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.”