Saturday, October 26, 2013

007 gone awry.

I have long held that Osama bin Laden did great damage to this country and brilliantly so.  Of course the destruction of such high visibility targets resulting in the first substantive loss of life on our soil was in itself both shocking and meaningful.  Causing destruction at the heart of our financial center, at the Pentagon and at a third unsuccessful target assumed to have been the Capital were meant to disrupt our economy and institutions.  Turns out that we were better a disrupting our economy than he, though the attack did have a short-term impact.  What bin Laden did achieve, and what terrorism is all about, was to alter our mindset, our national psyche.  The Patriot Act and all the baggage that goes with it, are prime manifestations of that change — of, I would argue, our often-irrational paranoia and distraction.

The current flap over Angele Merkel's mobile is just the latest episode, another yellow caution light that something very basic has gone awry.  Of course there is also a bit of disingenuous outrage being expressed by the Germans and the French though notably not by the Brits.  David Cameron knows that spying is part of his country's governmental DNA much as it is part of our own.  It is after all out of the tradition of real spying that the mega franchise of 007-James Bond was born, not to mention George Smiley, Jack Ryan and all the rest.  Maybe it's an Anglo thing, but don't you wonder what a Claus von Snöwdenn or a Pierre Le Snowdin might have revealed about the prying ears and eyes of Berlin or Paris? 

I'm in the midst of reading Stephen Kinser's, just published book about the brothers Dulles — Foster and Allen — scions of a family that gave us three State Secretaries (Foster being the third).  According to Kinser, the first of these Foggy Bottom leaders John Watson Foster, was among the earliest American officials to promote intelligence gathering abroad and that was during his brief but momentous tenure back in 1892-3.  His grandson Allen of course became our CIA director under Eisenhower and remained so into the early Kennedy days and the botched Bay of Pigs adventure.  Allen Dulles spent virtually his whole career in or at the edge of spying.  Yes, Chancellor Merkel, spying is nothing new nor sadly is eavesdropping on high-level government officials — think 007, not just 1600 Pennsylvania.

Don't get me wrong here.  If the United States is listening to the telephone conversations of Ms. Merkel or any other official foreign or domestic, not to mention any of us, it is both deplorable and very worrisome.  I just want to lend some perspective to this headline grabbing information, the fact that it is hardly anything new.  More important, being disingenuous about it can't only be said of the complaining officials.  You and I may deplore invasions of privacy but are absolutely hooked on Bond, Smiley, Ryan and all the rest.  True Jack Kennedy loved Ian Fleming’s books but it is we who have spent billions of dollars and hours supporting him and the likes of John le Carré, Tom Clancy and the industry that thrives on telling spy stories.  Their protagonists are our heroes and so we have real skin in this game, in our acceptance we are co-conspirators.

With that in mind, let's return to the damage done to our psyche and consequently our acquiescence to the Patriot Act and all that it symbolizes.  After all, the surveillance society that has come to light and captured our attention since Edward Snowden dropped his bombshell of classified documents was born out of our reaction to what happened on September 11, 2001.  At the very least, that invasion and the multiple acts of terror that preceded it and continue to this day are used to justify the intrusions.  And what troubles many of us most is not that they began (probably more accurately intensified) in the Bush-Cheney years, but that, if anything, they seem to have accelerated under Barack Obama.

That the man who opposed the Iraq War could become such a strong advocate of invasive covert action and also would escalate the lethal use of drones seems so counterintuitive.  But it isn't the first time that a Democrat whose party is routinely characterized as being weak on security has taken that path.  It was those Dulles brothers who originally got us involved in Viet Nam after the French were defeated there in the late 1950s, but it was Kennedy and especially Lyndon Johnson who escalated the conflict in the decade that followed.  Why does that happen?  Is there a strong psychological component, a need to prove their own and their party's machismo?  Does politics come heavily into play?  I think the answer to all those questions is undoubtedly yes.  But, Freud notwithstanding, that doesn't let them off the hook.

