Category Archives: Politics

Wallflower At The Protest Rally

I spent Friday evening with Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Jackson Browne, Michael Moore, Hurricane Carter, and my Republican buddy Mike.  The event was called “Bring Leonard Peltier Home in 2012,” and was meant to remind folks that the Native American activist Leonard Peltier is still in jail for the murder of two federal agents, in spite of questions about his guilt.

More than 2000 audience members stood and cheered whenever speakers described Peltier as a “political prisoner,” or cried racism, or railed more generally against “our society” or “Wall Street.”

I remained seated.  And now, I’m figuring out why.

First, I don’t think that I am stone-hearted or ironically aloof by nature.  I was genuinely moved by Michael Moore’s eloquence and passion, which included his response to the shootings of schoolchildren in Connecticut that morning.  I was wowed by Native American singer/songwriter Bill Miller‘s big spirit, which reminded me of Richie Havens in his prime.  Hearing Hurricane Carter tell the story of his wrongful conviction with humor, resignation, and pride, was moving.

So, why was I so skeptical and cold-blooded about most of the event?  Why was I the wallflower at the protest rally?

As I think back on it, as I think of the more than three hours of speakers and singers railing that Leonard Peltier is a proud and pure-hearted Native American, railroaded by the vindictive and hasty FBI, I realize the answer: I instinctively bristle when I hear easy, broad-brush caricatures that take the place of careful, detailed argument.  When a conclusion sounds too easy, my first instinct is to doubt it.  I am, in short, a Mudgeon.

The speakers told us that Leonard Peltier was framed by the FBI for the murders of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in June 1975.  Why? Well, that was not completely clear, but the words “racist” and “political prisoner” were used a lot.

I don’t know if Leonard Peltier shot those agents.  The agents had entered the reservation in pursuit of Jimmy Eagle, who was wanted for assaulting and robbing some local ranch workers.  They were found dead in their cars, which had been sprayed with more than one hundred bullets.  No eyewitness has ever identified the shooters.  So, the evidence against Leonard Peltier was circumstantial.

Three witnesses said that Peltier was in the vicinity of the crime.  Later, the three said that their statements had been coerced.  Shell casings at the scene were said to match a rifle owned by Peltier.  Later, a memo from the FBI ballistics expert was discovered, showing that the casings were not a match.  When Peltier was extradited from Canada to stand trial, the basis was an affidavit from a woman who claimed that she was his girlfriend and knew that he had shot the agents.  That affidavit turned out to be false.

Some evidence is more damning.  After the murders, Peltier and two other suspects fled in a station wagon and an RV.  When police stopped the RV, which was being driven by Peltier, he shot at the police and fled.  One of the murdered agents’ guns was found under the driver’s seat, with Peltier’s fingerprint on it.  The station wagon, filled with explosives and driven by one of the other suspects who had fled with Peltier, exploded accidentally on a Kansas highway.  Police found the other FBI agent’s gun in it, as well as a rifle of the same type as Peltier’s.  Peltier claimed several conflicting alibis at the time, but in his memoir published a quarter-century later, he admits that he shot at the agents, but denies murdering them.

So, while my fellow audience members are hooting about racism and political imprisonment, I’m thinking that, at least,  there was plenty of evidence to prove that Peltier was one of the shooters (which he now doesn’t deny), and federal law considers an accomplice to murder to be just as guilty as the murderer.  And, when speaker after speaker calls for the President to commute Leonard Peltier’s sentence I am thinking that Bill Clinton did not commute Leonard Peltier’s sentence, and Barack Obama will never commute Leonard Peltier’s sentence, because this was the murder of two FBI agents, by someone who admits shooting at them, and if you’re the president there’s no upside to pissing off the FBI.  This is not like the story of Hurricane, the man the authorities came to blame, for something that he never done.

Leonard Peltier isn’t the only too-easy argument that turns me into an instant skeptic.  Opponents of hydrofracturing fret reflexively about fracking fluid “laden with industrial and toxic chemicals” that have caused “massive fish kills, sick children, dead livestock, and contaminated tap water.”  When I hear this, I think, wouldn’t this be front-page news if it were true?  And wouldn’t the EPA be all over it if there was a health risk?  Anti-union business interests have been supporting the “right” of unionized employees to get the benefits of a union’s collective bargaining work without paying dues, by arguing that unions are corrupt and skim almost all of their dues for internal administrative costs and left-wing politicking.  I think, if this were true, wouldn’t union members vote bums like that out of leadership?  And, when the rapper Mos Def told us on Friday that rap had been the authentic voice of the community until “Wall Street” corrupted it, was I the only person who thought, “Huh?  What does the banking industry have to do with rap music?  And aren’t rap artists mostly promoted by rap moguls like Def Jam and Roc a Fella?”

