Tuesday, December 16, 2014

At our worst.

If you had any doubt that the heart is just pump and muscle, consider Dick Cheney whose new heart has had no impact on his twisted view of morality.  Of course, it might just be that, in finding the replacement, his doctors were able to locate a perfect match, a donor who had also thought torture was both okay and justified.  In any event, the former Vice President has invented his own definition of torture. “Torture is what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11”, he declared on Meet the Press.  “There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation.” Cheney is at total peace with himself, totally self-satisfied, convinced he holds The Truth.  And so, he went on, “I would do it again in a minute”.  I was thinking he probably meant in a heartbeat, but maybe that’s too close to the chest.

The long delayed release of the Senate committee’s executive summary came with a spirited floor speech by the outgoing Intelligence Chair Diane Feinstein followed by a passionate endorsement by John McCain.  For all his hawkishness — never a war he doesn’t want to enter — the senator from Arizona, unlike Cheney, knows something about torture and has always been a vocal opponent.  With that notable exception, like everything in Washington these days, the reaction to the report has been mostly along partisan lines.   Republicans denounce it while Democrats support it.  Of course, the torture carried out in dark places, however disturbing, is just a part of a more far reaching problem that began with those 3,000 plus tragic deaths in 2011.   We are a different place, as codified in the regressive Patriot Act.  Remember it had bipartisan support at both its inception and renewal.  The legislation gives broad license to excess from detaining people and assuming their guilt before being charged (often holding them in that limbo for years on end) to the NIA’s aggressive Orwellian eavesdropping.  And then there are the drones that reign their terror on as many or more innocents as they do combatants, “antiseptic” weapons that leave no powder marks on our fingers.

All of it makes us angry, but not so angry that we have done very much, if anything, about it.  Aside from paying lip service, if that, to our repulsion, we are shockingly disengaged.  With a voluntary military, we have no loved one on the front line, no real skin in the game.  We tell ourselves that this has nothing to do with us, but everything to do with the Cheney’s of our world.  Not everything and certainly not solely.  The post 9/11 hysteria used to justify our country’s “patriotic” actions was shared by the public.  Just fix it, we said, and don’t bother us with the gory details.  Do whatever you have to do.  And we say amen to claims of American exceptionalism never measuring them against our less than exceptional and inconsistent actions.  Our leaders insisted on donning American flag pins, and we never called them out on their obviously cheap patriotic theater.   

The Senate report added some new details to the torture story but let’s not pretend we were unaware of what was afoot.   The facts of waterboarding et al were widely know and sanctimoniously denounced during Bush’s first term.  No one, not the president, vice president, CIA director or countless legal counsels, ever paid any price for what clearly was beyond the legal.  More to the point, it is so contrary to what we claim to be American ethics and tradition.  Everyone, except the Cheney cohort, knows it is terribly wrong, but even the president who ended the practice has effectually swept these bad deeds under the rug.  And again, let’s be honest, that’s exactly where we wanted them, hoped they would stay.  “Pardon us and remember your manners.  We’re having dinner now — no talk of politics, religion and certainly not the morality of torture.”  Any way, we didn’t do that; it was the government, the Blue Meanies outside our snug little submarine.  Yes, and I have a bridge to sell you.

We justify what we’ve done, or what others have done in our name, because we largely buy into the idea that every threat to us, especially of Muslim origin, is existential, when its not.  This is not to diminish the challenges of an ISIS, but despite whatever rhetoric and actions are directed against us, we are not their primary targets. Their fight is within Islam and for its domination.  We are, as I wrote in an earlier post, a convenient foil masking their singular agenda, to rule not the world but Islam.  Can we avoid doing the self-destructive by imposing ourselves where we don’t belong?  Apparently not, because the train on which our policies ride has long left the station.  We’re pulled along, including the president who promised and wanted out, because it’s far easier to start hostilities than to stop them.  War and conflict has a life of it’s own, like that giant Space Odyssey computer Hal who was intent on taking control, and almost did.   Apparently no one has the courage to stop this Hal, and no one — that’s all of us — is honestly supporting such action.  We were scared of the consequences, imagined or real, just as we have been since Dick Cheney et al warned us of terror and mushroom clouds.

