Thursday, December 23, 2010

Too True Not to Share

As the Julian Assange/Wikileaks saga continues to unfold, these comments by Gene Lyons seem relevant. In the face of so many lies, how much raw, unexpurgated truth is too much?

Happy New Year, America!

Amazingly, the lackluster 111th Congress has made history in the last few days of its “lame duck” session. The list of achievements is breathtaking:
  • ratification of the START treaty, renewing U.S.-Russian cooperation in limiting nuclear arms

  • repeal of DADT, arguably the greatest triumph in civil rights since the 1960s

  • passage of the desperately needed food safety bill

  • medical help for 9-11 first responders suffering from chronic illness as a result of their heroism

  • passage of the compromise tax-and-stimulus package that protects millions of Americans from immediate loss of unemployment benefits.

To the public, it may seem that all this occurred in a fit of holiday goodwill that turned even the dour Mr. McConnell into Ebenezer Scrooge after his conversion. Cynics may point out that after whining didn’t work, the Republicans decided they’d have to actually get some work done before they could go home for the holidays.

The reality, though, is that the work had been done, the groundwork painstakingly laid during months of negotiations, through the tough and inspired leadership of two of the most productive (albeit reviled) members of Congress: Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.

Like the rest of us, Congress will emerge after the distraction of the holidays with a laundry list of things to be done and resolutions for the new year. We shall follow along with interest.

Meanwhile, though, I wish you all good cheer and happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Forecast for the 112th Congress: Soggy

Much has been said lately about the abundant tears being shed by John Boehner, Speaker-in-waiting of the House of Representatives. He is, as he willingly admits, an emotional guy, and this is an emotional time for him. His counterpart in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, also tends to cry frequently and with abandon.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with shedding tears, and for many (of us women, anyway) a willingness to express emotion can be an endearing quality in a man.

However, there is nothing endearing about people who make decisions based on emotion, rather than reason. And that’s the trouble with Boehner, McConnell, and a few other very important decision makers in this country—including, not incidentally, John McCain.

Scientists now know that different parts of the brain are responsible for different types of decisions. The limbic system, deep in the interior of the brain, is where emotions reside. Decisions that originate there are often spontaneous, impulsive, and ill informed. (The limbic part of the brain doesn’t think, exactly—it just reacts.)

The part of the brain responsible for logic, reasoning, and planning is the frontal cortex—essentially, the part of the brain just behind the forehead. This is where the tough, complex, and important decisions should be processed. It’s hard for the limbic system (i.e., the emotions) to tell us what we don’t already believe or don’t want to know; it requires a deliberate attempt to put feelings aside and think hard to allow us to reach conclusions based on reason and reality.

That’s one reason why educated people, by and large, make better decision makers (and better politicians) than just your everyday “ordinary Joe”: acquiring an education generally requires frequent exercise of the reasoning skills—which is to say, the frontal cortex.

Michele Bachmann, in her (self-perceived) infinite wisdom is planning to conduct classes on the Constitution for freshman House members. The incoming Congress would be infinitely better served by a couple of good courses on brain science and decision-making skills.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Wikileaks and Freedom of Speech

I don't often have this feeling of solidarity with Ron Paul, but in this case . . . what he said.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Tax Deal: Where the Rubber Hits the Road

Starting in January, my paycheck will be a few dollars fatter. That will be money that’s not currently in my budget—money left over after the bills are paid. That means that for each of the twelve months next year, my husband and I will be more likely than we would have been otherwise to dine out, buy a new pair of shoes, or splurge on a few lattés. (You’re welcome, Starbucks.)

Had the tax deal not been made, my taxes would likely have gone up, reducing my paycheck for each of the next twelve months. That would mean less disposable income for my husband and I to enjoy—and less revenue for local small businesses.

Multiply that by the millions of wage earners in this country, add the money the chronically unemployed will be able to spend thanks to the extension of benefits, and it begins to look as though the president has struck a pretty good deal. This whole thing is good for people and the economy.

Liberals are up in arms because the administration didn’t hold out for the Republicans to “cave” and agree not to continue to give the wealthiest Americans the very sweet deal that GW arranged for them. If these people thought the current GOP leadership was going to cave on anything—especially tax breaks for the rich—then I have just one question for them: Where have you been for the past two years?

See, here’s the difference between liberals and progressives: liberals are likely to stand on principle, whereas progressives are most interested in getting things done.

Both liberals and progressives tend to see government as an agency for serving and benefiting real, flesh-and-blood human beings—not for bowing to business interests in order to simply make the rich richer. So we tend to agree on many things.

In the final analysis, however, we progressives (however few of us there may be) really appreciate a pragmatic president—you know—one who actually gets things done.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Wikileaks: Knowing What’s Right

For once in my life, I’m really not sure what to think about this whole business about Julian Assange and his alleged attempt to bring the whole diplomatic world crashing down around our ears.

Is it just another attempt by the media to create drama to build an audience—like the pre-Thanksgiving hysteria about protests at airports over security measures? (A tempest in a teapot if ever there was one.)

Or was it a reckless act by a sociopath that could have (but for some reason didn’t) cost lives of diplomatic and military personnel?

Clearly, Assange has made one point abundantly clear: Lots and lots of things are secret that really don’t need to be. That in itself should be an embarrassment to the U.S. government, and it’s something the rest of us have a right to know.

Or have quick action and flawless decision making by Amazon, Paypal, and media sources with access the information somehow managed to mitigate the damage that might have been caused by such a huge data dump?

Frankly, if I have to put my faith in one very smart if quirky young man (Assange) or the media and entire international diplomatic juggernaut to do a good, fundamentally right thing, I’d have to put my money on Assange.

Here’s an interesting article on the subject by Matt Zoller Seitz.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Third Party in American Politics

It’s not the Libertarians or Independents, the Blue Dogs or so-called “centrists.” It’s not the Tea Party or its lesser-known counterpart, the Coffee Party. The third “party” vying for the public’s time and attention is the media, and Jon Stewart is the party leader.

And if Jon Stewart could or would be elected to lead the nation, Steven Colbert would be vice president.

And they are the leaders precisely because they're funny.

Ironies abound.

After the October 30 “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear”—the very title of which is a slap at the other two parties—Stewart spent the next few days doing interviews in which he denied any political intentions. Nonetheless, he was criticized by conservatives for being “liberal” and by liberals for being too neutral. Both sides missed the point—as, in fact, Stewart himself may have done: his commentary on American politics cannot be critical (which it is) and neutral at the same time. But that doesn’t mean he has to take sides.

Stewart is not a-political. He and his counterparts (including Colbert, Tina Fey, and the whole cast of Saturday Night Live) are political in that they routinely comment on issues in government and call out idiocy (of which there is plenty in politics) wherever they find it.

Lest we deny the close association between spoofing politicians and being one, let’s not forget that Al Franken went from satirist to Senator in the space of a few short months.

It should come as no surprise that smart, funny people should have great powers of persuasion. A person can laugh and think at the same time. However, as Robert Ingersoll famously said, “Anger is a wind which blows out the lamp of the mind."

This is a lesson some of today's politicians and pundits should keep in mind. Stirring up anger can get people on the march, but once they get started, it's hard to control their direction.

In embracing the Tea Party movement, some Republicans have learned this to their detriment, as the campaigns of some extremist candidates during the last election turned to farce.

On the other hand, as Winston Churchill once said, “A joke is a very serious thing.”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Corporate America Never Had It So Good (Literally)

To hear the Republicans tell it, American business is afraid to start hiring or lending money. They’re plagued by uncertainty (John Boehner’s favorite word these days). They’re trembling in anticipation of what the allegedly socialist-anti-business Obama may due to their bottom line.

Well, so far their bottom line doesn’t seem to be suffering much: American corporations just logged the best quarter ever in terms of profits—$1.66 trillion.

Members of the GOP and their corporate and industrial sponsors have sold a good many Americans a bill of goods. They’ve got folks believing that the new administration hasn’t helped the economy much; in fact, the measures taken by the new administration have pulled the economy back from the edge of a cliff, where it was teetering precariously on the brink of depression.

American business deserves no sympathy. American industry gets away with murder (sometimes literally, as in the case of Massey Energy) and takes advantage of countless loopholes available to avoid paying taxes.

It’s the nature of business, which is amoral by nature, to avoid oversight and seek to maximize profits. It’s the duty of a democratic government—and the citizens who shape that government through their votes—to ensure that business acts responsibly.

From billions in bonuses to the geniuses at bailed-out banks to the tragedy caused by BP in the Gulf of Mexico, the past year has provided numerous examples of why business bears watchin.’