It was Ernest Hemingway who wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”  I’d like to think that Ernest, surely a Mudgeon in his own time, would also have sat on his hands at the Peltier rally, quietly asking himself “isn’t it too easy to think so?”  Maybe Leonard Peltier is innocent; and maybe the Occupy Wall Streeters were all dangerous bums looking for free sandwiches; and maybe the EPA is corrupt and looking the other way as ‘frackers destroy the Marcellus shale bed, or cell phones and microwave ovens cause cancer.  But, my Mudgeonly hide will always thicken when these things are presented as though they are beyond question, by partisans who believe because they have an interest in believing, and not because a convincing case has been made.

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Filed under identity politics, philosophy, Politics, protest, skepticism, Uncategorized

The Gruntled Contrarian: Susan Rice Is Not Ready For Prime Time

The late Nebraska senator Roman Hruska will be remembered forever for his underwhelming defense of Richard’s Nixon’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Harrold Carswell.  Democrats opposed Judge Carswell as “mediocre.”  “Even if he were mediocre,” Mr. Hruska proclaimed, “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

A photograph of Senator Hruska's proud moment.  Ain't the Internet grand?

Which, as you might guess, brings us to the mostly-manufactured kerfuffle, brouhaha, and ballyhoo about Susan Rice.

Having lost this bellowing point in the presidential elections, the Republicans are now opposing Dr. Rice for Secretary of State by trying to gin up a case that she lied to the American people about the attack in Benghazi.  President Obama is sticking to his guns, broad-brushing the Benghazi issue, maintaining that Rice is an “extraordinary” diplomat and puffing that her critics should “go after me.”

My take?  Susan Rice is not extraordinary.  Neither did she lie to the American people.  What she is, based on her handling of the Benghazi matter, is not ready to be Secretary of State.  She is President Obama’s Harrold Carswell.

Dr. Rice is certainly well-credentialed.  After her Rhodes scholarship and Oxford Ph.D., she joined up with the Clinton White House as an expert on African diplomacy.  She waited out the Bush years at the Brookings Institution before joining the Obama campaign as foreign-policy advisor and then being nominated as United Nations Ambassador by the new President.

Yet, she never came across as a buttoned-down type of diplomat.  She brought her infant son, whom she was still breast-feeding, to her confirmation hearing.  She notoriously punctuated a disagreement with the late and masterful diplomat Richard Holbrooke by giving him the finger.  Classy.  She is know for insulting and shouting at colleagues.  She was removed for a time as the foreign-policy spokesperson for the Obama campaign after “getting out ahead of her skis” criticizing the Bush policy of not negotiating with Iran until it suspended its nuclear program – though this policy had in fact been developed by our European allies.  And, although tough-negotiating women have always been judged more harshly than tough-negotiating men, it is significant that Russia is opposing her confirmation because they see her as too “ambitious and aggressive” to deal with successfully.

And so, to Benghazi.

Republican critics are foaming at the mouth that Dr. Rice intentionally concealed the truth about the Benghazi attacks, concealing Al Qaeda’s involvement in the attack so as not to undermine the President’s campaign-season claim that Al Qaeda has been largely neutralized.  The more strategically-minded cynics among us suspect that the true Republican motive is to scuttle Rice’s nomination so that the second choice, John Kerry, will be nominated and his Senate seat will be taken by the newly-unemployed calendar boy Scott Brown.

OK, this nudity is not strictly necessary, but why miss the opportunity?  Indeed, why miss THIS:

Like Republicans’ surrealistic theories about global warming or Alaskan oil drilling, it would be pretty to think so.  But, we now know it ain’t true.  It turns out that references to Al Qaeda or organized terrorism were deleted from the talking points by some shadowy hand in the Executive branch. (David Petreaus, who we now know had a few other things on his mind at the time of the attack, testified that the CIA did not make the changes; the White House says it was someone in the Executive, but they won’t say who).

So, why is it that, after the November 27 meeting that was supposed to lead to perestroika, Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Kelly Ayotte reported that they had more reservations than before the meeting, and were considering blocking the confirmation?  Here, I think, is why.

Susan Rice knew, before her appearances on the September 16 talk shows, that the Benghazi attacks were premeditated acts of terrorism.  The FBI had interviewed most of the survivors of the attack by then.  Libya had arrested more than 50 Al Qaeda sympathizers or affiliates in connection with the murders.  Rice testified recently that she had received memoranda on all of these facts before she went on television.  And yet, she stated in those interviews that the the attack was part of a spontaneous protest by “a small number of people” that came about “a direct result of a heinous and offensive video” (the silly and inept Innocence of Muslims trailer), despite “a substantial security presence there with our personnel.”

