Monday, December 5, 2011

What we begin by reading...

"A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting."

~Henry David Thoreau

Read any good books lately?

2012 promises to be a most intense political year —what with the presidential election, a senate race that's looking like it will garner national attention, more contended state and local races than we've seen in a long while, and issues on every level as contentious and complex as they have ever been. We face big challenges and important decisions in the year just ahead. There will be no shortage of advertising spots for different candidates, or of sound bites and talking heads on the television news and loud voices on the radio. So much of that media is premised on our politics as a sort of spectator sport.

But none of that takes the real place of face to face conversation.

It's with that in mind that The Holliston Democratic Town Committee has set about forming our "Political Junkie Book Club" —we want to get people thinking and talking to one another, neighbor to neighbor, about issues that matter to them, about the change they want to see in our own community and in the country as whole —those things they would seek to keep and protect as well. In the coming year we are going to be gathering once a month to discuss noteworthy books on public issues and the political process. And like Thoreau says, we'll want to figure out how we "finish by acting" on what we "start by reading."

Our first meeting will be at the home of Judy and Bob Gagnon at 960 Washington Street, Thursday, January 26th at 7:00 pm.

The book we plan to discuss is "That Used to Be Us, How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back" by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. Here's what the New York Times said of this book:

'That Used to Be Us' is an important contribution to an intensifying debate, and it deserves the widest possible attention. ... As American politics looks increasingly dysfunctional, Mr. Friedman and Mr. Mandelbaum show great courage in casting aside conventional assumptions. Few readers will agree with every observation and argument in this thoroughly researched and passionately argued book, but all of them should find 'That Used to Be Us' compelling, engaging and enlightening."

In February we'll be discussing Washington Post Columnist, E.J. Dionne Jr's "Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right"

"This book offers an insightful look into the intersection between religion and politics, coming from a self-described 'progressive Catholic.' While he doesn't mince words in his criticism of the Religious Right, it is clear that he believes that people of faith still have a part to play in directing the moral compass of our society." ~Ann Fetters, The Wichita Eagle

Holliston DTC hosts these gathering, but all are welcome! Holliston's own Coffee Haven will stock "Political Junkie Book Club" books or you can purchase them on (use this link and a portion of the purchase goes to benefit Holliston Public Library).

Please consider joining us. You just might find yourself being 'compelled, engaged, enlightened' !

You can contact "Political Junkie Book Club" through the Holliston DTC website, or call Judy Gagnon with questions. 508-429- 9852 or email

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The wizard of id

IMy initial reaction to Herman Cain —I must admit— was that he was one of maybe a number of what I call Rodeo Clown Candidates, supposed contenders without any realistic hope of securing their party's nomination or winning the general election, but who, nevertheless, by virtue (or lack thereof) of their garish caricatured persona politics, provide some amount of entertainment spectacle for the early going of the campaign. 'The Donald' served a stint in this role, likewise Michelle Bachmann. In real rodeos these clowns provide necessary distraction for the audience with their broad antics during the duller moments of setup, or conversely while the occasional gored cowboy is attended to and the blood is mopped from view. (With candidates like Rick Perry you get something of the clown and the gored cowboy all wrapped up into one.) So it was, or at least that's how it seemed, with Hermann Cain. A big old fence that electrocuted illegals wasn't realistic immigration policy. Nobody really believed every bill the Congress considers should fit on a single sheet of paper, or that tax equity and the state of our economy would be served with a simplistic gimmick like 9-9-9. There was something just a little fun about allowing the pretense though, for just a while.

So it was, or at least that's how it seemed.

When the allegations of sexual harassment first came to light just a while back I thought it reasonable to expect that Cain would be ready to remove himself from the rodeo arena —with maybe some laughable clown shoe footwork first and then one or two parting blasts from the squeeze horn. However, that's not what we've seen and as we've watched how he has handled (or more aptly
not handled) this situation, it has started to strike me that there's another kind of politics going on here with Herman Cain and that it's been going on for a while.

There is a fairly standardized operating procedure for addressing situations like the one Cain finds himself in with the allegations of sexual harassment. Get yourself on the airwaves, dutiful wife by the side, and engage in some warm and cozy, circular and fuzzy conversation, preferably on a homey and well upholstered stage set —with a fireplace— and a homey well upholstered journalist who won't quite ask what you don't quite want to answer. By the time we've all had to sit through that kind of show we are just so happy to see the sordid story go away, we're well past caring.

Cain's approach has been very different. He has called his press conferences in front of the flags arrayed and announced himself the victim, of media bias and racist innuendo and stereotype, of Republican rivals and Democratic machines at the very same time. He's made the categorical denials you should never make, because they can and have been proven patently false. You might think his handling has been inept. What I am wondering is if that isn't exactly how he wants it. He might announce that he doesn't want to talk about the scandal anymore, that he wants to focus on more serious issues, but then he books an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel's late-night TV show. As Lisa de Moraes, writing for the Washington Post put it:

A serious “I don’t even know who this woman is!” news conference about the latest allegations could wait until Tuesday afternoon. On Monday, Cain wanted to look relaxed and share double-entendre gags with a comic.

When Kimmel cracked wise about Cain maybe hiring the noted (or notorious) attorney of one of his accusers as his own attorney Cain replied “You almost made me say something my analysts say, ‘You should not say.” With a wry grin he added “Let me put it to you this way: I can’t think of anything that I would hire her to do! I can’t think of a thing!

