Monday, December 17, 2012

Violence Towards Our Children

“Sometimes I would like to ask why God allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when God could do something about it.  But I am afraid God would ask me the same question.”  (Anonymous)

This is a quote that has been circulating the Internet of late in the aftermath of the tragedy that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut.  It is another one of those times when we search to make sense of the insensible; to understand what eludes our understanding; to comprehend what is incomprehensible; to find reasonable answers out of unreasonable circumstances.  But little seems to be forthcoming that we can adequately get our arms around.  There are only the continuing pictures that unsettle our emotions and bring us increasing tears of sorrow for victims and compassion for survivors.  Down deep we know they could have been us.

Some feel the need to speak out immediately and call for action to be taken.  And so immediately blasts out another one of their daily petitions and requests for $5 donations, this time for greater gun control.  On the other end of the political spectrum, former governor Mike Huckabee inexplicably tries to explain away the incident by saying that it occurred because we have taken God out of our schools.  Both of these actions and statements are vastly inappropriate to the moment, along with other similar speechmaking from the legions of national commentators (including perhaps this author).  Instead, this is time when respectful and contemplative thought are the better choice.

We try to understand how a young man could take up arms and so seemingly easily kill his mother, 20 small children, 6 protecting adults, and then ultimately himself.  They were all totally defenseless and unthreatening to him, and – except for his mother – likely completely unknown to him.  We wonder how someone could take another life, let alone 26 such innocent lives cut so very, very short.  How could one be so unfeeling towards others?

The only way to understand a seemingly irrational act is to think outside our normal rationality.  Because to a shooter, the act has become perfectly rational.  These mass shootings are not acts of violence, though violence is its by-product.  Rather, they are acts of power by the powerless.  They come from the frustration, loneliness, self-deprecation of a life felt to have been neutralized and marginalized by others.  Left to churn inside, that sense of powerlessness, valuelessness, and unworthiness finally erupts and looks for compensating expression.  And the greater this sense of lacking and inability to change that, the greater the need for a major demonstration of reclaimed power over “the outside world.”  So the scope of the drama necessarily gets bigger and bigger.  One killing is not enough; it must rise to 26 (or more if enabled) because the place of powerlessness has sunk so very deep.

So in the shooter there is no remorse for those who are his victims.  No regrets about the seeming inhumanity of his actions.  Because humanity is that sense of connection that makes us bond together as a community – and for the shooter, connection has long been lost.  His victims have become merely faceless props in his script, supporting actors in his personal stage play who have no voice.  For one who lives in humiliation and submission, what could be more redeeming to one’s soul than feeling the absolute power over another at the point of his gun?

Most of humankind find far less destructive ways to respond to those moments when we feel neutralized.  But these series of shooters can find no other way out of their feelings of desperation.  We cannot possibly know what brought this particular shooter to this depth of his despair.  But we can recognize that in his suffering he is also among the victims of this tragedy.  The future promise of his life also goes unfilled too soon.  We do not condone or minimalize what he has done.  But we are reminded once again of the Dalai Lama’s challenge to us: “Love the person.  Resist the act.”

And so they all now reside in the lap of God.  We leave it to God’s greater vision and understanding of the life purpose of each of us to make sense of all of this.  To do what is right for all involved, gathered together in the place after life that is God’s home.  Later we may choose to write our letters, sign petitions, sit in public vigils demanding a change in our social contract.  We may do this even knowing that, in today’s polarized America, it is highly doubtful that much will change anytime soon in our laws and arguments about guns and violence in spite of our immediate passion “to do.”

Maybe the real lesson being taught to us from that school in Newtown is not an argument about laws and processes and social responsibility.  These are simply arguments of the mind.  Perhaps the scale and profoundness of these 20 young children are there to speak instead to our hearts.  Speak in a way, and with a force, that the everyday singular acts of violence towards the innocents that we hear about do not seem able to do.  Before we engage the brain we need to wed with the heart.  Instead of closing ourselves to this inexplicable violence, we may need to open ourselves fully to the empathy and motivations that lie in our hearts.  We may need to eliminate our denials and intellectualization of what is happening around us, to us, and allow ourselves to be fully overwhelmed by the emotional power of these events and the suffering they bring.

We need to make it personal.  Because as long as we keep it a (ir)rational debate over petitions, we avoid the need for genuine action from the heart, touched into our soul.  Little of true significance in our relationships with each other will happen until we break through our hard exteriors and move inside of us to that place of genuine humanity.  Nothing will stop the shooters until we end their separation from us and help to restore spirit, rather than cold materialism, into their being.  So let us spend time making Newtown personal.  Personal to the parent, sibling, and neighbor that resides in each of us.  That is the place from which our future actions should come.  That is God’s challenge to each of us, and the challenge from the kids and teachers of Newtown.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Republican Divide

In 1961, after the United States’ disastrous defeat of its covert attempt of a counter-revolution against Fidel Castro, newly-inaugurated President John Kennedy famously said, “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”  After this November’s election, Kennedy’s words seem highly relevant.

Mitt Romney and his Republican Party lost.  And lost big.  It was a big loss not necessarily by the absolute numbers.  Republicans got 48% of the vote, and in a number of “swing states” they lost by razor-thin margins.  But the end result was devastating in the poplar marketplace of perceptions and expectations.  With a weak economy, the incumbent’s base seemingly “disappointed,” a high number of vulnerable Democratic Senate seats up for election, and a chorus of right-wing billionaires ready to ante up unheard of sums of money to the cause, “How can we lose?” was the overriding belief.

But lose they did.  They lost the presidency to the incumbent, losing all but one of the swing states and substantially the Electoral College by 332-206.  They not only failed to gain the Senate but went down two more seats.  They lost half-dozen seats in the house (though still retained control of that chamber).  It was an across-the-board rejection of the party, its candidates and its presidential nominee.  And so the orphan of defeat is now adrift, barely visible within the ensuing sea of rationales, excuses, and finger-pointing.

The loss was partly attributable to Obama being a more formidable candidate than Republicans / Romney anticipated.  A steadily improving economy; an overwhelming “turn-out-the-vote” ground game; targeted and effective advertising to the current demographic profile; a genuine record of accomplishment; a consistent set of beliefs and principles espoused by the candidate; all served to pull the rug out from under the Romney strategy.

But whatever the strengths of the incumbent, they were matched (or surpassed) over the long campaign by the substantial weaknesses of Romney.  Just being “against Obama” was not enough of a campaign basis, combined with his lack of connection with the average voter.  Even his Republican base never warmed to him, giving him the nomination only because of an almost comical pool of primary opponents.  This was followed by a seemingly never-ending string of missteps and misstatements: the botched overseas trip; the premature Libyan criticisms; the constant “clarifications” issued by his campaign staff of his impromptu comments; his “let the auto industry go bankrupt” posture; and, most notoriously, the “47%” denigration of the voters.

Combined with the Romney weaknesses were several years of consistent hostility by the Republican Party to gays, Latinos, women, African-Americans – all growing electoral demographics.  Add in the perception of the extremism of Tea Party advocates with “flaky” candidates that have clearly cost Republicans the capturing of the Senate; a consistent “legislative NO” and “my way is the only way” attitudes expressed by Republican Congresspersons, and an assault on voting access in many states solely for political advantage.  With that combination, you have a Party that is not perceived as welcoming to the very voters needed for electoral success.  How the Republican Party responds to this outcome will be very important to the Party’s relevance, our ability to address the many issues of our day, and therefore our collective future.

