Friday, December 25, 2009

The Seeds For The Decade From Hell

TIME magazine recently called the 2000-2009 years “The Decade From Hell.” Which, of course, has led many commentators to the next level of adjective inflation by calling it “the worst decade ever.” It is perhaps easy to understand the temptation to apply that appellation to this thankfully-ending decade:

  • Two wars are still going on, both longer than any war except Viet Nam, one of which in Afghanistan is essentially being restarted from scratch after eight years;
  • We are now billions of dollars more in debt given a complete throwaway of government fiscal responsibility at all levels from all political parties;
  • We are very gradually coming out of the worst economic disaster since the 1930s, spread across the country in varying degrees but not across all strata of our population;
  • Traditional pillars of our economic society have collapsed into bankruptcy, a result of mismanagement, greed, and short-sighted thinking, forcing us into government bailouts of undeserving companies as the necessary lesser of two bad options;
  • Yet in spite of such bailouts, we have witnessed an unrepentant arrogance from such mis-managers, failing to reform their expectations and ways of thinking;
  • Unemployment, bankruptcies, homelessness are all up, personal income and asset valuations are down.

There are certainly many causes for gloom at this year-/decade-end. I am sure anyone could add to this short list of negatives. Decade from hell? That seems to fit. But worst decade ever? We’re still far away from the 1930s; its 25% unemployment pales our 10%. And that full-blown international depression lasted through the entire decade; we’re only one year into our recession. So let us give our parents/grandparents of that generation credit for patience, stamina, and perseverance. And ultimate success.

The 1940s started badly with our entry into the incomprehensible horrors of World War II fought by the “greatest generation” now dying off. It ended with the baby boomer population spurt now moving into senior citizenship. And it spawned the new economic middle class that anchors us today.

The 1950s had its Cold War with Russia, visions of atomic bombs falling on school children hiding underneath their wooden desks (!) or in backyard underground shelters, and the frightening specter of McCarthyism shredding our Constitution – thereby planting the seeds of “the politics of fear.” In the end, scare tactics and fears of cataclysmic destruction went unrealized in the overall tranquility of Eisenhower.

Which gave way to the tumult of the 1960s/1970s. Two back-to-back hellish decades. Our reinvigoration by Kennedy was lost in his assassination, setting the stage for 20 years of violence as a political solution. High expectations continually gave way to dashed results: Johnson’s Great Society produced some long-lasting institutions in the social safety net and civil rights. But it lost its momentum and coalition in the climate of Viet Nam. The great adventure and challenge of landing on the moon became seen as a frivolous indulgence. The peace and love of Woodstock died in the drug centers of Haight-Ashbury. “Peace with Honor” was tripped up and exposed in a place called Watergate, and the seeds of “the politics of hate” were planted. And just when “our long national nightmare [was] over,” Ford (correctly) pardoned Nixon and a Georgia peanut farmer lost his way in a “great national malaise” of gas lines, sweaters in the White House, and hostages in Iran. These were truly consecutive decades of hell.

Followed by a decade in 1980 of optimism and a re-found sense of humor – at least on surface. “Supply side economics” was rightfully exposed as “voodoo economics.” We pulled out of a short recession, but savings and loan institutions went bankrupt due to a lack of oversight. Deregulation came into vogue and generated much prosperity, though the wealthy / middle class / poor gaps grew wider while public accountability began to fade. “Greed is good” brought “let the buyer beware” to a new zenith, threatening the stabilities achieved from our 1930s lessons learned. The seeds for future financial ruin were planted here, hidden by feel-good sunny optimism, yet waiting to belatedly sprout in this last decade like the choking southern kudzu weed. But the Berlin Wall came down, the Iron Curtain was raised, the Cold War defrosted, and a genuine Middle East threat was stopped by a truly united coalition with a clear and limited objective.

And minus a woman named Monica, the 1990s were pretty good for us. Economic prosperity, international cooperation in the Balkans, overall stability. But the dual seeds of terrorism and the “politics of winning over governing” were being planted during this period, the “ bubble” was looming, yet computer programmers the world over successfully averted a very real potential “Year 2000” catastrophe.

Which brought us 2000-2009. The decade when the accumulated seeds sprouted. Fear and hate sprouted as the Constitution was turned inside out “to keep us safe.” Deregulation sprouted as our economy was handed over to unchecked incompetents with a responsibility only to their own wallets, and a willing public believed there was no cost to prosperity. Terrorism exploded upon us, reflecting years of our patronizing dismissal of other cultures and an arrogant belief in our own self-righteous virtue. And government became paralyzingly ineffective amid a partisan priority for winning versus “governing to the greater good.” A lot of chickens came home to roost in our own back yards in this decade, living within the flowering weeds from seeds we planted years ago.

So what can we expect from this forthcoming “teens” decade? Another decade from hell, or a decade of regeneration? It could go either way. If we are still thinking and acting in our 2000-9 mentality, then it could be grim. If we have learned anything from that decade, and we can apply those lessons with patience, it could be a positive redirection of our collective and individual selves. Like the sick patient, we need to 1) stop the bleeding, 2) then stabilize, 3) then redefine our health regime, then 4) then work through long-term rehabilitation. We’ve done step 1 and are in step 2 right now. If the negative media and politicians do not overwhelm us first, the signs and metrics of recovery are all there. It has taken us a few decades to mess things up this way. If we have the confidence, commitment, and stay-with-it-ness, the Decade of Hell may not lead to the Decade of Heaven. But it may lead to the Decade of Renewal that we need. And individual and national renewal could be pretty damn good.

Happy New Year, and Best Wishes for the New Decade.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Happy Holidays - Revisited

(TIME Magazine recently stated that only 22% of people polled preferred to use a “Happy Holidays” greeting during this holiday season, versus a “Merry Christmas” greeting. In the midst of the Hanukkah celebration, upcoming Christmas, the winter solstice for nature observers, and all other forms of seasonal festivities, it seemed appropriate to repeat the following modified blog from December 13, 2007.)

NEWS ITEM: “(New York) A group of people exchanging holiday greetings on a subway last week hurled anti-Semitic slurs and beat four Jewish riders who had wished them “Happy Hanukkah,” authorities said. The prosecutor’s office was investigating a possible hate crime.” (USA Today, 12/12/07)

In our country’s continuing need to create a controversy where there need not be one, we have now annualized this penchant. I refer to the great “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas” cloud that hangs over salesclerks everywhere. What does one say to a stranger in this season of joy and love for people of virtually all faiths over an extended calendar of celebration?

I guess there are some folks who feel it to be their First Amendment and unalienable right and spiritual obligation to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Whether the recipient celebrates Christmas or not, or celebrates within a Christian or secular context, and usually without bothering to ask. Where companies have asked employees to use the Happy Holidays greeting (a meaningful wish applicable to virtually all peoples), employee groups and speeches from the pulpit decry once again “another assault on religion.” I think such outraged individuals have it backwards. If I may, I will use a personal story to illustrate.

When I left my native Arkansas at 21 to go to Boston, a more Wonder-bread kid from a homogeneous white Protestant environment could probably not be found. (What diversity existed in my town was out-of-sight/out-of-discussion, e.g. non-Protestants, Blacks.) Yet in Boston I found myself in a completely foreign melting-pot environment unlike any I had known. Religions, cultures, nationalities, with all their various Americanizations, were all there. Reflecting against all of these new experiences caused me to have to go back and understand where I had come from in my safe, all-the-same upbringing. It was a head-swirling multi-year process of change and assimilation, all for the far better I know.

On my return to Boston after a 2-year absence, I became dear friends with a couple whose history could not have been more different. Raised in New York City, in close knit Jewish communities, immersed in the performing arts, I seemingly had nothing in common with them at all. But over the years I learned so much from them and their family and friends. Not just about Jewish culture, but about many other cultures as well and the ability to all live together, given their broad exposure to such versus my nil.

For years, when the December holidays came around, I always sent them and his parents a Christmas card. Because Christmas cards is what I did every year. It was an unthinking reflex. Kind people that they are, they never pointed out to me my un-thoughtfulness, but just accepted the wish in good (and probably bemused) grace.

It was probably 15-20 years later when, out of the blue, it suddenly hit me how backwards I had been. Christmas is MY holiday, MY set of long memories. Their holiday, their memories, are of a different celebration and meaning --- in their case Hanukkah. I take joy when they wish me a Merry Christmas, their knowing that is a special time for me and my family. In my special feelings for them, I finally realized that my heart should wish them not my holiday but theirs: Happy Hanukkah, the holiday that brings similar seasonal warmth to them.

There are millions of non-Christians in this country (@25% of the population), and many non-religious celebrators of Christmas. Many no longer live in isolated homogeneous communities, but increasingly we live intermixed all together. One can choose to “spread the Gospel” in the winter holiday time, or one can express true love and acceptance of each other and their respective celebrations. People who insist on the “right” to wish a Merry Christmas to people whose tradition of observance is different are in fact being very selfish. They make themselves feel better, but they are not truly spreading “joy and good will to others.”

Our country’s diversity is one of our strengths. But say Happy Birthday to me on my birthday, not yours. Wish me a happy 4th of July, not a Happy Bastille Day. Wish people joy and peace in their own personal form. And if you don’t know, or haven’t tried to understand another’s culture, don’t assume; just know that “Happy Holidays” really does work just fine.

Happy Holidays and Peace be to each of you, and to your friends and families, my readers.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Our Cultural Labels

I was born in America; I am an American. I was born in one of the Confederate succession states of 1861-1865, within a mainly Scot-Irish immigrant ancestry extending back through states of the Old South; I am a Southerner. I was born and raised in Arkansas, on the Oklahoma border; I am an Arkansan, with a western trace. My American / Scot-Irish / Southern / Arkansan heritage was geographical, distinctly cultural, religious, and familial, all within a predominantly conservative homogeneous setting.