Nudge-nudge-wink-wink. Get it?

You might ask yourself —is he really that stupid? Is that how you handle a situation where your boorish abusive disrespect for women is being alleged? By going on national TV and chortling sly over veiled references to whoring? What's worse —what if he's not that stupid?

Think of that now famous campaign ad, with Cain's campaigner, Mark Block staring into the camera, dragging on his cigarette and blowing the smoke into the camera's (and the country's) face; then that long slow smile from the candidate himself. "I am America" a voice sings in the background. On that same appearance on Jimmy Kimmel's show Cain explained that ad as something emblematic of his political approach. "We have a saying in my campaign. Let Herman be Herman. Let Mark be Mark. And let people be people. That's really one of the things of my whole campaign."

Local sports fans might remember the expression we used to have around here about "Manny being Manny."

This is where that "other kind of politics going on" comes in for me —where things get "interesting" (in that sense of the old Chinese curse about 'living in interesting times'). On the one level of understanding Herman Cain had a situation that had to be handled, made to go away. On that level he could compare himself to Clarence Thomas as the one supposedly wronged because he is a Black Conservative, etc. His wife is on with warm and fuzzy interviews. That proven script was already well written and well known. But there is another level Herman Cain is operating on at the same time. On that level it isn't his victimization or the vulgar preposterousness of the charges against his character and behavior that work to credit his account. It's the plausibility of those same charges. It is the charming idea of 'Herman being Herman' —a boys-will-be-boys appeal to the gut level, to the id —the basest of base instinct in the body politic. The part of each of us that rejects the 'PC' demands of modern life, that is sick and tired of always being told our habits are vices, that they cause cancer or harm the environment, or are somehow boorish —even oppressive— to others around us, that part of us that is tired of having to behave. That appeal in the smoke of Mark Block's cigarette and the grin on Herman Cain's face is the very opposite of having some moralistic scold tell you to "eat your peas."

Herman Cain will tell you that he is a businessman, not a politician or a statesman. And he is not stupid. He has his ideas as to what sells and why. When it comes to our presidential politics, when it comes to our democracy, wouldn't it be sad if he was right?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"...I said that"

Just the other day I came across this quote I rather liked. It was posted as a neat little piece on facebook by some one of my friends. It struck me as right on target for the larger discussion resonating around the country, in these days of The Wall Street Occupation.

I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.

The words, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, appeared alongside one of my favorite portraits of the man and made a nice little poster. I thought to share it, that it might serve as a nice rebuttal to the out there argument we've heard from some, that the protesters protesting the financial industry were somehow un-American.

But just before I shared the quote, inasmuch as I'd never heard it before, I thought I might do well to look for a more specific sourcing. I did not want to find myself being criticized for a lack of due diligence. Well, it was in this search that I came across this same quote as the subject of an article on

The article observes "One of the 'Rules of Misquotation'... is that axiom that 'Famous dead people make excellent commentators on current events'" and "Given the fear and uncertainty engendered by the current economic situation, and the disgruntlement expressed by many Americans... it was only a matter of time until someone trotted out a quotation (apocryphal or otherwise) from a respected, long-dead figure..."

As it turns out, this particular quote fits into the apocryphal category. It is not exactly a facebook fabrication, mind you, but neither can the words be traced back to the lips of our third president. No contemporary documentation ties these words together with Jefferson saying them. Multiple sources are claimed in a range of different citations. According to the Jefferson Encyclopedia, the quote’s first appearance was in 1937 in a United States Senate committee. (And we all know what diligent and meticulous scholars congressional aides can be.)

That little fact struck me as interesting though, the 1937 date, because if memory serves that was a time for 'fear, uncertainty, and disgruntlement' with our financial sector as well. It was a period of popular and political frustration with a dauntingly slow recovery as we clawed our way out of the grips of The Great Depression. (Who was it said that if history doesn't repeat itself, "it does at least rhyme"?) I suppose back in the day some senate staffer probably concocted the quote, cobbled the Jefferson quote together from the kind of thing Jefferson was known to have said, and what he might have said —to serve the current debate with what he could or should have said.

While the full quote in question cannot be traced to Jefferson. The snopes article and several others I found point to things akin that he did indeed say or write in his day, comments that are in fact matters of historical record. Jefferson's "disdain and mistrust of banking institutions" was and is no fabrication. His fate as a bereft debtor at the end of his life is a known as well. I suppose this serves as an example of what we argue over as our "mytho-history" —a story of some kind of truth, but lacking fact.

I wonder just now if this isn't the scene of some cousin concept to the persona politics that gets my goat sometimes these days: The way the exact same words, that on the lips of Ronald Reagan, for example, would elicit the religious awe of the devoted, can be dismissed, resented or worse —if they come from... some other source let's say.

Should who said it really matter so much more to us than what's been said? Should we really need to invoke the authority of the Late Greats to get what are really our own thoughts and beliefs off our chests? To have them heard ? I make no excuse for sloppy history, but as we bring our history around to our current day discourse maybe we should be a little less inclined to quotation, less interested in the specifics of citation and more open to each other's broader inspiration.

We should be willing to grant and make our own guesses at wisdom.

Actually, come to think of it, I think the poet said it best:

"Half of the people can be part right all of the time,
Some of the people can be all right part of the time,
But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time."

I think Abraham Lincoln said that

“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”

I said that!

