Wednesday, November 21, 2012


We fast approach the big day of the big meal,football games, and —for many— some awkward and/or contentious conversation. The different generations and different branches of the family tree pick this day to come together and, well... sometimes they differ. I was at first tempted to mark the day here by once again posting the lyrics to the great Lou and Peter Berryman song "Uncle Dave's Grace" just to poke some fun at the idea. The song tells the sad story of the time Dave is given the honors and with each blessing of the table he cites also the plight of the oppressed and the crimes of society that rendered them. From "grapes in my wine" picked by hunched back laborers to the salad bowl "hacked out of tropical treesI've always enjoyed the deadpan comedy of the narrator as he notes each of Uncle Dave's many laudable ethical observations, folded so neatly into his prayer, as they slowly drain celebration from the feast —until with the last verse:

We felt so guilty when he was all through
It seemed there was one of two things we could do
Live without food, in the nude, in a cave,
Or next year have someone say grace besides Dave.

But putting that song forward put me in mind of another take on the subject of differences I've been mulling lately. Laughing at the differences that might arise over the dinner table might be one approach, but we all know I like to fancy myself a champion of reasoned debate. I don't mean to dismiss the importance of real differences we might have with one another. I don't mean to tell folks to shy away from issues and considerations that are important to them. But I do want to share the interview I heard a while back with Anthony Appiah on the radio program, On Being.

Appiah talks about the idea of "siddling up to difference" as a way, not of avoiding issues and differences, but as a way of approaching them with some other goal in mind, beyond contest. First you find that place where you can recognize the other as essentially human (thus, possibly flawed) —and you recognize the same in yourself and in your own views. Maybe across a table is such a place for that mutual recognition. Towards the end of the Appiah interview you find yourself gathered around a supper table (Julia Childs' table no less):

Mr. Appiah: ... As I say, I wish I spent more of my time around people that disagreed with me more about politics... years ago when I was living in Boston... Julia Childs. I forget when this was, but say this was about 10 or 15 years ago. She was older at that point and her husband had died. She was worried about the state of sort of race discussions in society. So what did she do, being Julia Childs, she summoned a group of people to come and have dinner and talk about it at her house in Cambridge. So there was kind of a mixed-race group around the table. You know, most of us can't do that. You can't just summon people.

Ms. Tippett: But we might be able to do our version of that.

Mr. Appiah: But we could do more of that. Look, one of the great privileges of a free society is that you don't have to spend all your time thinking about the government. So you can easily have a life in which you do almost nothing except vote to participate in the life of the republic. I understand why that is, but if we were to spend more of our time on the life of the republic not directly, you know, by focusing on having more and more political conversations in town halls and some, but by getting together with people in our communities and talking about these things in a way that brought us to a deeper understanding of each other, that would be well worth it, I think.

And the republic would work better because you would be thinking about Joe and Mary and not about conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats and you would know that you knew some awfully nice people who were, for some bizarre reason, not convinced that you are completely correct about every political question. 

Amen to that... and pass the gravy.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What light we have

I'm sure it's not entirely coincidence that the new Spielberg film on Lincoln comes out this past weekend, what with the country having just chosen its president for the next four years. There's nothing accidental in the timing of a major release like this. For everything there is a season. No doubt there was some temptation to release a biopic about a president of such mythic status just a couple weeks earlier, into the midst of the campaign, such that each side in the contest could lay some claim to the character (and thereby boost the box office return) —and I'm sure some asked, if there's a political message to the movie, why not send the dog out to hunt?

But the decision was made to wait one beat past the confetti and falling balloons, and I think the decision was a good and purposeful one, because from what I've read —I haven't seen it yet— the film isn't exactly a simplistic homage. The character and the history at study are complex, deserving of sober consideration more than campaign spin. While Andrew O'Hehir, writing a review for, allows that the film is "an inspiring story of American greatness" —in the next breath he cautions "...if you say that, also say that it’s a cautionary tale of American mendacity and hypocrisy, the unfinished story of a cancerous evil that poisoned and divided America from its birth and does so still."

Some might have worried that Spielberg's picture would be simply more cultish adulation for Abraham Lincoln, The Great Emancipator posed against obvious evil, yet from what I've read the character depicted is a very human, very political man with some share his own of that mendacity and hypocrisy, mixed in with the admirable principle and courage. Lincoln the bold and noble statesman and Lincoln the careful and conniving politician stand in the same shoes, and upon no pedestal. In another earlier essay written during the heat of the campaign, O'Hehir noted the parallel between Lincoln's time and our own: "Indeed, the startling conclusion forced upon you by 'Lincoln' is that the more things change in American politics the more they stay the same." Just days before the election he observed "whichever man is elected on Tuesday faces a political landscape nearly as divided and poisonous as the one confronted by the 16th president."