The myth of the self-regulating market is busted; businesses themselves, however, have never done better. They have much to be thankful for this holiday season.

It’s time that knee-jerk Republicans quit buying into phony doomsday scenarios about how bad things are economically and start thinking about how to make things better for real flesh-and-blood American people.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Quote for the Day

From Gene Lyons, food for thought for those who think political beliefs are arranged along a spectrum, with “truth” lying somewhere near the middle:

“Sometimes, see, Goldilocks can't find the porridge that's just right. Sometimes, when two sources tell very different stories, the truth doesn't lie somewhere between them. Often, somebody's lying.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pork and Political Vegetarianism

The next few months should be highly entertaining for Congress watchers.

Take an entrenched group of Republicans who haven’t bothered to make any real policy decisions since their last leader left office (unless you call “No!” a policy). Add a starry-eyed group of freshmen officials with the idea they have a mandate to change things. (Some of the latter, like Rand Paul, seem to be devotedly, if misguidedly, motivated by strong opinions of exactly how things should change.) Toss in some “red meat”—one or more of the popular buzz words, the mere mention of which can get Tea Partiers worked up into a froth; specifically, toss in the word “pork.”

Voilá! You now have the makings of a real political free-for-all.

They’re off!

Never mind the wars. Never mind jobs. Never mind foreign policy or increasingly deadly weather patterns or our disastrous dependence on oil. Like a bunch of first graders playing soccer for the first time, they’re off in a pack to chase the ball wherever it may lead them, everybody trying to get in a kick.

Here’s the reality: What conservatives snidely refer to as “pork” is the reason folks in Congress—especially in the House—get elected (and stay elected).

Adding “pork”—also called “earmarks”—to major pieces of legislation is the only way legislators can get Congress to act on the myriad of little things they will never vote on as a body. There will never be a national debate about whether a new bridge should be built to replace a crumbling one in Hoboken. Or whether a port should be upgraded to help the economy of a struggling coastal town. Or whether a small dam should be built in a remote district to allow for irrigation of nearby land.

Collectively, these are the little things that really matter to voters—whether the tiny patch of America on which they live is habitable, or accessible in the winter time, or able to support their children if they choose to continue living in the area where they grew up.

After a good deal of arm twisting, even Mitch McConnell—a 26-year Congressional veteran who has been a staunch defender of earmarks—caved into peer pressure and agreed to support the GOP’s grandstanding gesture of banning earmarks. Of course, neither he nor the others who came out in support of this ridiculous idea have any intention of not trying to get favors for their constituents back home—they just want to be able to say it’s the fault of the Democrats for not going along with the idea.

Bottom line: Earmarks comprise about 1.5% of the Federal budget, or $7.7 billion of this year’s $410 billion budget.

Now, how about those tax breaks for the rich, which would add $36 billion to the deficit next year alone?

Friday, November 12, 2010

How the President Lost the People in 2010: Part III

In this last of a three-part discussion about the disaffected voters of 2010, we focus on those addicted to hate radio (like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage) and radical TV (namely, Fox News). The rise of these sources of incessant right-wing propaganda is new in America and has dramatically altered the political landscape. Those who compare these media sources to left-wing pundits and public radio are either unfamiliar with the latter or are being deliberately disingenuous: there’s absolutely no comparison in terms of hours of programming, accuracy of reports, and emotional vs. rational appeal of their content.

What right-wing media outlets have in common are people who get rich selling a product—and that product is anger. Together they have built a hostile, negative conservative movement which was first appropriated by—then driven by—the GOP. The people who deliver the messages of fear, hatred, and negativism—the vehicles of anger and rage—are not unlike people who hock cigarettes: in both cases, the products are habit forming, addictive, and unhealthy.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, Fox viewers could be excused for believing what they heard and being sucked into conspiracy theories designed to make them angry. Like cigarette smokers before there was much information about lung cancer, those early viewers were relatively innocent of the knowledge that would have forced them to be aware of what they were doing. However, we now know that, just as cigarette smokers were harming their bodies and those of people around them, hostile right-wingers are doing damage to their bodies and their brains, as well as to their country.

Being innocent of knowledge isn’t at all the same thing as being willfully ignorant when knowledge is readily available.

There’s no shortage of information debunking Fox “news.” For example, the outrageous claims regarding the cost of President Obama’s current trip to Asia—Billions of Dollars! One-tenth of the United States Navy!—reverberated for days in the conservative echo chamber. Never mind that numerous reputable sources quickly pointed out how laughable those claims were—Fox News and its cousins create their own “facts.”

Such “facts” are usually supported by circular reasoning (Fox heard it from Rush who got it from Drudge who got it from Fox . . .). Like poisonous mushrooms, the “sources” for right-wing propaganda have become so numerous (being, as they are, so profitable) that such a merry-go-round of disinformation can keep going for months—even years (such as, for example, the matter of the president’s birth certificate or the off-the-wall theories of the “truthers”).

Outrageous claims and conspiracy theories also find legitimacy when right-wing pundits or politicians write op-ed articles for conservative-friendly newspapers or magazines (such as the otherwise reputable WSJ). Mainstream commentators trying to be what Fox News, tongue-in-cheek, only claims to be—fair and balanced—sometimes treat factual information from the left (such as scientific discoveries about evolution or global climate change) and denialism from the right as being equivalent. (Frankly, her habit of bending over backwards to legitimize wacky right-wing ideas was the reason I started tuning out CNN’s Campbell Brown—and I guess I wasn’t the only one.)

With its new slogan, “Lean forward,” we may hope that MSNBC will gradually become what Fox watchers have claimed for years: a true and consistent voice for progressive ideas and a counterweight to the pernicious Fox News. So far, a few outspoken liberal pundits (Olbermann, Maddow, Matthews) do what they can to present the rational (read “liberal”) side of many national arguments. But it will take many more voices to help make some segments of the viewing public aware that there really are two sides to some of these issues.

It can be said that during the past year and a half, the president lost the people by not staying in daily contact with his constituents (although, in all fairness, the man does have another job to do). However, it’s the duty of voters themselves to make an effort to really be aware of more than one side of the important arguments.

For his part, there are those of us who think the president is compounding his “mistake”—if that’s what you want to call it—by being too accommodating and stubbornly sticking to his bipartisan dream. The Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they have no intention of playing at all until and unless the other team leaves the field entirely. His “turn the other cheek” attempts at bipartisan decision making haven’t worked up to now, nor are they likely to work any time in the foreseeable future.

But that’s a topic we’ll explore another day.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mean Politics

After what America has gone through for the past ten years—two wars, the destruction of the American economy, and the two-year hangover we’ve endured since—you’d think the Republicans would want to get something constructive done now that they will have more power in Congress. But no.

Darrell Issa, GOP patsy that he is, wants to have “seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks” to try to discredit the Obama administration. John Boehner and others are saber-rattling about a 1995-style government shutdown.

What’s most instructive about this last proposal is what conservatives have to say about it. It’s all about tactics and power-mongering and nothing about the well-being of the American people (as, for example, in this recent article from the American Spectator).

Is there anyone—anyone—left in the Party of No who actually has a conscience?

Coming soon: “How the President Lost the People in 2010: Part III.”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How the President Lost the People in 2010: Part II

At a high school reunion in the spring of 2009, I visited with a woman I remembered as being sweet, sensitive, and impassioned about social issues. She remarked that for her entire adult life, she’d always voted for the “pro-life” candidate in every election. The presidential election of 2008 had left her confused, she said, because neither of the candidates seemed to be unequivocally anti-abortion.

In other words, neither candidate promised what so many had promised before: to reverse the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade and, once again, make abortion illegal in America. (No president or politician could possibly do that, but reality is not an issue here. It’s the promises that count.)

This woman’s fixation on a single issue—a complex issue made simple by the clever GOP spin machine—means that she voted twice for George Bush. She seemed untroubled by his two deadly wars (in which many thousands of former babies had been sacrificed), policies of torture and imprisonment without due cause, and failure to provide basic medical care for mothers and babies throughout the land. She also seemed oblivious to the fact that neither Bush nor his advisors ever mentioned the topic of abortion—which was clearly nowhere on their long list of concerns—except during campaigns.

By and large, Americans aren’t deep thinkers when it comes to politics. This is something Republicans understand and Democrats do not.