It's clear in looking at the President's approach to Syria and his obvious earlier reluctance to move on Kaddafi, that he is deeply wary of Iraq or Afghanistan-like interventions.  But anything that comes under the generalized umbrella of combatting terrorism is another matter altogether.  Here showing weakness seems no option, not merely because of the Republican opposition but because Americans at large have bought into the proposition that "bin Ladenism" must be thwarted, regardless of the cost.  The problem is that we Americans and the government that reflects us seem not to have truly assessed that cost, most especially the non-monetary price being paid.  We haven't balanced security and freedom, security and democratic ideals.  We're too caught up in the paranoia and, yes, in the 007 romance of it all. 

Eavesdropping on a friendly head of state's mobile — what were they thinking, what were we not thinking?  The first goes to judgment, the second to our effectively shutting our eyes and ears to what should be obvious.  The current problems with The Affordable Care\ website are troubling.  There are countless websites that we use daily that work perfectly (or close to perfectly), but many if not all of them got off to their own now forgotten rocky start. They were fixed and so will HealthCare.gov.  The surveillance breakdown — doing what we can rather than what we should is vastly more serious.

Edward Snowden's story has evolved significantly over these past months.  I judged him to be more hero than villain and his actions in exposing our overreach remain a service, albeit a costly and painful one.  There still is a "don't blame the messenger" aspect to it.  Even so, it's clear that what he revealed is of much greater diplomatic consequence — more damaging — than the document dump of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning.  It makes the extent of her punishment all the more questionable.  That Snowden ended up In Russia, the country of the KGB (whatever it's called today) where he would undoubtedly be shot for his whistle blowing, is, to say the least, mystifying.  He may not, as he claims, have brought any classified documents with him, but he still has been directing their release from his new address.

But Snowden is not the issue and that others may also engage in spying is no excuse.  The Obama administration has done some excellent things, Affordable Care among them, and continues to do them.  I can only hope that Democrats will somehow retake the House and remain in control of the Senate next year.  That should result in some important progress, for example, on immigration reform.  But, as President Obama is fond of saying, there are some things we can do today, at this moment.  These things lie in his hands.  We've taken a very wrong turn on matters of surveillance and also in the use of drones in foreign lands.  We, and I include we the citizens, have lost our way and it is now time to find a truer road, to get back on the track we claim to be our own.

Friday, October 18, 2013

It ain't over.

Once more unto the brink dear friends, once more unto the brink. 

I trust those who uphold the Bard's bright light will forgive the lift.  In his day after State Dining Room talk President Obama declared, "...let's be clear. There are no winners here."  As to the immediate battle, that might not be entirely true.  On an individual basis, the President himself has to be considered a winner.  Unlike some previous showdowns, he stood fast from start to finish so that those who brought us to the brink walked away empty handed.  That's good for both his and other presidencies and for all of us. 

Tom Foley, who died earlier today, saw himself as Speaker of the whole House.  That can't be said of John Boehner, especially during this crisis.  Nonetheless he might be called a winner with the far right of his caucus.  He surely wasn't able to control them, but they ended up giving him high marks — I guess for that lack of assertive leadership.  And the same very narrow partisan win can be given to Ted Cruz who took a huge gamble and came out the hero of his own natural constituency outflanking Rand Paul who had been their darling.  For these two, it seemed that self-interest (in the Speaker's case self-preservation) was paramount.  Their personal victories came at a very high cost to the nation.  That doesn't mean that they will be held accountable, though their party's historically low approval rating (28%) should give them some pause, especially relative to national politics and 2016.  In that sense, theirs may have been pyrrhic victories.