—Bob Dylan, 'Talkin' World War III Blues'

Saturday, October 8, 2011

October light by the water

"Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future.

And we are all mortal."

~John F. Kennedy
American University, Washington D.C., 1963

The symposium was called "Penetrating The Iron Curtain: Resolving The Missile Gap" —it was another in the series of forums being hosted by the Kennedy Library in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of JFK's presidency. Co-sponsoring the event was the CIA's Historical Collections Division, a subset of their Information Management Services. It was the agency's release of a number of long classified documents that served as the premise for this particular gathering and they had invited a couple of journalist/historians whose work I follow and respect to sit as panelists. That's why I was there: some interesting history to be considered by some thoughtful historians.

When I got there what struck me first though was the audience —the age of it. There was quite a lot of white hair on display (there was the white hair or there was the hair lacking altogether). I remembered that earlier in the week I'd been contacted by a library staffer, seeing I'd signed up to attend they wanted to know if I was a member of the local chapter of The Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) —members were to have special seating reserved. I pictured something like an AARP especially for spies. I had thought I might respond to the email with the old saw about how 'I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you' —then thought better of it. (Nowadays you just can't trust anybody's sense of humor.)

Anyway the room was full of these old soldiers, so it seemed: most everyone there to hear about the history they had been a part of themselves. And I heard more than one of them remark, as they took to their especially reserved seats and chatted with old colleagues, that they were there out of curiosity. These men and women had been a part of that best and brightest and greatest generation. Fifty years back they'd each had some small role to play —never having the full sense of the larger drama, the whole picture. These intelligence officers weren't all of them the cloak and dagger spies I joke about, but maybe they'd analyzed data on Ukranian agricultural yield, or culled Kamchatkan radio signal intercepts searching for telemetric logic, back in the day. This new information and the attempts they would see up on the stage to make some sense of it all, these might shed some larger light at long last.

The image that came to mind was of galley oarsmen from a Greek trireme, having come through some great sea battle years past —below deck and in the darkness, coming to hear the full story of the battle they'd won. I suppose the long views out across the water through the great large windows to either side of the symposium stage conjured that kind of analogy.

The Missile Gap was one key chapter in The Cold War and its ugly sibling, the nuclear arms race. The Kennedy Library was a fitting venue for revisiting the history, as the political notion of it had been crucial to John Kennedy's career. He'd run for re-election to the senate in 1958 and then run for the presidency in 1960 as a vocal critic of Eisenhower and the GOP's perceived complacency in the face of a growing threat, a growing disparity between U.S. and Soviet Russian inter-continental missile strength. This was the era of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, and fear that Soviet advances in technology would outpace our own gave rise to anxious expert projections that in just a few years time Russia would be able to cripple U.S. retaliatory capabilities with a first nuclear strike —and that they would if they could.

The documents released by the CIA in 2011, the star of the show for this symposium, don't apparently tell much of anything many didn't already know (or had at least guessed) about the forces at work or the facts on the ground in this period. The Missile Gap, as things turned out, never was a material threat. It had been the product of willful disinformation on the part of the Russians and some mistaken and overwrought speculation on our own part —what some of the wise old men in the room described as "mirror thinking" —assuming our opposites would play such a dangerous game of poker just the way we would.

A good part of the symposium was focused on the technology involved in debunking the myth, the story was of the way U2 overflights and Corona satellite missions surveilling the Soviets started feeding real data to take the place of raw conjecture, the way the dismal science of number crunching analysts could begin to construct the proof with near mathematical certainty that the Soviet industrial economy was incapable, that, if anything, it was the one on the losing end of any missile gap that might exist.

So it was that Kennedy would eventually find himself being lectured by his Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, that the whole notion of a missile gap was a "myth" that had been "spread around" by well meaning "emotionally guided but nevertheless patriotic individuals" at the Pentagon. It was early on in the symposium that the JFK Library's director, Tom Putnam played back an audio recording of the conversation, where Kennedy dryly reminded McNamara that he himself was one of those misguided patriots.

Kennedy's self deprecation got a good laugh from the audience hearing it fifty years later. But penetration of that myth proved central to the history that followed, the ability to face down Khrushchev's provocations, first in Berlin, then later in Cuba. That was the message for all those old Cold War soldiers watching the symposium from the audience. That the facts they'd found and figured upon had helped. They had had helped steady things through most dangerous times. Intelligence, that was what it was meant to do.

There was something moving about being in the audience —out among all those old soldiers once again taking in the moment of their careers. But there was something harrowing in their story come out into to the light as well:the cold calculations of kill capacity, weapon yield, the Game Theory mathematics that had gone into projecting fatal odds, that had animated the arms race up to the point of The Missile Gap, the strategic thinking that would continue it on past that point, to this very day where arms treaties are still the fair game of domestic politics and where threats of nuclear catastrophe are still the ominous factor we have to figure in to our international policies.

They had talked of the "mirror effect" up there on the stage at one point. One of the historians was pointing to the mistaken reads we had made of Khruschev posturing, how we had assumed the Russians would act as we would act in the situation of actual relative weakness they found themselves in. Khruschev's bluff and bluster had passed for strength and strategic advantage for a while. One of the historians opined that this was a liability of "dealing with tyrants." As I heard this and the mirror effect described, I couldn't help arguing in my mind that there was a useful application of the mirror being forgotten, that of reflection —self examination. Had our political leaders been any more candid in this game of apocalyptic poker? No. Did that make them tyrants as well?