It is in that context that we are now given to reflect, "Barack Obama won!"

Is there lesson in Abraham Lincoln's story for all of us as we gather ourselves just past the election? I'll admit I've enjoyed the last few days on the most base level, as one who identifies with the winner of a contest. I've learned a new word —schadenfreude— I'd heard it before but never bothered to look it up —and I must confess I have partaken of that "pleasure in the pain of others" —in the bitter tears of folks like Karl Rove, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck. I do have the sense, though, that this is ultimately an empty pleasure and it is with this realization that I'm drawn to the historical example of Lincoln. It's not the victor over slavery and the champion of the union, for me though, so much as the humble and flawed —yet wise— man who advised his countrymen 'malice towards none' even in the moment of victory he addressed in his second inaugural. The charity of hope and healing towards all who had borne the fight —this was Lincoln's advice as war drew to a close.

Should we heed something of the same as an election is now behind us?

The other night President Obama gave his victory speech and, with perhaps some sense of symmetry —or irony, he harkened back to the themes of his first presidential campaign and the rhetoric of the first major speech of his career in national politics. Hope, he said, he had never been more hopeful about our country.

"And I ask you to sustain that hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the road blocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight." He closed alluding to that appeal to a larger and deeper unity that first placed him on the national stage. "I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America."

I know there are some who argue that President Obama has practiced the divisive politics he complains about, just as there are some who argue it was Lincoln whose politics tried our union  in a terrible war. Both contentions are arguable. I know I've argued with them. Me, I'm put in mind of that moment back during his first term when President Obama turned specifically to Lincoln for example. Recall that on the eve of the House vote to pass the Affordable Care Act into law he quoted from Lincoln's journal. “I am not bound to win, but I’m bound to be true,” he said. “I’m not bound to succeed, but I’m bound to live up to what light I have.”

"What light I have" —that light poses the complexity to us, doesn't it? On the one hand we are to regard it as profound and true, an absolute indication of what is right and moral and just as we are given the grace to see it. It illuminates exactly what we must do. On the other we are challenged to see by that same light that our enemies —those who would question or challenge what we've seen— those we would fight and hope to defeat to achieve our purpose— are not different from ourselves. They are, in fact, ourselves.

Naturally, we wonder about the result of this election, whether we are in for the status quo or out to find some better path. "Fondly we hope, fervently do we pray," as Lincoln said, back in the day. And maybe it was with some sense of symmetry —or irony that he noted, at the ending war "the prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."

Friday, November 2, 2012


I’d like to think this moment changed something—that it could. I don’t want it to change the result of the coming election. I’m already wanting and wishing on that subject enough already. I don’t even want it to change the policy debate. We can go ahead argue about FEMA and whether federal resourcing and management are the best way to address disaster relief —once everyone is in where it’s safe and dry we can have that discussion. But the thing I’d really like to believe changed is on the level of mutual respect.

I can recall that Governor Christie of New Jersey was pretty darned forceful in his repudiation of President Obama back when he was addressing the keynote to the Republican National Convention this summer. What the country lacked in its president was leadership, he said, several times and several different ways. Again and again. It wasn’t a pretty speech (not in my book anyway) but it scored on the level of political invective —which is the game we play these days. And all through the subsequent campaign Chris Christie has been “the man with the pan” for the President, delivering mal mots for Mitt at the drop of a hat..

At a Romney rally not two weeks  ago, the governor offered that President Obama was “blindly walking around the White House looking for a clue,” adding  “he’s like a man wandering around a dark room, hands up against the wall, clutching for the light switch of leadership, and he just can’t find it.” Of course the putdown line got a good rise out of folks in attendance.

Then along came Hurricane Sandy and The Governor of New Jersey had to attend to the job he was elected to do by the citizens of his state —the President attended to his job as well— and to his credit, Governor Christie’s story changed.

“I have to say, the administration, the President, himself and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate have been outstanding with us so far,” Christie said on Good Morning America reporting in the morning after the storm came ashore. “We have a great partnership with them,” he said. And as for the guy in the dark room fumbling for the light switch— “He worked on [early disaster declaration] last night with me, offered any other assets that we needed to help,” Christie said. “I want to thank the President personally for his personal attention to this.”

Touring the storm damaged area and appearing to speak to the press together, Christie and Obama made for all appearances like something of a mutual admiration society. “It’s been a great working relationship to make sure that were doing the job people elected us to do,” Christie enthused. The President answered “I have to say that Gov. Christie throughout this process has been responsive. He’s been aggressive in making sure that the state got out in front of this incredible storm and I think the people of New Jersey recognize that he has put his heart and soul into making sure the people of New Jersey bounce back even stronger than before. So, I just want to thank him for his extraordinary leadership and partnership.”

Damn— What’s a bile frothing bitter partisan hack to do with talk like that?