Republicans can be angry and retrench kicking and screaming even deeper into the hole of defeat, blaming everyone else for not seeing the rightness of their cause.  Or they can thoughtfully figure out what went wrong, learn from the results, and meaningfully and honestly adjust accordingly over time.  So far, both options are being pursued by the various players.  Romney has blamed his loss on Obama’s “gifts” to the voters (reminiscent of his “47%” stupidity); others have blamed everything from Hurricane Sandy, Chris Christi’s praise for Obama’s relief efforts, the villains of “urban voters,” and of course, the “liberal media.”  Karl Rove is dancing fast and furious to explain to his mega-donors why $300M did not buy anything that was promised.  And John McCain embarrassingly continues to try to spin much noise about the Benghazi tragedy in a losing attempt to find a new political relevance.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the discussion, thoughtful Republicans like former Bush advisor Karen Hughes threatened to “cut out the tongue of any white, gray-haired male who talks about rape ever again”; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal pronounced that “Republicans need to stop being the stupid Party … we need to end dumbed-down conservatism by putting a stop to offensive, bizarre comments … and stop insulting the intelligence of the voters”; and former First Lady Barbara Bush simply observed, “The people spoke.  Move on.  Get over it.”

Whether the Republican Party will face up to their shortcomings and the new realities of America, or continue to run headlong into a brick wall of its own making, is unclear.  There is a legitimate conservative program and message that could be of benefit and interest to Americans.  But it is not the program and message that has been coming from today’s Republican Party.

The night after the election, commentator Rachael Maddow observed the significance of the outcome, and Republicans’ disbelief of it, and their history of continuous negative disbelief in our American reality, as follows: “Ohio really did go to Obama last night, he really did win.  He really was born in Hawaii, and he really is, legitimately, President of the United States – again.  And the Bureau of Labor Statistics did not make up a fake unemployment rate last month.  And the Congressional Research Service really can find no evidence that cutting taxes on rich people grows the economy.  And the polls were not skewed to oversample Democrats.  And [pollster] Nate Silver was not making up fake projections about the election to make conservatives feel bad; Nate Silver was doing math.

And climate change is real.  And rape really does cause pregnancy sometimes.  And evolution is a thing!  And Benghazi was an attack on us, not a scandal by us.  And nobody is taking away anyone’s guns.  And taxes have not gone up.  And the deficit is dropping, actually.  And Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction.  And the moon landing was real.  And FEMA is not building concentration camps.  And UN observers are not taking over Texas.  And moderate reforms of the regulations on the insurance industry and the financial services industry in this country are not the same thing as communism.”  Maddow posed the fundamental question for Republicans: are you going to continue to be exemplified by the fringe, the conspiracists, the lightweights, and those who think leadership is about who can simply say the most outrageous things?  Or will you meet Americans where they truly live – in that broad space both just slightly left and slightly right of the middle?

In 2008, Americans were sick of eight years of Republican governance and wars, and overwhelmingly elected a sweeping Democratic majority.  These Democrats thought they had a license to do anything, and spun the country Left too far and too fast.  In 2010 the voters “corrected” that excess by swinging back to the Republicans.  And those Republicans responded to the Right just as stupidly as the 2008 Democrats of before.  So in 2012 the voters had to correct the politicians again.  The vast majority of Americans are not interested in extreme politics.  They want working governance, from intelligent and reasonable people, providing effective solutions derived from working together for everyone’s benefit.  Which party, which politicians, are finally going to understand this?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Election 2012 - The Decision

My first recollection of an awareness of the American political process was in 1956.  I sat on our den floor with my father sitting in his chair nearby as we listened to the election returns coming in through our oversized floor-model radio.  In a rematch of the 1952 election, President Dwight Eisenhower defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson by a landslide to win a second term.

By four years later, television had come to our city, giving us access to Ed Sullivan, Gunsmoke, and Walt Disney.  The big radio had disappeared in favor of one large furniture cabinet that housed a television set, radio, and record player behind its doors.  On that TV set I watched the first televised presidential debate – indeed likely the first debate ever between two presidential candidates sharing the same stage – between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.  I was now thoroughly hooked by this quadrennial piece of Americana.

Subsequently, I incredulously watched the nightly unfolding of the chaos of the Democratic 1968 Chicago convention; saw Gerald Ford stumble over whether or not Eastern Europe was dominated by Russia; heard Lloyd Bentsen take down Dan Quale by observing, “Senator, you are no John Kennedy”; and was entertained by 3rd-party Ross Perot’s graph charts in the 1992 debates.

I was there with good friends to watch the 1980 election results when the news media announced Ronald Reagan the winner before the appetizers even got out of the oven.  Conversely, in 2000 I went to bed late in the a.m. understanding that it would be a long time after election day before the winner would be known.  All told, I have been there listening to election results 14 times, and I expect to be there again on Tuesday, November 6, 2012.  Even though the vote is likely to be so close it will no doubt be well into Wednesday before “the decision” is known.  And it is also probable that an army of Republican and Democratic lawyers will be standing by to file lawsuits over close voting results.  I fear we may yet again hear from the Supreme Court in a replay of the 2000 election.

After all of the debates, TV ads, mailing literature, and news reports of this most ugliest of campaigns are digested, it becomes decision time.  Some past years have been difficult decisions; some years have been stark contrasts.  But this year has been overwhelmingly characterized by three really big lies.

1. Principles: What has been shown time after time in this campaign is that Governor Romney’s core beliefs and principles are simply a mirror image of the individual person Romney is talking to in that particular moment.  Then it is on to the next person and a whole new set of beliefs unfettered by truth.  It seems as if every time he expresses an unscripted thought, within 24 hours a legion of handlers seeks to clarify what he “really” meant to say, what his position actually is (today).  Which is why Romney has avoided like the plague any free-wheeling interviews with the news media.  The beliefs the former governor has stated the last two months bear virtually no resemblance to the last four years.  To vote for this candidate us to vote for an empty darkness, a void framed by lies well beyond the usual “political exaggeration” we are accustomed to.  If I were a Republican Tea Partier who voted in the primaries, I would not even recognize the Republican candidate who is speaking today.

2. Recovery Not Working: The whole focus of the Republican establishment’s campaign has tried to center on the economy.  More specifically, that “the President’s economic policies are not working.”  The second big lie.  From fall 2008 to summer 2009, the country was in an economic free-fall from Republican fiscal irresponsibility and deregulation by the Bush administration.  However, since that summer as Obama response actions began to kick in, the economy has in fact been working.  It has been consistently going in the right direction, albeit expectedly in slow steps given the low starting point.  By almost any measure used – unemployment rate, net jobs, export growth, reduced oil imports, record corporate profits, stock market levels, housing prices and construction startups, auto sales – virtually all are moving in the correct direction.  Are we where we want to be yet?  No.  Getting there on a steady and solid foundation?  You betcha.  Which is why consumer confidence and spending have been consistently moving upwards.  The President’s policies are working just fine, thank you very much, and should not be put in peril.