The basic “spontaneous protest” story, we now know, was direct from the White House talking points memo.  Dr. Rice was told to mouth those talking points.  But, she knew they were untrue.  Knowing this, she should have firmly pushed back against being asked to parrot them.  In this instance, she was a good soldier, but not a good potential General…or potential Secretary of State.

Other of her statements, including the “small number of people” and the “substantial security presence,” which were also untrue (the “security presence” apparently was a reference to the two ex-SEALS who were on assignment about a mile away, and had no responsibility for protecting the Ambassador), apparently were not part of the talking points.  These misstatements were apparently Rice’s own creations.  In that regard, she is at best sloppy with facts, which does not augur well for a diplomat.

Imagine Susan Rice as the Secretary of State going head-t0-head with Hamas, Pakistan, or I’m-A-Dinner-Jacket at the next Missile Crisis, or holding the hand of David Cameron or Bibi Netanyahu.  Heck, imagine how difficult it is just to juggle the alliances, sensitivities, and internal politics of scores of nations worldwide.  This is a job for a remarkable statesperson, like Hillary Clinton, Dean Acheson, or Henry Kissinger.  It is not a job for a political friend of the President.  Susan Rice is not a liar, but she is not extraordinary; and she is not ready for prime time.

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Filed under Middle East, Politics, Uncategorized

The Israeli Spring

The former chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov explained this week why he won’t run for president in Russia.  “In chess you have fixed rules and unpredictable results,” he said. “In Russian politics it’s the opposite.”  The Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which may now be the whirling toward a full-on regional war, is the opposite as well.  The rules are changing daily, but the outcome seems drearily predictable.  And, I think I might know why.

There’s nothing new to say about the latest crisis or what led up to it.  Since the failure of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal and the disaster of the 2006 Lebanese war, and with the growing risk that Iran will build a nuclear bomb, Israel has become governed more and more by its right-wing and religious groups, and has become more heedlessly aggressive toward its neighbors.  Since the election of Hamas in 2006 and the rise of Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere, the Palestinians have been emboldened.  War may have not been inevitable, but it sure isn’t a surprise.

Neither is there anything convincing to say about who is at fault in the latest kerfuffle.  Israel might reasonably argue that it is shelling Gaza only to destroy the mechanisms by which Gazans are lofting rockets over the border; but that argument doesn’t explain the hundreds of  bombs being dropped on Gaza, wiping out entire families to eliminate one Hamas commander.  Hamas may claim that bombs are its only currency in fighting Israeli oppression; but that’s a difficult rationale, and ignores the extent to which bombs are a cause of that oppression rather than the solution to it.

I do have my own perspective, though, on the nature of this conflict.

My perspective comes from my being a secular American Jew.  “Secular Jew” is the sort of oxymoron that should mean nothing at all.  After all, what is a “non-religious Christian”?  Oddly, however, it means something very specific:  It means a person who was born Jewish, who does not go to synagogue or practice the faith, but who feels a kinship and loyalty to the Jewish community worldwide.  We love Sholem Aleichem stories.  We cry at Fiddler On the Roof.  We eat deli.  We feel a guilty pleasure when crackpots talk about Jews being in charge of international finance and world media.  In other words, when religion is removed from Judaism, what remains is a familiar sort of ethnic tribe.  (Heck, we are THE “Tribe”).  And, it is this same tribalism that is at play in Gaza today.

As with many secular American Jews (and Christians for that matter), virtually all of my religious training took place when I was in grade school.  Jewish history, as taught to young Jews, is painted in broad caricature:   We Children of Abraham are a big-hearted, downtrodden people.  God promised us the land between Egypt and the Euphrates.  We were forced out of that Promised Land, and since that time we have been inexplicably persecuted by monstrously evil bad guys.  Our lessons were a roundelay of Hellenization,  Blood Libels,  Crusades, and of course The Holocaust.

So, when it came to contemporary Middle Eastern politics, my Hebrew School lessons were very simple.  We are entitled to the Land of Israel, and we have defended it valiantly against our rabidly Jew-hating neighbors (at that time, mostly Egypt, Jordan and Syria).  We are the good guys, and we always win, no matter the odds, because God is on our side.  Pass the challah.