These last few days Governor Christie has faced some amount of nervous questioning and open criticism from folks of his own political stripe —a little like Dylan at Newport when he went electric, or when he started singing about his Born Again Christianity in the 80's —dude, his fans turned critics chime, we liked the old stuff. Christie's answer has been plain —whether it was answering George Stefanopoulus on GMA or the fine folks at 'Fox and Friends' —that the last thing on his mind, as he sets about doing the work he was elected to do by the citizens of his state, the last thing is the gamesmanship of presidential politics. Tweeted back in the general direction of his critics : "Today I'm touring NJ with President Obama. Yes, he's a Democrat, and I'm a Republican. We're also adults, and this is how adults behave."

Adults— now that would be a change.

Make no mistake. While I often opine from a Liberal and Democratic perspective, I know full well Democrats and Liberals can embrace some of the same dumb and divisive tactics they complain about when they are trained on them. And I don't want political differences to disappear. We'd be in real trouble if they did. It's the way we handle elections as blood sport contests is what we all have to work on changing. Instead of contests of caricature and invective, we should make our differences more substantive and candid —to borrow Christie's term— "adult." Then those differing ideas might actually be useful. That's the change I hope for in that moment you see pictured with this post, just something on that level of mutual respect.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

In flight entertainment

Found my self in something of an exchange with a conservative friend. I'd been watching him post exuberant status updates on facebook in the aftermath of Romney's debate performance (and President Obama's lack thereof) and I had to warn him that, much like in the NFL, in debate there's such a thing as excessive celebration. Careful or you guys will be kicking off the Biden/Ryan matchup from fifteen yards back, I told him. It was at about this point that I pictured him doing an exaggerated Michael Jackson backwards moon walk across the end zone of American public opinion, pantomime of a dance prop cane under one arm, sly grin on his face and winking as his hand traced the hat brim of his imaginary stylish fedora.

Then came the jobs report. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the best employment numbers in 44 months.

This had to be the worst good news anybody ever got. Unemployment back into the 7% range (albeit just barely) for the first time since Obama took office! It was positively galling. Then and there came the complaint that "The Press" was holding out this 7.8 % unemployment as positive news for Obama when the same number had served to describe what a mess Bush was leaving the economy in back at the beginning of Obama's term. How could this be?

Picture yourself in an airplane, I told him. When you are in a nose dive and your ears are popping and the ground keeps getting closer and closer and your engine is sputtering and belching smoke into your face and you're not sure the plane can handle the g-force of pulling out of the dive —it's then that "7.8" might represent a pretty scary altitude (or lack thereof). Once you have managed to break out of the dive and are maybe even on the slow —albeit too slow— ascent again —then suddenly "7.8" looks at least somewhat re-assuring.

No one should yet claim this economy is "all fixed" and we are rocketing for the heavens. My friend pointed this out and I had to agree with him there. I'm thinking of Snoopy in his Sopwith Camel as the more apt analogy. We still have to figure out how to engineer this aircraft —in flight. But as we face the decision we are all to make this November 6th,  the question becomes not only what we think of the man with the googles and flowing scarf and his hands on the stick (and maybe aerodynamically problematic ears), but whether Air Cadet Romney —who wants his turn at the controls so very badly— isn't suggesting we play the exact same game with the throttle and ailerons that we were playing just before we went into the dive.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Prescription Dignity

I received the state's "Information For Voters" pamphlet in my mail the other day. By this I mean the actual mail and an actual pamphlet —made of paper —the pulp matter of fallen trees: pages and pages of information on voter registration, how to obtain an absentee ballot, a statement of the "Massachusetts Voters' Bill of Rights" and —most importantly— full text and detail on the three ballot questions we'll all be answering in November. It was nice to receive the reminder that there is more to this fall's ballot than the matter of who will be our next president or senator or congressman. Aside from the personas to pick from, we are presented with a couple of very direct questions. To be more precise these "questions" aren't simply polls to gauge opinion or set the direction for future policy or law making. These are law proposed by initiative petition. We vote 'yes' and we make them law.

One that has me wondering is Question 2, referred to in the voter information pamphlet as "Prescribing Medication to End Life." That's the more careful prosaic name for the proposal that tries to avoid taking sides in the question, yes or no. It's not referred to as physician prescribed suicide as some might call it. That is too blunt. The folks advocating the proposed law will tell you it is all about Dignity. They entitle their law as drafted the "Massachusetts Death With Dignity Act" —and this is where I become skeptical.

Dignity... Who could be against Dignity? Right?

A 'yes' vote on Question 2 would enact proposed law allowing a physician licensed in Massachusetts to prescribe medication at the request of a terminally ill patient "meeting certain conditions" to end that person's life. To put it plain, the law codifies authority for a physician to prescribe the medicine one would use to commit suicide.