At 21, I moved to Boston, Massachusetts for college. Excepting 2 years after college, I stayed in New England for the next 38 years. My geography, my religious connections, my exposure to vastly different and varied peoples, and my thinking about the world, all evolved. Homogeneity became heterogeneity. So am I now a liberal New England Yankee?

Except that now I am living in the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina, another distinctly different locale. North Carolina was the home of my primary maternal and paternal ancestors. Am I a transplanted Arkansan or New Englander? Or have I simply returned to my original roots?

In the past, perhaps after one ancestral adventurer moved to start a new beginning, people for the most part lived and died within one place. That one place contained a significant portion of their lineage, siblings and extended family. And that place existed in a culture and support framework extending probably no more than a 100 mile diameter circle. That culture typically lived in near isolation except for tourists passing through, or the books, magazines or movies that gave vague, intangible hints of different worlds beyond. In this isolation, native foods, speech patterns, indigenous careers, and community standards and values took deep roots, flowering vastly different landscapes. If you did travel, you knew clearly that you “weren’t in Kansas anymore.”

As television broadcast images and a standard speech pattern instantly and incessantly across the country (and globe), as franchised food outlets nationalized regional foods, as shopping malls replaced local downtowns with bland repetitive line-ups of national chain stores, our distinct localism and regionalism is being irrevocably lost. With “fresh” Maine lobster, Californian See’s candies, Chicago pizza, and New York cheesecake now available anywhere, the anticipation and surprise of exploring new territories and experiences are increasingly only fond recollections. Sameness, rather than individuality, seems to have become a national priority. When southern-style sweet tea is now available in a prepackaged bottle at McDonald’s in Connecticut, we know that distinctive regionalism and individual identity have suffered a major casualty! The desire for new experiences loses out to the quest for the comfort and safety of familiarity.

Why does all of this matter? Because I believe this increasing loss of geographic / regional / cultural identity contributes to people’s current sense of loss of personal identity. To an increasing anger at a perceived loss of individuality in favor of standardization. A fear of an ill-defined force that is pushing a sameness onto each of us, with a mandate for thinking and behavior that is disconnected from our everyday world. It is a force that seems oblivious and unaware of the framework and reality of our daily lives. It is a force felt regardless of political party affiliation, conservative or liberal bents, religious beliefs, ancestral heritage, geography or race.

So when we see people rallying against health care reform, health is often only a tangential issue. When we see record numbers of people lined up at gun shows to make purchases, the right to bear arms is often only a tangential issue. When “tea baggers” hold up their anti-tax signs, taxes are often only a tangential issue. When “birthers,” led by demagogic politicians and broadcasters, question the citizenship of our current president, citizenship and one’s right to hold presidential office are often only tangential issues. At the heart of these emotional displays is a reaction to a sense of threat to people’s personal life, their personal control over that life, and the disappearance of one’s local community and cultural familiarity. The world feels too big; the individual too small and still shrinking.

This past week, Switzerland passed a public referendum prohibiting the construction of new minarets – those distinctive spires on top of Islamic mosques. This in spite of there being only four minarets currently in the whole country. Switzerland is that historically fanatically-neutral country famous for taking sides on no question, with a long tolerance of multiple cultures and religions. Yet in a country with a Muslim population less than 6% of the Swiss population, cultural fears and perceived threats were aroused and dominated the vote. Spain and Germany have similarly grappled with mosque architectural construction in these long-standing Christian countries, while France and England increasingly struggle with issues arising from growing immigrant cultures. Underneath these struggles is the fundamental question –what does it now mean to be, or look to be, an Englishman, a Frenchman, a German or Spaniard? Where will all those Swiss A-frame cottages or French chateaus go? As some here grapple with having a president who looks very different than all those other presidential portraits, how do the French, the most adamant in preserving their native culture, now respond to a French president with a non-French ancestry?

I expect that Europe, with its history of small homogeneous nation-states, will struggle mightily over the next several years with this issue of cultural / national identification. We in America have been multi-cultured from our founding. Yet even with our long experience, our track record for assimilation has been, and is, very spotty. Underneath our immigration discussions, our educational policies, our “national versus local action” debates, we are in fact still often asking ourselves, “What does it mean to be a southerner, a westerner, a Californian, a Texan, a Vermonter? What does it mean to be an American?” And is our personal label really relevant anymore?

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Cancer Of Hypocrisy

There are a couple of topics that send me right to my personal soapbox. (That statement will be no surprise to friends who know me well!) One of those topics is encounters with hypocrisy. Meaning people’s ability to act with complete disregard for what they have stated. Or similarly, one’s use of selective memory to avoid linking current actions / statements to past actions / statements.

The ability to change one’s mind can be a strength of character. It is why we inquire intellectually, consider intuitively, learn spiritually, and (hopefully) conclude rationally. As our knowledge expands and our experiences broaden, our conclusions evolve over time IF we take the time to reflect on these. It is what we call maturity or wisdom. If learning is continuous, it is supposedly what differentiates child from adult.

The American public can actually be quite understanding and accommodating to public officials who change their minds on an issue, whose statements of values evolve, whose current actions contrast with their actions in prior periods. I have long opposed political campaigns that reach back 20-30 years and trumpet some youthful indiscretion, early writings, or now-questionable judgments. We all have our skeletons, our tapes we’d like to erase, our do-overs we wish were available, our regrets.

The key to public acceptance of a “change of mind” is that it is an acknowledged CHANGE of one’s position. Meaning that there is a) confirmation of a once-held old position; b) an explanation of what new has been learned (the transition); and c) an acknowledgement that today’s opinion or action is a departure from the past. We may not agree with that new position, and we may be disappointed that the change happened within a particular individual. But if it is a change from a position of integrity, we are able to at least respect that integrity.

On that basis, Nixon’s public “rehabilitation” after his resignation began only after genuinely and finally acknowledged his culpability in the Watergate fiasco. 20 years later, Ted Kennedy presented Gerald Ford with a Profile in Courage award, acknowledging publicly that he was wrong and Ford was right in pardoning Nixon and moving country forward. In the 1980s, George Wallace rejected his past resistance to civil rights and black equality, and acknowledged he was wrong in leading this resistance. Each gained credibility with their change of heart. Few politicians today are willing to follow similar suit.

Hypocrisy is a whole ‘nother matter from integrity. Hypocrisy acknowledges no prior action or statements, even though they in fact existed. Hypocrisy makes no explanation of a change of heart, or an evolved viewpoint. Hypocrisy ignores counterarguments, relevant information, or very real impacts on people resulting from a new position. Hypocrisy manages to live comfortably between conflicting public-serving words (pandering) and self-serving actions.

Why is this discussion important to raise at this time? Because hypocrisy infests so many of our institutions and discussions of the day. The most notable political example of this is within the Republican Party’s wholesale rejection of any new health care reform because “it would raise the federal budget deficit over $1 trillion over 10 years.” So Republicans are now our guardians of federal budget integrity? In my blog of September 18, I reported the history of budget deficits 1969-2009, which showed major deficit jumps during the Reagan/GWBush years, and further large increases with GWBush and a Republican-controlled Congress. Digging further: there are currently 40 Republicans in the U.S. Senate. 25 of these were already in office when GWBush was inaugurated; 15 were elected during Bush’s 2001-2008 terms; 3 are serving their 1st year in office. This means that virtually all of the current U.S. Republican senators protesting budget deficits were all there when the biggest deficits ever were run up. (I suspect the same results would show up looking at Republican tenures in the House.) So why would we give any of these politicians any credibility on this subject? Fight health care on its merits if you wish, but please spare us newly-found and un-credible moral outrage.

We get great pronouncements of moral indignation and expectations from politicians and religious leaders of all affiliations who subsequently are found committing the very same moral failings they railed against. Would-be anti-homosexual and “family value” protectors are found in fact to be what they protest against. Governors who protested federal TARP money are front and center for the photo ops when the those checks are given out to constituents. Anti-corruption prosecutors and governors prove to be corrupt themselves. Religious leaders who condemn perceived “sinners” ignore their founder’s words of love and forgiveness. The Cardinal of Boston gave a funeral mass to Ted Kennedy, yet was strongly criticized by some Catholic leaders because Kennedy did not support the Church’s position on abortion; balanced against Kennedy’s lifetime of committed effort to bring health care, education and opportunity to America’s disadvantaged, who do we think came out the more ethically compassionate in this public argument?

Hypocrisy reveals claims of a “greater purpose” and “higher good” to be, in fact, blatant self-serving personal promotion. Facts are irrelevant; history is not acknowledged; responsibility is not taken; integrity is not present. In this age of video archives and Google Internet searches, one wonders why someone would seek to deny where they have been. The old and new displayed side-by-side. Past meets future. When the two do not match up, both individual and institutional credibility crumbles; credibility gives way to cynicism.
This is what we now see: low approval ratings of politicians from all parties at all governmental levels; declining church enrollments; reduced charitable support; lack of informed dialog. We need to acknowledge our past, whatever it may have been. Then we can build productively on that past, rather than wasting time running away from it. We need to humbly accept that holding high positions of trust is less important than serving honestly in those positions.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Despair

Recently, President Obama addressed a dinner of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington. In that address, he once again pledged to end at the federal level discrimination based upon sexual orientation, including a repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law that restricts the service of gays/lesbians in the military. The predicable hue and cry resulted, with the gays/lesbians and the political left saying “when, right now” and the conservative side saying “no, never.”

The truth is that America has always had a history of discrimination. This truth is somewhat all the harder to fathom given our multi-cultural history from our beginning. British middle-to-upper class society dominated the governance and economy of this country from Day 1 in Jamestown. That dominance was unchecked for all of the 17th through 19th centuries. Not until the early 1900s did that yoke begin to break for the other cultural, racial and gender groups.