My feelings about Israel remained chiaroscuro for decades.  As with many  American Jews, although I identified with the sufferings of the oppressed, this did not extend to the Palestinians, whom I considered to be vacant-eyed mobs of violent fanatics, ganged up against the good-hearted Israelis.  In my mind, the Middle East was like a Phillip Roth novel.

Then, in 2005, I visited Israel.

It was August 15, 2005; the day that 250,000 Israelis stormed the streets of Jerusalem to protest Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

I watched the protest from a street cafe in the Old City.

It was in Israel that I realized two critical things.  First, the Arabs were not vacant-eyed mobs of violent fanatics, nor were they good-hearted victims.  Second, neither were the Israelis.

As I wandered through Israel in 2005, I was astounded at the way Arabs are treated there.  Unlike the wide boulevards and charming shops in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Arab communities like East Jerusalem and Bethlehem are dirty, crowded, and poor.  Although a large percentage of Arabs are Israeli citizens, they are treated as second-class citizens at best.   In the few places where Jews and Arabs coexist, for example in the Old City of Jerusalem, the anger and hostility between Jews and Arabs is palpable.   Like blacks in the Jim Crow south, Arabs are pushed into the poor quarters of the country, harassed by always-present police, and held in constant suspicion.

I was also surprised at the Israelis I met.  They were nothing like American Jews.  They were hard-edged and aggressive to one another, though very protective and gentle toward their own families.  It seemed to be a “me-first” culture.  The shopkeepers were ruthless bargainers.  Jews made no secret of hating and fearing Arabs.

In other words, and despite my Hebrew School notions, what I saw in Israel were two Semitic tribes, playing out a tribal battle of class and territory.  The Israelis and Palestinians were so alike in their fierce tribal identities, in their hard bargaining, in their sly way of arguing, that they could just as easily have been cousins.   Their conflict was not the good-hearted Jews against the fanatic Muslims, nor vice versa.  It was a blood-sport turf war between haves and have-nots, not much different from similar wars in Northern Ireland or Sudan or Kosovo.  Like those conflicts, the Israeli/Palestinian turf war is clothed as religious strife.  It isn’t.  It is yet another Stone-age tribal feud, made even more so because Israelis and Palestinians are almost identically hot-blooded, vengeful, and wily tribes.

When I look at the Middle East this way, I can’t be optimistic about peace.  Like Saddam Hussein, who brought about his own demise rather than admit to his neighbors that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction (or, even more characteristically, like the Iraqi Information Minister who denied that Americans had entered Baghdad), the Israelis and Palestinians do not seem likely to negotiate honestly, put aside old hatreds, or consider their own futures in the way that we Americans expect.  The moves in this chess game may change, but the outcome – stalemate – seems fixed.

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Filed under Gaza, Judaism, Middle East, Palestinians, Politics, Uncategorized

The Gruntled Contrarian: Might A Sensible Person Vote For Mitt Romney?

This Tuesday,  close to seventy million people are going to vote to elect Mitt Romney president.  It is easy to dismiss these folks as either (a) mouth-breathing guv’m’t-hating Militiamen with confederate flags hanging in the rear windows of their pickup trucks or (b) hedge-fund-managing filet-eating country-club Protestants named Bunky and Missy, and to chalk up their votes to self-interest or ignorance.  But, to argue ad populum as Elvis did back when Eisenhower was president, can seventy million people all be stupidly wrong?  Inspired by a friend who asked her Facebook mischpucha to state a reasoned argument in favor of Romney for President (no one responded), here is my answer.

The argument against Obama

First, of course, is the argument that Romney hoped would be sufficient to carry the day:  The referendum on Obama’s first term.

If this election were simply about Obama’s performance as president, even we Obama supporters have to admit, it’s been a rocky road since those heady Audacity of Hope days four years ago.  Those four years seem to have had a clear arc:  Like other presidents (think FDR, Reagan, Johnson), our guy front-loaded his term with a slew of policy initiatives.  Although we cheered his audacity, it seemed that Obama trampled Congress by ramming through the Affordable Care Act, the closure of Gitmo, and the attempted cap-and-trade legislation, when those issues seemed so much less important than rescuing the free-falling economy.  Then, after a rumpus of Tea Party candidates won their mid-term elections and threatened to hold the debt ceiling increase hostage to their demands for lower spending, our guy backed down meekly, agreeing to cut $917 trillion from the budget through the tragically ill-considered “Super Committee.”  Since then, he has been a nondescript centrist with a seemingly fireless belly, leading finally to his what-me-worry performance in the first presidential debate last month.

So, the first defensible reason for a vote for Romney:  Our guy seems to have lost his fire; time to try a fresh horse.