What we told ourselves, when the fear of the Missile Gap was upon us, was that our enemy could not be trusted to outgun us, not in such a way that he possessed the ability to strike us first and neutralize our capacity to strike back, because if he could he would. As it turned out, our enemy had told himself much the same thing, that we could not be trusted to appreciate our advantage, our ability to first strike with such crippling effect that we would face no threat of recourse from our opponent, because if we really knew that we could... we would.

This is the symmetry that had to resort to the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction, that sober agreement that neither should destroy the other without knowing he destroyed himself as well. This horrible balance would be the basis of treaty and negotiation throughout the Cold War. We came so close to such destruction that October just 49 years ago, in the crisis waters around Cuba. But even as we came to the brink, and even as we were launched upon an arms race with ever more frightening projections of what Armageddon would like, we had those occasionally seeing the reflection and through it at the same time and recognizing "that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal." Maybe it is that aspect of a mirror, or a reflection you might see at a window or in the water, that served to avert catastrophe back in the day, that has served us at least thus far.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Americans for Prosperity... democracy, not so much

A few years of years back, inadvertently, I offended a couple of acquaintances of mine here in my home town of Holliston, Massachusetts. I was walking along the street. It was the week just before an election. I think this was 2006 and I had been canvasing, phone bank calling, holding signs on street corners, the whole deal we do sometimes when we're advocating for a candidate. So this couple I know drove up in a very impressive looking Rolls Royce convertible, top down, it was a beautiful day and the machine was a dazzling display. I waved hello, Holliston is a small enough town that we generally do that sort of thing and this was on a small enough side street that these folks could slow down and stop to say howdy, and maybe show off the Rolls a little. I dutifully commented on the swanky looking ride and I recall one of them in turn politely remarked that they had seen some opinion piece of mine about the election that was just days away.

I didn't know this couple well enough to really have a sense of their political views and I didn't see the situation then and there as the best place to engage in what I like to call the better debate... what with the possibility of another car turning down the street and us blocking traffic. So we were each set to go about our ways, having exchanged our pleasantries, when I went and offended them both.

I didn't mean to. I meant only to make a joke of it, as we were parting, I looked the Rolls Royce convertible up and down once more with a show of awe and admiration and advised that voter turnout was expected to be so high the next week that the Town Clerk had decided to deal with the volume by asking Democrats to vote on Tuesday and (wink, wink) Republicans like you all on Wednesday.

I meant it as a dry bit of sarcasm, an allusion to the obvious wealth on display with their rolling status symbol and the political leanings we so often associate with such. They were both offended and I now know it was wrong of me to assume as I did, based upon my cartoonish preconceptions, that these people were Republicans. They made it plain to me that they were shocked and more than a bit hurt by the very suggestion before they drove away, their hood ornament glinting in the clear mid-autumn light.

Of course I wasn't actually trying to confuse my fellow citizens about the proper time for them to show up at the polls and vote. The preposterousness of such a move was actually something of the joke I intended, lame as it was. But the recent news item that brought this all back to mind for me... that's another story.

This story, out of Wisconsin just this past week, as it is about to hold a number of important recall elections, might involve some of the same wrongheaded assumption with which I disserviced my Hollistion neighbors. (We should never assume who is a Democrat and who is a Republican after all.) But that preposterous joke? That one where you dupe someone out of their vote? It appears the good people at the "super pac" Americans for Prosperity don't see that as such a bad idea at all, no kidding.

Over the last few weeks, the organization, backed by the same billionaire Koch brothers who bankrolled a good amount for our own Junior Senator's very special election campaign back in 2010, has been sending out absentee ballot applications in primarily Democratic districts in Wisconsin. One might think of this as simply a charitable act of wholesome fellow citizenship. On the surface that would sure be what it seems like. One problem though... actually a couple.

Here's how comedian Stephen Colbert recounts things on one of his recent programs:

Americans for Prosperity has even sent out this actual, helpful absentee ballot applications to Democratic districts. Now, they had to rush these to print, so some people have complained about inaccuracies, but it’s minor stuff like…instead of instructing you to send your ballot to the local municipal clerk where ballots are officially collected, the address on this ballot is ‘Absentee Ballot Application Processing Center,’ which, and this is interesting, does not exist.

Oh and one more thing. The date recipients of these fliers are advised to mail in their ballots by is August 11th.

As Colbert puts it:
"Here's a little rhyme to help you remember when it's due: On August 11th make your selection. That's just two days after the actual election! —Okay? —that sticks in the brain! —Nothing nefarious here!"

Colbert handles the story well, he delivers it with his trademark dry sarcasm and ironical facade for optimum comical effect, sort of like I was going for with that couple in the Rolls Royce convertible those years ago. Going for and getting the laugh. I guess I'll never be such an accomplished comedian. The problem is the deliberate fraud and voter suppression that the folks at Americans for Prosperity and the Koch brothers are underwriting these days in Wisconsin, to me that's no joke. What I see it as is a cynical criminal assault and insult upon American democracy, with nothing the least bit funny about it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A modest proposal: come reason together

A while back I put up something you could probably call wishful thinking on this blog I participate in pretty regularly called Homes & Co. —"a blog for independent minds" we like to call it. The piece I posted was under the title "Shouting/thinking: "come let us reason together". Anyone who cares to visit that older post will note that my wishes weren't exactly realized then and there. But still something of the idea sticks with me and I mean to make a modest proposal —and not in the Jonathan Swift sense, I don't think —I mean this seriously.