Opponents who chose the wrong issue (more on that later) and seemed to have had no real battle plan essentially handed Obama his victory in this ugly mess.  Since coming to the House as self-assured renegades, the Teas have exercised their legislative responsibility largely by saying and voting no.  It isn't that they don't stand for something, but rather that they have largely been unable to put their views forward in any positive manner.  The current miscalculation was that they assumed saying no would work when the stakes were really high — a government shut down and threatening the full faith and credit of nation. 

It's unclear whether they will learn anything from this, but it might help them to remember that America has built its strength on saying yes rather than no.  We have always been a positive, can-do, nation.  "No" goes contrary to our basic instincts, if not to our genetic makeup.  That's also true in politics.  Perhaps being against everything — especially in a time of rough waters — can get you elected early on, but at some point voters want to know what you are for.  Recent polls suggest that beyond the GOP having lost favor, the Tea Party has lost major ground in and out of their party.  Of course, with heavily gerrymandered districts made up of the like-minded the usual rules may not apply, at least not now.

Just as Obama held fast, the Democrats on both sides of the Hill displayed a unity not usually associated with their party.  So, perhaps you can call them winners as well.  The same can be said for the Senate that, Cruz and his cronies aside, actually took on the adult role envisioned for it by the Constitution.  And speaking of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, the Republican's dealmaker may be considered a winner, though in his Rand Paul state that may translate into an even stronger primary challenge from his right.

Politically Obama was right not to claim a win for himself and in a larger sense his assertion that there "are no winners here" is absolutely correct.  We the people may have dodged the biggest bullet, but there is no doubt that we were not winners in this battle nor have we been winners in a very long time.  The disarray and dysfunction of our government hurts us badly and is as much our problem as theirs, perhaps more so.  When the divide is so deep that nothing gets done, we all fall further behind.

Perhaps the so-called establishment Republicans learned something from these past weeks, including how little sway they have over the party they once ran.  But it's unlikely that the House Teas view what happened as anything more than a bump on the road.  It isn't only that they occupy relatively safe seats but that they know discontent abounds across the land.  So they will wait for another day and another destructive, or they would say disruptive, fight.  Their hate for Obama has not abated and in fact is probably greater in the face of his having prevailed.  Their focus especially on the Affordable Care Act will continue.  That is something about which he and we should think.

It was already too late when the President's opponents realized that they had made a major tactical error at the start of their fight.  Defunding or even delaying Affordable Care was a non-starter, destined to fail.  Had they instead focused on its problematic signup epitomized by a disastrous website execution, the story might have been quite different.  Without question the Act's passage, albeit far short of what should have been, was and remains a great accomplishment.  But is also the administration's potentially worst vulnerability.  From the start Obama and his team have done an abysmally poor job of explaining and then selling it to the American public.  That has opened the way for a systematic campaign of misinformation.  Opponents have also leveraged the public's general mistrust of government to their advantage focusing on mandates as a symbol of intrusion.  Concerns about NSA surveillance, while comparing apples to oranges, have only reinforced the public's unease in that regard.  Thus far, both the misunderstanding the signup glitch remain in place.

Were it not for the poisonous atmosphere in Washington, heads would be rolling at HHS, including that of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  Ironically the Teas and others who are her harshest critics are saving her job.  The last thing the President wants or can afford is a nomination fight over a new Secretary.  And perhaps it's a good thing that her job is not on the line, that she can't be made the scapegoat.  In truth the failure here must be laid right at the Oval Office's doorstep.  Considering that this legislation might be Obama's principal legacy, it's astounding that he didn't make sure that the program's critical launch execution point was ready for prime time.  Now that what he rightly calls the manufactured crisis is temporarily over, one would hope this matter would rise to the top burner.

It was sheer luck and perhaps a sign of inexperience that the Teas made their tactical error.  It's unlikely to happen again.  That alone should give some urgency to the task of correcting what's gone wrong on the path to getting millions of Americans insured.  I understand the President's interest in pursuing immigration and tax reform, but letting the Affordable Care vulnerability go on will only weaken his presidency.  It is a problem that must be solved if for no other reason than what has happened in the last few week is likely only a beginning.  It ain't over and these vulnerabilities won't help during the next battle.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Does age matter?