The Irish were told they “need not apply”; the Jews and Catholics were excluded most social clubs, private schools and politics; African-Americans had their separate entrances / water fountains / sitting and living areas while working as modern-day indentured servants; Native-Americans forcibly surrendered their land and were confined to specific reservations (unless white Americans found that they wanted that land’s resources after all); women had no voting and limited property ownership rights; Asians worked in laundries and restaurants, and helped build a railroad; and Mexicans, once the proud owners of their southwestern lands, became the field hands for harvesting and the gardeners of landscapes. Other groups were similarly relegated to specific niches of American society.

The American War Between The States freed the African-American from outright slavery, but consigned him/her to de facto slavery by ostracization and economic exclusion. But that war was also the first step in bringing out into the open a recognition of the need to end inequality in America. So we thusly began the long, slow, but deliberate march towards the true fulfillment of “all [humans] are created equal.” The three rungs in achieving this movement have been through access to 1) education, 2) economic opportunity, and 3) politics.

I am of the opinion that true fundamental change in cultural beliefs and attitudes takes at least 3 generations to achieve, and only then after concerted efforts and milestones by the parties involved to build the bridges required. Bluntly speaking, you have to wait for the old people, the original ones with their vested interest, to die off and end the “righteous cause” that they continue to espouse. By that yardstick, peace will never come to the Middle East until the original fighters and homeowners in the 1948 partition conflict die off. Ditto with China and Tibet, as well as others. Even so, left unchecked, the hatreds and suspicions can go on seemingly forever, passed from generation to generation in a near blood oath. So the Britain / Scotland / Ireland conflicts remain backdrops after 1000 years, the Sunni / Shiite Islamic conflict remains after 1500 years, and various Mediterranean and Baltic countries still pursue long-held agendas over ethnic cleansing, holocaust, and cultural annihilation.

By that measure of sustained resistance, we have moved forward quite remarkably in America in pursuit of genuine cultural equality, even given how much more remains to be done. Blacks broke into the military during the Civil War and continued through World War II, albeit in segregated units until President Truman officially ended that. In 1919 women became able cast a vote; women were elected as governors of Wyoming and then Texas in 1925; a woman from Arkansas was the first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1932; and FDR appointed the first female cabinet member in the 1930s. The U.S. Supreme Court over time has now incorporated virtually all cultural representatives, though it still remains insufficiently balanced in any given year. A non-Protestant became president in 1960, and a non-white in 2008. Over time, the American workforce has shifted from a predominantly white, married, suburban, male breadwinner to instead reflect virtually all cultures / races / genders in most every profession, though issues of equal pay and advancement continue. Other examples of substantial change exist everywhere.

In most all successful instances, integration and equality have been achieved from the bottom up, moving through the ranks, typically at great pain &/or loss to those in the forefront. But as little children of all races play together, as adults of all cultures and gender work side-by-side, the old barriers and animosities can gradually fall away over time. Not in a grand overnight swoop, but in that plodding but straight-ahead drive that cannot be stopped; 1 step backward or sideways, but always with 2 steps following forward. So when I return to my boyhood home in Arkansas, I drive by the old Negro public housing settlement, and the park and swimming pool nearby set aside uniquely for them. Except they are all thankfully torn down and gone now. There is only one entrance door to all facilities, not “separate but (un-)equal” ones.

In the future, America will undoubtedly continue to refine and improve its equal access to all. We have come so very far from the Brown v. Board of Education decision of the 1950s, the starting line of this past 55 years of our current push to genuine equality. Gays/lesbians in the military will ultimately go the same route and outcome as of female cops – incapable ones will be weeded out, and competent ones will prove to work side-by-side and ably protect their co-workers as well as any straight male. The immediate legal barrier will ultimately fall away, never as soon as we would like, but as inevitable as it must be.
All of the legal and social pushes being made now have to continue unabated. Yet in the end, it is all about personal abilities and competency, while realizing that all other perceived issues are incredibly irrelevant. I am confident that, in 20-30 years when my five granddaughters approach middle-age adulthood, they are likely to look back at 2009 and wonder in amazement what all the fuss was about in the first place.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The State Of Our Current Being

I recently had a good friend visit and spend awhile on this mountain. Among other things, one of the reasons that he came was to talk with me about his concerns for the current political and social climate here in America. Some of that concern was exacerbated by his sense of loss of the hope he had felt from the November 2008 election results. A loss that a hoped-for new climate and change of direction were finally imminent. Instead, by the end of this summer, we had witnessed a critical low point in civility, common sense, and creative thinking. Extreme radicalism had cornered the market of news and public discourse. His discouragement and pessimism were easy to understand.

We are living in a time of pronounced fear all around us. Where there is fear, there is always the twin close by – anger. These are the fraternal twins, always one with the other, two faces from a common source. Fear comes from our sense of helplessness when the world around us, the future we projected for ourselves, or the support structures for our security and survival that we came to believe in, come crashing down. Anger comes from our sense of powerlessness to stop that crash, to extricate ourselves from these unwanted changes, or to find the tools by which to restore our personal order.

Eight years ago the Twin Towers in New Your City were destroyed within one hour in a seemingly irrational act by people whom we did not know were angry at us for reasons we had no understanding of. Believing that “it could happen anywhere to any of us,” our illusionary sense of well-being was shattered. Fear set in. Unfortunately, some of our political leaders chose to prey upon that fear and tried to draw us towards a false dream of personal and national security, done out of their own short-sighted sense of exaggerated righteousness. If we agreed to let them loose, they would make everything all right again for us (and the world), and we needed not even disrupt our lives nor make any personal sacrifice for them to achieve this.

Jump forward to 2008. Thousands of American soldiers have been killed and maimed, yet there was no collective sense that we are any safer from outside terrorists. The entire banking system was set to collapse, echoing the Great Depression of 1928-1940. Jobs were disappearing, with talk of new bread lines. Retirement savings were slashed, if not wiped out, by the stock market tanking. People were losing their homes due to bad, over-sold mortgages and lost jobs. Bernie “Made-off” stole $65B of other people’s money with no apology, while story after story of individual and corporate greed splashed all over the headlines. General Motors and other stalwarts of American capitalism were driven to bankruptcy by incompetent business executives. And sick people died, well people became sick, and healthy people feared getting sick because everyone had to finally acknowledge a truth – that in this richest of countries, deserving people could not get needed health security without losing their financial security.

And so as is always the case, fear of what was happening all around went to anger. Lots of screaming about political philosophy, government takeovers, the death of capitalism. Lies and distortions from self-serving broadcasters and politicians took over the news media and Internet, with seemingly no one willing or of the stature to stand up and say “Enough” to these untruths. Se we had people taking guns to political rallies in order to strut their would-be importance. Hitler moustaches on Obama faces, racial name-calling and images, shout-downs at public forums. This is where anger took us. It is in fact an ugly picture. It is not the American picture we have previously believed in.

Yet we have been here before in American history. We have lynched people whom we deemed the lesser of us. We have killed religious leaders of different persuasions or burned them as witches. We have protested in marches and “tent cities” in Washington. We have segregated people and ideas different from our own into separate ghettos, locations or entertainment facilities. And some similarly fought a Social Security program in the 1930s and Medicare in the 1960s rather than provide comfort and dignity to our fellow citizens. We have long had the capacity to shut out that which is different, and attack and do violence to that which we feel threatens us.

But as the wise Yogi Berra once counseled us, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” We are at another one of those forks. In one direction is to continue on the fear path. Let an illusion of “the good old days,” demanding personal security and status quo at all costs, and an unwillingness or inability to adapt be our only goals. In which case anger will continue to fuel the engine of our thinking, speech and actions. America may well go this way. I hope not. And it does not have to.

Alternately, we can acknowledge the reality of our fears, yet not give in to them. We can swallow hard, take a deep breath, and plunge ahead believing that we still have the capacity to make our individual and collective lives right. By doing the right thing while looking long-term. We have cause to believe in that: GM may be smaller, but it is still in business and employing people; no one talks about the banking industry collapsing anymore; overall, the stock market is moving in the right direction. However slowly, most all steps are moving in the right direction, but we are not there yet. The sky has not yet fallen.

We have been on a very questionable road this past decade, if not the past three decades. A road of questionable ethics, goals, economics, and spiritual values. A road where the signs said “American might wins all; financial success is the one true goal however you need to get there; other people are on their own; my way or not at all.” The political establishment of 2001-2008 showed us clearly the folly of that narcissism. But it takes a near-complete collapse of that folly, such as we are currently experiencing, before we can perhaps be willing to change our direction. Before our love of the old past can give way to the necessary future. Optimism is in the LONG view. The human truth is that we do not change our thinking or direction until the “pain of right now” is greater than our fear of an unknown future. Future by definition is that which we cannot envision clearly, but in which we have faith.

We have frankly needed this social and economic disaster to open the possibility for us to change direction, temper our beliefs. It is change that is necessary, however painful. Will we? Which of Mr. Berra’s forks will we take? Will emerging new voices leave behind old views and speak for a new American future? That future is not certain. But yes, Paul, I still remain hopeful and yes, even optimistic.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Who Is Minding The Budget?

In this season of irresponsible rhetoric instead of reasoned debate about all kinds of genuine national issues and needs, I offer the following historical comparative history of our budget deficits since 1969. As people try to self-portray themselves as the “party of change” or the “party of fiscal conservatism,” or whether budget deficits matter or not, a look at the actual track record of federal deficit spending and who was in charge may prove to be helpful to us in some part.