The notion I meant to see examined with the earlier blog post was this idea of "reasoning together" that came up in an interview I heard on the radio with author and philosopher, Jacob Needleman.

Here's something Needleman said that I heard —that struck something of resonant tone with me:

"Shouting is not thinking. “Come let us reason together,” the prophet says, or God says to Isaiah. What this country [needs]... is thought...

I spoke to some members of Congress not long ago. We had a very quiet evening together and we started opening up, just what you and I are doing now. And they said, in effect, you know, “We never get a chance to do this. We’re in there trying to, you know, speak to television cameras or make points with electorates or with lobby groups, but we never …”

I said, “You mean you never come together and just reflect together?”

And they said no.

To me, that’s the dirty secret of America at the moment. That’s the problem."

Like I said, I'm not sure my blog post succeeded in engendering a whole lot of reasoned exchange, but then again I could have asked more clearly, too. We do settle into shouting mode sometimes on that site, more often than I really like, but one thing I do appreciate is that people of differing perspectives (very differing) do visit the forum on fairly level even terms. And there are those occasions when we discover merit in each others ideas, even from opposing points of view. That "reasoning together" does happen from time to time. We may not broker great compromise or arrive at consensus very often, but maybe in that first step of twelve approach to problems, we begin to recognize them... the problems.

So anyway here's my modest proposal: Soon enough the standoff over the budget and deficit and debt will be resolved down in D.C. —or it will be somehow left tentatively/definitively unresolved/resolved once again — and it will be that time of year when Senators and Congressmen can finally leave the Capitol and have a chance do their local visits and availabilities with their constituents. Town hall meetings will be in season, where the disgruntled among the citizenry can show up to shout down and/or the different choirs can turn out to be preached to. As I've said many times before though, what I would like to see is a different kind of debate. Suppose that, instead of each of our Commonwealth's U.S. Senators going off on their own tours, with their own itineraries and agendas, suppose we were to get them to sit down together in the same public forum where we could ask them to compare and contrast their ideas, their sense of the issues of substance and the issues of failing process we are all seeing on display in Washington. Suppose we were to ask them to —or offer them the chance to— reason together. This would be a discussion not about the next election contest —as it seems our politics always is about the contests. These two Senators do not oppose each other in any such contest. They actually serve together. What if we reminded them? What if we conceived of a debate as an opportunity to reason togther —rather than for one side to best the other?

Wouldn't it be interesting to offer them the opportunity for that better debate, to actually make such a debate happen?

Anyway, I post the notion here as a suggestion. Anyone with ideas as to a venue and an approach to the moderation? Maybe someone has some insight, some pull or connection or skill they could lend towards seeing such a discussion happen? Can we each accomplish something by spreading this idea? Simply asking of our senators and ourselves, why not?

I know we all have opinions here. I suppose anyone who wants to tell me this is a foolish idea is welcome to tell me so as well. And maybe this is only that Swiftian kind of modest proposal, useful only as we realize it's such a crazy idea?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Flying with my father

The picture is of my dad as an aspiring pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps —Waco, Texas — I am not sure of the exact year, it is sometime in the late 1940's. He had already done his service in the Navy during WWII when this picture was taken. He'd been around aircraft a while, first as a naval ordinance man and then as a combat air crewman. He'd enlisted in '44, served for three years and when he got out he turned right around and signed up for Army Air Corps flight school. And there he is in this old photograph I found.

My father loved flying, he always would, but not only flying —it was the piloting, that sense of command over the massive forces involved, with all its armament and engineering, the speed and power of the modern airplane. I can remember when I was just a small child. I'd be sitting at the kitchen table, chatting with him as he had his afternoon coffee, and he would hold forth on the sacred mysteries of laminar airflow over an aircraft's wing, ailerons and trim, the tone of reverence in his voice as he spoke the words 'Pratt & Whitney Engine' —the years later you could sense the rapturous awe that still held sway over him. There was something about flying with my father. There was something there at the core of his soul. Long before Ronald Reagan ever borrowed the lines for his speech after the shuttle disaster, my dad could recite from that poem about flight, about leaving behind the bonds of earth and reaching out to touch the face of God.

High Flight

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds -- and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of -- wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there,

I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, or even eagle flew.

And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Now I have this picture of my father. I look at it and realize he is at about the same age there as my own son is now. In the photograph my father is a young man achieving his dream, realizing that command. When this picture was taken he had arrived upon this place of validation and vindication after such a long hard journey. At the age of eight years, the effects of The Great Depression had broken his family and he had been sent away to live with his aunts on a country farm. I only learned after my father passed away that he had spent time in his early teens as a homeless runaway —my mother explaining why the Little Wanderers had always been a favored charity of his. Then came the war and the Navy. He joined in 1944 at the age of 17. Another prize photograph in my possession is my father in the side gun turret of a PBY Catalina Flying Boat somewhere in the Pacific in 1945. When he got out in '47 he would use his GI Bill to help his parents and his sister buy a little house in Brockton, Massachusetts.

Then he was bound for Waco, Texas.

Over the years I would hear a great deal from my father about his stint in the Army Air Corps Flight Training Program. He could relate in minute detail the rudder, flaps and throttle specifics of every maneuver he had learned on the North American T6 Trainer he flew. And he could relate with chilling clarity the momentary lapse in control during one of his last flight tests, his flight instructor expressionless and clinical as he noted his observations in the flight logbook.