The actual word 'suicide' only appears twice in the full text of the law, which is reprinted in whole in the state pamphlet. The word only appears where we are told this is not what we are about here with this law, we are told "[a]ctions taken in accordance with this chapter shall not constitute suicide, assisted suicide, mercy killing or homicide under any criminal law of the commonwealth.” The sanctioned terminology is “ending life in a humane and dignified manner” —this turn of phrase appears no fewer than 14 times in the proposed 'Chapter 201G Massachusetts Death With Dignity Act.'

Question 2 not only assumes the citizen's right to directly author state law, it presumes to amend the dictionary as well.

Death with Dignity —if there's a way to prescribe this with a pill I think we should all be for it, but what bothers me is when I read this law as drafted, when I look past the embrace of the term, what I see is an outline focused upon administrative concerns, the appropriate witness, waiting periods and forms to fill out and keep on file. None of this seems to secure anything like dignity for the dying. Laws are for the living, and this law like most is about liability and litigation. We cover ourselves with a suffering person's signature on a form titled "REQUEST FOR MEDICATION TO END MY LIFE IN A DIGNIFIED MANNER" —duly signed by the appropriately disinterested objective witnesses. This, my friends, is paper work. I can picture the scene all too well. I can just see the clipboard.

I shouldn't be so sharp I suppose. I don't doubt that the people who have worked to put this legislation together and have it put before us as a ballot question have done so with the best of intentions. They seek to ease the suffering of the terminally ill and their families. Sorry, but it's the manipulative language that irks me. Over the past few years I've seen both my parents die and I've seen more and more of their generation passing, their families and loved ones dealing with the pain. None of those dying left this world in ways ideally scripted. Yet, I never saw anything in the death of any one of them that detracted from their actual dignity. There is suffering and pain and hardship. Strong men and women become vulnerable and weak and needy. The sentiment for easing that burden —avoiding that scene— is a strong one— one I can respect and understand. But I worry at the same time that the support for this legislation, at least some of it, is so driven by the intense emotion surrounding so many of these hard choices that come with the end of life. I've seen it argued that Question 2 advances a law about Dignity and Personal Choice and yet to read it in detail what one comes away with is the the procedural aspect of it all. What’s being described isn't so much an enabled free choice as an exhaustive  protocol, not about the dying and their dignity so much as about the dispensaries and their exposures and liabilities.

There are a great number of problems with the way we regard death (and life) in this society. We've seen some progress in recent years in certain areas —with respect for Living Wills, hospice care —there are improvements we could still stand to make in pain management and palliative care for the suffering, in the support we lend to families of the terminally ill. We might improve the situation with political focus, and it is right that we try. I just question whether 'The Massachusetts Death With Dignity Act' serves to sustain that focus or neatly dispenses with it instead, like a pill. The law would establish means and methods for prescribing suicide as "medicine" and would serve to create a setting for posing the question to the suffering and vulnerable —and with a dramatically changed climate of expectation for the answer.

There are valid ethical reasons that the Mass Medical Society, a professional association of over 24,000 physicians and medical students, has publicly stated opposition to this law.

Might we simply be trying to streamline or contain death for convenience's sake, to tune it to the tempo of our neatly compartmented modern lives? I guess I am suggesting we stop and give that question some thought before we answer 'Question 2' — that we question the culture change this legislation would advance —or perhaps the climate change we might be signaling a surrender. The argument I saw cited recently, that I found especially sobering, was that the majority of those seeking this “medication” —in places where it is already legal like Oregon, were motivated not by pain or a diminished self, but by a fear of losing control, becoming a burden upon their loved ones. Maybe there is some dignity in that pride, something poignant, human and even beautiful. But, as we allow it, I wonder if we aren’t also mistaken, not to take our burdens and the last lessons life and love give us. I wonder if we shouldn't challenge the notion that Dignity is something anyone could ever prescribe with a pill.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

And here we are having to judge

There's something strange I've noticed over the past few months, as our presidential politics have been playing out and I've found myself from time to time in exchanges with my more conservative friends, inclined to support Mitt Romney for president. Of course there's always chance to examine President Obama's many faults and failures. We can go over those at length and in depth, but when we try to see Mitt Romney examined or challenged on a point, the response almost always comes that whatever fault's found with Romney, Obama's done the same or worse. It just strikes me odd that, when it comes down to brass tacks, so often the assessment Romney's champions offer in defense of their man is that he's no different from Obama. I won't get into a long list of examples so as not to distract from my point about the latest. Suffice to say we've seen some strange and disparate things judged equivalent.