"I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."  Thus spoke a 73-year-old Ronald Reagan during a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale while running for a second term.  He had come into presidency four years earlier at 69, already the oldest to be elected. Nonetheless, he did serve out his two terms, though some believe signs of his looming Alzheimer’s were evident at the end.

At an average of 55, most of our presidents entered office at a relatively young age.  Five of the first six (including Washington) were 57.  Both TR and JFK were in their early 40's.  Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were among the seven others not yet 50.  Only 10 had reached their 60s, two of whom (Truman and Ford) moved up midterm from the Vice Presidency (upon Franklin Roosevelt's death and Nixon's resignation).  FDR was just 50 when first elected and, while he looked so very much older, only 63 when he died in 1945.

Given that presidential history, Reagan our oldest incoming and outgoing chief executive, was an age outlier.  That is something to think about as we look ahead to 2016, and especially in considering which Democrat might succeed President Obama.  Hillary Clinton, the assumed front-runner, will be 69 (the same age as Reagan) and Joe Biden at 73 would be charting new ground.  Given where we have been, and considering the unquestioned physical toll the presidency can exact on its incumbents, it's fair to ask, does age, and specifically their age matter?

Until the relatively recent past, retirement at a certain age was considered a given.  I remember vividly when Rutgers University forced a world-class professor we knew into retirement because he had reached the then mandatory age of 65.  Other institutions public and private did the same.  The assumption, since debunked, was that they might be too old to carry out their duties.  Rutgers robbed itself of a talented and seasoned scholar and its students from sitting at his feet.  Some large corporations still impose compulsory retirement for top managers, especially CEOs, and at an even earlier age.  For them it isn't a matter of whether someone over 60 (which is often the cutoff) can still perform — obviously they can — but that not moving senior management out would prevent those below from moving up the corporate ladder, at least having a shot at it.

It is the corporate model that might be most germane here.  Specifically, I would ask if having a presumptive candidate Clinton backed up by Biden doesn’t prevent their party from motivating and grooming a new generation of presidential-worthy leaders.  In his recent New York Magazine "Circus" commentary, Frank Rich suggested that this might already be the case when he characterized the Democrats as having "only a shallow and aging bench of presidential hopefuls".  One has to wonder whether that "shallow and aging bench" is a self-inflicted potential weakness, a self-fulfilling and risky prophecy.

To be sure, this is a touchy subject on many levels not the least possible age discrimination.  Being myself of a more mature age I feel a little more comfortable about raising the question, but nonetheless aware of treading on treacherous ground.  Then, too, there is that a potential Clinton run may lead to finally having a woman in the White House, breaking that glass ceiling.  As regular readers of this post know, given my personal commitment to both civil rights and feminism, I was truly torn in 2008 in having to choose between her and Obama.   Nothing is uncomplicated, and this particular age question may be especially so.

Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have paid their dues, something that counts in politics, regardless of parties.  Both have run hard, but thus far unsuccessively, for their Party's nomination.  Those losses may not have harmed them because once rejected but nonetheless qualified candidates are often "rewarded" with the nomination a second or third time around, most notably on the Republicans side.  And with mixed results: Reagan, McCain and Romney being examples.  The then Senator Clinton never fulfilled her "inevitable" role in 2008, but for sure many in the party feel that this time she is due.  Whether that would lead to the Reagan or McCain outcome is of course unknown.

Given Clinton's presumed front-runner status, let's pause to consider her potential candidacy.  During the 2008 campaign, Clinton leaned heavily on her experience (especially in contrast to Obama), she being ready from day one.  While a somewhat controversial First Lady, she had booked in almost eight years as a very well prepared and effective U.S. Senator.  She had a firm grasp of both domestic and foreign policy issues and had become a very effective campaigner, albeit with a sometimes dysfunctional organization behind her.  She was, and remains, highly qualified and again a woman in a sea of male contenders.  At the end, she boasted having at least cracked the glass ceiling giving hope especially to her female supporters that she, and by extension they, would ultimately break through.  In my view, having a woman in the Oval Office is way overdue.