Second is the general argument from fear and concern.  Yes, housing starts are up, unemployment is lessening steadily, and the stock market is at record highs.  But, if you’re out of work, or upside-down on your home’s value, or just frightened that the national debt will threaten Medicare, Social Security, and national strength, these Budget Office statistics are no more meaningful than the rosy agricultural news that used to be announced in Pravda.  Admittedly, Romney’s plans to boost the national economy are either naive (we’ll force China to normalize its currency!) or mundane (we’ll eliminate wasteful spending!) or nonexistent (I’ll figure it all out with Congress!); but, the top-line claims of lower spending, lower taxes and twelve million new jobs speak directly to people who are afraid for the future.  (And, credit has to be given to Romney for even whispering that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are not sustainable in their present form, which is the dirty little subject no politician wants to touch).

Third is the argument for Romney himself.  True, it is difficult to argue in favor of Romney’s policies, because he has proved himself to be the Don E. Mobile of politics.  (Perhaps because he is indifferent to policy when it interferes with ambition; but more likely because he is trying to serve so many interest groups at the same time).  After an entire primary and campaign season of mouthing the lines of the hard social and fiscal right, he showed up at the first presidential debate as a moderate.

But, then, most voters are not policy wonks.  It would not be stupid to look at Romney as follows:  He is an energetic and enthusiastic politician; he has experience running things, from Bain Capital to the Olympics to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Obama, of course, ran nothing other than the Harvard Law Review until he took office); and, he has some history of being able to build a consensus between political parties.  A person could sensibly conclude that Romney will be a businesslike president who will bring new energy to the job and might even break the logjam in Washington (especially if we Democrats continue to accept every unctuous one-sided offer of compromise from the other guys).

Perhaps the Argument for Romney is best summed up in the Orlando Sentinel he-ain’t-great-but-give-the-guy-a-chance endorsement, excerpted below:

Romney is not our ideal candidate for president. We’ve been turned off by his appeals to social conservatives and immigration extremists. Like most presidential hopefuls, including Obama four years ago, Romney faces a steep learning curve on foreign policy. But, he has a strong record of leadership to run on. He built a successful business. He rescued the 2002 Winter Olympics from scandal and mismanagement. As governor of Massachusetts, he worked with a Democrat-dominated legislature to close a $3billion budget deficit without borrowing or raising taxes, and pass the health plan that became a national model.  This is Romney’s time to lead, again. If he doesn’t produce results — even with a hostile Senate — we’ll be ready in 2016 to get behind someone else who will.

So, there you have it.  Translated into a bumper sticker:  Romney.  Hell, It’s Worth A Try.


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What Barack, Barbara (deWilde), Joe (Varga) and I Sort Of Have In Common: The Surprising Joy of Community Organizing

When it comes to community activism, I am mostly a fellow traveler with Marx  (Groucho) and Lennon (John).   Groucho, because he would never join a club that would have him as a member; and John, because, when it came to revolution, don’t you know that you could count him out?

Just to be clear:  There is plenty for us to be angry about. A perceptive banker, vacationing in the Hamptons this past summer, was heard to lament that if the rich succeed in redistributing another ten percent of wealth away from the middle class, there will be revolution.  And I do understand that community activism can be, as Saul Alinsky (who wrote the book on community organizing), put it, “an abrasive agent to rub raw the resentments of the people of the community; to fan latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expressions,” and then to take action “once such hostilities were whipped up to a fighting pitch.”

But, the day to day of community organizing has always made me agree with David Bowie (via Mott the Hoople ): “What a drag. So many snags!”

It’s always been those snags that have made activism seem tedious and unlikely to me.

First, there’s the rousing of neighbors to donate time, money, or at least empathy, which means the unpleasant calling-in of favors.  Second, there’s the enormous disproportion between effort and reward: So many leaflets, so many social-networking posts, so many bake sales – that is, so much constant dripping just to wear away even the first layer of stones.

I’ll also admit that my blood is usually not stirred by Quixotically fuzzy calls to action.  In my mudgeonly way, I’ve referred to these generic jeremiads as “Power To The People!” causes (almost getting a faceful of Hungarian stew from my labor activist son-in-law Joe for my wit).  Community-organizing messages so often come out as frustratingly blunt-edged and diffuse, like “Respect Our Teachers!” or “War Is Bad For Children And Other Living Things!”  Heck, when Barack Obama was asked by his Chicago friends what exactly he did as a community organizer, all he could summon up was, “I told them it was the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.”