The latest example comes of Candidate Romney's musings on the composition of the American electorate so recently come to light, his letting out that there's a goodly percentage of the populace —47% I think he figured it— whom he estimates as beneath or at least outside his concern. “My job is not to worry about those people,” quoth he. "I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

 The immediate response I saw from quite a few conservative friends was to reach for Obama's famous "cling to guns and God" comment from back in 2008 as a comparison. We all remember that one. (There's several of my acquaintances who like to remind me of it every now and then.)

"[I]t's not surprising then that they get bitter, and they cling to guns or religion," then candidate Obama said. The soundbyte was a big seller.

Wasn't this just the same kind of unguarded comment that Romney is now suffering over?

But I've got to counter that, while these may be similarly unguarded moments, the substance of what these men said is worth considering. And there is some awfully important contrast there.

Back in '08 Obama was speaking to campaign volunteers and allowing for some exasperation at demagogue appeals to "guns and God" (and the intimation that he posed a threat to them both) —how these served to distract from the substantive policy issues that actually do effect people's lives. (Look to Romney's pledge not to take God off of our coinage as a fine more recent example). While Obama was expressing frustration at the cultivated and ingrained skepticism he and his campaign faced, he still sought to reach the voters he was describing. His comments came as he urged his campaign to persist in trying to persuade."You know, we’ll have a series of talking points. But the truth is that our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's no evidence of that in their daily lives." What the candidate was telling his campaign was that every voter deserved attention, whether they appeared to be a part of some rival demographic base or not.

 I don't think you can characterize Romney's remarks that way.

"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right? There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it... These are people who pay no taxes...
[M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

There were whole segments of the population Romney was writing off as essentially not his concern with those words. Winning office would be about persuading some other "5 to 10 percent in the middle" (between the Lowly and the Ascendent) to side with him. That's what this campaign would be about.

Apologists now explain Romney was only talking candidly about political realities of the election contest. The candidate's wife tells us really he "does not disdain the poor" —for all his resignation about their sense of personal responsibility. Sorry, but Mitt Romney's apologists saying that he was only talking about the election strategy and not the governing —and that this somehow makes what he said more acceptable— misses the point, not just the point of my argument, but the point of the design to our political system.

There’s an important distinction between democratic debate and mere election strategy. In the former you make your case for the truth and the proper course for the country as you see it and you offer it even to people who might disagree with you or challenge you. Every now and then you might even improve your position by considering the criticism you receive. In the latter you’re no longer interested in engaged argument. The contest is all and the contest is about stirring your base and suppressing your opponent’s. You might win that contest, but you gain nothing in the process. You only expend resources. While you might secure the levers of power (until the next contest) you do not lead by the merit of consistent ideas.

I’m inclined to forgive Barack Obama for sticking his foot in it about "guns and God" back in the day, because the context he did it in was an argument about reaching past skepticism and appealing on the level of reason, even to those you might see as your opponent's base, those who might disagree with you. I’m less inclined to forgive Romney’s gaffe, as his argument was just the opposite. He described a mass of the electorate to circumscribe and dismiss, to work past rather than treat as fellow citizens to engage and respect.

The image that comes to mind is of Solomon from the old Bible story, with the two women and one baby before him: two women with apparently equivalent claims that he had to judge. One was willing to see the child cut approximately in half, the other not.

And here we are having to judge.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Sniffing at the sweet smell of success

Well, I went and did it. I sat down and gave a listen to Mitt Romney's speech to the GOP convention from last week. I hadn't found the time to give it a fair airing to my mind until this past weekend. (It was a busy week, last week.) So forgive me if I'm posting on the topic of old news.

I guess I have to say Romney's acceptance of the nomination wasn't a bad speech, all in all. I think it sounded the right sonics for the candidate as he moves into final campaign mode. There was a decent mixture of platitude and stirring stuff. I'll grant that and, smartly, at least at first, he toned down some of the Obama bashing and affected a more measured respectful —and potentially presidential— tone. With any election that involves challenging an incumbent, one of the things you have to allow for —and even actively pursue — is winning the support of voters who supported your opponent the last time out. Blaming them for voting in a guy who hates God and freedom and doesn't even understand what being an American is —well, let's say that's something of a hard place to do that from. Romney's speech at its core was about making that path from a vote for Obama in 2008 to a different place this year.

[As aside, I've always thought one of the things that cost John Kerry in '04 was the implicit message of his campaign that only a completely ignorant bigot and utter fool could ever have supported his opponent.]

So it was that instead of the usual harangue, Romney posed the picture of an America that had come to together despite party differences and with good wishes for the new president as he set out upon his term of office these three and a half years ago. We all wished the president well, Candidate Romney recalled, that's just the way we are —we wanted him to succeed as we wanted America to succeed —it's only fair if we're disappointed with him now...