My father "washed out" at Waco. That's what they called it when you didn't make the grade, when you learned that you weren't going to be one of those to earn the wings. He told me about sitting through something of a ritual procedure —Washing Out, sitting at attention (which meant using only the front three inches of the chair and having his spine frozen straight and unbending —eyes locked forward front and center) as across a table sat an administrator or two and the flight instructor he had come to know over the previous weeks. They reviewed his log and explained their decision about his future participation in the Army Air Corps' cadet training program.

They asked him if he differed with or disputed anything in the account of his training flights given in the log and he said he did not. They asked if he agreed with their conclusion that he should not continue in the program and he said he did not. That wasn't going to change anyone's mind of course. As I said, this hearing was something of a ritual. At one point the flight instructor asked my father if he thought of himself as a good pilot and my father answered that, yes, he thought he was. There was a moment of recognition and respect between the two men, just a trace of a smile on the flight instructor's face.

He didn't say I was wrong, my father recalled years later.

I heard that story from my father many times growing up. It was a story about disappointment that he would share when I was faced with my own in life. But he also shared the story from time to time when he was simply in a philosophical mood. It was about as bitter a disappointment as he had ever faced, that's what he felt at the time, but it was that momentary lapse in one maneuver and that close judgement by his instructor that sent my father home to Massachusetts, where he met my mother and formed our family. Had things gone as he so desperately wanted them to, he would have been flying dangerous combat missions over Korea instead of meeting her at a dance in 1950. As he sat there talking with the youngest of his three sons in the home he made for himself with his family, he could see that disappointment of years gone by as providence —a blessing.

And there was something of a gift in that moment with his flight instructor, too. Failure and disappointment didn't define my father or darken his joy in flight, his sense of himself as a pilot. He knew the truth in that poetry about flying and no one could ever deny him that. He would never deny it himself.

Twenty years after "washing out" of the Army Air Corps Training Program, my dad started taking flying lessons again. He used the same leather bound log they had given him in Waco to record his training flights. He completed the necessary hours, soloed and then got his license. He ended up sharing the ownership of a small Cesna and flying out of Hopedale Airport for years. The Cesna 172 he ended up flying didn't have the awesome power of the military planes he'd flown in his youth, where he had first learned to love flight. But nevertheless I know he had his moments, flying over the New England country, reveling in the landscapes below and the skies all around, catching the occasional glimpse of God.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The lady doth protest too much

“They're going to bring in the Justice Department? I'm a housewife, for Pete's sake, who said there needs to be a certain standard, a threshold.

Voting is a privilege.”

That's how Christen Varley responded (as reported in the Worcester Telegram & Gazaette) when informed that the Town of Southbridge Town Manager had requested the assistance of the U.S. Justice Department in addressing what was seen as quite possibly a campaign of deliberate voter intimidation and suppression undertaken by her organization, Empower Massachusetts. Now there's maybe a couple of base assumptions built into Ms. Varley's comment that I'm going to have to argue with, the idea of voting as "privilege" for example, but first I've just got to challenge the lady on her supposed humility.

When I hear "I'm a housewife for Pete's sake" I'm just a little reminded of back in the day, watching Senator Sam Ervin tell everybody on the Watergate Committee that he chaired that he was "just an old country lawyer" —that in his slowly drawn, quaint and jowly North Carolina twang. The mock humility was endearing at first, but after a while it just wore thin as an affectation. Likewise with Ms. Varley's self effacing sense of her stature —as if "a housewife" shouldn't warrant the attention of the United States Justice Department —even if one of her hobbies was demographically targeted tactical voter suppression.

Christen is altogether too humble about her resumé. Last I heard around town here in Holliston, though I will admit I am not on their mailing list, she currently serves as the Chair of Holliston Republican Town Committee. She also serves as Treasurer and Executive Director of Empower Massachusetts —one of the groups behind the Southbridge controversy; she is also President of the Greater Boston Tea Party and Northeast Massachusetts Field Director of The Coalition for Marriage and Family. She's busy. I don't condemn Ms. Varley for being an activist. Not at all, I applaud it —even where I disagree with her pretty vehemently on certain issues. It's pretending she isn't one —that's where it gets to be too much.

If the U.S. Justice Department tries to investigate how Christen Varley handles her responsibilities as a housewife, I will join her in protesting the intrusion and intimidation. That is my solemn pledge. Meanwhile back in Southbridge, I do have a problem when people simply say there should be a standard demanding voter identification and set about pretending —because they say so— that it is so. Tea Party folks usually profess to be fans of the Constitution. That friendship apparently turns a bit fickle when it becomes expedient to regard the voting rights of certain rival demographics as —let's say— a privilege.

Take a look at the billboard advertisement Ms. Varley's group had placed in a poor Latino neighborhood in Southbridge just prior to a special primary election for the 6th Worcester District House seat. When challenged on the placement and the message and the motive of this little media buy, Ms. Varley responded (also reported in WT&G):

“I called the largest billboard company in America and asked for a billboard in Southbridge and they said they had one available, so I took it,” Ms. Varley said, adding that the allegation of intimidation was silly. “We're asking for the state of Massachusetts to consider an act in legislation that requires everybody who casts a ballot to produce an ID to show that they're in the right place at the right time and eligible. It has nothing to do with any ethnic background whatsoever.”