I just wrote about racism and protests that probably and sadly will run their course in an America that is attention span poor.  The Sunday talk show a news focus on torture will abate.  After all, important things like a new and sure to be unproductive Congress will be taking hold in but a few weeks.  Then there will be an endless presidential race, who’s up and who is down, to distract us further, but probably not induce us to vote.   Ah vote.  What a bother.  Who wants to go on record in taking responsibility for our actions, for what OUR country is doing, and for the moral lapse that is our own.  Yes, we may get the best government that money can buy, but in our enabling silence and failure to vote we also are getting the kind of government that we sadly deserve.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Some things never change.

…my kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general.  Chris Rock

Some weeks back Barack Obama handed out this year’s Presidential Medals of Freedom.  It’s the highest civilian honor he can bestow.  Most of the honorees stood before him as he draped the medal around their necks, their faces beaming.  Some were honored posthumously.  Among those were James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the young civil rights workers brutally murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964.  It’s been fifty years.   Martin Luther King, Jr. has since become an icon, a national holiday celebrated in his honor.  An African American Attorney General presides over the Justice Department.  The son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother sits in the Oval Office and presided over the ceremonies.  And then there are Ferguson and Staten Island.  Some things refuse to change.

The long history of uneven treatment for people (especially men) of color is so well known that repeating here is hardly necessary.  Suffice it to say, we have the highest incarceration rate in the world.  While only 13% of our population, nearly 40% of the imprisoned are black.  Drivers of color are more likely to be stopped, walkers frisked.  Ferguson and Staten Island are not outliers, just recent examples of a disgraceful and unending norm. Their only distinction is that they happen to be the headline of the moment.  While demonstrations, like the one held in DC and the 25,000 who marched in New York the past Saturday, might continue for a while, be sure this, like all of-the-moment stories, will fade to be replaced by tomorrow’s headline.  They may not be totally forgotten, but will no longer “merit” media attention.  Some things refuse to change.

Obama is moving into the final leg of his presidency.  He is our first black chief executive and one has to wonder if we will have another, certainly any time soon.  When he raised his right hand to take the oath we told ourselves the country and we had changed.  Right.  Not only aren’t we living in a post racial society, we are seeing the racial divide in much sharper relief than was the case on January 19, 2009.  Presidents, unlike any other elected official, never recede from the front pages, from our television sets or computer screens.   There is no “out of sight, out of mind” because they are never out of sight.  And Obama’s presence has become a lightening rod for many in the white community and, in a different way, for the black community as well.  For the first, the president’s visage personifies shifting demographics that signal the old order is slipping way, an assumed eternal control and domination crumbling beneath their feet.  For the second, is the recognition that this singular achievement, however monumental, is not enough, is no magic bullet.  Despite all the progress, their lives remain substantially unchanged.   And that is a shared feeling that transcends race; part of what drove this year’s election results.  The statistics looked better (employment numbers, housing prices, stock market) but real life for many folks remains challenging — a sense of losing rather than gaining ground.

Race or more broadly, fear of “the other”, may be the single most important driving factor in current politics.  For sure it’s an over simplification to say so, but Republicans have become the (largely white) party of “our kind of people”, while Democrats stand for the “other”, those who challenge “the cherished American way”.   And this fear of the other, or more accurately challenge posed by the other, is what so enraged Republicans about the president’s executive order on immigration.  Make no mistake; immigration has become a largely racial issue — read dark skinned Latinos.  That the instrument of some modest forward movement is a black man, the prototypical other, plays hugely in the lawsuit initiated and led by former Confederate states.   Let me put it differently.  Do you really believe for a moment that there would be such, or even any, outrage if the “undocumented” were white Canadians coming from north of the border?   I don’t think so.