All of which is to say, I have recently been (as always) humbled and enlightened by my brilliant and big-hearted wife, Barbara, who has become a community organizer the same way she does everything else:  Confidently, open-heartedly, and with a touch as light as a bird’s wing.

For a few months now, Barbara has despaired of the run-down condition of our local park, the Watchung Plaza Park. This one-block-square bit of green is set in between a busy commercial district and a train station. The result is a neglected park covered with a blizzard of trash and graffiti, which would be difficult for the business owners and township crews to fight even if they were committed to doing so.

Earlier in the summer, Barbara began to organize. She gathered like-minded neighbors. She wrote to township officials. She took on a catchy name, “Neighbors of Watchung” (“NOW”).

And, that’s when the miracle happened. The town councilor immediately came to visit, along with the parks superintendent. They promised mulch, leaf bags, manpower, and supplies. The town newspaper and hyperlocal blogs ran stories. Another neighborhood committee offered funding. And, this past weekend, a gorgeous mob of local homeowners put on their overalls and spent a long afternoon weeding, planting, scrubbing, and thinking about the future of Watchung Plaza Park.

(Missing from this photo: The deliciously-named Wah-Chung chinese restaurant)

During the cleanup, passersby stopped to ask how they could be involved. The business owners offered thanks and promised future help. Some passersby dismissed the work, with some variant on “we pay taxes. You shouldn’t be doing the township’s work.” But, I interpret that to mean that they recognized the value of the work and just wanted to feel justified in not joining in.

And, wouldn’t you know it:  I found myself feeling invested in our community group: visiting the park repeatedly since then to scrub off graffiti and pick up litter.  As we say here in Jersey, I was ready to “have a little talk” with the next guy who dropped a fast-food container on the grass in “my” park.  I’d been organized!  And, I’ll bet that some of the business owners around the park are feeling the same way.

So, I’ve learned a lesson about community activism.  It’s about harnessing something that is all around us:  Responsibility, generosity, righteous anger, pride, and a desire to set wrong things to right.  I am proud of the community organizer under my roof, of our Professor Varga, who militates public employees who are under budget-cutting attack, private employees who earn (as he told a group of Whirlpool workers in one incite-ful speech) “shit wages in hell,” and all whose dignity and livelihood are taken from them.  Even my own trivial bit of community organizing, putting together a community of music lovers and volunteers to present a couple dozen concerts every season, has a lesson in it.  As Pete Seeger might say (if he were from Jersey): if I had a hammer, I’d hammer all over the next idiot who lifts a can of spray-paint anywhere near my freakin’ park.

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These Are The Times That Ignore Men’s Souls: Three False Debates That Divide Us

I hate partisan politics; and never more than partisan politics as it is played now. The wild-eyed brinksmanship. The cynical twisting of “gotcha” quotes. The schoolyard taunts like “Teabaggers” and “New York Slimes.” It’s so damned mediocre and tedious.

And, most wearisome of all, it’s unnecessary.  Almost every one of the hot-button issues that divide us have principled and logical answers. To paraphrase Barry Goldwater’s far-too-candid appeal to our moral compass: In our hearts, we know what’s right.

Here’s a good experiment.  It’s presidential convention season. The parties will go easy on specifics, and instead will tout their principles and values. And, when they do, the parties will sound curiously similar: Fiscal moderation, personal responsibility, patriotism, individual liberty, and compassion for others will surely be among them.   Throw in Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair, and Joe Biden introducing Barack Obama as articulate, clean, and having a big stick, and you pretty much already know what’s coming.

These same upstanding and selfless principles and values have been flogged in conventions, stump speeches, baby-kissing orgies, and Jimmy Stewart movies for generations. Heck, just watch any Aaron Sorkin drama:  Every one of his left-wing heroes from Jed Bartlett to Will McAvoy drips responsibility, generosity, compassion, and courage.  Those are the values that resonate with every one of us.

(Unfortunately, the women of “Newsroom” mostly drip with the values of ditsy hysteria and man-induced Dependent Personality Disorder).

So if, in our hearts we know what’s right, why are we so completely at odds when it comes to how to run our country?

One problem is, we’ve all made up our minds.  Only three percent of Americans say they are undecided about their votes for President, which means that the conventioneers are largely preaching to their own choirs.  The Republican speakers skipped over policy or ideas, and instead treated the convention as a big pep rally for the Elephant team.  Clint Eastwood talked to a chair.  Chris Christie talked about himself.  Paul Ryan told the sort of fish tales that a fella tells only to his buddies who know full well that they’re hearing a pack of lies, but love to hear them anyway.  No doubt, we’ll get something very similar at next weekend’s convention….and on AM talk radio…and on the partisan bickering that dominates cable news programs.