3. Social Terrorism: For the Republican Radical Right, the economic argument is simply a smokescreen hiding a larger agenda.  The third big lie is that in the name of “cutting expenses” and “fiscal responsibility,” the fiscally-irresponsible Right is bent on upending established social programs and human / constitutional rights that have required so much effort to achieve.  The political and religious antagonism to these issues was there long before the Great Recession hit.  But we have seen this economic scare story blamed for the attempt to undo the social progress made.  As I have seen very clearly in my current state of North Carolina and elsewhere, it is happening at both the federal and state levels – a consistent chipping away in order to try to send American society back to a fictitious image of the 1950s.  True “American Family Values” are not to be found in this false “conservative” agenda.

It is said that, in the end, after all the talk about issues, principles and position papers, Americans wind up making their voting decisions based upon intangible criteria.  Because in reality we have no idea what this country is going to face over the next four years.  Any more than George W. Bush could foresee the defining moment of the 9-11 attack; or Barack Obama could predict the depth of the economic pain awaiting his inaugural.  So we cross our fingers and vote for the intangibles, hoping they will give us the right leader for the approaching unknowable times.

They are intangibles of: honesty, that our president will speak the truth to us of what s/he believes and what is happening to us; understanding, that s/he can relate to and appreciate the varied circumstances of the very differing lives of our citizenry; kindness; a respect for each human being and their worth, treating each with the dignity and consideration they deserve; leadership, the skills to see the breadth of America, the potential of our future, and to lay out genuine and well-reasoned steps for how to get there.

On the basis of these intangibles, this year’s choice is both clear and easy.  In 1992, the focal point was, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  In 2012, the point is, “It’s about character, stupid.”  I will skip over the chameleon who has no beliefs, has built his campaign on continual and expanding lies to a level never seen before, and has no idea of the experiences of how most Americans live their daily lives.  I will stay with the seasoned guy, whose core principles today are the same as four years ago.  Whose smart and well-reasoned ideas have steadily and re-assuredly led us continually forward against seemingly overwhelming and unconscionable political opposition.  I’ll go home with the guy who brought me to this dance.  With Barack Obama.  Where both hope and the right kind of change – to the future – still reside.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Election 2012 - The Campaign - Remembered

These days, there is not much of anything in which you can find agreement among more than 50% of Americans, with perhaps two exceptions:  1) disgust at what has become the partisan paralytic ineffectiveness of our national government; 2) a deep longing for this 2012 political campaign to end soon.

This billion-dollar campaign for the presidency has been two years in the making.  Dozens of debates; poll-after-poll providing no definitive information.  Each day brings yet another slick flyer that says nothing of substance yet serves up much misinformation; most often they make me more convinced than ever to vote against the sender due to the alien positions they espouse.  Requests for political donations show up continually in my mailbox, my email account, on web pages I am reading.  Our fears of corporate and individual big-money players attempting to buy the election are proving distressingly true – especially if you have the misfortune to live in one of the “battleground states.”

Most importantly, our collective knowledge of what is truly happening in this country, and what the real causes of our problems are, remain woefully uninformed in spite of all this time and money spent.  There has been no meaningful discussion about the real opportunities and solutions we need to govern from the middle ground – the place where most Americans live and think.  Any fool can cut spending by “slashing and burning,” but only an experienced and wise leader/CEO knows how to cut strategically while preserving the core mission of the organization.  Bumper sticker slogans are not solutions.

Some of the blame for this state of affairs must go to candidates who avoid integrity and honesty in favor of rhetorical opportunism.  Some blame must go to political parties for whom winning elections and holding power trumps serving the needs of the people.  And some blame must go to the American people.  We get what we accept, and we have failed to call to account the irresponsibility of all candidates and parties when they are deceitful.  If all we do is “blame the other guy” instead of calling out our own candidate/party when needed, then we cannot complain about a broken governance system built upon partisan pandering.

Sometimes, the perspectives of our ancestors can be helpful in getting us through tough times such as these.  In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt ran for a second term against Republican Alf Landon of Kansas after four years of responding to America’s worst economic collapse.  Foreign wars were breaking out across the globe, threatening to draw America into violence it did not seek.  Millions were out of work (@25% unemployment); many people were losing their homes, farms and businesses; our agricultural breadbasket in middle America was devastated by extreme weather conditions.  All remarkably similar but worse than our country is today.  In a kickoff speech to the New York Democratic State Convention, Roosevelt offered several political observations.

First he talked about Wall Street and the bankers who brought about the Depression:  “A few people … seem to have forgotten those [early] days.  In the summer of 1933, a nice old gentleman wearing a silk hat fell off the end of a pier.  He was unable to swim.  A friend ran down the pier, dived overboard and pulled him out; but the silk hat floated off with the tide.  After the old gentleman had been revived, he was effusive in this thanks.  He praised his friend for saving his life.  Today, three years later, the old gentleman is berating his friend because the silk hat was lost.”

Then he talked about his opponents’ claims regarding taxes, job creation, and Social Security:  “Let me warn you and let me warn the Nation against the smooth evasion which says, ‘Of course we believe [in] all these things.  We believe in Social Security; we believe in work for the unemployed; we believe in saving homes.  Cross our hearts and hope to die, we believe in all these things.  But we do not like the way the present Administration is doing them.  Just turn them over to us.  We will do all of them.  We will do more of them and we will do them better.  And, most important of all, the doing of them will not cost anybody anything.’

But, my friends, these evaders are banking too heavily on the shortness of our memories.  No one will forget that they had their golden opportunity – twelve long years of it ...  make no mistake about this: the Republican leadership today is not against the way we have done the job.  The Republican leadership is against the job’s being done.”

Then he talked about the dishonesty of mixed messaged based upon what different audiences want to hear:  “You cannot be an Old Guard Republican in the East, and a New Deal Republican in the West.  You cannot promise to repeal taxes before one audience and promise to spend more of the taxpayers’ money before another audience.  You cannot promise tax relief for those who can afford to pay, and, at the same time, promise more of the taxpayers’ money for those who are in need.  You simply cannot make good on both promises at the same time.”

And lastly, he clarified what it means to be a true “conservative”:  “Who is there in America who believes that we can run the risk of turning back our Government to the old leadership which brought it to the brink of 1933? … The true conservative seeks to protect the system of private property and free enterprise by correcting such injustices and inequalities as arise from it.  The most serious threat to our institutions comes from those who refuse to face the need for change.”

In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt won the most lopsided number of electoral votes to date, losing only Maine and Vermont.  His speech sounds all too relevant to us today, because we have been in this place before.  In spite of charges of “anti-capitalism” 100 years ago against Theodore Roosevelt when he broke up the mega-rich corporate monopolies; “welfare state” in the 1930s against Social Security; “socialized medicine” in the 1960s against Medicare; we have managed to move steadily forward on health, civil rights, equal employment opportunities, education, and growth in the standard of living  for average families.  Over time we have managed to progress in spite of the negative social, political and religious rhetoric of each decade.  And once again, we will somehow manage to struggle through this current campaign environment towards the better place that calls to each of us.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Election 2012 - The Issues

Since the start of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in the Republican primary, he has sought to make this election a 1-note campaign about the economy, jobs, and Barack Obama’s handling of our recovery from the Great Recession.  However, during the primary Rick Santorum and the other Republican candidates introduced numerous other issues also of concern to Americans.  And Obama continued to do the same after Romney sewed up the nomination.  This has been a good thing, because it has reminded us that the election is about more than just the economy.  When we elect a President, we have to select our best choice, our best hope, our best strategist and communicator over a broad range of topics about which Americans are concerned.  Let us then look at some representative examples of this broad range of issues.