After all, Canadians are people who look and act “just like us” and (unless they are from Quebec) speak English as their native tongue.  We wouldn’t have to spend money on teaching them “our” language or acculturating them.  They will fit right in, won’t threaten our neighborhoods or way of life.  They won’t be a burden on taxpayers, on hard working Americans.  Maybe they will compete for or take our jobs, but how will we even know since they look and talk just like us?  They are not that different than someone from Alabama who settles in New York, or someone like me who now lives in North Carolina.  We may all talk a little different, but in the end we’re good blenders.  You get the point.

Four years after the March on Washington and in the last days of his life, Spencer Tracy joined his longtime love Katherine Hepburn in making, the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  In it, the politically progressive Drayton’s confront their daughter Joanna’s totally unexpected decision to marry John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), an African American physician.  The poor girl was just following what her parents had taught her — living beyond racism.  The pending merger of two families, one white and one black, is played out at an awkward dinner.  In the end — this is Hollywood after all — both sets of parents, along with the Drayton’s black housekeeper, come to terms with change and offer their blessing.  The film is full of clich├ęs including the wisdom of women over men (thank you Ms. Hepburn and the wonderful Beah Richards) and the decider role of the men (Tracy and Roy Glenn, Sr.). So what do you think?  People on the Hill always complain that President Obama doesn’t socialize with them.  Wonder how many dinner invitations he got from those same folks in the years before he became famous and was running for president?  Right, again.

America is a land of bubbles and fortresses.  We live in neighborhoods and Congressional districts with people just like us.  We interact with the likeminded and generally stay close to our tribe at dinnertime and everywhere else.  For the most part we marry and build families that mirror that bubble mentality.  I don’t say that judgmentally.  But it does reflect our mainstream American reality.  Is it changing?  Yes, but painfully slowly.  We’ve been nurtured to distance ourselves from the other, however defined.  The sad thing is that we’re paying a very high price for maintaining that comfort level, those old ways.  Just look at our dysfunctional politics.

Chris Rock (on a promotional tour) and Frank Rich met recently for a conversation published in the current NY Magazine.  It’s a wide ranging one that reminds us, if we didn’t already know, that Rock is a man of great depth and insight with wide ranging interests and knowledge.  The subject of race came up as they sat together in high up in New York’s Mandarin Hotel.  Rock, like any African American, has faced racial prejudice, but he is hopeful.  Grown people”, he says, “people over 30, they’re not changing.  But you’ve got kids growing up.  I almost cry every day. I drop my kids off and watch them in the school with all these mostly white kids, and I got to tell you, I drill them every day: Did anything happen today? Did anybody say anything? They look at me like I am crazy.”   So Rich asks, “And you think this change is generational? That it has nothing to do with Obama?” It’s partly generational” answers Rock, “but it’s also my kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.”

Of course Chris Rock is probably right.  There has been huge progress and the young generation gives one great hope.  I have been working of late with a start up lab in neighboring Durham, helping young entrepreneurs clarify and sometime create their brands.  These are impressive and open-minded people, curious women and men with talent, builders of the new and interesting.  Race doesn’t enter the picture.  I recently encountered a group of third-year Naval Academy cadets, classmates of a good friend’s son.  They are equally impressive, open-minded and interested in contributing to their world.  Hopeful signs no doubt, but Ferguson, Staten Island and the reaction to immigration reform are still with us.  The older generation, carrying all the baggage of what they have been so carefully taught, remains in control.   The signs are that young people may not want to follow their lead, indeed rejects their ways.  Only time will tell.  Maybe when they get their piece of the pie, they too, will revert, will try to hold on.  History and the present environment suggest that may well happen, that some things refuse to change.  Please, let me be wrong.  

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Faulty heroes.

You and I may not know for certain if the rape allegations against Bill Cosby are true or not.  They certainly appear damming.  Some of those who do know, especially in the press, are now confessing shame that they have long been culpable in enabling him by remaining silent.  At the moment the accused is still avoiding the subject and many of his longtime fans wish they could.  Of course, we can’t and the women who have come forward must, to paraphrase Arthur Miller, “be paid attention.”  Rape and sexual abuse stories are far too common, a shameful commentary on our society.  Whatever happens, it’s likely that no story about Cosby, including his obituary, will fail to reference the consistent and damning “testimony” of more than a dozen women.  A hero will have fallen from his pedestal and will be the object of that special wrath we reserve for those who falter in that pantheon — those emperors who so blatantly wear no clothes, who fall far short of their myth. 