But take another look at the billboard. [I've posted a photo above] How do you read it? Is this a clearly stated message asking you to "consider an act in legislation" to put in place an ID requirement? Or is it a cryptic image vaguely intimating that the requirement already exists? Is it an honest appeal to activist citizens to lobby their legislators to enact a change to election law? Is there actually any advice offered to voters on how to ascertain "the right time and place" to vote? Or is the "message" on display deliberately vague disinformation aimed to confuse and to undermine get out the vote efforts in one targeted low income community —one that just happens to have an election going on?

The billboard is but one aspect of what the Southbridge Town Manager Christopher Clark has asked for Justice Department assistance in addressing. These "empowering" activists Ms. Varley hobbies with, supposedly bent on saving the state from the scourge of voter fraud, also chose the special election primary as a place to focus their voter monitoring efforts. This is their right of course, to monitor elections, to ascertain that election officials are observing every proper practice in assuring voters are properly registered and eligible. It is not the right of anyone, however, to harass voters based upon their ethnicity, their apparent socio-economic standing or their physical or intellectual abilities.

Southbridge Town Clerk Madaline Daoust told reporters after the primary had concluded that she had witnessed “unnecessary challenges” geared toward mentally challenged people and Hispanics. “Some people left saying, ‘I'll never vote again,' ” she complained. Retired Worcester Juvenile Court Judge Luis G. Perez also commented that he saw challengers especially targeting Latinos and spoke of citizens coming away from their voting experience shaken and in tears. When Varley was asked if this sort of reaction wasn't an intended result, or at least something of a bonus, she said of course not, though she did allow as how she found it "disturbing" to see people who she believed couldn't speak english showing up to vote at the polls and developmentally-challenged people “being dragged in" to vote.

In 1965 Congress passed and the President signed into law the Voting Rights Act. To my knowledge it is still the law of the land. Note, by the way, that it refers to "voting rights" not privileges. Among the rights put in place by that particular legislation was the right to ballot access for non-english speakers. As for the developmentally-challenged, in Massachusetts, citizens under legal guardianship retain their rights to register and to vote unless the guardianship under which they are placed expressly and specifically revokes such rights. I guess one could perceive such a person voting with another's assistance as "being dragged" there, while another might see them as simply being helped. I suppose it becomes a matter of interpretation.

Just like the message Ms. Varley and her cohorts intend for poor and Latino voters in Southbridge.

She will tell you that they have no intentions at all, that the only goal is to protect the integrity of each vote. Methinks that's where she doth protest too much. With all their efforts at the polls on primary day, what with nearly two dozen voters challenged and not a single one actually turned away as not eligible to vote, it's hard to see how their Southbridge campaign is supposed to be about nothing more than a problem they came away with no evidence of existing there in the first place. Still Ms. Varley promises she and her friends will be back "in force" on the day of the special election. She says they won't be intimidated.

Go figure.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Local Memory

With the news from Wisconsin, and the rhetoric making the rounds, about those dastardly unions and their supposedly unreasonable demands (even as they concede every immediate monetary request that has been made of them and their one remaining insistence is to retain collective bargaining rights) I can't help but think back to last year in our own home town. Last year Holliston faced its own budget shortfall. Revenues lagged and selectmen and the fin com had gone to every department asking for cuts. The simple accounting on those cuts showed many of us in the town something we didn't want to see. Teacher layoffs and more crowded classrooms, shutdowns for many extracurricular student clubs and activities, maybe a few more fees for those that remained, tight belts tighter for Police and Fire, the Library would have lost its children's librarian. Yet there was no appetite for an override, so we were informed by our elected officials. These cuts were the bitter medicine, we were told, we might as well swallow.

That's not what happened though. By petition citizens of the town made sure an override option was placed on the ballot for town meeting, town departments were asked to prepare budget plans that would address the possibilities should the additional funds be voted in. It was recognized up front that funding wouldn't save the jobs or preserve the level of service in Holliston Schools. Holliston teachers chose to step forward and offered to accept furloughs to protect classroom positions and the level of service to the schools.

There was robust debate at town meeting (I posted on the subject last year). Strongly held views were voiced on both sides of the question. The measure to place the override option on the town election ballot passed and then the override itself was passed narrowly by town voters.

I guess it just strikes me as useful example, as we now watch the talking points on collective bargaining devolve towards the ugly caricature, the way Holliston teachers played a constructive role, through their action. Taken in at the level of local understanding, you can see how Holliston Teachers acting —dare I say it—collectively— met the common community need, by meeting the town halfway in the resolution of the budget. Teachers sacrificed their own pay in an appeal to preserve teacher and staff positions —to preserve a level of service to students.

We can disagree among ourselves about the decision we made last year about Holliston's budget. I'm sure some still do. We could face a similar situation again and come away with a different answer. But shouldn't we be glad of the opportunity we took to decide? Shouldn't we protect the place at the table of even those we might disagree with whenever it comes round to decide again?

