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.