Luckily, I was seated far enough away from my computer as I heard this that I managed not to spray the machine's delicate circuitry with the coffee that came spewing from my mouth and nose. I gasped at the notion: Wished him well? Wanted him to succeed? This from the same man who in January of 2009 —about, oh, a little over one week into the Obama administration— was complaining that he shouldn't be expected to support "failed policies" —the same political party whose Senate Leader announced at the very dawn of the administration that his 'number one priority' was going to be seeing to it that Barack Obama serves but a single term.

Succeed... ha.

But I suppose I shouldn't complain. Even the suggested conceit that this cooperative atmosphere once existed might be somehow useful. It could be the seedling sense that it could happen one day... "again." Could this be Romney's... hope? (Not that he'd ever use the term) at least if he's elected anyway?

Actually this word "success" has been turning in my own little stone tumbler of a skull ever since I watched Romney's speech (and wiped off my desk). There came another telling moment for me in the candidate's speech, it was when he let into President Obama for somehow being against success. Romney had given a brief listing (somewhat selective some might argue) of the "success stories" he could tell about his years at Bain Capital."These are American success stories," Romney said. "And yet the centerpiece of the President's entire re-election campaign is attacking success. Is it any wonder that someone who attacks success has led the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression? In America, we celebrate success, we don't apologize for it."

I'm going to go out on a limb here and posit that President Obama doesn't dislike, attack or apologize for success in itself. We could maybe argue over whether he too much dislikes, attacks and would feel awfully sorry to see Mitt Romney succeed at getting elected president, but that's another discussion I think. I'm wondering if maybe what is really at issue between our two candidates and their political parties, is how we define that term —success. The President doesn't attack or apologize for success, but he does challenge the selective narrative of Mitt Romney's "success stories." Should the same definition of success that a CEO uses in the corporate boardroom serve for the President of The United States? Do the Community Organizer and The CEO have different and equaly valid definitions for us to work with? Should we figure out how to best combine them?

That might be a discussion worth having.

Just maybe the problem of defining success cuts right to the heart of the matter. The bottom line is something we all have to be aware of, but a true accounting of whether that bottom line describes a success or failure —a moving forward or a sliding back— involves seeing it from the perspective of the whole, not the individual player —or even your team in the contest. The short term profit taking that dismantles and outsources industrial capacity might score as a success and a profit on the level of an investor transaction, while bearing only cost to the men and women who worked in that industry, to the communities formed by those men and women, to the society that had made a place for that work. Romney rightly remarked that pursuing success in business involves investing effort and taking risks and even accepting the occasional failure. But what I question is whether he sees beyond the loss that you enter in a ledger, that you shrug off in the working balance —or view philosophically as 'creative destruction'— to the loss that cuts deeper than that. I wonder if he has an answer for the whole, both those who profit and those who lose. To ask such a question isn't to attack success in general or even Mitt Romney in particular. It's to pose a challenge I want to see him meet, successfully.

Early on in the convention we heard Mitt Romney praised for the hard truths he would tell us —once we elect him president. It seems to me a little something more to this definition of success would be a good place to start. There's got to be more to his success stories than the aura of his estimable wealth —there's just a little complexity to that sweet smell of success. We would be remiss if we didn't sniff at it just a little.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Fine print

We all remember the ruckus when a while back the President let out with the comment that "the private sector's doing fine." The howls of indignant protest went up about a president who was out of touch, aloof, a man who did not feel our pain. Maybe some of the criticism the comment earned the President was warranted, while he was trying to parse a distinction worth noting (that what private sector recovery we do have is being factored back by the broad effect of austerity on public sector employment), he was losing the forest for noting the different species of tree. The big picture should be better. His job is to have some sense of that.

That said, I think it's almost poetic that President Obama's opposing number came out with words very much along the same lines this past week. Alex Klein writing for the Daily Beast describes "Romney's gaffe" this way:

Romney Thursday night declared—to a group of rich donors, no less—that “big business is doing fine in many places,” partly because these larger corporations “know how to find ways [to] save money by putting various things in the places where there are low tax havens around the world.”

Business doing "fine" —the political sonics of Romney's use of the word are every bit as ripe for exploitation in our political climate as when the President found himself excoriated for saying much the same thing. Klein points out:

Romney’s words on taxes play to practically all of his core, and major, political weaknesses. Highlighting “big business” success resonates with the corporate fat-cat caricature. Attributing that success to “low tax havens” is even worse: a reminder of Romney’s own vast global holdings – from Bermuda, to Switzerland, to the Cayman’s – which have allowed him to defer his tax burden and multiply investor wealth far from American shores.

But the worst part of "Romney's gaffe" —Klein notes— is that he is right.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

I read the news today, oh boy

The other day I received a complimentary copy of a new local newspaper. It was Edition 1 of "The Middlesex Times" nicely tied off from the summer rain in a clear plastic bag and waiting there on my doorstep. Cool, I said to myself —I like to do crossword puzzles. But first there was the matter of the news stories, sizing up the whole of this new rag, maybe the publication even had an opinion page. It would be interesting to see if there was a new and distinct perspective in the offing —on current events, local, regional, national.