Gun rights are another wedge issue that the GOP has historically exploited with great success. In the recent elections, there wasn’t a great deal of national news about guns (there being no actual threat to gun rights to report about). In targeted mailings and Internet campaigns, however, the extreme right continually prods hunters and militia types with conspiracy theories, stoking their fears about having their weapons confiscated by . . . somebody. Hence the impression some Alaskans ended up with that Attorney General Eric Holder was out to get their guns. And a number of the faux Palins during the last election made sure to be seen taking aim, “locked and loaded” against any imagined transgression involving their “Second Amendment rights.” (Which reminds me—who’s in charge of watching Sharron Angle these days—the woman who spoke ominously about “Second Amendment remedies” if the last election didn’t go her way.)

On the issue of gay rights, the right-wing coalition has a cozy deal going. Libertarians (who, by the way, tend to actually think about what they believe) and religious fundamentalists (who don’t) are both up in arms about gays. Libertarians are angry because Obama hasn’t exercised his executive power—or waved his magic wand—and unilaterally ended “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” (Never mind his reasoned and repeated arguments about how much better it will be for all concerned if Congress does away with the silly law it created.) The radical religious, meanwhile, are mad about gays gaining support for basic civil liberties, including marriage. While it’s unlikely that either of these camps went out en masse and voted for Republicans for this reason alone, their noisy complaints helped to stoke the nation’s discontent and drown out the few reasoned voices trying to celebrate the administration’s many accomplishments.

Simplistic thinking, conspiracy theories, and intolerance. Take away voters who respond to these, and who do you have left?

People who are well educated. People who read. People who think deeply, trying to consider important issues from several different angles. People, in other words, that the Sarah Palins of the world scoff at for being “elitist.”

People like the president.

One of the things Obama failed to do during the first two years of his administration was to take monumentally complex issues and break them down into small enough bites for the American public to swallow. In a country in which a relative few are willing to do real intellectual work, it’s hard to inform the populace about issues like global climate change, credit reform, and why tax breaks to the middle class stimulate the economy while tax breaks to the rich do not.

It’s hard. But it’s what the president and his advisers must do if they want to win in 2012.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Tomorrow . . .Creeps in Its Petty Pace . . .

Regarding my promised "Part 2" of the last post, the word "tomorrow" was an estimate. That discussion will continue soon.

Meanwhile, from conservative commentator David Frum, here are some interesting remarks about the GOP's "just say no" approach to health reform.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

How the President Lost the People in 2010: Part I

In general, people who are upset with President Obama fall into one of three categories: namely, those who are
  1. confused and hurting because of the economy (e.g., out of work, in debt, and/or threatened with the loss of their home),

  2. upset about social issues and individual liberties (including guns, gay rights, and abortion), and/or

  3. addicted to hate radio and radical TV (e.g., Rush Limbaugh and Fox News).

In days to come, we’ll discuss the disaffected Americans in Categories 2 and 3—as well as what responsible, progressive thinkers in this country ought to do about the situation. Today we’ll begin by discussing members of the electorate who fall into Category 1: those embittered because they are directly and adversely impacted by the struggling economy.

Like all human beings who are frightened and hurting, people who are out of work, out of money, and out of options will generally vent their anger on someone. As leader of the country, the president is bound to be a lightning rod for some of that anger. It goes with the territory.

There’s not much point in trying to reason with desperate people; understandably, they want to see success, not listen to economic theories. (Nevertheless, many liberals are upset with the president for not doing a better job of explaining things to the public—as though the man doesn’t have another job to do, other than politicking.)

Republicans, well aware of this natural tendency of people to blame the party in power, has spent the past two years trying to ensure that things don’t get any better—not under Obama’s watch.

That’s why, under the shrewd but morally indefensible leadership of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, Republicans have steadfastly refused to say “yes” to anything that might help the economy, including public projects to improve infrastructure, extension of unemployment benefits, and tax relief for those who really need it.

That’s also why they’ve routinely lied about the positive effects of Democratic accomplishments, including

To increase their political capital, Republicans in the minority have wanted the economy to stay as bad as possible for as long as possible so people would blame the Democrats.

It worked.

Now that they represent the majority in the House of Representatives, however, the people will expect members of the GOP to say something other than “No.”

As demonstrated by the Great Recession of 2008, the Republican Party has long been bankrupt when it comes to ideas for how to build a strong economy. And by usurping the energy of the Tea Party, they have aligned themselves with many individuals—including some newly elected members of the House, like Rand Paul—whose main concerns are other than ensuring the economic privileges of big business and the very, very rich.

Will these right-wing groups—the fiscal and the social-libertarian conservatives—be able to work together to piece together any kind of coherent national policy? Will they be successful in continuing to discredit the president and blame everything on the Democrats?

It should be fun to find out.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss more about Obama and the social-libertarians.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Ultimate Double Standard

So . . . Rupert Murdock donates $1.25 million of corporate money to Republican candidates and organizations—which, for a publicly traded company, is against the law. The consequence? Tch-tch-tch from a few mainstream media pundits.

Keith Olbermann, as an individual, donates the maximum individual contribution—$2,400—to three specific Democratic candidates. The consequence? Indefinite suspension without pay.

Will Fox News jump to his defense, as they did for Juan Williams (who immediately got a $1 million contract)?

Stay tuned.

The Majority Party Always Loses Seats in Midterm Elections

Nevertheless, these remarks by Mary Mitchell are worth pondering.

Great News about Jobs . . .

. . . 151,000 added in October! Economists are saying this is a strong indication the economy is growing again.

John Boehner will be busy all day figuring out how to take credit for that.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Buying Barbados: The $4 Billion Election

The astronomical sum of money being spent on the 2010 midterm elections in America—at least $4 billion, by most estimates—is greater than the entire GDP of many of the world’s countries, including Barbados, Montenegro, and the Isle of Man. (And we’re closing in on Mongolia.) Virtually every man, woman, and child living on American soil has been exposed to thousands of images, slogans, and arguments—mostly produced by expensive ad agencies—designed to get them to adopt a particular attitude toward a candidate or an issue.

Much has been said—and much more needs to be said—about the ability of the rich to buy elections. But let’s face it: if the American people weren’t so gullible and generally uninformed, it would take a lot more than scary music or a slick slogan to sway them. Politicians and their message machines would have to provide actual information, specific action goals, and coherent plans for implementing those goals. Then they’d have to deliver on those promises.

Regular readers of this column know what I think: I think President Obama and his team have delivered on their promises to America, accomplishing more than anyone could have expected—especially bucking a severe and unrelenting headwind of lies and obstructionism from the Republicans in Congress. From ending combat in Iraq to reforming health care to implementing Wall Street and banking reform, the current administration has done much to improve American lives.

I also think it’s appalling that most Americans seem to have already forgotten what the Party of No accomplished on its watch: two wars, general devastation of the economy, confusion about climate change, a $1.3 trillion deficit.

Be that as it may. Jon Stewart (oddly, given his profession) blames the media for America’s current problems. The Tea Party blames politicians and “elitists”—a category that often seems to include anyone who is well educated, well informed, and experienced in public office (unless, of course, they’re Republican). But it’s clear where the real blame should lie in a Democracy like ours: squarely on the shoulders of those—sadly, the majority—who either cast a vote based on a single bias, remaining willfully ignorant about everything else, or don’t vote at all.

For awhile last January, mesmerized by televised images of profound suffering, Americans seemed to care about the people of Haiti. The cameras have moved on, but hundreds of thousands of Haitians still live in crowded, stinking tents, and hundreds are dying of disease. Think what the $4 billion wasted on these midterm elections could do for them.

Never in the history of human civilization has it been so easy to find out what’s really going on in the world. With an open mind and a good mix of media (including books and articles, as well as radio and television), anyone can learn a great deal in a short time about virtually any subject.

Now that so many billions of dollars have been spent to get their attention, what Americans should do is to continue to learn and to care—not because they’re being prodded by advertising to be fearful or angry, but rather just because being informed is the right thing to do.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

James Fallows on Fox and NPR

From one of America's most thoughtful observers and cogent commentators: "Why NPR Matters."

"There is no center to American Politics"

From Robert Reich, here is the clearest explanation I've seen yet about the nature of American politics and the profound cultural differences between the two major parties.

I'm particularly intrigued by the notion that Republicans tend to be cynical about politics while Democrats are idealists.

Unlike being gay or straight (a topic much discussed these days by people who haven't the faintest notion what they're talking about), having an attitude is a choice. As citizens, we choose to be cynical, idealistic, or apathetic.