The late Joseph Campbell was fascinated by heroes, and concurrently with myth.  They go together.  His Hero with a Thousand Faces is a classic that many of us read in college and his six PBS dialogues with Bill Moyers captured our attention as few public conversations do.  Campbell spent his life contemplating The Power of Myth in which the hero plays center stage.  What made it so compelling to him and to us is that myth and heroes, past and present, continue to play large in our lives.  That pertains with fiction but perhaps more so in real life.  Myths reflect who we are and the values we hold dear; heroes personify the stories we tell ourselves.  Pop culture contributes some of them.

From 1957 until 1963 television spun the myth of the American family embodied in Ward Cleaver  — the heroic and prototypical father figure.   The Cleavers were nice folk who lived and saw the world from the perspective of their WASP identity.  Forget the melting pot and America’s already diversified population.  In this story, America was white and Ward’s kind of people were those who succeeded and ruled.  It was their birthright.  Leave it to Beaver (the Cleaver familiy's story) wouldn’t play in 2014, its myth, while not altogether discredited, far too simple in a country whose demographic shift can no longer be ignored.  An early sign of that shift came in the 1980s in the family and person of Cliff Huxtable — Bill Cosby. He shared many of the values and decency of Ward Cleaver; many of the same ambitions to do well and have his children do even better.  Huxtable’s mythic statement was that people who weren’t WASPs, in this case African Americans, could be middle-class, professional and feel equally entitled to the national dream.  For their time, and in the context of mainstream television, Ward and Cliff were our dads, our heroes.  Because he represented a greater breakthrough, a questioning if not shattering of the earlier myth, Cliff Huxtable somehow stood taller of the two.

It is always problematic, and perhaps unfair, to conflate actor and character.  After all, one is real and the other is fiction.  But if my reading is correct, Joseph Campbell understood that such a merger is natural.  When it comes to heroes, the real is transcendent and interchangeable.  Myths reflect us.  Our lives echo myth.  The heroes of fact and fiction merge and at some profound level can be one and the same.  Bill Cosby is just an actor, an entertainer, but especially as Huxtable, he became a hero.   And the merger took place for very good reason.  The Cosby Show (1984-92) aired decades after both Leave it to Beaver and the turbulent years of the civil rights struggle.  Lyndon Johnson in fact had signed the Civil Rights Bill just a year after Ward and his family went off the air, twenty before Cliff and his came to command of the small screen.

Huxtable was no civil rights activist, quite the opposite.  He and his family were the mythical fulfillment of the movement’s dream.  They were not on a journey; they had arrived.  Their lives were sitcom normal — funny and every day fare.  No one questioned how a black man could be a doctor; it was just assumed that his role was expected, as it should have been.  The whole point was that blackness really had nothing to do with the story or the characters aspirations.  It was in the simple fact of being, in Huxtable’s ordinariness, dare I say WASP-like nature, that he became a hero.  If Martin King dreamt, Cliff Huxtable was the mythical fulfillment.  If he could prevail at normalcy, so could any of us.  And part of that myth was that all was well, that the struggle, at least on some level, was over.  Call it a clear departure from reality, and it was, but like any myth African Americans embraced it with hopes for themselves, as did Whites who wanted to feel that the show was a token of their job well done. 

Maybe we shouldn’t merge mythical and real life heroes but we do.  The idea that nice heroic Dr. Huxtable, that Cosby who traded on being a benign father figure, might concurrently have been drugging a raping women shocks us.  It infuriates us.  How could we have been so taken in by a myth, and to wit a sitcom myth?  Why do we so readily buy into myth and heroes?  Well it appears that we have no choice.  While some of us may protest being taken in by them, heroes and their myths abound in every aspect of our personal and shared life.  George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. come to mind, all of them much larger than life.  Ronald Reagan is the hero of contemporary Republicanism.  Nelson Mandela is our modern day Gandhi, and Steve Jobs the heroic icon of stylish technology.   We put them on a pedestal hoping that some of their glow will fall on us, encourage or enable us to join them on the stage.