Year / Budget Result / President / Senate Control / House Control
1969: -0.5B (Johnson-D; Senate-D; House-D)
1970: -8.7 (Nixon-R; Senate-D; House-D)
1971: -26.1 (Nixon-R; Senate-D; House-D)
1972: -26.1 (Nixon-R; Senate-D; House-D)
1973: -15.2 (Nixon-R; Senate-D; House-D)
1974: -7.2 (Nixon-R; Senate-D; House-D)
1975: -54.1 (Nixon-R; Senate-D; House-D)
1976: -69.4 (Ford-R; Senate-D; House-D)
1977: -49.9 (Ford-R; Senate-D; House-D)
1978: -55.4 (Carter-D; Senate-D; House-D)
1979: -39.6 (Carter-D; Senate-D; House-D)
1980: -73.1 (Carter-D; Senate-D; House-D)
1981: -73.9 (Carter-D; Senate-D; House-D)
1982: -120.6 (Reagan-R; Senate-R; House-D)
1983: -207.7 (Reagan-R; Senate-R; House-D)
1984: -185.3 (Reagan-R; Senate-R; House-D)
1985: -221.5 (Reagan-R; Senate-R; House-D)
1986: -237.9 (Reagan-R; Senate-R; House-D)
1987: -168.4 (Reagan-R; Senate-R; House-D)
1988: -192.3 (Reagan-R; Senate-D; House-D)
1989: -205.4 (Reagan-R; Senate-D; House-D)
1990: -277.6 (G.H.W. Bush-R; Senate-D; House-D)
1991: -321.4 (G.H.W. Bush-R; Senate-D; House-D)
1992: -340.4 (G.H.W. Bush-R; Senate-D; House-D)
1993: -300.4 (G.H.W. Bush-R; Senate-D; House-D)
1994: -258.8 (Clinton-D; Senate-D; House-D)
1995: -226.4 (Clinton-D; Senate-D; House-D)
1996: -174.0 (Clinton-D; Senate-R; House-R)
1997: -103.2 (Clinton-D; Senate-R; House-R)
1998: -29.9 (Clinton-D; Senate-R; House-R)
1999: +1.9 (Clinton-D; Senate-R; House-R)
2000: +86.4 (Clinton-D; Senate-R; House-R)
2001: -32.4 (Clinton-D; Senate-R; House-R)
2002: -317.4 (G.W. Bush-R; Senate-D; House-R)
2003: -538.4 (G.W. Bush-R; Senate-D; House-R)
2004: -568.0 (G.W. Bush-R; Senate-R; House-R)
2005: -493.6 (G.W. Bush-R; Senate-R; House-R)
2006: -434.5 (G.W. Bush-R; Senate-R; House-R)
2007: -342.2 (G.W. Bush-R; Senate-R; House-R)
2008: -638.1 (G.W. Bush-R; Senate-D; House-D)
2009: In Process (G.W. Bush-R; Senate-D; House-D)

SOURCE: non-partisan Congressional Budget Office

Fiscal years end October 31; budget proposed and passed in prior year by prior President and Congress.
Amounts shown are in Billions

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Health Care - What We Need

Over the past two blogs, we have looked at the significant distortions that have permeated the health care reform debate. Unfortunately, that ugly distortion will most certainly continue. But now we are coming down to the wire. What will we aim for, what we will accomplish or not, all will crystallize as everyone comes back from the summer. It has been a summer of phony town meetings and rabble-roused theatrics at the expense of bringing health care relief and security to Americans. As the political name-calling and bartering and headline grabbing continue, what should be our health care priorities for all Americans?

1. All American citizens should have access to a basic package of life-sustaining care regardless of age or income. The bar for that basic level care should be the same for all.
2. All American citizens should have the right to purchase additional health care services above that basic package to the extent of their financial capability. The reality of life is that certain high-tech, high-intensity services will never be able to be sufficiently marshaled and delivered to all who need it. De facto rationing is, and always will be, present. This two-tiered system for health care is the same as we now have for public/private education.
3. Access to care, and the scope of coverage for that care, should be independent of one’s employment status or having a specific employer. Health care is a personal requirement, not an employer responsibility. The unemployed also deserve to be healthy. Employer-provided health benefits for coverage above the national base package should be allowed but taxed as additional compensation. This is no different than any other employment perk that is truly additional employee compensation.
4. Those people who refuse to take care of their own health should legitimately be penalized in some relevant manner for their lack of self-responsibility. Good health first requires us to do our own part.
5. Health care starts at birth and ends at death. It follows us throughout our life, always present with us. There is no “pre-existing condition.” Life is our pre-existing condition.
6. It is NOT important to provide health insurance is everyone. Nor is it important to financially support or guarantee health insurance company income. It IS important to provide health treatment to everyone who needs it.
7. It is NOT necessarily important to have a public insurance plan. It IS important to stop having medical decisions made on the basis of impact on company profits.
8. Medical decisions need to be made by medical personnel who provide direct services, not by insurance or government administrators.

We can accomplish these objectives any number of ways if we look at them creatively, free from past thinking, absent of emotional hysteria, and from a comprehensive perspective. For instance:

1. Acknowledge once and for all that we do not have a health insurance system in America. Rather, the health insurance industry has in reality become the system for health care DELIVERY, dictating what will be provided to whom. This unbridled control must be ended.
2. Offer a public insurance alternative that provides universal basic coverage that is guaranteed, and leave the private insurers to compete for enhanced-level or non-critical services.
3. In lieu of public insurance, leave medical treatment funding with private insurers, but regulate them heavily to achieve the above objectives. Do this regulation on a national level to ensure consistency. States do this now with all other forms of insurance (e.g. automobile, homeowners); the federal government has long done this with financial institutions. Why do we not regulate the critical areas of health insurance and delivery?
4. Limit tort malpractice lawsuits which have skyrocketed hidden health care costs. But open up medical complaints to easily-accessible public viewing so people can identify medical practitioners with consistent performance problems. Stop the hidden “old boy medical network” cover-up with a Medical Better Business Bureau and other enforcement mechanisms.
5. Implement the medical record technologies now available in order to reduce medical errors and allow for the ability to share medical test results. Multiple testing and uncoordinated treatments are another significant hidden cost. Like all businesses know, this will be a significant upfront investment that will not show dividends until much after the startup money is spent.
6. After cost-saving programs are established, define base-level medical care within “what is affordable” for government/private sponsorship. In the beginning, this will not to be sufficient to meet all medical needs. But it will be a START towards treating everyone. And it will negate the “we can’t afford it” barrier used to stop changes or reform being made. Getting the universal concept in place is the higher short-term goal than seeking to adopt a desirable but unrealistic set of comprehensive services.
7. Simplify the current legislative proposals. We need to quit writing minute details into the enabling legislation, and end the Christmas tree gift-giving and/or micro-managing of health care by politicians, lawyers, and lobbyists. Set up the framework for now, then get out of the way of the medicos, monitor results, and verify and police outcomes. That is where our focus should be for now.

If we get clear about our priority objectives, it really is not that hard. Keep it simple for this step. Stand off our personal soapboxes. Accomplish the things that are really important to the American people. Clean up the details later. To do otherwise is to lose the opportunity for yet another generation. And that would be the far greater tragedy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Health Care Sound Bites

In my prior bog, I talked about the irresponsibility we have seen from many of those fueling and participating in today’s health care argument. As the negative mythology continues to be spun, let us try to separate out some of the real substance of this discussion.

“Death panels will determine which old people will be treated or let die” is the worst distortion, courtesy of Sarah Palin’s unilateral and unproven/unfounded declaration. Except it ain’t so. A Republican congressman (who has denounced Sarah and her distortion) sponsored a measure to simply ensure that Medicare would pay for doctors to spend time helping patients and their families determine IN ADVANCE what care THEY want at end of life. Such conversations thankfully help people avoid making bad decisions in times of crisis. It is no more than encouraging the Living Will that I have and all others should. So no more talk about death panels killing grandma. And no more listening to Sarah Palin about anything.

“Canada and England’s single-payer government-run health system does not work and people do not get adequate or timely care.” Sorry, no. All polls of those citizens continually report back a preponderance of high satisfaction with their system, and everyone in the country has access to it regardless of their ability to pay or their current physical condition. Unlike us. Waiting for services are no worse than we have here (e.g. my recent 1-month wait for a simple dental cleaning appointment).

“We don’t want a government bureaucrat between the doctor and patient.” As opposed to the administrative staffer/clerk in the insurance company who now already decides what treatments I will get or not, and is rewarded for cutting costs by refusing benefit claims? When my doctor prescribed three pills for me for a recent condition, it was the insurance clerk that said, “No, only two allowed.” I prefer to think my doctor knows more about what I really needed. I would prefer a government bureaucrat not to be in the middle, but frankly I trust the company clerk even less.

“75% of the American public likes their current health plan.” I suspect that 75% of the public likes their current doctor/provider! But have you ever tried to read and comprehend what your health insurance policy says? I contend that 90% of those 75% satisfied people have no idea what their policy really says or will cover or for how much. And they won’t know until they file a claim after an illness. Then that same company clerk will explain to them why they will get reimbursed a smaller percent than expected, or they were only covered for one day in the hospital, or were not covered at all for a “pre-existing condition.” Before I filed a recent claim, I was told that my plan covered 80% of the cost after a $150 deductible. It actually turned out to be 50% after all the exclusions / limits / caveats kicked in.

“If there is a public plan that is inherently cheaper to offer, employers will simply drop their programs and force people onto the public plan.” Well, employers are already dropping employee health plans. They have been for years. According to one report, 64% of Americans were in employer plans in 2000; only 59% are now. Health plans are a moving cost – always up! So businesses, especially small ones, cannot pay that cost and compete with the afore-mentioned Canada and England (or Europe), much less Mexico, China and Asia. Employers have to stay in business by being competitive. So higher health costs = less employer plans. Except now they are forced to dump people out to NO health care, with no public or other option available to people to fall back on. A recent study found that 73% of people who tried to buy individual insurance coverage over the past three years gave up. A vicious cycle repeats.