More than just intellectual positions, these are fundamental moral choices with—in this day and age—global consequences.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rinos and Dinos in 2010

In the months leading up to next week’s midterm election, the influence of the Tea Party made itself felt by relentlessly going after the few moderate Republicans who were up for reelection. One after another, experienced right-wing politicians—Utah’s Senator Bob Bennett, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Delaware’s Mike Castle—went down to defeat in their party’s primary, replaced by extremist “Tea Party” candidates.

In today’s Party of No, anyone who’s ever said yes to anything in Washington—constructive or otherwise—is suspect. With the kind of mindless, knee-jerk decision making that’s all too typical in American politics, the conservative hoards seem to be obeying the libertarian mantra: “Throw the bums out.”

This purging of the right in the interest of some sort of ill-defined ideological purity may well result in sweeping away some of the nominal Democrats who’ve routinely abandoned their principles and their president’s progressive agenda in a quixotic attempt to please powerful right-wing interests.

In Arkansas, for example, Blanche Lincoln seems to be battling into oblivion against Republican John Boozman. I say good riddance to her: she didn’t do her party any good by voting for good legislation, like the health care overhaul, while trashing it publicly to please conservatives back home. Political columnist Max Brantley called her “wishy-washy by nature”—and we’ve got enough of that in Congress already, so long as we still have to put up with John McCain.

Similarly, a recent WSJ article reported that of the 54 “Blue Dog” Democrats (that is to say “Democrats in Name Only”) in the House, more than half are in serious jeopardy of losing their seats in next week’s election. If that happens, as the article suggests, the United States Congress may end up significantly more polarized than it has been for the past two years—or maybe the past two hundred years.

And I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. It won’t be pretty, but maybe it will be a good thing for both sides in America’s battle for the minds of the masses to get their cards out on the table.

American voters are simplistic thinkers, after all, and impatient with too much analysis. Let’s get the Rand Pauls and the Joe Millers out there, in all their proud ignorance, and have them explain—at length— to the American people why Civil Rights legislation tramples on the “rights” of business owners and why Social Security should be “privatized” (which is to say “turned over to Wall Street”).

Meanwhile, let’s make sure that the Democrats we elect to Congress are “real” Democrats—people able and willing to stand up for the rights of individuals to have security, freedom, and fair treatment from banks, insurance companies, and big business.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Juan Williams and the Budinskis

My Polish grandmother used to talk a lot about budinskis—people who habitually mind other people’s business instead of their own and express opinions, no matter how little they may know about a given situation.

The word may be out of fashion, but this whole Juan Williams affair has certainly proved (if proof were needed) that the world is still full of them.

In his new role as budinski-in-chief for the GOP (for want of any elected title), Newt Gingrich is calling for Congress to defund NPR! Pundits are weighing in on the situation left and right (and I do mean left and right—budinskiism is clearly not the purview of either major party). Most, like Gingrich, come down on the side of poor, beleaguered and misunderstood Mr. Williams—who, according to the boss who fired him, had been having ongoing problems with remembering his responsibility to be as apolitical as possible in accordance with his role at the nonpartisan network. (Why she didn’t fire him when he first started moonlighting at Fox is anybody’s guess.)

Companies have a right to fire people for any number of reasons—including failure to conform to an image befitting their role in the eyes of the public. Let’s take an example.

I work in public education. Would the principal of my school have the right to fire me if I started working part time as a bar tender? There’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with tending bar, but my principal may—or may not—think the image is in keeping with that of a school professional.

The odds are good that I wouldn’t be fired for that—although such a choice could conceivably generate some conversation with district officials about the need for school employees to be careful about their public image.

Then suppose I became embroiled in a public incident in the bar that generated headlines. Or decided to start expressing my opinions on page 1 of the local paper about matters related to my second job. Or what if, as a representative of the hospitality industry, I started making public statements about lowering the drinking age in our state?

You see what I mean? In such a scenario, I’d be treading dangerously close—and likely sometimes crossing—the line preventing conflict of interest between my two public functions. My superiors in education would have every right to tell me to switch to bar tending as my full-time occupation.

That apparently, is what happened to Mr. Williams. After treading the line for two long, he was given the opportunity to quit his day job—netting a $2 million contract at Fox into the bargain.

Meanwhile, people are still unemployed, the polar ice caps are still melting, and we have an election going on that will profoundly affect every aspect of American life for generations.

So how much more time shall we spend commiserating about the allegedly unfair treatment of poor Juan Williams?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Taking Back Our Country

Offered without comment, except to say that all Americans need to be aware of who's really behind all the hysteria about "big government" and "bankrupting America"—and why.

To quote Jefferson, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

U.S. Chamber of Commerce: A Danger to Democracy

The Veteran’s Alliance for Security and Democracy has joined a growing list of civic-minded organizations filing complaints with the Federal Elections Commission and the IRS regarding the illegal and unethical interference of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the current election cycle.

Despite the Supreme Court’s best efforts to allow banks, corporations, and other special interests to use their vast resources to buy American elections, there are still a few laws in place—laws that extremist right-wing members of the Supreme Court have not (yet) managed to overturn.

One of those laws states that nonprofit organizations are banned from making contributions to candidates for federal offices. Another says that no foreign entities, including governments and corporations, can contribute to U.S. political parties or candidates. (Duh. Sounds like a good policy to me!)

Last week alone, the tax-exempt, allegedly “nonprofit” Chamber spend $10.5 million in support of 31 House and Senate candidates—all, of course, Republicans. This money comes from what the Chamber calls its “general fund”—the same pot into which money flows from most of the countries in the world, as well as countless foreign corporations.

How much money? How many countries? Which corporations?

Shhhhhhh. That’s all secret.

The Chamber says, “trust us.” They claim to have an “internal auditing system” that ensures that none of that tainted foreign currency is ever used to influence politics in America.

Okay, let’s use an analogy here. In most jurisdictions in America, people arrested for drug trafficking are likely to have their homes, automobiles, bank accounts, and other property seized by the government. Why? Because those individuals are believed to have profited from the drug trade. It may be that not one single cent of drug money was used to purchase the property in question; however, having access to money allows a person to buy more stuff. Where individuals are concerned, the government recognizes (rightly or wrongly—that’s a whole other subject) that having the money enables the person to buy the house, the car, etc.

But the Citizens United verdict that overturned decades of finance campaign law did not, as conservatives claim, put corporations and other special interest groups on the same footing as individual United States citizens; rather, it gave these groups enormous privileges—even beyond the privileges that money can buy—to do things individuals cannot. One of those special privileges is keeping secrets about their finances.

The outrage many people are expressing about the Chamber’s unwarranted and illegal interference in this election is well deserved. The Chamber doesn’t like the negative publicity, but it’s a problem the Chamber itself could easily resolve.

All it has to do is to open the books.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Pitfalls of Polling

Looking back, it seems that election day “surprises” have become the norm rather than the exception.

For the first few decades after television began broadcasting play-by-play forecasts and results of elections, things were fairly predictable. The populace was much less mobile than it is today, and virtually all voters had land lines. In many precincts, the turnout and trends were so stable that pollsters could safely add data from the last election to the tally of the current one without being far off the mark. Votes were cast on a specific day at neighborhood polling places, so exit interviews with people who had just voted could result in fairly accurate estimates of which way a particular neighborhood was going swing. Add the survey results together, and voilà! The result was sometimes a foregone conclusion long before the polls closed.

This predictability was problematic for a number of reasons and very likely skewed the results of some elections. Voters on the West Coast—not to mention Hawaii—often knew the results of national races long before the polls closed in their own state. In such cases, many didn’t bother to vote, knowing it would be a pointless exercise. Getting a mail-in ballot could be harder than it is today to file income tax, so those who couldn’t get to their local polling place on the appointed day, for one reason or another, often just didn’t bother. Without the deluge of ads and information on radio, television, and the Internet that inundates today’s voters, the voters of yesteryear tended to make up their minds earlier and change them less often.

Back in the day, “Gallop” and “polling” were synonymous. Today there are hundreds of polling companies, local and national, many of them dedicated to gathering information specifically for one party or the other. So prevalent have they become that there are now people who poll the pollsters, as well as numerous columns and blogs (such as fivethirtyeight) that do nothing but compare and analyze polling data.

The upshot of all this is that, in contrast to other historically significant elections, no one really has clue as to what will happen on November 2. That fact is undoubtedly giving many candidates serious heartburn.

For us spectators, however, it just makes the races all the more fun.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

She's Not a Witch

She’s us.

And you know what? I believe her.

Christine O’Donnell isn’t me, of course. Nor is she you. But, as she rightfully points out, she is us—plural: a typical American with strong opinions about things who doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what she is.