The top story, page 1 was an article on the announcement of a candidate for state rep in our area. Now, I'll admit this is a candidate I've already taken something of a dim view of —that's my bias. He ran for U.S. Congress recently, too, and I found him to be something of an empty sloganeer, someone who was big on selling disdain for the incumbent of the office he wanted, not so big on offering much coherent in the way of policy he would put into effect himself. He's struck me as something in the order of a Sarah Palin, but maybe without her level of intellectual rigor. But, like I said, that's my bias and news is news, so running with the headline about this candidate declaring his candidacy was fine.

I scanned the article though and found it was remarkably lacking in what a grouch like me might call journalistic integrity. It was the puff the candidate's campaign likely supplied. Hey, I said to myself, in a forgiving frame of mind, this sort of thing happens with small papers. They hunger for stories and sometimes pass stuff like this on as content without any real editorial scrutiny. Then I looked to the next story down, occupying the rest of the front page. That, too, was a story on this candidate and his agenda.

I opened to the center spread of the paper. This looked more like it. There was a "Letters to the Editor" section and a "Report from Beacon Hill" —oddly enough both were entirely focused upon the wrongs of the incumbent state rep that the candidate so prominently covered on page 1 was trying to unseat. There were a couple more stories on the opposite page, more of the same.

Just as I had hoped there was an editorial to be found there, too. But you had to be careful to notice it. Because if you just gave it a quick scan it didn't come off as an editorial at all, it looked for all the world like none other than U.S. Senator Scott Brown was endorsing this candidate. With a big headline reading that this candidate "Deserves Our Vote" and a picture of the candidate standing with Scott Brown, both of them grinning wide, the story reads very much as an endorsement concluding "we strongly believe" this candidate will be "the same type of leader for us at the State House." It's just that it is not signed by Scott Brown. He's not even quoted. The "we" who so strongly believe —these were the editors of this new paper. This was their editorial voice.

I turned to the last page of this new publication and found a full page spread of "People on the Street" supporting you'll never guess who for State Representative. And, maybe not surprisingly, on the bottom of the page was what was plainly an advertisement calling to elect this same candidate.

Alas, there was no crossword puzzle.

Nowhere on this publication is it stated that this material is campaign literature paid for by the candidate's election committee. Maybe it's not. Maybe there's some clever conceit here that allows for the slight of hand and it's all well and fine to pretend to be the local news, to blur and fog the line between journalism and vanity press. Maybe I shouldn't be bothered by this. I'm sure some of the philosophers among us will opine that the difference between this concoction —just some vaguely deceptive direct mail marketing— and the bought and sold media access of major campaigns is only a matter of degree and subtlety. Heck, maybe Scott Brown will eventually come around and endorse this candidate. Should we fault the dreamer (and "the editors" of the The Middlesex Times) for dreaming it first?

Who's to say?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ryan shrugged

"Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong."

~Ayn Rand

I'm okay with Mitt Romney's choice of running mate. I actually think Paul Ryan will bring something of substance to the fore in our debate and that is good. There is "The Ryan Plan" after all. I may challenge certain of its assumptions and proposals, but at least they've been made explicit such that they can be challenged, subjected to the critique our political process is premised upon.

From what I've observed, Ryan's conservatism appears to be deeply and consistently founded —it's genuine conviction for him. And he respects ideas. For a while now I've been hearing him referred to as "the intellectual leader of the GOP" (which you've got to admit is a little like being called one of the great chefs of Ireland —but let's not go there.)

None of that is to say that I am swayed to support a Romney/Ryan ticket. (I know that comes as a shocker.) I am reminded of that point a few months back when Ryan's Budget Proposals were up for detailed scrutiny and groups like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that Ryan's plans would eventually end "everything from veterans' programs to medical and scientific research, highways, education, nearly all programs for low-income families." Ryan found his ever so clearly stated budget priorities challenged on their substance —and on basic moral grounds.

Georgetown University Faculty "welcomed" his visiting lecture at about that time "as an opportunity to discuss Catholic social teaching and its role in public policy" —but also noted:

"...we would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has wisely noted in several letters to Congress – 'a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.' Catholic bishops recently wrote that 'the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.'

In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love."

At the time Ryan didn't like being "pasted with the epistemology" of Ayn Rand. He quickly gave an interview to The National Review in which he stated, “I reject her [Rand's] philosophy. It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview." When it comes to epistemology, he said, "give me Aquinas." (Of course he'd already been given Aquinas and a Papal Encyclical or two to boot.)

There was just one problem with Ryan's avid disavowal of Rand's philosophy, the intellectual leader of the GOP was on record with past comments just a little less fulltroated in terms of rejection. Stuff like:

"Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism."