“A public plan will drive private insurance companies out of business.” Frankly, it is difficult for me to be too sympathetic to these companies. That said, I suspect they will do just fine, thank you. The problem now is that these companies cherry-pick to get the healthiest customers to insure (read: less payouts). Or they drive down costs to the company by limiting sick people’s expected benefits by imposing such things as “maximum limits,” “pre-existing conditions,” “limitations of treatments,” and other tricks. The “Fedex versus Post Office” analogy is a correct one. The government operates with a moral/legal imperative to support out-of-the-way cost-in-effective branch offices to meet the service demands of the entire public, while Fedex/UPS make no such commitment. They provide only profitable services primarily to corporate accounts. Truth is that private insurance is already making nice bundles of profits supplementing government Medicare coverage. They will do exactly the same with heath insurance, providing “bonus services & privilege benefits” to the wealthy who can afford it. The doctors will do the same thing – tiered services for those who can afford it, like Congressmen and corporate executives. That is OK. American capitalism and entrepreneurship are not dead; they will just work a new angle, because Americans are great at finding a need and filling it. But at least everyone will get a base level of care that cannot be pulled out from under them during the emergency times. It will be just like our current public-for-everyone versus private-for-who-can-afford-it school system of choices. And if the key to successfully providing insurance is to “spread the risk across the biggest base as possible,” then is not the biggest pool of all the entire American public, and therefore the most successful risk pool, one which no single private company can afford to take on?

“We have to help small businesses be able to provide health insurance to their employees.” No, we need to get ALL businesses OUT of health care responsibility. Employers do not pay my mandated auto insurance so I can drive a car; they do not pay my life insurance which I should have for my family for when I die. So why provide health insurance – the least controllable cost they have? Employers are retailers, builders, manufacturers, service and entertainment providers, not health care deliverers. Employer-based insurance is no help to the unemployed, unemployable, or self-employed. And with the “some employers do / some employers don’t” system we have now, a very large unreported percentage of our population is being held hostage to their job, a job they want to leave but cannot because their medical insurance will not travel with them. What toll of stress and unfulfilling lives is that causing?

Lastly, “America has the best health care in the world.” No, America has the best health care skills in the world, hands down. But “care” is only if you have the money, or position, or home asset, or savings account to afford all those high end medical gizmos. And most people cannot. A gourmet meal is not very tasty to those standing outside the restaurant peering through the window. Almost every developed country in Europe outranks us in terms of health care outcomes and successes.
Medical competency is not the issue in America. Access to that competency is. As we baby boomers start flooding into the system demanding high-quality highly-sophisticated care, and more of the population becomes under-/un-employed and on their own for benefits, it will not be Medicare that collapses. It will be the whole medical care system brought to its knees, and with it our economic future. That will be the true doomsday from our non-action.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Words of Hate: What Goes Around ...

Healthcare Reform. That is supposed to be the prime agenda item for this country right now. The topic I had intended to write about this weekend. But first things first.

Seven months of talk, and now Congress has adjourned and gone home for a month to hear what their constituents think about this topic. Except, it increasingly looks like no such worthwhile or beneficial discussions will take place. Why? Because instead, our needed national discussion is being sabotaged by manufactured opposition with no other objective than self-serving personal advancement.

Remember the late 60s/early 70s? It was our most recent period of great public social unrest. The Left, predominately led by young adults, mounted public protests against the administration then in power (Johnson, then Nixon). Abbie Hoffman and similar self-appointed spokespersons called to their sympathetic peers from the steps of Columbia and the campus grounds of Berkeley and led their collective discontent into public forums. When people tried to speak different viewpoints, Abbie’s armies shouted them down and refused to let speakers speak. The news media never lacked for a story, and gave it all full play regardless of substantive or objective content.

In reaction to all of this, Middle America recoiled. They switched the political party / president of choice in the White House and, over time, in other elections. A Vice President (Agnew) became the lead spokesperson for blaming all problems on the Washington / New York elite news media (shoot the messenger), those “nattering nabobs of negativism.” A “Silent Majority” of Americans was asserted to be arising to reclaim “true American values.” And their rallying cry? “America; love it or leave it.”

Flash forward to 2009, 40 years after the Age of Woodstock. The Left won the election. For better or worse, they have the White House, House, and Senate. They are now “the administration.” The sons and daughters of 1970’s Silent Majority are now on the defensive, and their party of Republicans claims only 20+% of the electorate. So how are they responding to their new minority status? Certainly not with reason and class. Abbie Hoffman has morphed into something called a Rush Limbaugh, with his sidekick the court jester called Glen Beck and a whole cohort of Fox News “personalities” (not to be confused with actual news reporters). Instead of speaking through bullhorns from the steps of our universities, they literally scream through microphones from the insulated safety of the TV studio. They seize upon the very real fears, frustrations and confusions of a slice of the American population, and manipulate them into controlled actions of orchestrated protests as smoothly as Tiger Woods putts a golf ball. We have scripted Tea Bag rallies: small numbers of people making loud noises generating great (if distorted) TV visuals. They overwhelm attempts at town meetings and shout down legitimate speakers. If necessary, the scripts become uncontrolled and physical violence is resulting. And a similar former governor of a small-population state and (would-be) Vice President blames all the discontent on biased news from the elite media. Abbie Hoffman, meet Rush Limbaugh. Spiro Agnew, meet Sarah Palin. Replays of the past descend eerily upon us, except that they are mirror-imaged.

In the 70s, some extremists on the Left crossed a line and became violent political terrorists, resulting in a protracted scary period of investigations and prosecutions. Is a 2009 version of political terrorists from the Right coming next, from which our citizenry will need police and legal protection?

The “big lie” concept perfected in Hitler’s Germany still works. And it is rapidly working here today. The words of exaggeration, outright lies, and over-the-top hate seeping out of Rush & Company are no longer comical but truly frightening, because words are becoming actions. Words that have nothing to do with protecting this country, finding solutions that will help our citizenry, or unifying us to do the hard work together that needs to be done. No, it is blatantly all about glorifying egos of 2nd-rate lightweight personalities, ready to say anything to raise ratings without regard for any resulting larger consequences. “Who, me? My Fault?” Those who have been zealots for 2nd Amendment gun rights while comfortably seeking to limit 1st Amendment free speech should be thankful that their speech now remains equally protected, even to speak stupidly and dishonestly. That which you once decried is what you have now become. That which you hate so much is making you into hate itself.

The world has changed, sons and daughters of 1970’s Silent Majority. You lost the 2008 election. We have a black President, and he was elected with only a minority of white voters; white British descendants no longer control the show. We have a Latina Supreme Court associate justice in spite of most Republicans accusing her of being racist and unqualified with no basis of fact in her legal record. Thereby shooting themselves once again, this time in their own racist foot with Latino voters. American capitalism and innovation are still alive and ultimately our best economic hope, but a decade of Bush/Republican deregulation and economic anarchy can no longer be tolerated. Corporate irresponsibility by a minority of executives will give way to protections for consumers and a commitment to take care of our people. The near-total Bush/Republican economic collapse we were facing last winter has been halted, and another Republican-sponsored Great Depression #2 no longer looms around the corner. And 90% of our workforce is still employed. Is it really so hard for a Rightist to give some credit where credit is due to a Center-Leftist?
We have a ways to go. Solutions and rational words are what are needed, not political terrorism. And if you cannot see that and get on board with having a civil dialog, then maybe it is your turn to “Love [the new] America or leave it.” And in the ensuing quiet resulting from your departure, let is all have an honest, fact-based, intelligent adult dialog about how to get proper health care to our citizens. The real issue.

Friday, July 24, 2009

One Giant Leap For Mankind

This past week we observed the 40th anniversary of an American landing on the moon. It was a significant moment, a day that I remember quite vividly. Sitting transfixed in front of the TV, I watched grainy black and white images unfold. It was the television climax to all those previous broadcasts of preliminary space flights and admired astronauts: Mercury → Gemini → Apollo → Lunar Module that I had been captivated by in my youth for a decade. The centuries-old dream of the imagination of space travel, breaking free of earth’s gravitational limits, transporting oneself to the ultimate new unknown, had been achieved. In those turbulent times of the late 1960s with its multiple assassinations, civil rights upheavals, Viet Nam battles, and youth cultural rebellion, something had finally transpired around which all the warring factions – the dreamers and the pragmatists and the America-first patriots – could all pull together.

For a few months, the euphoria remained, reminiscent of the honoring of Charles Lindberg’s solo transatlantic flight to Paris in 1929. We had heroes once again, universally admired. And then we too quickly moved on to other things, retreated into the misery of our daily headlines. So the thrills and TV ratings of subsequent moonwalks fell rapidly downhill into non-events, except perhaps for Apollo 13’s near calamity (impending disasters are always an attention-getting ratings boon). The once glorious theater of moon exploration was closed. Crashing to an inglorious early termination only 3 years later due to a lack of funds.

Rather than building on that scientific achievement, flying on the wings of these pioneering astronauts / explorers, we walked away from it all. Soaring spirits gave way to Watergate and a hasty retreat from the embassy rooftop in Saigon. Nixon’s “Peace With Honor” thankfully became Ford’s “Let’s Come Home” and Carter’s “Time For Reconciliation.” The flower children realized that making love was not enough to overcome the entrenched establishment. And in that climate of downward spiral, the US space program drifted into the wilderness of no overriding goal, no dominate purpose. So it simply moved instead towards commercializing the accomplishments to date. The breakfast drink of Tang opened the door to significant commercial uses of space: GPS systems, weather monitoring satellites, world-wide communication links, disease research, new materials and composites. A couple of scientific accomplishments remained – the Hubble Telescope, and the Mars and Jupiter unmanned satellite explorations.