Clinton has now added to her resume four years as Secretary of State.  She logged in millions of miles over those years and was highly respected both abroad and, save the usual political sniping, at home.  Even so, there are some who assess her tenure as more reactive than active.  She avoided risk-taking initiatives, most notably interjecting herself in the Israel-Palestine conflict, something that her successor has done early on.  Did she want to avoid having a "failure" on her record?  During the '08 campaign Clinton had to defend her support of the Iraq War in 2008 and it is fair to say that she was then and remains more hawkish than either the President or many in her party.  She was among those who were pushing early for interventions in Libya and especially in Syria.   Finally, at issue the last time around was the question of dynasty.  We had had two Bush presidencies and her election would have meant two of Clintons as well.  Dynasty has not come up recently, but it is sure to reemerge and, I believe, appropriately so.

Does age matter?  At a time when we live and remain in vigorous good health longer than ever, mandatory retirements seem so "yesterday".  People like Warren Buffett and Rupert Murdoch, both in their eighties, still seem at the top of their game.  The Senate and House are both filled with "seniors" who maintain rigorous schedules and remain effective.  Bob Schieffer (76) has just led Face the Nation to the top of the Sunday morning network talk show heap.  The list goes on.  But there is a cost, which brings me back to the corporate mandatory retirement model.  All of the examples I've given are of people holding on to a very small class of jobs.  In each case, bench sitting behind them is equivalent to a career dead end.  Not only are the prospects of succession bleak, but also few people — often the most talented — are willing to sit their way into oblivion.  The result is what Rich called a "shallow bench".

As speculation about Clinton and to a lesser degree Biden continues, few names of younger or even other candidates emerge.  If this continues Clinton, who may already have a virtual lock on the nomination, could win it by default, perhaps more than by choice.  I don't think that's good for her, the party or the country.  Don't misunderstand, this has little to do with any lack of qualification or even that she would not have my enthusiastic support.  And it isn't a matter of age per se.  Rather we need to be grooming new leadership and equally important to benefit from fresh thinking, especially in the current atmosphere of divisive interagency.  If political figures like say Martin O'Malley (50), Amy Klobushar (53), Andrew Cuomo (55), Sherrod Brown (61), or Elizabeth Warren (64) seem well positioned to enter a presidential race, we all want to know more about them, how they view national and international issues and what they might do if elected.  My sense is that the potential bench isn't that shallow, that is if we let it be a bench.  Age may not matter, but impeding a next generation does.

My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is available in print and as an eBook.  Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Wonderful amid imbalance.

It's been seven plus years since moving to North Carolina from Manhattan where I had spent the better part of my adult life.  In many respects, New York will always remain home.  My favorite museum memberships remain in force, my MetroCard loaded, my coffee is shipped down from the iconic Zabars and of course most of my closest family members live there or close by.  So I drive up several times a year to spend a week or so in those familiar surroundings.  And familiar is the right word because unlike the millions of tourists and other visitors, my perspective on a place where I need no directions and where landmarks and spaces are themselves like "family", is quite different.  For me, it will always be a "wonderful town".

That said, my trips to Manhattan differ in one sense from when I lived there.  While all is familiar, I often find myself as much an observer as a participant.  At the very least, my observations are more acute because they are no longer everyday and perhaps somewhat more objective.  Also, despite all the familiarity and a relatively short time away, the City in the Bloomberg years has undergone considerable change.  Some New Yorkers (probably more who live in Manhattan than in other boroughs) think they've witnessed a great era of progress.  Others are not so sure.  Looking at the results of the recent Democratic mayoral primary it seems that a majority of voters may fall into the second camp.  New polls show Bill DeBlasio, the winning and clearly anti-Bloomberg Democratic nominee, is up 50 points over his Republican opponent.  So at the very least, there seems to be widespread Bloomberg fatigue.