When asked about some of her more controversial remarks, such as her statement that she once dabbled in witchcraft, she neither denies the obvious facts (as McCain is famous for doing) nor makes excuses. She simply says, “I’m not twenty any more.” And who among us could claim to have said or done nothing in our 20s that we wouldn’t want broadcast on national television?

Of all the wing nuts the tea party has put forth this campaign season, Christine O’Donnell appears to me to be the most likable, as well as perhaps the most sincere.

She doesn’t torture the truth beyond recognition (like Sharron Angle, when she claims that Harry Reid “voted to give Viagra to child molesters”). Unlike Joe Miller, who wants to abolish Social Security and the minimum wage, she may—as she claims—have some empathetic understanding of the needs of ordinary people. And unlike the Mama Grizzly herself, Sarah Palin, she has a gentle, well modulated voice and conciliatory manner that makes it easy to listen to her—no matter how nonsensical her arguments may be.

I like her.

If I lived in Delaware, I wouldn’t dream of voting for her, of course. Being nice and ordinary hardly qualifies a person to be a Senator, any more than being bitchy, negative, and dishonest qualifies her to be Vice President.

Aided and abetted by Fox News, however, the Tea Party has convinced a good part of the American electorate that to be taken seriously, a candidate must be hostile, sarcastic, and positively bristling with Doomsday scenarios.

Sadly, it’s her lack of those negative qualities, and not her lack of common sense, that makes Christine O’Donnell the biggest long shot candidate in the midterm elections.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

American Churches and Pay-As-You-Go Politics

In Minnesota, a few short weeks before election day, the state’s Catholic archdiocese is mailing DVDs to all of its 800,000 parishioners.

Produced by the Knights of Columbus, the video is basically a slick political advertisement in support of a single issue: opposition to gay marriage. By urging political action in favor of the church’s position, the DVD essentially endorses one of the candidates in the state’s three-way gubernatorial election: the Republican, who has made an issue of his opposition to same-ex marriage.

The project is funded by an anonymous “large, private donation.” No telling who or what political entity might have thrown money, via the Church, at the Minnesota’s governor’s race—nor whether the motivation behind it is really social conservatism (as opposed to, say, an effort by business interests to undermine the campaign of another candidate).

Be that as it may, this is just one of many recent examples of intrusion by churches and church leaders into matters of public policy—from the involvement of the Mormon Church in California’s Proposition 8 controversy to lobbying by Catholic Bishops for certain specific language in health reform legislation.

American churches—from mainstream denominations to fanatical, one-of-a-kind sects—aren’t supposed to meddle in politics. But they do. Routinely.

Maybe that’s to be expected. After all—churches are composed of people, and people have opinions. However, that brings up a question: As tax payers, why should you and I subsidize the expression of those opinions by allowing churches to amass limitless amounts of money and property tax free? And why should we allow third parties—anonymous or otherwise—to launder large political contributions by disguising them as tax-deductible, “charitable” contributions?

It’s time we admitted the fact that churches in this country—which can turn out single-issue voters by the hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands to support their particular agenda—are a huge factor in American politics. Let’s just admit it.

Then let’s also admit that it’s ridiculous to continue the indefensible practice of granting tax-exempt status to churches. For those who are justifiably concerned about rising deficits and unmet public needs, church property represents countless billions of dollars worth of untaxed property. Church donations represent billions of dollars worth of income that churches—like the small businesses they are—should pay tax on, just like everyone else.

Those who defend the practice of continuing the tax-exempt status of organized religion in America often use the argument of separation of church and state: they say churches shouldn’t have to give money to the state.

Au contraire: Separation of church and state is one of several excellent arguments for ending the practice of granting special powers and privileges to churches—as well as tax-exempt status to any transactions allegedly conducted “in God’s name.”

Saturday, October 2, 2010

American Politics and the Insidious Influence of Religion

As a child, I watched my practical, rational grandmother disappear from time to time, replaced by a pietistic, emotional, slavishly devoted fan of Billy Graham whenever the evangelist came on television. I remember how she would skimp on groceries to send money for his “work”—the work of using the newly unleashed power of television to inspire more and more followers to send more money.

As a Catholic, I was enjoined from paying much attention to teachings of Protestants or the ravings of televangelists. I couldn’t have known at the time that I was seeing the first volleys of a culture war that would derail American progress, threaten the world economy, and even lead America (with a born-again president at the helm of the nation) into a war of aggression and other atrocities.

Frank Schaeffer spent most of his childhood at l’Abri, his parents’ religious compound in the Swiss Alps, which became a mecca for those seeking salvation through magical thinking and simple, absolute answers to every human question. Many who found their way there (including the indomitable Billy Graham) returned to America as founders of the “religious right”—the movement that, more than any other, has made America vulnerable to the influence of extremists and opportunists.

Schaeffer’s book is entitled Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. In it, he argues that the religious-right leaders who infiltrated American government during the last half of the twentieth century—and who exert enormous influence over it today—were not and are not just political “conservatives” but rather “anti-American revolutionaries.” Far from wanting their nation to succeed, these fanatics were (and are) “gleefully betting on American failure” in order to turn their own dire predictions into self-fulfilling prophesies.

“In the crudest form,” Schaeffer explains, “this was part of the evangelical fascination with the so-called end times. The worse things got, the sooner Jesus would come back. But there was another component: the worse everything got, the more it proved that America needed saving, by us!”

In a nutshell, this explains why the minority party in Congress today—who, with the exception of a few eccentric secular libertarians, almost universally profess to be “born-again Christians”—have been not only betting on the failure of American government but doing everything in their power to ensure that it happens. Under an administration that they can’t control, their only objective is to snatch back the reins of power so they can continue their “work”—the work of subverting religion to serve the interests of the rich and powerful: to make the rich richer and the poor subservient to the wishes of those who claim to know best (because God speaks to them directly).

After decades of secrecy, the influence of religious, right-wing extremism on American government is beginning to be exposed by a few courageous journalists and writers. Responsible voters will take heed and question the motives of any political leader who claims to speak for God.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Power to the People

No one’s polled me lately about my attitudes toward government, but if they did, they might erroneously chalk me up as yet another dissatisfied citizen ready to arbitrarily “throw the bums out.”

The pollster would be partially correct. I’m an angry voter, too. But I’m selectively angry—angry at most of the members of the General Opposition Party (GOP) for the irresponsible and dishonest tactics they’ve used to try to discredit the president and reclaim the power to run America they way they want to. (That is to say, for their own enrichment and that of their wealthy and powerful patrons like banks, insurance firms, and oil companies.)

I’m angry at members of Congress who vote in lockstep with their radical and dishonest leaders to prevent government from functioning properly and progress from being made—just so they have something to blame on the Democrats. I’m angry, for example, when Republicans use the filibuster (once an extreme and unusual tactic) to block debate on virtually every issue, from extending unemployment benefits to appropriating funds for the military.

And yes, I’m angry at the president and many of the Democrats in Congress for being so polite about all this. It was the liberals, after all, who invented the notion of “politically correct,” and with a few notable exceptions (Anthony Weiner and Alan Grayson come to mind), Democrats tend to avoid the blunt and edgy rhetoric (not to mention the outright lies and innuendos) that the other side routinely employs. And I’m really tired of fair-minded Americans sighing and pretending that it’s “just politics” and that all politicians (and both parties) are equally at fault. That just ain’t so.

Is there an “enthusiasm gap”? Sure there is. For those of us who’ve been paying close attention, it’s become very depressing to watch what’s been going on in the political arena for the past 21 months or so. Conservatives, getting their “information” from the likes of Sarah Palin and their “values” from the likes of Christine O’Donnell, have been leaping after one distraction after another from the real business of politics. While we still mass produce filthy automobiles and Los Angeles swelters and melts on the hottest day in recorded history, while we’re feeling our way through a war and trying to recover from the worst economic disaster since 1929, conservatives (now synonymous with “Republicans”) are nattering about the president’s middle name and whether or not he attends church on Sunday and a proposed mosque in Manhattan.

I’m also angry at the American electorate—or at least the vast number of them that allow themselves to be led around by the nose by the likes of Glenn Beck. Even many who are not mesmerized by the propaganda on Fox News tend to be passive about politics. They go to the polls, do their civic duty by casting a vote, and wind up a new government like a clock. Then they go on about their business for two years or four years while the clock ticks down, expecting the government to run according to the people’s interests and complaining when it doesn’t seem to do that. Then they emerge, look around, vote for the first side that gets their attention, and go back to living their lives.