1. The Economy: The question is who has the most credibility in managing the government role and portion of our economy.  The greatest cumulative growth in jobs has come under Democratic presidents.  The greatest growth in budget deficits has come from Republican presidents.  The principal cause of our Great Recession was the huge push in deregulation of business during the G.W. Bush Republican era.  It led to unbridled fraud and risk-taking that ultimately collapsed the economy and sent much of the workforce into joblessness.  It has taken this current administration its entire first term to turn around that collapse and achieve a consistent 3-year reduction in our deficit spending and unemployment rate, while also restoring the stock market and increasing total jobs.  So which policies should be more entrusted to continue this recovery?

2. Taxation: Much is being said about cutting taxes by both parties.  But I am mystified as to how cutting revenues makes much sense when you are in deficit spending.  For all the talk against the supposedly high tax rate on wealthy people and prosperous corporations, the truth is that NONE of these people / corporations is actually paying that stated high rate on their income.  If they are, they desperately need to find another tax accountant.  Mitt Romney’s @12% tax rate on his millions of income exemplifies this falsity, and confirms the hollowness of the “high taxes on the rich” argument.  Which is why reform of the boondoggle of special exemptions and tax treatment is so necessary.  But does anyone believe that either party can deliver this reform against the onslaught of lobbyist power and negative taxpayer reactions to eliminating their favored deductions?

3. Spending Cuts: As I have noted before, everyone wants to cut government spending.  But no one wants to reduce the payments going to them.  No businessperson wants government contracts reduced to his/her company; no citizen wants their support payments reduced.  Romney’s goal to eliminate the miniscule funding for Big Bird (the only cut he has been specific about) is contrasted to his goal to ADD billions for unneeded military spending.  The bloodletting over spending will likely kill the patient, but Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) is correct in protesting some ridiculous uses of our collective money.  The question remains who do we trust more to make the rights cuts needed in a smart and targeted way, versus swinging a meat ax indiscriminately across the budget?

4. Supreme Court: Our Supreme Court is as politicized and badly divided as the rest of America.  Which is why it now has its lowest public approval rating since such measurement started in the 1980s.  Appointments are for life, and several vacancies are expected over the next four years.  Considering the Supreme Court’s substantial impact on our lives, who do we trust more to nominate future justices to the court?

5. Women’s Rights: Abortion, proper health care without government interference, equal pay, opportunities for access in the workplace and government – these are all issues that have been actively on the docket for 50 years now.  Yet there are still those who push back on these topics, attempting to recreate a “Leave It To Beaver” family unit/lifestyle that disappeared long ago.  The positions of the two candidates and their Parties could not be more different on this topic.  So who do you trust to continue the march toward enlightened fairness for women versus trying to turn the clock back?

6. Safety Net: Ditto on health care for the entire population, Medicare and Medicaid support, and Social Security.  We have come so far, through so much resistance, over so many years, in establishing a basic floor for protecting and ensuring life’s most fundamental needs for all citizens.  A floor above which people can then rise to express and achieve their individual potential to the best of their abilities.  Republicans pledge to convert that safety net to the rollercoaster of the marketplace: vouchers, privatized social security, health insurance turned back to the insurance companies.  It supposedly will all be cheaper due to “business competition.”  Yet the last decade demonstrated the ridiculousness of putting your baseline programs into the stock market (versus added higher-level options).  And the failure of the insurance companies to meet consumer demand with cost-effective programs at affordable prices is what led to the need for government intervention in the first place.  So who do we trust more to lead America’s foundational safety net forward versus tossing it into the corporate board room?

7. Immigration: Republicans want to keep building a fence and send home the 10M+ illegal immigrants.  Democrats want to increase border patrols and find ways to integrate otherwise-law-abiding illegals into society.  We certainly should be penalizing employers who continue to create the illegal labor force that draws these immigrants to us in the first place.  Who is going to finally step to the plate and find the “grand compromise” needed to move us past this stalemate?

8. Civil Rights: The old issue of achieving equality that has always been a promise of America is still a battle.  Much has been accomplished over our 225 years, but we are not there yet across all kinds of race, religion, sexual and economic groups.  Given what we have seen over the last decade, and even the anti-voting maneuvers attempted in this extended election process, who do we trust more to advance that promise rather than to continue to create obstacles?

9. Foreign Affairs: America is the most powerful nation on earth.  But even with all that power we cannot control what happens across the globe.  When we overly try to dominate and interfere with other nations, we inevitably get ourselves into deep trouble.  The world is vastly different than post-World War II, the Cold War, the foreign domination of the Middle East, a new China.  Who do we trust more to have the sensitivity, expansiveness, understanding and the humility needed to work within this wholly new world, and the wisdom to know that this different mindset is what is needed?

There is no doubt that the economy and jobs are people’s great concerns.  But they are not, and should not be, our only concerns.  Despite the rhetoric, mistruths and position shifts occurring on the campaign trail, we all need to consider the full potential outcomes of this election – and at the federal, state and local levels.  When the campaign noise is shut out, it still comes down to that instinct in our gut: who do we trust more to be honest with us, to be the most thoughtful, to do the right thing, and to be the steadiest hand when all the yet unforeseen crises arise to challenge us?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Election 2012 - Barack Obama

In the left corner of our political boxing ring we have the Democratic candidate for President in 2012: Barack Hussein Obama.  Mr. Obama is the son of a mixed-race marriage, raised by his middle-class single mother or her parents in diverse settings as his mother pursued her anthropological research.  He was a product of our public school systems who took full advantage of student loan opportunities and a Harvard Law education to become the first bi-racial President of the United States.  By the very fact of his election he signaled a milestone in the social and legal progress of America over his own 50 years.  Now he stands in assessment by the people of how well he has done with the opportunities given to him.

It seems that complaints against Mr. Obama center on three issues: 1) that he embodies a big government, if not socialist, agenda contrary to American individualism; 2) that he has not restored our economy or reduced the national debt; or 3) that he has failed to deliver on promises and expectations from his 2008 election.

1. Socialist: In reality, America is a far distance away from being, or becoming, a socialist state where “the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.”  Certainly we could all point to some areas of regulation or tax burdens we might like to reduce, but I am still free to change jobs, start my own business, spend my money pretty much as I choose, pretty much the same as in 2008.  No guns have been seized, no “death panels have pulled the plug on grandma.”  The only area where the government has significantly expanded its services and engagement has been with health care – the very area that has long been broken, eating up our economy, and immorally inaccessible to much of the population – using the very model created by Republican candidate Romney.  Considering that it was a Republican President and Congress that passed the No-Child-Left-Behind intrusion into our public schools, and the Patriot Act intrusion into our privacy, and the various limits on people’s right to live the life they choose, the yelling about “socialism and big government” against Obama rings quite hollow.  As do all the protests against the new financial regulations needed to protect us against yet another financial Great Recession.