That's the thing about a town like ours. It's just a little harder to paint the picture of public unions as populated by spoiled public teat suckers protecting parasitic dead enders and wrong and wasteful practices —when what you've seen are the teachers, the ones you know have meant a lot to your own child's education, working together to protect the level of quality and service in our schools —and you have that sense that your own child, prepared with that education, just might make the future a better one.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Obama's Fight

Barack Obama arrived in office a little over two years ago with the hope and excitement of his supporters and he arrived with his critics and detractors, too. That's simply the way it is in our plural democratic society. No American president ever has managed, as Abraham Lincoln put it, to please "all of the people all of the time." So maybe the slings and arrows of criticism thrown Obama's way these first two years in office haven't been all that unusual and with a little balance and perspective this presidency of his will take its rightful place along with the others. There's been some amount of discussion recently, just maybe prematurely, about that place. Just past midway through a first term, with all signs that he will pursue a second, there has been some question of Obama's presidency in terms of defining a legacy. This examination comes from friend and foe alike. Will Obama be remembered as only another politician who rode in and wrote law and policy with a certain amount of momentum behind him, only to be ridden out again with an equal and opposite reactive force? Is this that transformational presidency, harkened to hope, that we heard about in the campaign?

That message about change, derided and dismissed from the beginning by political opponents, has lately come into sharp question among those who elected Obama, especially now that they are faced with growing strength in the Republican opposition to their agenda. The President has shown, for many Democrats, what seems an unseemly readiness to compromise. The Bush Tax Cuts last year, the reductions proffered in this year's budget proposal, falling heavy on what are traditionally Democrat favored programs: Where is the leadership? The defining vision? Where is Obama's fight?

Personally, I believe these questions come of having missed something of the point.

What disappoints a lot of pundits and political junkies, from each side of our great divided debate, is that the core of Obama’s appeal isn’t in the end politically partisan or even particularly ideological. His message right from the beginning has just about always been about reaching for something a step beyond the divisive contest of contending parties. It has always been about the light of day after the fight. His defining moments have always been about that community organizer’s ideal of entering a room full of contending and conflicting views and leaving with conflict on some level resolved, moved beyond. Remember that he first came upon the national scene with his “There are no Red States. There are no Blue States —These are The United States” speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. His speech on race in the midst of the Jeremiah Wright controversies during the 2008 primaries was about reaching beyond black and white definitions of black and white and coming to some place of mutual understanding and respect. The healing message of his recent Tucson speech was along similar lines, a call not to disinvite debate between differing parties, but "to make that debate worthy."

That is not a message about Democrats storming the barricades that the Republicans build, not about clearing the square of opposing voices. It is about taking the discourse to a better place, where we can even differ profoundly but still work towards a practical and effective consensus. Constitutionally, I believe Obama sees government as an instrument of discerning that consensus. (And I happen to think he is right —at least that is what our government is supposed to be about.)

Take what is now constantly referred to as ‘Obamacare’ as an example, the two most clearly defining presidential moments in that legislation's process came in the very last throes (excuse the expression) before the bill was signed. The summit he held with leaders of both parties just towards the end was the right idea —yes, it probably came late and would have served more effectively earlier in the process, but the notion of the moment was that of the room entered with differences and exited with some approach towards consensus discerned. Then, just on the eve of the final vote, the speech he gave to the Democratic Congressional Caucus, where he essentially warned Democrats of the likely coming consequences and urged them at the same time (nevertheless) to vote what they thought was right, not what knew was politically safest. He quoted Lincoln to them as I recall —a Republican.

“I am not bound to win, but I’m bound to be true. I’m not bound to succeed, but I’m bound to live up to what light I have."

Activist Democrats will tell you they are disappointed in President Obama's compromises. They were disappointed in the final shape of the healthcare insurance legislation, or the details of financial regulatory reform. They were disappointed in the bargain struck over tax rates or the budget he most recently proposed. But perhaps presidents and actually effective political leaders are bound to disappoint those activists in a way, at times it is almost their job to do so, because the people they are elected to lead in total aren’t the advocates of their own political party. They aren't elected to do battle in the trenches with rivals of the ideological opposition. For presidents it is the balance of the whole debate they are supposed to navigate. It isn't the dissatisfaction of the ideologically invested contestants that is of concern, it is the disaffection of the American public as a whole from the debate itself, that sense of alienation from it, that it no longer actually involves their interests or seeks any real objective or consensus.

When Obama ran for President he spoke openly and specifically of wanting to take the nation somewhere past the tired conflicts of culture war entrenchment and ideological divide. He caught no small amount of hell on one occasion for mentioning that Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy had each managed the kind paradigm shift he had in mind. This was during the primaries, not the best time to express sympathy for Reagan. These two years into his presidency it is probably safe to say he hasn't yet perfected the transformation he spoke of. Then again I don't believe back in their day you would have had the sense we now enjoy of Kennedy's presidency or Reagan's. It's only fifty years later that a Republican senatorial candidate would project himself as a time morphed version of JFK, thirty years pass and a Democratic president invites comparison with Reagan, without shuddering.

In a strange way the next two years may be more clearly defining for Obama's presidency than the past two. The majority in Congress his political party enjoyed up until this year may have enabled the passage of landmark legislation, but the debate that was joined to move those pieces of legislation seldom rose in popular perception past the rivalries of the contestants. The bloodsport of American politics is just as bloody as ever. Different partisans will give you different takes on where the blame for that lies. The path forward through the next two years will likely involve both political parties in more of the give and take of blame and credit. But there is also a better debate to be had, one that looks past blame and credit and black and white definitions, one that sees not red states and blue states but United States, that moves past the tired contest and sets a common path forward instead, a worthy path.

We might all realize that the larger better debate is not about defeating the other side.

And it might turn out that's the point Obama was trying to get at all along, we’ll just have to see.