Our need for heroes doesn’t go unnoticed by those who are bent on constructing myths, often of their own.  Reagan, Mandela and Jobs certainly understood that. The cult of the personality that prevails today is all about hero building.  Barack Obama wasn’t only a candidate for president, he was, and remains for some, something special: a hero.  Intellectually, we know that those with starring roles are mere mortals, but emotionally we want them to be more and assume that to be the case.  Cosby, in part by the roles he chose to play, built his own heroic myth.  His problem now is not simply that he may be a rapist but that such criminality goes against the constructed and accepted myth of his personhood.   The hero has fallen, and that’s something we can’t and shouldn’t accept or excuse.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Victory and loss.

While widely disputed, the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (1925-43) has come to be associated with making the trains run on time.  Myth or not, I couldn’t help thinking of old Il Duce while assessing Tuesday’s election.  The Republicans, given up for dead but a few years ago, won and won big.  Perhaps more important for those of us aligned with the Democrats, we lost.  For the moment that loss was probably more consequential than the win, and we should seriously focus on why.  Was this a referendum on the president and his administration?  Whether justifiably so or not, I think it was.  So we should try to understand why a man beginning with such promise and twice elected has lost so much esteem; why the once sought after and admired campaigner was sidelined in this election? 

The fact that, aside for a short period, the trains in Mussolini’s Italy didn’t actually run on time turns out the be irrelevant.  In a historically dysfunctional country, the dictator sold the story and with relentless public relations that kept him in power for nearly two decades, the perception of on time not only persisted but also long outlived his discredited regime.  Perception and indeed myth, we should all know by now, can be far more powerful than fact.  That is ever more so in a political environment that trades so heavily on perception and mythmaking while happily suppressing fact.  Consider the vapid and misleading content of advertising in this election cycle.  Of course, the trains did run on time early on under Mussolini without which the perception, albeit exaggerated, could never have taken hold.

Perceptions take time to be formed and gain currency.  But it’s clear to me the Barack Obama is now branded as a man who may talk the good talk but has trouble with the walk — he can’t seem to make the trains run on time.  The seeds of this perception were sown even before he took office, planted not by Republicans but by Democrats, specifically Bill and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primary.  Their argument was that the Junior Senator was unprepared to take on the presidency.  His rhetoric was uplifting but his resume was thin — a state legislator and a first term on the Hill.  He lacked executive experience, like say a governor or the seasoning of a more senior senator (and two term First Lady).  Her 3 AM call ad was aimed at building this not ready for prime time image.  When the rollout of Obama’s signature ACA program ran so terribly amuck the words “I told you so”, expressed or not, hung in the air.  Sure Obama had a great campaign organization, perhaps the best ever, but clearly governing was something else entirely.  Compounding the problem was that Obama’s campaign juggernaut was famously built on mastering technology, which made people wonder all the more about what essentially was a massive software failure.

The bungled rollout of the ACA (cleverly branded Obamacare by Republicans and reinforced by the lemming press) was a watershed event for the president.  But it was not necessarily a irreparable.  What solidified the perception of weak management more than anything else was the VA problem.  While the ACA might be a source of political contention, left and right, providing service to veterans, especially those who returned wounded physically or mentally from war, is not.  There is widespread bi-partisan and public support for addressing their needs.  It is seen as a moral obligation.  That is particularly so at a time when so few of us are directly exposed to conflict and where a level of guilt for letting others (often economically disadvantaged) do the job is the room's unspoken elephant.  Finally, while highly partisan bickering in Congress, especially in the GOP controlled House, may account for Washington's gridlock and dysfunction, the "top dog" president ultimately gets the blame.  He acknowledged as much in his day after press conference.