The “socialist” charge is an easy way to whip up the emotions of those who already feel frustrated by government intrusion into our lives.  It has been used (with racial undertones) by corporate monopolistic business leaders for 100 years to discredit people who are opposed to their excessive economic control and ability to wield favored political power.  But the substance does not work here.  Not when the term comes from the very politicians who are themselves promoting intrusion and control over our lives.

2. Economy:  There is no question that the Bush economic collapse of 2008 completely reprioritized Obama’s intended political agenda.  Yet Obama managed to contain a consensus looming depression into a recession.  Unemployment maxed out at 10% in October 2009 – not a desirable level, but way better than the 25% experience of the 1930s Great Depression.  It has since been on a steady decline for three years, most recently standing at 7.8%, just three points above our typical 5%.  (The unemployment rate would be lower if Republican budget cuts and anti-stimulus votes had not fired thousands of federal and state government workers.)  Total employment in the private sector has been consistently growing for over three years; there are now over 500,000 net private sector jobs in place than when Obama took office.  The auto industry is alive and well, and millions of auto manufacturing and supply chain jobs were saved by Obama’s investment decision – an investment that is actually returning a profit to the U.S. Treasury.  And unlike Bush’s bailout gift to the financial industry, Obama extracted smart conditions for change in both management and labor, and added benefits to the public, from auto industry leaders.  The stock market was tanking as Obama came into office, losing almost one-half of its wealth to a Dow Jones Industrial Average low of $6,547.  That average has now climbed up to over $13,500, and most 401k retirement accounts have been restored.  The budget deficit has been steadily reduced each year, from $1,509B for FY 2009 to $1,100B for FY 2012.  All in all, not a bad track record for someone trying to bring the American economy back from the financial cliff.

Growth may be slow, but it is still growth; over 90% of Americans are in fact employed.  They say “it could have been worse” is a lousy campaign slogan.  But sometimes it is the exact truth.  Frankly the economy would be doing great if Washington would end its stalemate so that businesspeople would know the future rules of the game and be able to plan accordingly.

3. Disappointments:  As for disappointments from 2008, I have trouble understanding that charge against a President who has accomplished so much given so little to work with.  Americans always start out with great hope and enthusiasm for each new president; most of the time the reality falls short.  Ted Kennedy described his slain brother Robert as one who “dreamed things that never were, and asked Why Not?”  Yet German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck said in 1867 that “politics is the art of the possible.”  Hopeful vision in a leader is important to inspire effort and establish directions.  Yet you must also inevitably pick your battles carefully, make progress where you can, and seek to come out ahead of where you were.  The last four years have been a time of the near IM-possible.  From that basis, a lot of those 2008 campaign promises have gotten done.

Healthcare was Obama’s #1 priority, and in the end he got it done.  It was unnecessarily a too-big final package, and the decision to let Congress “work out the details” was a bad one because they made a mess of it.  But in a country this wealthy, bankruptcy, pain and death due to a lack of access to healthcare is inexcusable.  20 years from now, most people will wonder what all the loud protest was about, coming from people who already have health care and who will not be negatively affected by the changes.  Just as some politicians once protested Social Security and Medicare.

Immigration fairness has not been done due to the extreme “either/or” thinking in Congress.  Working in the middle, Obama has supported increased border patrols and deportation of illegal aliens.  But he also has supported some form of “path to citizenship” and a “Dream Act” for the children of illegal aliens that Republicans refuse to consider even as they refuse to round up the aliens they object to and send them home.  So Obama unilaterally found ways to provide some access and security for these children by executive order.

To ensure equality of rights, the “Don’t Ask / Don’t Tell” law prohibiting equal opportunity to serve in the military has been repealed; Obama has refused to enforce the “Domestic Marriage Act” prohibiting social benefits to domestic partners; and he has signed a bill strengthening “equal pay for equal work” requirements.  For some reason we still struggle with that “all men are created equal” thing.

Internationally and militarily, Obama has pulled that agenda off the usual Republican plate.  The Iraq war is over; two more years to go in Afghanistan to end President Bush’s forgotten “other war”; bin Laden is dead; al-Qaeda, while still dangerous, has been badly crippled; Libya is free of Gadaffi.  Guantanamo is still open due to Congress’ refusal to fund any alternate prison on American soil.  Our standing and partnerships with European leaders have been restored; the Middle East remains a 65-year old intractable problem spanning 12 Presidents for reasons too many to delineate here, even as former Bush (and now Romney) advisors trumpet for new arrogant military responses with Syria and Iran.  We do not seem to learn our lessons very well or easily.  But the Obama/Clinton foreign affairs team has learned and done well.

As far as disappointments, the ugly and paralyzing partisan Washington rancor remains unabated.  In trying to be the great bipartisan reconciler, Obama has been too slow to recognize the depth of the Republican commitment to achieving his defeat in 2012 by objecting to everything he proposed.  Obama has held out too long for compromises where there was never going to be any, and valuable time and credibility were lost.  A “my way or the highway” style of governing may be undesirable, but a leader has to know when to cut bait and fight for his/her goals with passion and force.  For all his great talent at delivering an inspiring set speech, he and his team have been remarkably bad communicators in explaining the day-to-day level of decisions, actions and results.  This has left Republicans free to run simplified (and generally inaccurate) bumper-sticker slogans, confusing the public discussion.  Given his lack of hands-on business experience, Obama has still not found a supportive voice for the businessperson, especially the small entrepreneurs who drive jobs and our economy; the balance we truly need between economic and social agendas is lacking.

Are there some specific disappointments I have from the last four years?  Yes.  Do I blame Obama for not delivering?  No.  Blame is too widespread.  Compromise and reconciliation are not 1-sided propositions.  One cannot lead a nation when one side refuses to march together, and instead uses our struggling economy as a mask for all kinds of side issues of social destruction.  The American people are notoriously short of memory and patience.  To properly assess Obama, we need to clearly remember where we started from four years ago, where we actually are now, and realistically measure our progress against the really deep hole we are still climbing out of.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Election 2012 -- Mitt Romney

In the right corner of today’s political boxing ring we have the Republican candidate for President in 2012: Millard Mitt Romney.  Mr. Romney’s father, George, was president of American Motors Company, Governor of Michigan, and unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination for President in 1968.  Given his father’s financial and political success, Mitt Romney was able to receive an excellent private school education and a good head start on life.  He had a highly successful career in the private investment industry, making him one of the wealthiest candidates ever to run for president.  His public service life includes an unsuccessful U.S. Senate run against Ted Kennedy in 1994; one term as Massachusetts Governor from 2003-2007; an unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008; and now this bid in the general election.  But even after all of this public exposure, what are we to make of this man and his candidacy?  Three core issues call out for examination.