I'll vote, and I'll vote responsibly. But the marching and cheering ended after the last presidential election. Now is the time for work. And I hope that Republicans and Democrats alike will do the real intellectual work required to understand complex issues, avoid being influenced by mindless emotional manipultation, and figure out how to work together toward what our Constitution calls "the general Welfare."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Survival of the (Un-)Fittest

Watching the GOP primaries during the run-up to this year’s elections has been much like watching a National Geographic special on predatory pack animals. Like wolves or hyenas, Republicans appear to work together like a single organism in pursuit of what they see as a common goal—such as yesterday, when GOP Senators unanimously voted against even debating this year’s Defense Authorization Act because of a single amendment.

The pack works together in marvelous harmony. However, should any of their number be perceived as weak or wounded, the others turn instantly, savagely tearing apart and devouring their former pack mate.

Thus, as Lisa Murkowski fights for her political life in Alaska, her fellow GOP Senators have turned against her, making sure she pays a heavy political penalty for dodging politics as usual and making a play of her own.

Never mind that Joe Miller, Murkowski’s opponent and the now-official GOP nominee, is an extremist of the first order—an addle-pated states’-rights idealist who believes that unemployment compensation is unconstitutional and that the government “steals” money from people’s paychecks to pay for Social Security. The Tea Party-backed candidate, endowed with the blessing of Sarah Palin, has won the primary, and the pack is by-God sticking with him.

Murkowski has a long record as a devout Republican who worked hard for what she believed to be the best interests of her state. Having served in both the House and Senate since 1998, she has experience in how to get her way in Washington. Like any reasonably sensible member of Congress, she sees her role as finding a balance between the interests of her state and the interests of the nation.

To hear Joe Miller tell it, each state should be sovereign unto itself and each citizen a totally autonomous entity with no responsibility to contribute to the common good. (Click here for a somewhat sanitized version of his position statements.)

In terms of demographics, Alaska is a strange place, as most Alaskans would proudly admit. It’s a land of fiercely independent, rough-and-ready survivors, some of whom come out of the frozen Alaskan wilderness only once or twice a year to get supplies. In a state roughly equal in population to that of the city of Portland, Oregon, one vote goes a good deal further than it would in a more populous state. (Sarah Palin, for example, was elected governor on the basis of just over 114,000 votes—a mere 17,500 more than her Democratic opponent.)

In normal times, what plays well in Alaska wouldn’t necessarily play well in the rest of the country. Alaska has always been a place of extreme individualists, suspicious of government and determined to break everything down to the simplest terms. But in today’s Tea Party nation, notions that used to sound crazy are beginning to sound “normal” by virtue of repetition.

Thus we have a situation in which Joe Miller, an extremist even in a land of extremes, is poised to become one of a select 100 individuals who make decisions daily that have great impact on the lives of each and every American. Rather than contributing to our common interests, his goal is to destroy the very structure that makes it possible to pursue those interests. For all his frequent references to the Constitution, he’s not a man who knows or cares what it means to “promote the general Welfare.”

Together with other extremists and simplistic thinkers—Rand Paul, Sharron Angle, Christine O’Connell and the like—Joe Miller has emerged in this unique period of American history as a viable candidate for national office. Unless sanity prevails in the next election, he and others like him, who are unfit for national office, could set this nation back another generation in terms of growth and progress.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Philosophy vs. Ideology

At a Minnesota fund-raiser, Bill Clinton put his finger on the reason it's so hard to discuss politics or achieve consensus in the U.S.—too much dogma and too little philosophy:

"If you have a philosophy, it means you’re generally inclined one way or the other but you’re open to evidence. If you have an ideology, it means everything is determined by dogma and you’re impervious to evidence. Evidence is irrelevant."

This is a very interesting distinction, and one which pretty well sums up the great political divide in America.

People who subscribe to similar philosophies may argue the finer points of their world view, although they tend to agree on the basic premises. This requires real intellectual work and enough integrity to admit to doubts and uncertainties.

Ideologues, on the other hand, gloss over differences and march together in lockstep, espousing a particular point of view regardless of all evidence to the contrary. They put forth their own version of truth—be it "truth" about climate change, creationism, or the Constitution—and evidence be damned.

Sadly, the ideologues have a real advantage in politics. They can always speak with complete conviction, regardless of the truth or falsehood of their arguments. Thus, John Boehner can falsely claim that the Bush tax cuts created jobs and stimulated the economy; in fact, they added $38 billion to the deficit (one of a series of missteps by the Bush administration that turned a $128 billion surplus into a $490 billion deficit).

It's hard to talk to ideologues. They tend to be firm in their (sometimes literal) conviction that God is on their side and evidence that supports another view is the work of the devil.

How can any rational person argue with that?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How Can Anyone Not Love Politics?

Why buy a movie ticket when some of the most interesting characters on earth are constantly performing on the national stage?

America has certainly produced its share of kooks during the past couple of years (and some of the old ones, like McCain, have become decidedly kookier). But this business about Christine O’Donnell winning the Republican primary for Joe Biden’s old Senate seat in Delaware—well, it just goes to show you that anything can happen.

In education, I’ve run into my share of outsiders though the years—including legislators and school board members—who think they know much better than professional educators how the job should be done. As an engineer, my husband dealt often with clients whose attitude was, “I’m paying for that [dam, bridge, radio tower—insert your own device], and by God I’m going to tell you how to build it!” I guess most of us have encountered people from time to time who think so-called “common sense” should triumph over knowledge and experience.

But the Tea Party movement has honed to a science the art of elevating amateurs to the level of experts, and Christine O’Donnell is just the latest in a long string of examples—Rand Paul, Sharron Angel, Joe Miller—who know nothing about major issues and think shouting, sniping, and waving American flags is the same thing as governing a nation.

Ignorance does not equal innocence. And—at the risk of generating yet another fatuous comparison to Hitler—history has shown repeatedly that crazy people can be dangerous when they gain real power.

In any case, we’re now in a situation when a good percentage of voters in numerous states are happily marching off to political cliffs in the wake of minor celebrities whose only qualification for office is a nasty attitude toward government in general and Obama in particular.

So now we’re set for one of the most interesting—and also potentially catastrophic—midterm elections in American history.

Will the inmates take over the asylum? Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

9/11: A Time When Character Emerges

Yesterday afternoon in my town, I saw a man standing on the island in a busy intersection waving a sign that said, “Islam is a peaceful religion, and they’ll bomb anyone who says otherwise.”

The “they” he was referring to was obviously all of “them”—the approximately 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, including the several million who are law-abiding and productive citizens of the United States. Among these fine citizens is an outstanding social studies teacher I know, as well as a local imam who is as tolerant and peace-loving as any man I’ve ever met.

A minuscule number of fanatical Muslims plot murder and mayhem. Fanatical Christians do, too. In recent months, we’ve seen examples in the murder of Dr. George Tiller and the planned execution of police officers by a Christian militia group in Michigan. Both were despicable acts planned by Christians in the name of their religion. But what kind of idiot would stand in the middle of traffic with a sign accusing all Christians of murder?

Fanaticism is our enemy—not Muslims or Christians. The man on the corner was a fanatic—a sterling example of the kind of thinking that undoubtedly starts some murderous terrorists down the path to destruction.

It was sad and disturbing to see raw hatred and intolerance so blatantly broadcast on a public street. But I was heartened by the reaction of the driver in the car in front of me, who happened to get stopped by a red light right next to the man with the sign. The driver rolled down his window and said, “I’m sorry you chose this day to try to stir up more hate in the world. Let me ask you, fella, is this what Jesus would be doing today?”

From first ladies Michelle Obama and Laura Bush to ordinary folks in Manhattan, many people found much better ways to commemorate the tragic and unforgettable anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. In his own small way, perhaps the driver who confronted the sign carrier made the world a tiny bit better by choosing to speak up rather than be silent in the face of hate and fanaticism.

What I chose to do was to respond to an email I had at home with a small donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which does more than any other organization I know to fight hatred and promote tolerance.

If each of us chooses to respond to the messages of hate in the world with acts of service and messages of kindness, perhaps we could help reverse the tide of bitterness and animosity that seems so evident right now, here and in nations around the world.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Democrats and the Alleged “Enthusiasm Gap”

It’s sometimes amusing to watch the way a catchy phrase becomes a story and, through repetition, the story becomes established fact in the public mind. One such story lately has been the supposed “enthusiasm gap” pollsters think they see between Democrats and Republicans leading up the fall elections.