New York has always embraced diversity.  I was struck again in roaming around late last month by the multitude of faces and languages that prevail up on the streets and down under in the subway.  The city, unlike most other places, seems never to sleep.  Traffic continues day and night.  I always have to get reaccustomed to the night and wee hour noises: sirens, cars, garbage trucks, all making their way down the street below.  These unending sounds are especially palpable to one who lives and has become accustomed to a quiet place like Chapel Hill.  Both the diversity and the 24/7 activity are hallmarks of the city's vibrancy, its ethos.  Bloomberg hasn't changed that.

New York saw a rise in construction long before Michael Bloomberg even thought about running for office.   When I moved into my building on West End Avenue forty years ago, it had a direct view of the Hudson River.  We (and our neighboring buildings) were at what was the developed western edge of Manhattan below 72nd Street.  That was until Donald Trump convinced an earlier city administration to allow him to build an extended row of high rises situated over the railroad yards between the river and ourselves.  In the 1980s his Riverside South took our view and changed the character of the neighborhood.  Other developments followed in town, but nowhere near what's afoot today.  If left with any overall impression during this last trip it was that Manhattan has become one large construction site.  To a lesser but noticeable degree the same can be said for other boroughs, especially Brooklyn.  Walk through once familiar streets in Williamsburg and you won't recognize them.

What characterizes, and is all the more striking about Manhattan's seemingly frantic construction is that, whether commercial or residential, the city is building for the rich.  Bigger and gaudier seems to be the order of the day.  Perhaps nothing epitomizes that more than what, at 85 stories, will be the highest residential building now under construction on Park Avenue at 56th Street.  Penthouse apartments will go for $95M.  The fact that this is a project of the notorious Harry Macklowe, who once tore down a Single Room Occupancy building catering to the poor in the middle of the night to circumvent new zoning, only adds to the symbolism.  With every passing year it is getting harder, if not impossible, for people of moderate — even substantial moderate — means to live there.

As I have written before, the growing disparity between those who have far more than they could ever use and those who have far less than they need is perhaps our most urgent national problem.  Nowhere is that more manifest than in Bloomberg's New York.  It is at once a place of striking wonder and imbalance.  At the foot of those gilt edge buildings are a growing number of homeless and jobless.  On one corner sat a young couple that could have been any of our children or grandchildren.  They were begging for money or food.  Poverty and desperation exist throughout the land, but often the extent of it is less apparent because the many of the less fortunate live in communities of equally disadvantaged where they are hidden in "plain sight".  In New York, and surely other large cities, the two worlds stand side by side in sharp relief.  The imbalance is impossible to ignore.

In allowing Trump to build his development, the City got a big concession.  He was required to finance an extension of Riverside Park from its former endpoint at 72nd Street down to 59th where it ultimately would connect with a series of walkways, bike paths and pocket parks along the Hudson leading to the Battery.  It is a beautiful place and, while the high rises may be unaffordable and inaccessible to "ordinary folk", these public places are open to all.  That's also true of the stunning High Line further south in the Chelsea neighborhood.  Indeed Bloomberg can (and does) boast building numerous parks around the city in and out of Manhattan.  But people can't (even though some of the desperate do) live in parks.  Affordable housing has clearly not been part of his agenda, and to be fair, nor has it been for the developers or anyone else's agenda.