1. Core Principles: There is an old anecdote about Hollywood that says, once you strip away its layers upon layers of tinsel and glitter, what you find underneath it all is – simply more tinsel.  Such can be similarly said about Mr. Romney’s apparent lack of any consistent core beliefs.  Over his nearly 20 years of running for public office, he has held almost every conceivable position possible on almost every political and social issue available, shifting as needed to fit the expediency of the office, the campaign, the times, or the audience.  Which is why his own Republican base is so suspicious and un-enamored of him.  I personally admire people who learn lessons from their lifetimes, and who evolve their thinking based upon rational input, personal experience, and thoughtful reflection.  But Mr. Romney’s such evolutions are too conveniently done.  Changes in public statements and positions can occur within months, if not days, with seemingly little regard for past utterances documented on camera or in print.  Watching the subsequent awkward and near-irrational explanation for each new epiphany of thought is torturous to any rational-thinking human being.

Voting for a candidate is the vehicle by which voters express their collective beliefs and goals through their elected surrogate.  When someone thinks so little of his/her personal beliefs that they are unwilling to state and defend them, rather than shift those beliefs from audience to audience, they obviate the whole concept of what a vote stands for.  We should not give away the sacred privilege of our vote so easily.  As with John McCain in 2008, watching a good person throw away their very soul for secular political gain is painfully disheartening to see.  Did not someone once point out to us that, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”  The lesson for us all is that when you continually act without your core principles, over time it catches up with you.  Mr. Romney is faltering because all the various versions of him are now colliding, leaving him a man now without definition.

2. Invisible Agenda: In 1968, presidential candidate Richard Nixon announced that he had a “secret plan for ending the [Viet Nam] war.”  Of course if the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong knew what the plan was, they would maneuver to negate it.  So Nixon cleverly refused to tell the American public what the secret plan was.  Instead, he boldly asked America to simply trust him to do the right thing.  Given how sick Americans were of the war and related domestic turmoil, they voted him into office, trusting for a change of direction.  The result: new secret bombings and ground incursions into Laos and Cambodia; 2/3rds of the nearly 60,000 Americans killed in Viet Nam happened under Nixon, not Lyndon Johnson; we lost the war anyway.

Mr. Romney now seeks to follow the same “secret plan” strategy to revive our economy.  He says he has an economic plan, but he won’t tell us what it is until after the election.  “Just trust me, I’ll make it work,” he seems to say.  He has given us all kinds of endgame markers that sound good (does anyone really believe “12 million new jobs in the next four years”?), but not a word about how he is going to accomplish these.  He intends to cut taxes for everyone and spread more of Reagan’s long discredited “trickle-down prosperity for all.”  He intends to cut many programs he thinks we supposedly do not need in order to reduce the budget deficit, but will not tell us which programs those are.  Similarly, he will cut tax loopholes, but will not tell us which loopholes he is targeting.  He will do all of this cutting while nevertheless increasing our military budget hundreds of billions of dollars over what the Pentagon wants or the nation needs or can afford.  He has muzzled his own Vice Presidential partner and disavowed Paul Ryan’s detailed budget proposals, saying only that he “will have my own budget” – but he will not reveal that to us either.

Just being “against Obama” is not a valid campaign.  At some point, a true leader has to stand and say what s/he would actually DO, in more specifics than just high-school platitudes and clichés.  We do not need a hidden candidate with a “stealth economic program.”  We got taken for our naiveté in 1968.  Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

3. Business Experience: Mr. Romney has tried to make the economy his whole focal point against Mr. Obama.  He states his prior business experience at Bain Capital as his credentials for achieving the same wealthy end result for the country.  I do not begrudge for one minute Mr. Romney’s achievement of wealth for himself and his family, which by all accounts he made within the existing rules of the game.  However, while that may be a good track record for his business career, it is an exact DIS-qualification to be President.  A deregulated financial services industry led us into this recession, and has proven itself to be a mindset totally incapable of reforming from the inside.  It is an industry that sees businesses as simply “inventory” to be bought and sold as commodities, not as employers and producers of quality and safe goods and services.  This success is not about actually running a company; it is about selling off its assets and getting out.  Mr. Romney is a product of that industry, an industry that does not think about sharing its success among all those who truly create that wealth regardless of their employment position.  This business background, for an endless list of reasons discussed across several prior blogs, is totally unsuited for one who would be President of this country of widely diverse Americans.

I have no concerns about the personal integrity of Mr. Romney, no fear of a John Edwards-styled skeleton lurking in any closet.  Yet I listen and watch Mr. Romney’s surprisingly amateurish campaign unfold day-to-day; his embarrassingly insensitive forays into international politics; his inanely stupid comments about everyday things one after another; or his attempt to explain away one ill-thought statement after another (“47% victims”?).  It leaves me feeling that I am watching someone who views the Presidency of the United States as simply one more corporate acquisition, the last and biggest “deal” of his career, with the American people just data points on a spreadsheet, from one who has lived his life completely cocooned from the reality of our people’s wide diversity and experience.

This track record is perhaps fine preparation for heading up Bain Capital and making it financially successful for its small cadre of partners.  But the United States of America is not Bain Capital or just another corporation.  So that same track record is a lousy preparation from which to represent and govern all of the people of the country with equal consideration and respect.  Including the simplest and most humble of our people.

“Managerial leadership is not the same as political leadership.  Some of Romney’s business skills might be helpful, but business is not politics, and politics is not business.  Otherwise, we’d have the same word for it.”  (Jody Baumgartner, presidential scholar, East Carolina University)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Election 2012 - The Political Parties

Almost 1½ years after the pre-primary Republican campaign began, and nearly five months of de facto general election campaigning between each of the “presumptive” candidates, Republicans and Democrats finally have their official candidates for president.  The farcical, surreal, but always entertaining comedy that was the Republican primary season is behind us.  In exchange is the audio torture of hundreds of millions of dollars spent on negative advertising and untruths to buy the general election for one of the candidates.  At a time of many new emerging democracies across the globe, we the creators of “popular self-government” are certainly proving to be a lousy role model for these global transitions in government.

Political parties were never envisioned by the writers of our Constitution.  Certainly there were deep divisions of strongly-voiced opinions among those Founders.  But they did not foresee those divisions manifested into formal organizations of political operations.  Organizations that function as a virtual 4th branch of government, but were never defined or sanctioned in the Constitution.  But this sub-government defines the reality and functioning of our government as much or almost more than the three branches that are legally constituted – much to the chagrin of our early leaders.  As George Washington stated in his Farewell Address, “[The spirit of party] serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration.  It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”

In the 150 years since the Civil War, the Republican and Democratic parties have thoroughly dominated our elections (with some occasional short-lived 3rd-party attempts).  For the first 70 years of this period the Republicans held a virtual lock on the government.  Then three successive presidents in the Roaring Twenties oversaw the country’s collapse into its worst economic depression and ushered in 12 years of Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt.  Thereafter in post-WWII modern America, Americans have emphasized “balance” in their voting, automatically ceding their ballots to neither party: 6 Democratic presidents accumulating 32 years in the White House; 6 Republican presidents accumulating 36 years.  One might conclude that Americans are a fickle lot, or instead that they simply like keeping both parties in check.