As Thomas Paine put it,”no man is prejudiced in favor of a thing, knowing it to be wrong.  He is attached to it on the belief of its being right.”  We’ve made up our minds, and we just want to hear what we think we already know.

The second problem is, even if all of us have roughly the same moral compass, almost none of our political decisions seems to be motivated by principle.  Not to point fingers only one way, but what moral compass would ever point in the direction of cheering for your own country’s economic failure just so the current administration will fail?  Or, pretending man-made global warming doesn’t exist because carbon limits would hurt corporate profits?  Or, basing the theme of an entire political convention on a knowing misquote of a President’s speech?

Sure, there are some conflicts that can’t be solved by either logic or principle. This is either because they involve rights that are insolubly in conflict, such as abortion rights, or because they come down to fiscal priorities. But, most of the issues that we believe divide us are false, often because they are cynically manufactured by one partisan group or another.

Here, then: Three false debates that can be easily resolved by our gut values.

The First False Debate:  Individual liberty.  The premise of this false debate seems to be that our Founding Principles include the right to do whatever the hell we want.  Drive naked at 100 miles per hour through a bob of baby seals in a 2mpg SUV while blasting Bette Midler loud enough to make the dead rise up and do the Spanish Hustle?  Sure!

But, that’s silly.  We know by logic that freedom is limited by our obligations to the next guy (or, the next baby seal); and we feel better when we “do the right thing” for that next guy, or our neighborhood, or the planet.  Per T. Paine, “When we speak of right we ought always to unite with it the idea of duties; rights become duties by reciprocity.”

Yes, some “individual liberty” “nanny-state” banner-wavers will feel a rush of adolescent bravado by claiming that we all should have complete freedom “to live our lives without interference.” But, in fact, we don’t want that sort of freedom for ourselves, or for the communities we live in.  We want regulation when regulation makes sense to protect the rights of others, and we want to behave in a way that protects those rights. We don’t want to be “that guy.”

The false debate about individual liberty is usually a shill for those partisan interests that want to relieve businesses of the cost of protecting the public. But, this false debate can be resolved easily based on our moral compass. We all feel better when we help, or at least do no harm to, others.  (And, we feel even better than that when no one does any harm to us).  That means we feel better when we have effective workplace regulation, environmental protections, oversight of the powerful, and protection of equal rights.  We resent regulation that protects us only from ourselves. As Tom Paine would surely say, go on and buy that 400-ounce Big Gulp; just don’t throw the empty cup onto the sidewalk.

The Second False Debate:  Personal responsibility.

“Personal responsibility” sounds like a solid sort of value.  When we think of being personally responsible, we think of paying our share, fixing what we’ve broken, taking the blame when we’re at fault, and stepping forward when we’re needed.

Unfortunately, “personal responsibility” has taken on a very different meaning.  In this false debate, “personal responsibility” has come to be used as an argument against giving help to those who need it.

57 percent of Republicans say that people are poor because  they don’t work hard.  In keeping with this logic, 60 percent of them say they do not believe that it is the government’s role to care for the less fortunate.  The poor who are receive public assistance are demonized as slovenly freeloaders who would rather take a handout than work.  As Mitt Romney’s puts it in his bloodlessly patrician way, “welfare without work creates negative incentives that lead to permanent poverty.”

So, “personal responsibility,” in this false debate, has come to mean “responsibility for no one but myself.”  Again, it is hard to believe that anyone really believes this bombast.  Sure, the selfish rich get a charge out of blaming the poor for their own poverty.  It’s like Grover Norquist, having a bit of frolic by telling reporters that he wants to “reduce government to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” or that Democrats are like farm animals that must be “fixed, and then they’ll be happy and sedate.”

Nonsense.  Just as with individual rights, our own internal compass tells us the truth about personal responsibility.  That same instinct — the one that makes us feel good about being accountable for ourselves — also makes us feel good about being compassionate, generous, and responsive to the needs of others.  We love stories of self-sacrifice, even if it’s Mitt Romney’s odd and awkward story of transporting all 200 employees of Bain Capital to the streets of New York to find one of those employees’ runaway teen daughter.  We want to help those who need help.

If this moral compass were used to make public policy, we would help those who truly need help.  There would be no talk about balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable.  We’d all pay our fair share.  And, we would be ashamed of anyone who tried to protect his own pockets by arguing that “personal responsibility” means that the lazy, shiftless poor should just work harder.

