Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Worst fears.

Barack Obama delivered the most unambiguously liberal Inaugural speech in recent memory.  In his iconic 1961 inaugural, John F. Kennedy declared: "the torch has been passed to a new generation" — time had changed.  JFK also had a progressive agenda, but that speech was delivered in a Cold War context and included some serious saber rattling.  "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."  In contrast, Obama was speaking to a nation that has tired of military conflict and is happy its longest war is finally winding down.  Unlike Kennedy, he didn't have to tell us that the "torch had passed", that the clock had turned.  Obama embodies that message; he is the new America.  And that's precisely what seems so unsettling to Republicans.

As reported by Peter Baker in the Times, "Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, a member of the Republican leadership, said that from the opening prayer to the closing benediction, it was apparent our country’s in chaos and what our great president has brought us is upheaval. He added, we’re now managing America’s demise, not America’s great future.”  From opening prayer to the benediction, just think about that — an invocation by the widow of Medgar Evers, a vice presidential oath administered by the first Latina supreme court justice, the inaugural of an African American President, a poem written an recited by a gay man, a benediction by a Latino cleric.  Ah, now I understand.   Mr. Sessions has made it abundantly clear.  His words ring out like an echo of the post Civil War South.

Throughout President Obama's first term and into the election there have been clear signs that the ferocity of opposition he faced often had racial overtones.  Sessions' words seem consistent with that, but we should be careful about interpreting them in such a narrow and superficial way.  In fact, I don't think that race is what's bothering today's rightist controlled Republican Party.  If you really want to understand their issue, consider the Representative's last words, "we’re now managing America’s demise, not America’s great future".  Sure you can read that in economic or military terms, but that is to miss the point.  The America that is dying and whose future won't be what it was is a White Christian male dominated America.  It is that America which demographic studies show is slipping away.  It is the same America that lost to Obama in November.

Sessions may have problems with "the other".  He may resent that Obama gave a shout out to "Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall" and that he put so many Hispanics up front in the ceremonies.  I should note that, unlike 2009 the President gave no nod to what he called "nonbelievers" (I call them transcenders), who have grown another 25% in the four years since.  That will be the subject of my next post.  But what really concerns the Congressman is that the groups represented by these symbolic locations, along with a young generation of a very different and open mindset, are becoming the majority.  They are the America that is alive and who will be a different kind of great future.

What you'll hear from Republicans in the coming months is their unyielding concern about deficits and fiscal responsibility.   To some degree, that will reflect a not so backdoor assault on government itself.  But mostly I see it as a smokescreen covering up their number one anxiety.  They are losing their grip on a past that is fleeting away and have not yet figured out how to be part of this changed world.  To the contrary, they live in a dream world, the same one that convinced them a President Romney would have been addressing them on this week.  They think that passing state constitutional amendments against marriage equality, as they did here in North Carolina, will stop a powerful train that has long since left the station.  They think a denial of science can sustain against the hard evidence of climate change.  They see their Tea Party victories as the beginning of a trend rather than the last gasp of a sinking ship.

No one should underestimate the challenge facing specific legislation, immigration, tax reform, environment and most especially gun control.  There will be big battles over fiscal management and deficits, about Medicare and even Social Security.  Republicans will have some victories, Democrats some setbacks.  The liberal ideology expressed in the Inaugural of 2013 is still aspirational and not universally shared.  But the clock is ticking and the past will be just that.  This is not the first time that battle lines have been drawn between those who want to retain what was and those who want to embrace what will be and already is.  Metaphorical blood may be shed in the battle, but the ultimate outcome isn't in question.

I call them Transcenders.  To brand them nonbelievers is to assume religion and its particular belief system the human default.  Worse it suggests that those who have left religion behind lack beliefs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  My book is now available in print at Amazon and as in e-book form at Kindle, Nook and iBooks.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Let us reason together.

Lyndon Johnson was fond of quoting the prophet Isaiah (1:18), "Come let us reason together".  I've been thinking about that on this Inauguration Day as Barack Obama launches his second term.  Johnson, the consummate consensus politician, was a master negotiator whose success came in part from knowing when and where to strike.  Most notably, he leveraged Jack Kennedy's assassination to gain passage of landmark civil rights legislation.  He was also a tough horse trader who would literally hold a legislator by the lapels and not let go until his offer — perhaps some earmark in exchange for a vote — had been accepted. His skills as president-negotiator were of course honed during years as Senate majority leader and before that in being schooled by his mentor and fellow Texan, Speaker Sam Rayburn.