Unfortunately, our opportunity to repeat the 16th century Age of Discovery, to recapture the spirit of Columbus, Magellan, Hudson, etc. never happened. It is discovery for its own sake, basic research, without an immediate return on investment, yet knowing that great nations (and cultures and peoples) are defined by their continuing pursuit forward. Instead, we walked away; not coincidentally, the great American “can do” spirit has been struggling ever since. The financial market explosions of the 1980s and 2000s were not “can do” examples; they were both cynical manipulations of the marketplace that led to implosion and collapse. Only the home technology burst in the 1990s seems to have recaptured that American “do it” persona; yet it too was taken over by the financial guys and driven off the cliff in the “dot com” collapse.
Trucking products into space or to the International Space Station is a necessary thing. But it is not a leadership thing. And it is not a “spirit rising” thing, an uplifting that we need right now. This 40th anniversary of the moon landing should be more than just a nostalgic look back. It should also be a new start forward. Health care reform, global warming reduction, and energy independence are all important chores that we must responsibly tend to in order to support the body. But we also need to plant flowers, inspire music and art, and yes, fly once again to the moon and then beyond. To nurture the spirit. To remind ourselves that, in spite of inherent dangers, the human spirit still needs to meet the unknown and transcend our fears in order to discover and experience that which is new and heretofore unexplored. And thereby to inspire others to do likewise. The late Walter Cronkite understood this and delighted in the aura of the journey. That small cadre of 24 men who once walked on the moon joined an exclusive club in which none of us can truly belong. But all of us can experience our own journey of exploration and discovery in our own way. We can each seek, explore, experience; find what no others can find for us. Neil Armstrong may have made one giant leap for mankind, but regrettably man elected not to leap after behind him.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Strictly Interpreting The Constitution

This week Washington brought us a new edition of the periodic confirmation process for a new Supreme Court judge. Sonya Sotomayor is a Puerto Rican-American with long judicial experience and (a rarity) field experience in prosecutorial law. I have no idea if she is qualified for this judgeship or not; others will determine that for us. Given the current political makeup of the Senate, her confirmation is pretty well assured baring any damaging revelation that may yet arise.

Nevertheless, politicians will still use these televised hearings to make righteous-sounding speeches, gain points from their respective voter bases, and regurgitate stock political slogans in search of news media headlines. Most of which will actually have little to do in substance to Ms. Sotomayor or her confirmation.

So far, there seems little dispute about her legal qualifications, earning a top rating from the American Bar Association, or about her 17 years of experience as a federal judge. The major complaints that we hear are:

1. Her comment to the effect that “a wise Latina will likely make a better conclusion than a white male.” No doubt she wishes she could put that comment back into the tin box, but it is too late. Nevertheless, there is a truth in her comment. While her opponents say that the comment introduces racism into her legal thinking and promotes “law by personal opinion,” in reality it simply describes what is already happening on the court. No judge escapes the reality of his/her background, personal experiences, and lessons learned over a lifetime. That bundle of personal history colors what one sees, thinks about, considers relevant, and how one measures importance. It takes Ruth Bader Ginsburg to help eight older men understand the impact of what strip-searching a 14 year-old girl really means. I do not know of anyone currently on the court who can help them understand the devastation of learning that you have been underpaid for decades solely because of your gender.

It is from one’s sense of outrage at these events, and the recognition of the outcomes of these events, that one energizes intellectual efforts and finds nuanced openings of interpretation in the law. From that enlarged perspective, one finds not only the factual logic of the law, but also the justice which must give the law a context and reason. By any measure, the Dred Scott decision in the 1850s affirming Negroes as “property” was wrong within itself, regardless of the political currents of the day or the reading of the statute books.

2. Which leads to the repeated mantra of those conservatives who yell for “someone who will not legislate from the bench, but who will strictly interpret the Constitution as the Founding Fathers wrote it.” This is another case of horse-dung spoken by people who would not know a Founding Father if they happened to see one rising up from the grave.

Article III of our Constitution established the federal court system. It is considerably shorter than the sections defining the executive and legislative branches. It essentially: a) says that there will be a Supreme and inferior courts as needed with lifetime judges; b) defines the scope of the court’s jurisdiction; c) establishes rules regarding charges of treason (important given the colonies’ experience with England). That’s about it for the courts. No procedural rules, no guidelines for decisions, no set limits on its role, no definitions about what its powers are. All left unanswered, an expectation of sort of following a sense of what courts had been doing before in colonial America – except that there had been no federal court system over all of the colonies. Therefore assumedly just wing it from here.

It was not until 1803 (16 years after the Constitution) that Chief Justice John Marshall’s court even declared that it had the power to declare a congressional law unconstitutional! People may have assumed it, but the Constitution never said it had that power. So the court proactively and unilaterally said “we have that power; it was implied in the constitution.” Neither Congress nor President Jefferson challenged that self-proclaimed authority. Further, Marshall went on to say that the criteria for determining constitutionality was, “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, are constitutional.” You could drive a train through that ambiguity. So much for “expressly stated powers only.”

To ask that courts interpret the law “as the Founding Fathers intended (in 1787)” and not legislate from the bench is an absurdist position. Courts have been interpreting the law for 200 years. These interpretations come from the express wording of laws, a judge’s perspective on personal values shaped by experience, a weighing of impact, and the best possible balancing of conflicting legal views – which is why cases come to a Supreme Court in the first place. To re-read the Constitution and the history of its creation is to understand that there was not one collective mind writing this document. It is a broadly-worded framework containing but a few absolute requirements driven by their experience of the Revolution from English rule. It reflects the compromises of men with many different goals and perspectives, with most all details to be filled in later (including a number of critical issues that were ducked entirely, e.g. the slavery issue). Detailed decisions that will necessarily reflect the times and events in which they are decided. Yet they are decided with a flexible eye towards the continuity of “judicial precedent” in order to maintain a certain measure of shared stability and advance knowing.

Our Constitution has little meaning and detail inherently within its pages. It wonderfully instead established values, principles and processes to be utilized in putting statutory meat on that skeleton of ideas. And it left it to future generations to provide that bulk in their best wisdom under that framework. That is the true strength of our Constitution and why it has survived. We need to quit looking for some supposed Oracle of Truth in that document; it is not there. We need instead to find a few select people of good spirit, high intellect, and genuine humility who will utilize that special tool carefully and wisely for our times.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Passing Of Icons

Recently we witnessed all within one week the passing of three figures of note. People who, in their own way, were representative of a slice of Americana in the latter 3rd of the 20th century.

Ed McMahon was the consummate 2nd banana. The stalwart supporting actor to Johnny Carson’s lead star. For 30 years he and Johnny defined the late-night talk show television format still practiced today, and reflected back to us our concerns, foibles, and circumstances with unfailing humor and courtesy.

Farah Fawcett was one of the striking faces of the 1970s. From only one year on a fair-to-middling TV show, combined with being THE pinup poster of the 70s, she and her hair were “the look” for that decade. She was a sweet and friendly kind of sexy that made her the aspirational model of teenage girls and the never-realized fantasy for millions of men and boys.

And then there was Michael Jackson. A true megastar who experienced the complete highs-to-lows often seen in show business. The troubled man-boy who never quite found his way. We watched his cuteness as the little boy lead singer for his older siblings, and then watched awe-struck as he dramatically broke out into his electric solo career in the mid-80s. We watched his descent into increasing weirdness as his personal life became increasingly inexplicable and seemingly irrational, concurrently as his creative power and output diminished. Culminating in a death that seemed to smack of a final release from all his personal chaos.

Ed lived to an old age, yet was struggling at the end to retain his dignity in the midst of financial collapse. Farah, the beauty, withered away to the ravages of cancer. Michael, who defined a whole new style of popular music dance still in place 25 years later, moved from being the King of Pop to the cold slab of a police morgue due to a likely overdose of pharmaceutical drugs.

The news media, of course, loves these milestones. Ed was given a short but due mention of his supporting role in television history. Farah (and her long-term companion Ryan O’Neal) was given documentaries and the Barbara Walters interview, overall treated with respectful honor. It was Michael that has generated the media feeding frenzy. Hours of video replays; interviews with the truly famous alongside the umpteen wanna-be and underwhelming bit stars and media players; some ridiculous presentations and statements by news commentators (e.g. Matt Lauer giving us a tour of the empty Michael Jackson house and describing to us what furniture USED to be in each room; one self-serving commentator telling us that his interview with Michael years ago was a “life-changing event for BOTH of us!”). At one point I channel surfed across four cable news channels and two network news programs: all were running some kind of special report on Michael’s death. Dick Cheney’s outlandish speeches, the supposed revolution in Iran, nuclear missiles in North Korea, torture and the redistribution of terrorist prisoners, suddenly were all faint glimpses of discussion in this yet-again overreaction of the news media to this latest “big story of the moment.” We await the next frenzy that will likewise thankfully chase away this current crop of over-reported death stories.

There are people who are truly iconic and deserve that label, versus just people of recognition. Those that we rightfully call iconic fully embody within themselves a time, a moment, or a cultural movement. Some make it to a long natural end; many die short and tragically and thereby become immortalized. Often these are in entertainment, frequently in sports, occasionally in politics. Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio epitomized baseball in their times, and extended their auras to sports in general for all time. Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and now Michael Jackson each defined a musical genre and reached iconic status. Marilyn Monroe was the ultimate iconic sexual female, unsurpassed 50 years later by any number of pretenders to that status. It is important that we properly differentiate those people who truly set the bar and serve as the fundamental reference point, versus the endless parade of followers who we prematurely anoint with a status beyond their accomplishment.