The Third False Debate: Fiscal Responsibility

When some lucky bastard wins the lottery, he can be certain that the first question he’ll be asked is how he plans to spend the money.  The answer is almost always the same.  As most of 250 high school students said when they responded to that question from the New York Times , the lottery winners all say they plan to give some or all of their winnings to charity.  Now, this may say something very nice about lottery winners (many of whom in fact donate parts of their winnings).  But, it mostly says something about all of us:  We feel it’s selfish to hoard money, and we feel good about being moderate in our spending.  We like to believe that we spend money only when we have to, take only our share, and are sober and modest stewards of our pocketbooks.

Here, also, some wags get a boastful rush from claiming that they are damned well entitled to what’s theirs, and to hell with anyone else.  As for lottery winners, there’s a satiric fake Romney quote going around the Internet now, in which Mitt supposedly says that a lottery winner “doesn’t need to give a single penny to charity, she doesn’t need to share it, she doesn’t need to send her kids to college.  If she wants to spend all of that money on cassette tapes, or Jolt soda pop, or whatever it is young people do with money these days, it’s her God-given American right.”

But, we don’t believe that.  We cheer those who help others, and we have no truck with people who spend their money installing car elevators into their homes (sorry, Mitt), getting $1250 haircuts (now the least of John Edwards’ problems), or paying off their huge lines of credit at Tiffanys (got that, Newt?).

When it comes to governing, whether a small town, a corporation, or a country, there are constant decisions to be made about how to allocate resources.  Is buying up shares of General Motors or AIG, with the hope that they will use the cash infusion to regain their footing and repay the money, worth the cost?  Will cutting taxes now cause a trickle down of spending and capital investment, creating general prosperity and revenue?  Can we afford to be world peacekeepers or regime changers?  Some of these questions are simple economics.  Some are matters of competing priorities.

What is clear, however, is that some economic plans feel wrong.  If “fiscal responsibility” requires selfless sacrifice on all our parts, any plan that unfairly adds to the burdens of the workaday many, while relieving the burdens of the privileged few, feels wrong.  For example, our trash-talking governor Chris Christie had no trouble cutting state spending, mostly at the expense of public welfare programs and the jobs of public employees; but he refused to sign any bill that would raise taxes on the wealthy.  “Fiscal responsibility,” that ain’t.

The Funny Thing

Here’s what’s most curious.

Republicans paint themselves as the custodians of old-fashioned values: An Eisenhower-era world in which we all do our part, help our neighbors, watch our spending, and are mostly left alone to pursue our happiness. And yet, these are exactly the values that are being used now to justify a platform of protecting the rich, denying the poor, and in many ways holding all of us to the meanest interpretations of Christian rules of conduct. On that, we can only hearken to the words of that good old Episcopalian Jew, Barry Goldwater: In our hearts, we know that it’s not right.


Filed under Politics

How Chris Christie Is Like NPR

Perhaps you’ve heard WNYC’s most recent promotional ad, which is very clever.

In Stanley Tucci’s come-hither voice, it coos as follows:  “There are people who count on you to be witty, at least smart. They don’t know what to think about Goldman Sachs or fracking in the Catskills. They expect you to tell them. And if you let them down, who knows what will happen to the world…or at least New York, which for some people is the world. You owe it to them to listen to WNYC all the time, so please don’t do a half-assed job, that’s not like you. WNYC. Never turn it off.”

Stanley Tucci

How do we (who actually don’t ever turn off WNYC) feel after hearing this ad?  We feel that rush of being responsible, grown-up, sober, and forthright.  We feel like mensches…..even though WNYC has no idea who we are and even though this call to honor involves nothing more than being the one to parrot NPR programming to our friends at the water cooler.

The point is, every one of us feels better when we feel we’re doing the right thing – standing for principle, being responsible, holding the door, putting the toilet seat down.  Call it the “Mensch Rush.”

So, to our Governor, Chris Christie, at the Republican National Convention last night.  We Republicans, he says, are more interested in being respected than loved, even if that means having to tell the hard truths.  We believe in upright values, he says, like education, family, the care of the elderly, the power of our principles, and the strength of our convictions.

Let’s skip over for now whether the Republican Party is a party of principle, beyond at least the principle of protecting their prodigious bank accounts.  The point is this:  Just like us NPR listeners, the people listening to Christie’s speech got a Mensch Rush, too.  They felt equally good about being honest, caring, steadfast, and fearless, as Christie told them they were.

Here’s my point:  Our guts tell us what is right and what is wrong.  It’s no different for Republicans than it is for NPR listeners.  So why are we so horribly divided as to what is right and what is wrong in making public policy?  That’s what I’ll be writing about this weekend.


Filed under Politics, Uncategorized