Critics complain that Barack Obama is not a good negotiator.  You might think that can be attributed to a political resume that, in contrast to Johnson, is to say the least anemic.  But I think it's more the case that Johnson's 1960s approach wouldn't and doesn't work at this moment.  Reason is simply out of sync with an unreasonable time.  And unreasonable is just what we are facing in the second decade of this century.  Let us reason together requires a two-sided commitment to consensus and that surely is lacking in the polarized atmosphere that pervades both Washington and the country.  We are a nation divided, one in which adhering to narrow ideology is given far greater currency than compromise.  There seems to be no middle ground, except the mythical one claimed to exist among the electorate at large.

Robert Caro has devoted nearly thirty years to LBJ, but I certainly don't look back on the Johnson years or at him with any nostalgia.  To me, he was a tragic figure who drove us into a state of collective schizophrenia.  We half loved him for his social legislation and ability to reason together and we half hated him for escalating a war that profoundly damaged his own country, perhaps more than its adversary.  Indeed, I would submit, that the bitter ideological divide that pervades today has its roots in the Johnson years.  Not only did Viet Nam divide the country, it birthed an environment of either/or caricatures: hawks and doves, capitalists and socialists, red and blue.  We have become a nation of one-dimensional labels that we simplistically and thus inaccurately apply to others and also to ourselves.  It's a very broad brush that paints the narrowest of strokes.

The inauguration was held on Martin Luther King Day and in the same month that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation 150 years ago — full of symbolism.  It was held just a stone's throw from where, 50 years ago, King and others including my own father spoke of the better world that the President evoked and embodied today.  Lincoln's time was also divisive, in fact the most divisive in our history.  618,222 Americans (North and South) lost their lives and over one million were wounded.  And for sure one thinks of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, probably the greatest, and his supreme effort to bring the nation together, to reason if you will together.  It was a deeply religious speech, sermonic in language and tone.  Every school child, certainly in my day, committed its peroration to memory:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
It is remarkable how timeless those words remain.

I thought of Lincoln today and of the speech, but more so how times do change.  Just as Johnson's invocation of reasoning together seems so out of sync with our time, Lincoln could never have obtained the Republican nomination in 2012.  In fact, he would have been more likely to win the Democratic one.  How the tables have turned upside down.  Today it is the Democrats who are really the party of Lincoln and Obama's Second Inaugural evoked just that spirit.  One broadcast commentator characterized it as a civil rights speech.  Lincoln's America was much smaller and less complex than Obama's, Martin King's civil rights much more, though not exclusively, focused on fulfilling the Emancipation dream.  Obama spoke to women, gays, immigrants and Hispanics, people who in many ways have been treated as what Michael Harrington called "The Other America".  Harrington was talking of the poor, but all of these have been, if not totally disenfranchised, then certainly "under franchised".

As both our leader and the father of Malia and Sasha Obama declared:
We are true to our creed, when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own. 
Perhaps most significantly, because it was the first time any president had incorporated such words in his inaugural, he said:
Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. 
Obama himself has come a long way in these past four years.  It was also in this portion of the speech that he gave a clear signal to what will undoubtedly be a primary legislative agenda in the months to come:
Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.
As to Hispanics, rather than rely only on words, the President invited Richard Blanco whose family fled here from Cuba, to write and deliver the inaugural poem, much as Robert Frost had done for Kennedy in 1961.

Obama's speech had its references to the campaign, for example, when he pointedly said, Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security...do not make us a nation of takers.  In the same vein, he touched on climate change and the need to respond.  Some may still deny, he said pointedly, the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.  One commentator suggested that this was more like a State of the Union than an inauguration speech. Bob Schieffer of CBS complained that it had no great quotable line, no ask not what America can do for you, ask what you can do... Perhaps, but read it through and you'll find enough soaring rhetoric, perhaps not a Second like Lincoln's, but right for its time, our time.

Come let us reason together, how quaint, how yesterday.  The problem is that we have rarely needed to reason together more than now.  Lyndon Johnson understood that getting things through Congress required both leadership and the ability to compromise.  They call that the democratic way.  I don't know if President Obama will have greater success in doing that in the four years ahead than he has in the past.   Again, Johnson's times and ours are very different.  But if I hoped for anything as the quadrennial ceremony of inauguration took place today, it was that we can reason together.  There is much to do, so many real problems to solve.  Reasoning together might well be our best hope.

I call them Transcenders.  To brand them nonbelievers is to assume religion and its particular belief system the human default.  Worse it suggests that those who have left religion behind lack beliefs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  My book is now available in print at Amazon and as in e-book form at Kindle, Nook and iBooks.