Over time, each party has changed its political posture in many ways, even while they retain their classic brands of “Republicans for the rich businessman” and “Democrats for the disadvantaged little guy.”  Republicans freed the slaves and guaranteed voting rights to blacks and women by constitutional amendments, while Southern Democrats sought to extend de facto slavery.  Yet today’s Republicans are shamelessly attempting to block eligible voters from voting, while Democrats are resisting these efforts.  Republicans fought a war 150 years ago to hold the Union together against Southern Democrat attempts at secession; today’s Republicans speak incessantly in favor of “states’ rights.”  Corporate and workplace regulation and anti-monopoly laws were instituted by Republican presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft, and environmental regulations were greatly expanded by Richard Nixon.  Today’s Republicans argue that deregulation is the savior step for economic recovery, even as stories of corporate corruption or dangers to the American public are reported weekly.  Republicans continually vocalize about the interference of “big government,” yet it is today’s Democrats who are fighting against laws invading our privacy and encroaching against our civil liberties.  And amidst all the pontificating about financial responsibility, it was the three Republican presidents starting with Ronald Reagan who exploded our deficit spending and national debt – leading us into this current greatest of recessions.

President Obama is absolutely correct that Election 2012 represents as distinctive a political choice as we have seen in decades.  A choice not just for president and vice president, but for state and local governments and decisions on how we choose to live our lives.  As much as Mitt Romney would like to talk only about jobs and the economy, the Republican ascendancy of 2010 has wreaked huge upheavals in the states with assaults on voting rights and redistricting, marital rights, religious rights, public education, and government infrastructure and services – all hidden under the umbrella of supposed “financial reform.”  Financial reform is needed, yes.  But that should not be used to hide a radical social agenda that marches us backward from being a progressive, just, opportunistic, and safe society in the 21st century.  As president-wanna-be Newt Gingrich observed, Americans dislike radical social engineering from the right as much as they dislike it from the left.

For me personally, when I look at the Republican Party of today, all of these “policy” issues pale next to one overriding issue.  Democrats are often rightly accused of bad messaging skills, undisciplined strategizing, over-reach and excess in government programs, and a knee-jerk instinct for a government response to solve virtually all economic and social shortcomings.  But over these last four years, at a time of severe economic and human crisis potentially just one step away from a free-fall collapse, at least they have tried to DO something.  Because some significant things have needed to be done, and done quickly, with the patience to allow those somethings to bear long-term fruit.  In these moments of universal need, affecting in one way or another Americans of all income levels and situations, a collective response has been needed for the collective good.  But instead, today’s Republican Party chose to turn its back on its proud traditions and to ignore the needs of the American public.  It decided to simply become the “party against” for the sole objective of just being against.  Politics and a grab for political power, wrapped in a willingness to say anything regardless of its truth, has been the openly declared priority of this Party.  Even the term “conservative” has been tossed upside down to become something that would be unfathomable to the conservative heritage of Goldwater and Reagan.

That decision to conduct a self-serving revolt instead of to achieve solutions for the American people has been a total breach of public trust and a violation of ethical responsibility.  For that failure to put the American people first, forgiveness is not yet warranted.  But accountability is demanded now.

“If I could not go to heaven but with a (political) party, I would not go there at all.”  (Thomas Jefferson)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Arab Summer

The past few weeks, Americans have been shocked by a wave of anti-American demonstrations erupting unexpectedly in a number of countries across North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.  Most Americans have been supportive of the “Arab Spring” upheavals against ruling dictators that have occurred over the past 21 months.  But these recent coinciding events have left many, as Secretary of State Clinton said, “trying to make sense of the senseless.”  And these events have sowed potential seeds across America for more indiscriminate anger and prejudice against Muslims in general.

Such seedings are unwarranted.  When the American Embassy in Cairo discovered the existence of an inflammatory anti-Muslim YouTube video, it quickly issued a statement (before any violence had occurred) that said simply (and correctly) that “[we] condemn the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.”  Mitt Romney alternately made an ill-informed and ill-advised political criticism in the wake of the subsequent demonstrations that “an apology for American values is never the right course.”

I have no idea what “American values” Mr. Romney was referring to in his campaign statement.  Or what “apology” he thinks was even made.  I know that I value very much the freedom of everyone to practice their religion of choice without interference, obstruction or denigration.  I value that each person is equal in the law and in God’s eyes, and thereby deserves respect as a valued human being.  I know I value freedom of speech, but accept that this freedom is limited by the responsibility to avoid harming others.  These are the very values implicit in our government’s statements.  Which of these values would Mr. Romney have us retract?

As for making an apology, apologies are perhaps due to much of the Muslim world by the Western powers.  We have collectively treated Islam and its Muslim followers with unwarranted contempt and disdain for a thousand years.  Even though their Koran calls for worshiping the same God as Jews and Christians; treats the Jewish and Christian teachings as righteous and from God; commands that Jews and Christians who faithfully adhere to their religious teachings are to be respected and honored – Christians have labeled Muslims as “the infidels” for a millennium.  Christians fought religious Crusades against the Muslims for two hundred years.  In the last 100 years following World War I, the West has sought to hold the Arab/Muslim communities as virtual economic and political hostages – a subservience Western countries would never tolerate.  We have exploited their wealth (mainly oil) until countries have gradually regained control over their own resources.  We have covertly overthrown legitimate popular governments when they refused to follow our direction.  We supported cruel dictators with arms and dollars – arms and dollars used to suppress their populations and keep them poor and un-empowered – and then looked away as long as they sided with us instead of Russia.

Hillary Clinton stated that “America had nothing to do with the making of this [YouTube] film.”  Americans understand full well that this film is protected by our First Amendment right of freedom of speech.  But we are speaking that distinction to millions of people who have never known freedom of speech, i.e. the freedom to speak separately and independently from one’s government.  How can we expect these masses to understand such a fine distinction about an individual right that has been completely outside of their own personal and cultural experience?

We pontificate about the supposed “cultural and educational backwardness” of many Muslim societies, lumping all Muslims and Muslim-dominated countries together as if one homogeneous peoples.  But we skip over the excessive functional illiteracy still present in America.  We decry the stories we hear of Muslim family violence, but domestic violence inexplicably rages every day in America.  We protest the limited rights of Muslim women, but our Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, and many Evangelical and other religious branches continue to operate on a male-dominated / female-subservient inequality in faith and family.  American hate groups claiming to be Christians act in terrorist ways against their fellow citizens of different color, faiths, and lifestyles; both good Christians and good Muslims each get lumped together with the aberrational thugs in their midst.  American political power and economic wealth is increasingly weighted to only a select few businesspeople, politicians, and clergy in a hierarchy not unlike many Middle East countries.  Yet most Americans never mentioned in our headlines go about their daily lives honestly and law-abidingly while trying to be helpful to others, horrified by our own violence against each other – just as we see with people across the Muslim world.  Jesus’ guidance to “judge not lest you also be judged” is highly applicable here.

We Americans have so much to be proud of about this country and our efforts to try to make lives better and more just.  But an honest look in the mirror of self-examination would show us many reasons for overseas Muslims to rightly resent us even as they also admire us for other reasons.  Even our support for their freedom revolutions has been limited by many to “as long as they believe and act like us.”  After centuries of such attitudes and treatment toward these fellow men and women, we should not be surprised at their short fuses over what we may see as insignificant circumstances.  When we “walk around in another’s [Muslim] shoes,” supposedly simple rights and wrongs begin to look a whole lot less simple.  It is like continuing family tensions over long-ago hurts, rubbed raw over years of neglect alternated with exacerbative needling, exploding in a disproportionate argument at a suddenly unexpected moment.  We fear the latent anger of the beast we helped to create.  We need only to look at our own history of attitudes and conduct toward African-Americans and Native-Americans to see the truth of this.