We do legitimately take pause when persons-of-note die. Especially for people who came to represent certain aspects of our cultural life. We tend to freeze those people into a fixed image in our minds. We link those images to parts of our individual histories and experiences. Experiences that seem forever in our own mind are suddenly jolted into recognition that they are in fact gone forever. These are often hard moments for us to assimilate – these reminders of the temporariness of our lives, that time does not stand still and we are now of another time, that parts of our lives are truly gone forever. It is worthwhile to properly acknowledge these kinds of events, and to give peace to our moments of small deaths in our psyche. Honor the individuals; honor ourselves. And from that place of quiet honoring, we move on.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Our Iranian Response

The past few weeks we have witnessed some amazing events occurring in Iran. A normally controlled, if not docile, population has risen up in substantial numbers to publicly protest and defy the announced outcome of their latest presidential election. Fueled by our detestation of much of what Iran’s government stands for, a number of American politicians and commentators have rushed to their pulpits arguing for the US government to come out in strong support of these “revolutionary patriots” (our media terminology), as well as for a harsh denouncement of the current Iranian power regime. To those speakers I say, “Back off. Your arrogance is once again creating your own story as you want to see it, but you are not truly listening to the Iranian people themselves.”

There is certainly a shared goal among many that would like to see an Iran no longer isolated from international connections, acting responsible to its neighbors instead of antagonizing or threatening them, and withdrawing its support of fanatical terrorists. America shares this goal not only with all of Europe, but also with much of the Middle East community. It is at least one area where very diverse governments can come together. But that is not what we are watching occur today in Iran. What is occurring there is much more of a local event, fueled by local grievances. It is not another cultural explosion of American wanna-be democratic aspiration in yet another foreign land as is being portrayed in many media. We need to be clear about what we are witnessing.

Iran is a theocracy. A state where religion and government are intricately mixed together. Where Islamic religious beliefs and its power structure within a homogeneous society lies behind the illusion of secular government. Given the natural way that the practice of Islam integrally permeates one’s daily life, such a religious/secular integrated governing structure should be no surprise. The minimal separation of religious and secular life is similar to what we see within the Tibetan culture (in its exiled form, not as controlled by the Chinese within Tibet). It is close in form to what we see in Israel. And, of course, in the Vatican, an independent state as well as religion. Historically, England, Japan and China were all theocracies at different times. And, closer to home at the local government level, we have seen it practiced here with the Mormons and groups such as the historical Shakers and the current Amish. If some would have their way, it is what we would come to in America, except that we are too religiously diverse for that to happen within my remaining lifetime. The conduct and aspirations of theocratic countries may differ, but the concepts and the structures are the same.

From all responsible insight, the protest occurring in Iran, while as inspiring in their courage as the Chinese in Tiananmen Square, is not about overthrowing their theocratic system. Rather, in a country highly literate, demographically young, politically aware, and increasingly middle class, the protest is about cleansing the current structure. In its amateurish mishandling of the presidential election, the Iranian government moved into blatant arrogance and made the people’s true powerlessness unmistakably apparent. And the clumsy threat of the cleric Supreme Leader threatening people to “go home and accept the election result because I said so” was just yet another insult. The Iranian president may be a virtual figurehead standing in for the real power of the supreme cleric, but the people’s right to pick that figurehead is highly important to them. As individuals, each of us picks our own symbols that we use to disguise our actual powerlessness. These are important protective symbols for us, and we do not react well to having our truth exposed.

It may actually be true that, if the votes had been honestly counted, Ahmadinejad could well have won, although highly unlikely with the landslide margin claimed even before the balloting ended. In his fear of losing to a close competitor, his arrogance of authority, and his Cheney-esque disdain for the public, he overreached, perhaps unnecessarily, and brought this chaos on. What the Iranian people have reacted to, and now want, is a redress to that insult. An enforcement of the process in place. A return to the observance of their constitution. A rebuilding of the trust that had existed among religion, government, and the people. If we are prepared to be accepting of those national goals and such an outcome, then we should in fact be supportive of the Iranians we see out on the streets in the cell phone pictures coming to us. But if our goal is to subvert their state integrity in our zeal to overthrow the current distasteful Iranian clerical and governmental regimes, then we need to withdraw and mind our peace. For in such an instance, our efforts to overthrow that regime is our own selfish goal, and our pronouncement of support for the Iranian people is hypocritical at best.

We forced a regime change once before in the 1950s via a CIA-engineered coup that threw out the then government and returned a western-friendly king to the Iranian historical throne. It took them 20 years to throw out our puppet king, and we have thereby endured 30 more years of distrust to no one’s advantage. And we aggravated this distrust by our support of Iraq in its 1980s war with Iran. Thus, we have our own stained hand in the Middle East life-and-death poker game, a fact we are most uncomfortable acknowledging. So from their vantage point, Iran’s suspicions of our intentions and trustworthiness, like it or not, have been well grounded.

We can rightly decry and seek to influence the actions of governments, but it is not up to us to tell other nations how to live and what form of government to utilize. Just as we would not accept being told how to live and govern. In spite of our local critics, we should not act now in such a way as to confirm to the Iranian paranoia that we intend to repeat our 1950’s intervention, nor make Iran into another Iraq-style adventure. The reality is that we are not in any position or capability to eliminate the Iranian government, so hollow threats of such bring no desirable result. Decry the actions of Iran’s government; yet respect the people to be who they are. They are not us, and do not need to be.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Mighty Also Fall

On June 1, 2009, General Motors filed for bankruptcy. Granted, it was Chapter 11 bankruptcy for protection against creditors while they produce a new organizational plan and business strategy to attempt to become viable again. But Chapter 11 reorganization does not mask the fact that the company has collapsed and no longer works for whatever multiplicity of reasons.

With General Motors, its collapse carries a different resonance than the failures of the innumerable financial institutions and mortgage companies we have witnessed. Those institutions were abstract entities removed from our sense of connection, done in by insatiable ambition combined with a no sense or responsibility to the general good for their decisions and conduct. But GM? This was a company cobbled together in the early 1900s from a series of mergers with various standalone individual car companies. Back when there were many car companies built by energetic entrepreneurs – Buick, Cadillac, GMC, Chevrolet, Pontiac. Henry Ford may have invented the assembly line and created a mass market for the automobile. But GM built that mass market to new levels of demand, and then became the predominant company to supply that demand. In the process, it became the largest manufacturing company in the world, and the biggest auto producer for over 75 years.

It was an institution that was synonymous with the American Dream, that was married to American’s love of the open road, that symbolized the growth of the middle class. Through its extended network of suppliers and franchised dealers, it anchored small-town America and its social fabric. Long before the Japanese form of life-long employment emerged, GM supported a multi-generational workforce with a rising blue-collar income, complete with something brand new: medical insurance to protect those employees and their families from debilitating illness. It was a cocoon of an economic sanctuary on a scale never seen before in America. And the company grew, and grew, a growth assumed to continue forever.

Forever ended on June 1, 2009. Now General Motors is just a shell of its former self. In 1962, GM had 51% of the US auto market and 464,000 domestic employees; in 2009 that had shrunk to 23% of the market with 92,000 domestic employees. When the car designers and the car builders lost out to the marketers and the accountants years ago, the vulnerabilities began to set in. Not readily visible, but a hole was opening, just waiting for someone new to fill it. Workmanship became shoddy. Buyers’ needs for cars changed, but GM wasn’t listening to them anymore. Greater societal demands grew, but “we can’t do it” became the corporate mantra instead of “we will get there before anyone else.” And for reasons I still fail to understand, Detroit married itself to the gasoline industry and thereby became dependently whiplashed by those rogue capitalists. So a company once known for innovation became seen as an unresponsive can’t do obstructionist. The door was now open to someone who could see this opportunity and exploit it – and along came Toyota (now the biggest automaker) and Honda to do just that.

So good old American competition got turned on its head in the 1980s, and the once biggest competitor got out-competed. The new guys saw the gaps in the market no longer being served by GM, so they were happy to draw that market away by good products that lasted, better prices, appealing designs, and responsiveness to the safety and fuel goals that GM said could not be done.

Management stood lead-footed and blamed everyone else for its woes. Employees, now conditioned to expect lifetime job security, stuck their heads in the sand and remained dedicated to job security and rising incomes disconnected to market realities.

Now it has all come home to roost, like so many other course corrections Americans are experiencing. There is an incomprehensible chorus of protests being voiced: that now the US government has nationalized the auto industry; that the government is running the company, closing plants and dealerships, throwing employees out of jobs; that the government is inappropriately dictating new car directions and fuel standards that GM fought for years. And of course, President Obama is a socialist overly involved and now dictating the US economy.

What GM managers, workers, apparently some Congressmen/women and some of the general public seem to have forgotten is that last fall GM said it was broke, with enough money to last only a few months. It was GM that came to Washington looking for a handout to stay alive, not Washington traipsing to Detroit looking to give away money. Without such bailout money that was provided, GM would have disappeared and been completely out of business six months ago. Today a lot of people are still employed, not because of what GM leaders and workers did but because the American public bailed them out at their request. It is only right in such a circumstance that there are strings attached to that help, a refusal to simply underwrite business-as-usual failure. If you are insistent upon driving off a cliff, please don’t ask me to fill the tank of your car so that you can accomplish that goal.

Failure can come from several causes. The causes are often different for the new ventures in our lives than for the breakdown of an established order. For an established order, whether it is we as individuals or a collective organization, failure usually comes from an unwillingness to hear, a resistance to new learning, resulting in an inability to adapt. Such we have seen in the demise of General Motors. There is a shared sadness in all of these events. In the end, companies are simply groups of people moving together en masse. And when this many people move downhill at the same time, even if as a result of their own folly, and when a familiar icon is no longer what it once was, some part of all of us goes with them on that sad trip.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Go Quietly Into The Night - Please

For the last several months, we have witnessed the sorry spectacle of former Vice President Dick Cheney speaking to anyone who will listen to his defense of his conduct in the Bush Administration’s war on terrorists. Inexplicably, he continues to enjoy airtime whenever he speaks, even though his message never changes except to progressively backpedal and hedge his story of “the facts.” The once near-invisible vice president is now so ubiquitously in the public eye that I fully expect him to show up at my granddaughter’s kindergarten graduation if only he is promised a microphone.

