and harden the line that divides them from peace.  That’s a terrible mistake — in my view, potentially a fatal one.  The Egypt of Sadat and Mubarak have given Israel an unrealistic sense of security, leaving them without what they need most — a sense of urgency.  If now is the time for Mubarak to go, it’s way past now for peace to be negotiated and implemented with the Palestinians.  I hope it’s not too late.