What is “enthusiasm”? Emotional engagement? Overt expression of emotion? Hysteria? If you see a madman raving on the street about an imminent Second Coming, I guess you could fairly say there was an “enthusiasm gap” between him and the calm, rational people passing him by on the sidewalk.

From the “Republican Revolution” of 1994 to 2008, I was among the many who watched in dismay while the party in power systematically dismantled much that was good about the American system of government and much that had been accomplished previously.

In terms of economics, debt rose astronomically and, unchecked and unregulated, banks and credit card companies started engaging in a number of shady and lucrative practices that brought the world economy to its knees in 2008. Good, effective regulatory agencies like FEMA, the EPA, and the FDA were gutted, defunded, and disempowered; then “government” in general was blamed for its lack of effectiveness in every national crisis, from food contamination to Katrina. America launched a pointless war in Iraq that destroyed countless lives and failed (spectacularly) to make the nation safer. Torture became American policy, and by the end of it all, America was despised the world over for its arrogance, aggression, and lack of responsibility toward the world and its environment.

How do people feel after a long, debilitating illness? After a tragic accident in which lives and limbs were lost? After the tragedy is over, and the rebuilding has begun, there may be relief, hope, and determination. However, these feelings do not amount to “enthusiasm”—not with so much work yet to be done.

And, in the case of America today, not with a good proportion of the country’s so-called leaders standing around with their arms crossed, refusing to pick up a shovel, determined to prevent any progress from being made unless they can be the ones calling the shots. (Yes, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, I’m talking about you.)

Given all this, it might be fair to say that Democrats like me aren’t feeling “enthusiasm.” And sure, many of us are disappointed that we as a nation haven’t been able to accomplish more in the past two years. Most of us would have liked to see a stronger health reform bill. We might wish we were further along the road to a clean, responsible energy policy, or that “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” were history by now. But we know how much has been accomplished so far, and we also know who-all is responsible for the lack of progress. (Hint: It’s not the president, nor is it most of the Democrats in Congress.)

So we Democrats won’t go marching off to the polls, shouting and waving American flags. Unlike many Fox News fans, we’re not perpetually pissed off—just quietly disappointed that people who want to do the right things for America have to work so darn hard to get them done.

We may not cast our votes with enthusiasm, but we’ll vote, and we’ll vote responsibly for sane, rational, forward-looking candidates who will work hard for America, regardless of who’s in charge.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Meghan McCain for Congress

A young, intelligent, Republican voice making the case for moderation and inclusiveness. What hope!

Racism and Intolerance: America’s Bitter Heritage

Clearly, there have been times in American history when, as now, the country was so politically polarized that opponents of the two sides could barely speak civilly to one another—much less have a conversation.

Since the Revolution—when “loyalists” maintained allegiance to the King and viewed the “patriots” as traitors—the great divides in this nation have had much to do with race. In the hundred years between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act, the cultural “Great Wall” in American was approximately the Mason-Dixon Line. The conservative extremism so evident in today’s American South owes much of its fervor to the not-so-long-ago struggle over integration.

Now another racially charged political line has been drawn in the sand in Arizona, where that state’s accidental governor, Jan Brewer, thrust herself into the national spotlight with her sponsorship of the draconian anti-immigration bill SP 1070. And yet another in Manhattan, where many Americans—most of them far, far away from New York City—have decided that building a community center and mosque is somehow a desecration of “hallowed ground.”

The presence of a peaceful center for those of the Islamic faith in Manhattan can and should be viewed as a triumph of American values, including freedom of religion, and a repudiation of any claim terrorists might have on being sanctioned by their faith. Real Muslims hate terrorism as much as real Christians—or real atheists, for that matter.

Sadly and ironically, however, the rhetoric of hate has been focused on this peaceful and well-established Manhattan community instead of on the real interlopers—Pastor Bill Keller and his so-called “Christian Center,” characterized by bigotry and intolerance.

These controversies have much to do with race, as well as the instinctive, primal fear that ignorant people feel about “the other”—whoever that may be.

Unscrupulous and irresponsible people—from Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh to Pastor Keller and Reverend Terry Jones—deliberately use racism and bigotry to stoke hatred in the fevered minds of the ignorant and the angry. They get rich and famous doing so.

These loudmouths and fanatics put a burden on those of us who know better to talk sense. But it’s a burden we must accept. If silence implies consent—and we know it does—then it is up to every “real American” (to borrow a phrase from Sarah Palin) to speak loudly and clearly in favor of tolerance, acceptance, and social responsibility.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Kathleen Parker for Congress

With groups as with individuals, real character shines through when they’re under pressure. Since it lost control of both Congress and the White House, today’s Republican Party has been under pressure, and the results have not been pretty.

GOP strategies for trying to discredit the president and any other Democrats with influence have ranged from petty lies and innuendo to stubborn, indiscriminate obstructionism on every issue. The radical right has set the tone for the whole party, as GOP leaders like John Boehner and Eric Cantor display the same strident, sarcastic attitudes as wing-nut commentators like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.

Those not enamored of Fox News have to wonder if there are any sane, rational people left on the right. There is at least one: Kathleen Parker, whose straight-forward and reasonable remarks on many subjects are worth considering.

While most conservatives have embraced the evangelical images of Palin and Beck as though they were real, Parker has been willing to tell the unvarnished truth: Palin may be cute, but she’s ignorant and Beck is messed up. Since they usurped the message and became standard bearers for right-wing radicalism, it’s been hard-to-impossible to have any public discussions in this country on matters of substance—from the economy to government oversight of industry to the posture of America in international relations. The strategy of the GOP is to create a lot of distracting white noise—a task the Palins and the Becks of this world are extremely good at doing—and prevent any meaningful dialogue until Republicans are in charge again.

Parker, however, just keeps talking reasonably about those things that really matter. Since she is a conservative and I’m a progressive, I disagree with much of what she has to say, of course. But then again, I often see her point. I respect her for her honesty, optimism, and thoughtful analysis of the issues.

Nobody really wants a one-party state. In a democracy, there’s a good case to be made for “loyal opposition.” Most of the GOP officials currently serving in Washington may be described as oppositional all right, but hardly “loyal.” And thanks to the Tea Party, some of those waiting in the wings to take their place are even worse: it’s hard to imagine that progress could be made or deep problem-solving could get done in a Congress that contains the likes of Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, and Joe Miller.

Today's problems require thoughtful and rational analysis and good-faith cooperation among people with differing views. While both the mainstream GOP and the right-wing Tea Party fringe seem to have little to offer, there is evidence that there are, in fact, rational conservatives among us. It is my fondest hope that a few of them will consider running for political office.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Political Climate: In Defense of Truth and Progress

I confess to being hooked on crime novels and mysteries. One of my favorite authors is Michael Connelly, creator of Harry Bosch, a Los Angeles detective with a conscience.

In City of Bones, for example, Bosch investigates the twenty-year-old murder of a boy. On two separate occasions, the case focuses on suspects who could easily be convicted of the crime—the kind of people whom society routinely dismisses and who would be unable or unwilling to participate in their own defense. The department wants the case closed, period, and Bosch is under a lot of pressure to stop looking as soon as he finds a suspect that could be convicted.

There’s only one problem: in the case against each of the suspects, something doesn’t add up. The detective’s highly developed intuitive instincts tell him something just isn’t right, and he refuses to stop looking until he finds the truth. He refuses to be satisfied with an answer that simply fits the narrative he wants to defend.

In politics and in American life, we need more people like Harry Bosch—people who won’t bend—or even torture—the truth to fit the narrative they want to defend.

For example, as convenient as it might be for the right, the current president is not a socialist, communist, radical, or Muslim. He’s a decent, honest, idealistic man who is morally sensitive, persuasive, and wickedly smart. He’s a complex man who’s motivated, at least in part, by a profound desire to improve lives and ensure that America, the most powerful and influential nation on earth, acts responsibly. He’s lived a very public life, and anyone who wants to know the truth about him could easily find it out.

Those who disagree with his principles or beliefs can argue them. For example, there are those who are genuinely convinced that an unfettered market can be benign or even altruistic—an assertion that many conservatives believe but most of the rest of us do not.

But to pick at the president’s religion, deny his birthright as an American, and viciously demonize him and those who agree with him (including Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) is simply wrong—intellectually and morally wrong.

In this land of political correctness, it’s fashionable to say that all politicians are the same, that both parties play the same games. But after seeing the way Republicans behave when out of power—especially during the Clinton administration and now in the past two years—it’s very clear to me that conservatives will win at any cost—any cost—and the truth be damned. From death panels to “raising taxes” (e.g., allowing the Bush tax cuts for the very rich to expire), lies have been treated as simply a tool in the anything-goes world of furthering the conservative agenda.