Perhaps the most unfair burden carried by the president and undermining his approval rate is the fact that, despite substantial progress — lower unemployment, improved housing prices, robust business, a record stock market and greater access to affordable healthcare — a large segment of the population, perhaps the majority, is losing ground rather than gaining it.  Real income is down and the prospects for the next generation, even those with college degrees, looks anything but bright.  College costs and debt are staggering.  The two Americas, one super rich ($60 Million for, often not lived in, apartments in New York) and the other treading water or struggling (living from inadequate paycheck to paycheck), is not a perception but a harsh reality.  Obama didn’t cause that problem, but again is getting the blame.  The recovery is minimal or non-existent for many.  Young people and minorities who have been his base are the very same people who are feeling most pressed and frustrated.  They thought, realistically or not, that he was their savior.  In truth, the problem of economic inequality is so systemic that no single person can possibly fill that role, especially when his opponents are fighting hard to sustain the status quo.  The fact that many of Republican voters are also victims of and disadvantaged by income disparity seems to be of little consequence.  Speak of perceptions and myths.

The problems we face are real and for sure the administration has under performed in certain instances.  Add to that the fear factor produced by a toxic combination of the ISIS's rise (which Obama once discounted) and the manufactured hysteria about Ebola threatening the country.  The trains don't seem to be running on time.  But the perception that Obama is incompetent is way overblown.  What’s so mind boggling is that the Democrats themselves have not helped dispel them — quite the opposite.  By running away from the president and from a record of significant accomplishment, they have solidified the misperception and, in my view, paid a heavy price (they and we) for abandonment.  If you don’t ask the president to come out and campaign for you, then voters conclude that you too think we’re headed in the wrong direction.  While they may blame Obama globally, the only way they have of expressing their frustration is by pushing you out the door.  Fault them if you will, but voters don’t respond well to candidates running away from their own record.  They see right through them.

The bottom line here is that I think candidates who ran from the president and who emphasized their independence made a huge and costly mistake.  It was their pressure to avoid provocative decisions before the election that kept Obama from issuing his executive order on immigration.  That hurt badly with Latino voters, not to mention that it was wrongheaded in and of itself.  We’ve all complained that Republicans have been the party of no.  We have challenged them to put forward positive programs, for example alternatives to ACA that would address our healthcare problems.  But in this election certainly Democrats were not the party of “yes”.  Money and negative ads may impact elections, but ultimately it’s when candidates don’t stand up for their record or the record of their party, when they express no real vision for the future or avoid addressing the real problems that they cannot prevail.

This election was portrayed as the most important ever.  That has become the standard characterization for all elections these days.  The Republican takeover of the Senate and thus of Congress as a whole is consequential, but probably not the end of the world.  It may represent a step backward, even a substantial one, but just as Democrats (and the press) over read their victory in 2008 and even 2012, Republicans are likely to do so this year.   Pundits will predict the extended demise of Democrats just as they did of Republicans when Obama was elected.  But this country will continue to have a two party system and the pendulum of power will continue to swing back and forth.  Over the immediate term, deniers of human induced global warming may be successful in turning back or slowing environmental efforts, but at some point reality will win out.  Some major city will be under water.  Politicians beholden to the super rich may pretend the economic disparity isn’t something that can or should be addressed, but at some point the 99% will become so mad that they won’t take it any more.

We’re told that Americans are sick of gridlock and polls suggest that a majority of voters — by the way disgracefully only 1/3 of the eligible went to the polls on Tuesday — want compromise.  That may be true, but perhaps even more som all of us are hungering for leaders who have vision, have convictions, are willing to address real issues and are prepared to move the country beyond the narrow status quo.  Are Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren, albeit on very different sides, those kinds of people?  Perhaps so, and perhaps more than the assumed continuity candidates most likely to be facing each other in 2016, but we may not be ready.  Also, both of those partisan darlings are freshman politicians, holding their very first public office.  If getting the trains to run on time is of any importance, we may not be willing to take the risk of another disappointment, even one that is more perception than reality.