New York is also the place where a concentration of corporate titans and financial "engineers" are drawing unconscionable take home pay while those who work "below" them in the same enterprises are losing economic ground.  President Obama regularly points to this disparity and the importance of the middle class in our society.  The wealthy always played a big role in New York — called it their home (or more accurately one of their homes) — but the city, including Manhattan, always boasted a vibrant middle class.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that those with comfortable but modest means were the heart of the city, gave heart to the city.  Think of classic New Yorkers and you don't picture bankers, limos and luxury buildings, but rather the cab driver, public school teacher, corner store operator with that unmistakable accent.  Is that gone?  Of course not, but those "ordinary" New Yorkers are all in danger, being forced out of their beloved center.

When in New York I get around town mostly on foot but often by Subway.  Yes, it can be a bit dirty (though less so), crowded and in the summer especially hot waiting for a train.  But it is a great and relatively inexpensive system.  There is kind of a democracy down in the subways, a better semblance of equality.  Everyone is taking the same ride for relatively the same fare and is moving about in the same accommodations.  If you want to really see the City's diversity of both residents and its many tourists, take the subway.  And it was in the subway that I suddenly had my aha moment.  Right there before my eyes was a powerful symbol of equality, perhaps even a ray of light.  Everyone it seemed, regardless of who they were, how they looked, where they lived or what kind of income they might have had, was either looking down at or was plugged into a smart phone.

Many of these, like mine, were iPhones, and few were outdated.  In a sense, the smart phone has become the democratic possession, a kind of equalizer.  The ray of light is certainly not the phone itself, but a reminder that technology has taken hold and that, as with the phone, the Internet is largely open to all.  Phones connect us and through them or other devices we all are given immediate access to a once unimaginable amount of information.  Just as the Internet poses a great threat to totalitarian regimes around the world, it potentially poses a threat to such obvious inequality here, such a blatant imbalance.  At least the potential of what could, might or should be is in all those New York hands down under and on the streets above.

Potential is the operative word here because of course a smart phone isn't an equalizer in the larger and more meaningful sense.  A new mayor, likely Bill DeBlasio, will be taking office come January.  His roots are planted deep in unabashed liberal populism and he's talking about changing the dynamic that has driven the place since, and even before, Mike Bloomberg took over.  Even raising the issue of inequality will be a refreshing change, but what's in motion is not easily stopped or even modified.  Barack Obama has learned that lesson, and so will a new mayor.  The rhetoric is bound to be way ahead of the action, the hope greater than the immediately doable.  Locally and nationally powerful vested interests stand ready to defend "their" turf.  New York is likely to look much the same my next trip up and in many trips to come.  And the problems discussed here, ones I care about deeply — the fundamental imbalance — doesn't negate that the place remains a very wonderful town.  Whatever comes, that is likely to remain.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Identity struggle.

The government shut down has little and everything to do with the Affordable Care Act.  Certainly Tea Party extremists in the House want to hold hostage what is an important but still deeply compromised and thus modest "reform" of our healthcare system.  But what concerns them has much more to do with the nation's identity than any individual program.  The battle going on in Washington is said by some to be a philosophical one about the size and role of government.  Traditionally Republicans have wanted it smaller, Democrats larger.  Another way of stating that is, less rather than more engaged.  And there is something to be said for that explanation, but it's not new and, in my view, secondary in this instance.  Healthcare, the size and role of government are not at the core of the current crisis.  It is rather who we are and who we are going to be as a nation.

This is something I've written about in previous posts and in a profound sense it has more to do with changing demographics than the parties' philosophical differences per se.  The idea that we are a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation, one that has taken on mythical proportions over the years, has been undermined by facts on the ground.  If current trends persist, and there is no reason to believe they won't, a white majority America may be history by 2042.  That unnerves many people.  I didn't use the word "mythical" in connection with our WASP identity lightly.  Myths are hugely powerful and to be confronted with the fact that our myth is just that or that it is out of sync with reality can be earthshattering.  That's exactly what is happening across the land, especially in places where the myth translated into an assumed way of life, way of the world.