In trying to find consensus in the Senate, on one issue after another, the president has come up against a wall. Clearly, when they’re not in control, Republicans are simply not going to play—much less play fair. I’ve learned a similar lesson in trying to find common ground with my conservative friends. There comes a time when there’s just no point in talking to people who reflexively deflect every argument in favor of the narrative they’ve chosen to believe.

So in terms of politics, I guess I’ll try to spend my energy talking with people who habitually look for narratives that have the ring of truth. I’ll try to focus on how, not if—that is, how to use the power of government to improve lives and get a few things done, regardless of the obstacles others throw up in the path.

Getting things done: that, after all, is the meaning of “progressive.”

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

New Orleans: A Lesson in History

During the past few days, anyone in America who tunes into the news has had a chance to revisit the horrific catastrophe that befell New Orleans five years ago. There’s no two ways about it: government failed the citizens of that great city before, during, and after the tragedy.

Sadly, many citizens take from this the wrong message. They say government was the problem. That’s like blaming the house for a leaky roof: Whose responsibility is it to maintain the integrity of the house?

In the case of America, it was the Republican Party—actually, a saner, less radical version of today’s extremist GOP—that was in charge of America’s house for twelve years. They were the homeowners who failed to invest in the infrastructure of the Gulf Coast, disaster preparedness, and oversight of agencies like FEMA—investments that could have averted much of the damage and suffering caused by Katrina and its aftermath.

I’m not going to debate this with those who get their attitudes and information from Fox News—those who echo the talking points of extremist conservatives and scream about Obama in the same strident, snarky tone as Sarah Palin. You know who you are.

America needs a citizenry that recognizes propaganda when they see it (as in the network whose founding father recently donated $1 million to the Republican Senatorial Committee). We need voters who know that the government of America is all that separates us as a nation from countries like Iran and Bangladesh. We need a government that’s strong, efficient, respectful of individual liberties, and responsive to the needs of people as individuals.

We’ll never get—or keep— such a government by accident.

America, we bought this house two years ago. Let’s not be discouraged by the enormous amount of work needed to put it in order. If those formerly in charge want to continue to weigh in on the decisions that have to be made, let’s insist that they work with, instead of against, those who want to make the necessary repairs.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Glenn Beck and the “Restoration of Honor” Rally

At this point in American history, it’s entirely fitting that a celebration entitled “Restoration of Honor” be held in Washington D.C.

America is, indeed, in the process of reclaiming the right to hold its head up among nations. Torture is no longer a policy sanctioned and openly practiced by the national government. We’ve essentially ended the unjustifiable war in Iraq. Science is once again replacing superstition as a basis for public policy. The nation’s real leaders, in general, are seeking justice and telling the truth. We’re on our way to health care for everyone, fair banking practices, safety in the workplace, and energy policies that don’t strip the planet of clean air and water. We have much to celebrate.

It’s farcical, of course, that such a meeting should be convened by Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, unscrupulous entertainers who have helped to turn a major American political party into a propaganda machine for the purpose of enriching them and their various corporate sponsors.

I’m sure Beck and Palin are hoping to orchestrate a riot, ginning up baseless anger among their constituents—as they and other conservatives did with considerable success last year over the health reform debates. They’re hoping for a riot.

But a great man who gave an historic speech in the same place, and on the same day in 1963, had this to say about rioting: “It invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.”

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fox News and Misinformation about "The Mosque"

Here's an outstanding article about the lies, distortions, and fear-mongering that continue to characterize the "news" about Fox News' current conspiracy theory.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mainstream Media: Stooping to Their Level

The so-called national “debates” this week on the Manhattan mosque and Obama’s religion have almost accomplished the impossible: getting me to agree about something with Sarah Palin. At least on this occasion, I think the cable and network news organizations live up to her snarky appellation of “lamestream media.”

It’s not surprising that commentators at Fox News (which may be “lame” but is not “mainstream” in any sense of the word), have fallen on these non-stories like crows on a carcass. It goes right along with their consistent efforts to discredit the president by any means possible, as well as to distract viewers from the fact that the party of choice for most of them has had one simple message for the past two years: “No, no, no!”

With Congress and Wall Street on vacation, national news of substance can be a little thin in August. But journalists of integrity should be asking themselves: Should we really chase after any little piece of gossip anyone throws out there, regardless of its merit?

Anyone who followed the 2008 elections should remember that there was some controversy at the time over the pastor of Obama’s Christian church—a congregation he had belonged to for many years. Anyone who bothered to read his books should know that his only religious affiliation has been mainstream American Protestantism.

As for the Mosque in Manhattan, as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t live and work in that particular area of New York City, you don’t have a say. If Idaho potato farmers or bankers from North Dakota want to protest a mosque—or a cathedral or, for that matter, a pet store—in their neighborhood, I say more power to ‘em. But people who have absolutely no connection to New York City—and who don’t understand the differences in demographics between major metropolitan areas and the American heartland—should have the wisdom to withhold judgment about an issue that’s none of their business.

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, there are plenty of serious issues to discuss and a great deal riding on the upcoming midterm elections. Let’s get on with talking about some of the things that really matter.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Iraq: An Historic Moment

In the wee hours of yesterday morning in Iraq, a convey carrying the last American combat troops pulled over the border into Kuwait. From there, those troops will head back to the U.S., thus officially ending that war. “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the seven-year occupation of Iraq by the U.S. and its allies, has taken a terrible toll on the world.

In Iraq, up to 5 million people have been displaced from their homes, one-third of the children have been orphaned, and the fragile new government cannot provide its citizens with the most fundamental protection or services. Best estimates suggest that about 500,000 Iraqis have died as a direct result of the war. Perhaps most importantly for the entire region and the world, the chaotic new environment in Iraq now provides fertile ground for nurturing the world’s most radical terrorist organizations.

About 4,500 American troops died in the war, and over 30,000 suffered horrific injuries. A huge number of Americans who served—many of whom endured multiple deployments—have suffered serious psychological injuries. As the surviving veterans of the Vietnam war enter the last decades of their lives, many are still crippled by effects of the trauma they suffered on foreign soil. Now we have added a new generation of warriors who will struggle with the life-long symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which often include anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, drug and alcohol problems, erratic behavior, problems in relationships, and a high risk of suicide.

The entire economy of the U.S., as well as its structure of government, has been dramatically changed by the seven-year war, and direct costs to the treasury measure in the trillions of dollars.

The Iraq War and all of its effects are the legacy of George W. Bush.

This is why politics matter in America. This is why it matters for whom we cast our vote.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Devil's in the Details

Late summer 2010 finds Americans facing many of the same problems they faced last year and the year before, including crime, homelessness, and pollution, as well as the increasingly heavy social and economic burdens resulting from global climate change.

Meanwhile, conservatives natter on about an Islamic center in New York City—where none of the loudest critics actually live—while idealists on the left complain that progress isn’t being made fast enough on Guantanamo, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I guess the heat makes everybody cranky.

Progress in America—for those who actually want progress—often does seem to inch forward at a glacial pace. But that’s not the fault of the government. Nor is it really the fault of the political parties—which, after all, exist only at the whim of their constituents.

Rather, lack of progress—or even of a vision of what real progress should be—is the fault of individual voters who, collectively, tend to be short on attention and analysis and quick to respond to emotional triggers. As voters, we seem to have unlimited tolerance for allowing ourselves to be manipulated.

Also, we’re not very strong in the area of self-knowledge—specifically, in understanding what we know and what we don’t know.

For this reason, I think Malcolm Gladwell’s 2006 essay “Million-Dollar Murray” should be required reading for every American voter. (It can be found here and in Gladwell’s recent book entitled What the Dog Saw.)

Basically, the essay shows how “power-law solutions”—those that focus on the minority, the stubborn few cases that cause the vast majority of problems—applies to human problems. Using specific examples of homelessness, police brutality, and auto emissions, Gladwell shows how our inability to really solve these problems is tied to our national obsession with what feels right (rather than what is right):

“Power-law solutions have little appeal to the right, because they involve special treatment for people who do not deserve special treatment; and they have little appeal to the left, because their emphasis on efficiency over fairness suggests the cold number-crunching of Chicago school cost-benefit analysis.”

It’s not natural for most of us to focus on the few rather than the many—and in America, it tends to violate our deeply ingrained feelings about being politically correct. But looking at the “big picture” is often the wrong approach to trying to solve problems. The devil’s in the details.