His actions are unprecedented for a former vice president. Except perhaps for Aaron Burr’s post-government notoriety and Al Gore’s Nobel prize-winning actions after serving as vice president, other vice presidents not ascending to the presidency have quietly left Washington and gone home, fading thereafter into historical oblivion. Many of them have agreed with John Adams who described the vice presidency as “The most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” or John Nance Garner who described the job as “not worth a bucket of warm piss” (later changed to “warm spit” by the news media!).

Not so Dick Cheney. This was perhaps the most powerful vice president in our history. In George Bush’s corporate model presidency, Dick Cheney was the all-powerful Chief Operating Officer managing the implementation of the CEO/President’s policies and directions. By all accounts, he managed at a very deep and detailed level, tolerating no dissent, accepting no roadblocks to his intentions and decisions. Underlings that dared to disagree were sent packing. And until perhaps his last year in office, when Condi Rice’s and Robert Gates’ more temperate views found some acceptance, his reign was absolute. The American public was a nuisance to be disdained, whose opinions were publicly acknowledged to be inconsequential and irrelevant.

But now the secret government is coming into the full light. And what went on, predominately under the all-shielding name of “national security,” is proving to be quite ugly. If not outright illegal, then certainly an affront to Constitutional implications, the values we celebrate each July 4th, and the national self-image we claim for ourselves and hope that others see in us. So now the previously unthinkable is happening: the all-powerful, never-questioned VP/COO is being questioned. About his decisions, his rationale, his intent, and most importantly, his methods. And Mr. Cheney does not know how to handle his new, now assailable status.

The centerpiece of the questions is about our government’s use of torture to extract terrorist intelligence information. That our actions constituted torture is essentially beyond debate, understood by most all Americans and clarified by international law and treaty. Only Dick Cheney, his close associates, the perpetrators themselves, and Fox News really think otherwise. What has been subsequently revealed is that the claimed “legal justification” for these actions was bad lawyering at its worst, and even these bad legal opinions were issued after the torture had already commenced. And that most torture exercises were not done by trained, experienced interrogators, but by for-hire contractors without interrogation qualifications, even though valuable information was already being gained from traditional, accepted interrogation techniques. Yet we used the oft-cited technique of waterboarding 183 times on one prisoner; if it was such an effective technique, why was it needed 183 times to make its point – the frequency itself becoming yet another form of torture? Or as Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota put it, “It’s drowning. It gives you the complete sensation that you are drowning ... I’ll put it to you this way: you give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I’ll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders.”

Dick Cheney argues two points: that these “enhanced interrogation techniques” (i.e. torture) yielded actionable information and thereby saved American lives; and Obama’s elimination of these techniques has made our country less safe to a future attack (a despicable statement for a former vice president to make about a sitting president). In essence, the goal to save American lives and prevent another 9-11 justifies anything Dick Cheney did. Yet what kind of country, what kind of America has been saved if this is how we do business? I have no doubt that had we slowly sliced off one finger at a time until a prisoner’s hands were gone entirely that he would say almost anything we wanted. But is this what we want to be known for? Where is the line that we dare not cross? Have we become the very Saddam Hussein we claimed to despise, operating our own version of an Iraqi terror prison? At what point does our hatred, combined with an “anything goes” sense of absolute righteousness, lead us to becoming that very thing that we claim to hate? “We have met the enemy, and it [is indeed] ---- us.”

In this dangerous world, it is my full expectation that America will be attacked again by extremists, whether foreign or local (remember Oklahoma City). The twin towers were originally bombed in 1993 under Clinton’s watch; 9-11 happened 8 years later under Bush. Our fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has contained the terrorists there for now, hampering their planning and execution of that next attack. But it will tragically come, even if by a delayed timetable, and in spite of everything our military, police, and intelligence communities can reasonably prevent. I have no doubt that when that inevitability occurs, Dick Cheney will be the first to stand on his soapbox and yell “I was right.” And that scenario is the most distasteful thing of all about Dick Cheney’s present conduct.

The former vice president has claimed that his methods worked. But he has never proven that they were required in lieu of our traditional interrogation methods that have kept us on a proper moral compass over the years. He is now being called to account. From his previous power-driven role, it is an accounting that he is unprepared to endure, therefore he resorts to the old rhetorical tricks of skipping over the substantive issues and instead just questions the questioners, slanders the critics, and impugns the integrity of his prosecutors.

There are lessons in this for all of us. We all must confront our demons. And when our demons lead us to arrogance, to believe we are beyond questioning, and that the noble end allows us to justify whatever conduct we choose, then a large dose of humility is the required antidote to be taken. Dick Cheney lost his job on January 21, 2009; apparently he did not get his memo of termination. He needs to go home, write his inevitable book, and fade from our view. He had his eight years; he has been replaced; it is other people’s turn at bat without his attempted reconstruction of the past. Like it or not, his legacy is not on the speaker’s platform. It is now out of his control, passed on to the public record and to the work of the historians.

He had his time, and his time is now over. True class – in sports, in politics, in life – is knowing when it is time to put the bat down and move on. It is now that time for him to move on, to go quietly into the night, and to leave the world to the next leaders.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

From Irrelevance to Absurdity

I have written before lamenting the loss of the Republican Party I knew in my youth from my father. A political party with important historical names --- Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and examples in my lifetime that included Eisenhower, Dirksen, Goldwater, Baker, Lodge, Rockefeller and Reagan. A party broad enough to contain the “silk stocking” Republicans of the northeast alongside the conservative individualists of the southwest. A potent force in U.S. political history. Yet not one of those historical individuals would recognize the collective irresponsibility of that which now passes for today’s Republican Party. Witness the following examples of political pandering:

1) Representative Michelle Bachman of Minnesota, who continually confounds rationality by:
- saying that Obama is seeking to set up “reeducation camps” to brainwash our children;
- introducing a bill to prohibit one world-wide currency, notwithstanding the U.S. dollar’s de facto role as just that for 60 years;
- inexplicitly announcing that “carbon dioxide occurs naturally in the world, so it does not cause global warming and so we don’t have to worry about it.” (I guess unlike black widow spiders, which also occur “naturally” in nature but which I will still choose to avoid!)

2) Norm Coleman, senator from Minnesota, who all electoral commissions have determined lost his reelection bid, but who refuses to take the classy statesman path and accept his defeat 6 months after the election, making the Gore/Bush debacle in Florida look like a textbook perfection.

3) Representative Spencer Bachus from Alabama, who announced that he personally knows of “17 socialists in Congress,” borrowing from Senator Joe McCarthy’s frighteningly injurious accusations of the 1950s, and who similarly thus far refuses to name any one of the 17. He further ignores that being a “socialist” is neither a U.S. political party nor an illegal status outlawed anywhere.

4) Governor Rick Perry of Texas, who announced that Texas may secede from the United States, raising eyebrows from those who were never fully convinced that Texas had ever truly joined the U.S. in the first place. A governor who chooses to ignore the history lesson of the War Between the States 140 years ago that denied the right of secession. (Texas was a loser in that war, by the way).

5) Continuing attempts by individual or several senators to block various Obama cabinet appointments, with flimsy or even no reason given, only to subsequently have them overwhelmingly approved in the end. What was achieved? As examples, Richard Burr of NC singularly opposed Tammy Duckworth, a double amputee Iraq War veteran universally praised by veteran groups, as Assistant Secretary of the VA; John Cornyn of Texas opposed Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State; Arlen Specter opposed Eric Holder as Attorney General. And most recently, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana is holding up the nomination of Craig Fugate as head of FEMA because he doesn’t like FEMA’s answers to how it will proceed with high-risk flood zones that will affect rebuilding in Louisiana. How exactly does depriving an agency of its leadership help provide new leadership and answers?

6) Then there is Dick Cheney, the scariest-person-now-no-longer-in-government-who just-won’t-go-away, whose negative comments about everything that has happened since the January 20th inauguration, and whose ends-justify-the-means defense of Bush administration torture exceeds my capacity for thoughtful response.

7) And lastly, there is the Fox News (aka the Republican Party Communications Directorate) inspired Tea Bag Protest, in which a bunch of folks got together to protest a) taxes and b) income redistribution. Except that the total number of protestors nationwide was probably less that those filling Grant Park one night awhile back in Chicago to hear Obama’s victory speech. A great many of those protestors are likely already included in Obama’s tax cuts for 90% of the population. Virtually every one of them will no doubt be gladly accepting their social security retirement payments when the time comes, which is the biggest income redistribution program in the country. Oh, and in 1773 the original tea protest in Boston was against taxation without representation; our current taxes were passed with representation, even if one does not like their representative’s response.

Once again, at a time when serious dialog, creative ideas, and political courage are needed, the current group of political lightweights in today’s Republican Party is found lacking. The most recent poll I saw shows only 21% of voters declaring themselves as Republicans. These are not “minority party” numbers, these are 3rd-party numbers. George Corley Wallace in ’68 numbers, Ross Perot in ’92 numbers, just a step ahead of Ralph Nader Green Party numbers. It is a party at a loss for message, direction and spokespersons. And if it were not for the aforementioned Fox News and the party’s self-anointed spokesperson Rush Limbaugh, they would be getting just about the same 3rd-party level of press attention.

Tax cuts and medical insurance tax credits are meaningless to the unemployed. Sending military forces against the bad guys is a hollow threat when you already have two wars going on, a war-weary public, and only estranged allies. A balanced budget is a death knell to an economy reeling from a lack of consumer spending. Talk of free enterprise capitalism wins no fans when people are reeling from the excesses of irresponsible deregulation. Republicans have to come up with a new message instead of the old news, and that message cannot be one that panders to the hysterical conspiracies of a decreasing number of citizens. It is not a time for trying to extract revenge for losing the 2008 election using political and rhetorical tricks. It is a time for governing and leading.