We need to recognize that a bond between American and Muslim cultures and countries must come from people connecting directly with people; observing their right to self-determination over their own affairs; taking time to truly understand the great religion of Islam and respecting their choice of faith; and helping to end Muslim poverty, desperation and hopelessness in favor of a better life.  The same things that American people seek.  We who barely understand how differently people think and live from one region of America to another should remember that Cairo, Egypt is not Cairo, Illinois.  Given that most Americans have never set foot in a Muslim country, we can barely begin to fathom how extraordinarily different their daily life is than in America.

We often forget that our American Revolutionary War took eight years to complete, resulting in a confederative government of thirteen individual states (“tribes”) barely able to work together or collectively decide anything, disrespected and ridiculed by the international community.  A government so weak that four years after the War’s end its potential collapse pushed our Founders into a Constitutional Convention to finally create this strong central government that has now stood for 225 years.  As the Arab Spring moves into the Arab Summer of new governance, we need to extend the same understanding and patience to these various Muslim communities as was required in establishing our new country.

As John McCain eloquently stated, “I know many Americans may feel a temptation … to distance ourselves from people and events in Libya, and Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East … We were right to take the side of the Libyan people, and others in the region who share their peaceful aspiration.  And we would be gravely mistaken to walk away from them now.  To do so would only be a betrayal of everything that [Ambassador] Chris Stevens and his colleagues believed in and ultimately gave their lives for, but it would also be a betrayal of America’s highest values and our own enduring national interest in supporting people in the Middle East who want to live in peace and freedom.”  Those are the true American values that need no apology.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Truth Of Lying

Awhile back, standing in the well of the Senate while proposing to eliminate government funding to Planned Parenthood, Senator John Kyle (R-AZ) stated, “90% of Planned Parenthood’s funding goes toward providing abortion services.”  In fact, the percentage was @10% or less.  Nevertheless, when challenged about this egregious error of fact, Kyle released a now-infamous reply that “what I said was not intended to be a factual statement.”  Somehow that rationale was supposed to excuse his glaring lie.

Shortly after Paul Ryan gave his acceptance speech as the Republican nominee for Vice President – a speech riddled with false statements – former mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to explain away those errors in an interview by saying, “When someone gives a speech, not every fact is 100% accurate.”  I guess this includes when someone gives his/her speech of their lifetime for the history books for which they had weeks to prepare.  (Versus a meandering off-the-cuff ad lib address, a la Clint Eastwood.)  Funny, I always thought a “fact” less than 100% accurate was no longer a fact.

We all understand that at times in political campaigns truths will compromised, context will be omitted, and logic will be stretched beyond recognition.  That is a shame, because it is during political campaigns that the public is most often paying attention to the issues of governance, and good information on which to make substantive decisions is critically needed.  We accept this “stretching” of truths, intended to create an electoral advantage, as just another one of our sad realities of life.  Just as we discount much of the other advertising that we hear about the many evils of “Brand X.”

But when a politician seeks to unabashedly lie about things, knowingly ignoring today’s realities of videotape, fact-checking researchers and internet information sharing, it shows either a woeful ignorance of today’s media world and/or a shortage of character and a willingness to deceive that insults the public trust.  Such is the case with Mr. Ryan’s speech, for which he has been appropriately called out.  For example:
  • Ryan accused President Obama of failing to deliver on a presidential promise to prevent the closing of a GM plant in Ryan’s home state.  Except that no such promise was made, and the plant’s closing was announced and competed all within George W. Bush’s presidency.
  • Ryan claimed that Obama has removed the work requirement within welfare programs that was adopted in the Bill Clinton years.  Not at all true, as all responsible news media (and Clinton himself) have confirmed.
  • Ryan has accused Obama of not supporting the Simpson-Bowles deficit report that Obama had commissioned.  But Mr. Ryan failed to mention that he was a member of that same Commission, voted against its findings and recommendations, and refused to allow it to be brought up and considered in his House budget committee.
  • Ryan has accused Obama of taking $716 billion out of the Medicare program “to pay for Obamacare.”  He left out that this reduction was based on reduced payments to health care providers, not Medicare enrollees, based upon expected productivity and other gains.  And Ryan pointedly failed to mention that he has also proposed the same transfer in his latest House budget proposal.
  • Finally, Ryan has laid responsibility for America’s credit downgrade solely on Obama, omitting that he himself was one of the leaders of House Republicans in creating the debt/budget standoff of a year ago. It was the only time that the raising of the debt ceiling and the protecting of our collective credit rating had been held hostage by Congress under any Republican or Democratic president.
The selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate has been a curious story unto itself.  Ryan is certainly the darling of the conservative Right for his willingness to outspokenly go out on a limb without apologies in support of drastically reducing government programs and services.  And make no mistake: budget cuts are exactly that – reduced dollars going into the hands of business people and consumers (and voters).  Americans who love the idea of lower taxes and reduced spending also want NO reduction in the services, business contracts, and grant monies that now come to them.

The reality is that Paul Ryan’s role to Mitt Romney in 2012 is the same as Sarah Palin’s was to John McCain in 2008 – but with the major difference that Paul Ryan has both intelligence and substance.  Nevertheless, like Ms. Palin, Ryan is there to provide political energy and “star power” in support of the nominee on top who has minimal such attractions.  He is there to shore up support from a party base that fundamentally distrusts the conservative credentials of their top-of-the-ticket nominee.  Ryan is a man with a detailed track record of significant conservative proposals.  But having made Ryan his appointee, Romney now spends his time disavowing those same proposals.  And Mr. Ryan now no longer speaks of those proposals or his convictions in order to hide the differences between the two men.  It is as if those ideas that are required to convince the Republican base are anathema to moderate and independent Americans who will ultimately decide the election winner.  So why would Romney select Ryan as his choice in the first place, only to then quietly disavow what Ryan stands for?  And why would Ryan choose to give up the very independence and honest-speaking position that endeared him to his followers in the first place?  The attraction to power can certainly do harsh things to one’s character.

We all understand the “attack dog” role of a Vice Presidential nominee.  And we understand the stretching of truths that occurs in political campaigns.  But Americans are struggling right now, painfully trying to figure out the next step in their individual and collective future.  People need solid and truthful information to answer their difficult questions.  Questions that are actually of far greater importance than who will be the winners and losers in November’s election.  There are political candidates who choose to cross a fine but critical line of outright lying to the American people in a deliberate attempt to hide truth for political gain.  Such unethical conduct makes it more difficult for all of us to intelligently and accurately find our way.  Perhaps we should just shrug our shoulders and dismiss all of this as simply “campaign rhetoric.”  But if a person – regardless of their political party or viewpoints – chooses to step across that ethical line as a candidate, should we not then assume that they will believe that that choice of action is politically permissible?  And that as an elected official they will then continue that pattern of lying to the public?