Memories, especially in this history-resistant "young" country are short, but many of our presidents were subjected to out-of-proportion visceral hatred.  That was true for two of our greatest chief executives, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, but also more recently for Bill Clinton.  In some cases, this hatred was rooted in uncertain times — the Civil War for Lincoln and the Depression for FDR — but it also was a manifestation of unease with a leader who "is not like us".  Clinton, despite his being both white and Protestant, just wasn't accepted as being a legitimate WASP.  That lack of acceptance into the real American tribe haunted him from his first day in office to his last — from Whitewater to the impeachment they tried to force him from office.  And illegitimate is a word that comes to mind with the current incumbent of the White House.

Shameful and painful as it is, it's hard to overlook that much of the opposition to Barack Obama — a man who himself suggested has a "strange name" — is the embodiment of that myth-crashing other that so unnerves a portion of Americans who see their old ways slipping away.  As I, and others, have noted before, race plays a huge rule in this drama.  For many in the South, but not only there, Obama is a recall to Reconstruction, a moment they didn't witness personally but one that had an indelible place in the history that they do take seriously.  Reconstruction was a symbol of defeat and disgrace but also, and significantly, a loss (albeit temporarily) of power.  The slave became the master.  What is a man like Obama, a man who looks like that, doing in the WHITE House?

Race and bigotry are at play here and some of that may be personal, but I'd suggest that the black man Obama is as much a metaphor as an individual.  His elevation to the highest office in the land tokens the seismic demographic change that is altering a balance of power that had been assumed as a given.  His presence is a reminder of an increasing number of Latinos, Asians and others in our midst, some of whom maddingly insist on speaking to each other in their birth-tongues.  He is a symbol of those people who are "ruining the neighborhood".  It is the kind of mentality that precipitated the late 1950s "white flight" out Newark New Jersey where I grew up.  And it is the same phenomenon in reverse recounted by Tom Friedman in his October 2ns NY Times column. "Lily-white" Republican stronghold neighborhoods are experiencing counter national trend growth as more whites move in to reinforce their unquestioned majority.  It is a coalescing of this kind of whiteness that gives Tea Party legislators license of "go for it" without fear of losing their jobs.

And they are not alone.  Increasingly all of us are moving into neighborhoods of the like-minded.  It's doubtful that I would have relocated from New York to, lets day Charlotte where our ultra-Conservative governor was mayor.  Chapel Hill's politics and demographics mirror my Upper West Side of Manhattan making it the perfect bubble enclave for someone of my ethnicity and political views.  Indeed, the idea of America, the integrated melting pot, is almost if not equally as much a myth as America the WASP nation.

What's happening in Washington may seem irresponsible, and it is, but taking the long view it is also understandable.  The Tea Party folks are still a small minority; indeed a fringe group, and will likely remain so.  At the moment gerrymandering, probably far more than Citizens United, has given them extraordinary power.  Holding the threat of a primary challenge over their fellow Republicans heads and the Speakership over Boehner's, they have essentially immobilized the House.  One could argue, and I do, that they are taking what is in effect a "Custer's last stand".  The battle is fierce and bloody.  Of course, Custer fought against Native Americans and ultimately his side won the war if not the battle.  Immediate history was on his side.  That's not the case today, which probably accounts for both the fierceness and seemingly irrational stance being taken.

All of this poses significant dangers for the immediate future especially, as has been pointed out so consistently, with regard to the debt ceiling.  But it doesn't bode well for the months and even years beyond.  The struggle to hold on will not end with the inevitable end of the current shut down.  Desperate people, especially those who see their home and family under threat, which is what we're talking about, don't give up easily.  The broader economic inequality that pervades in the land may provide them with short-term allies in the near term.  There are many in the greater population who are also feeling disenfranchised, even if in a different way, and who are equally stressed.  Questioning our government and institutions is something that crosses ideological right-left lines.  That will not change so long as the government we have is failing many of us in so many ways.  In fact, certainly on the House side, it's an embarrassment.