That was one of his observations. And then there was this little testimonial:

“The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”

Back in 2003 Ryan had told the Weekly Standard, “I give out ‘Atlas Shrugged’ as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it. Well… I try to make my interns read it.” [Ha Ha Ha]

Maybe there's some droll witticism to giving an overlong atrociously written novel by an atheistic philosopher whose ideas are antithetical to your world view as Christmas presents to your interns — a philosopher famous for lines like "What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty" or "Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction."

If there is some clever comment of understated complexity there I have to admit the humor is too subtle for me to understand. It goes beyond irony to the level of the absurd in my view.

I guess I'll just have to shrug.

The months ahead should be interesting anyway.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The joke

When I was at work Friday one of my coworkers tried to make a joke of the Aurora Massacre, something deadpan about equating the mass killing with a really bad review for the movie that was showing. I brushed aside the remark and changed the subject. I wasn't ready to make light of the tragedy, but I wasn't going to get all holier than thou about it either. I can understand that humor is sometimes an instinctive reaction to horror we can't quite comprehend or soberly consider, without weeping.

What struck me a day later, as more and more news came in of the bloodshed —and predictably our media circus took up the topic, with gun control and gun rights activists dispatching their talking heads, images of candles and teardrenched hugs —what struck me was that one of the most pointed poignant expressions I saw came from The Onion News, usually such a great source of round farce.

The headline read : Sadly, Nation Knows Exactly How Colorado Shooting's Aftermath Will Play Out. And the story began:

WASHINGTON—Americans across the nation confirmed today that, unfortunately, due to their extreme familiarity with the type of tragedy that occurred in a Colorado movie theater last night, they sadly know exactly how the events following the horrific shooting of 12 people will unfold.

The joke here, if you'll pardon the expression, is that we have settled upon a pattern, that will repeat and repeat. "It's like clockwork," as the invented expert in the Onion report admits. Then he shakes his head and walks away.

According to the nation's citizenry, calls for a mature, thoughtful debate about the role of guns in American society started right on time, and should persist throughout the next week or so. However, the populace noted, the debate will soon spiral out of control and ultimately lead to nothing of any substance, a fact Americans everywhere acknowledged they felt "absolutely horrible" to be aware of.

Maybe this isn't the kind of humor that helps you avoid weeping.

I have heard it reported that the killer in Aurora fashioned himself as 'The Joker' as he arrived upon the scene of the latest Batman movie premiere. Some even thought in the first moments of the attack that the violence was not real —that it was only some promotional gimmick — a part of some live entertainment prepared especially for the premiere.

The Joker, imagine that.

I may not be as up on my DC Comics cosmology as some, but I do have a few indelibly etched images of 'The Joker' in mind. He's a character who has a sense of himself as someone deeply wronged and his consolation is violence, a violence he practices as something approaching an artform, always with a twist of irony to accompany the rage, so as to laugh rather than weep. The violence is meted out even on the well meaning he sees as foolish and futile, do-good hypocrites who haven't experienced the same soul emptying horror that he has. There is something hilarious in watching as they finally do. Nothing constructive mind you, but it's justice. Hilarious nihilistic justice.

And now reality and fantasy bleed into one another. From what news reports I've seen it doesn't appear that the young man who murdered all those people, who wounded and scarred so many more, had any real cause or point to make —other than the very fact that he was capable of such atrocity.

There's some irony in that, no?

That it might all have simply been this one horrific joke?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A song in mind for Woody

It was my freshmen year in high school and I was in English class. We were doing a segment on poetry and had come to study a selection of more contemporary works. The editors of our textbook (and my English teacher, Mrs. Ligon) wanted to show us that poetry was not some dead art from the past, stilted and fallen from its stilts, but rather that it was still a relevant form of expression to understand and appreciate. In among the poetry there were even some songs of somewhat recent issue: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen. (These were of somewhat recent issue when I was freshmen in high school I'm afraid.) I think Mrs. Ligon even brought out Paul Simon's 'I Am A Rock' and read it aloud to us, comparing it with John Donne's 'No Man Is An Island' which we had studied earlier.

But what I mean to consider here is this one particular song, by one particular writer. I don't believe we studied this one in the classroom, but it was there I was reading through the textbook and I came across it, 'Plane Wreck at Los Gatos' (Deportee) by Woody Guthrie. I'd heard just a fragment of the song only recently on the radio, I recognized that. My father had winced at the singers (Dylan and Baez) doing discordant harmonies and "singing about rotten vegetables" —as Dad put it.

But what really struck me, there in the classroom as I read the song lyrics, was the short footnote at the bottom of the page. It gave the story of how the song had come to be written, how Guthrie, back in 1948, had heard the radio reports and read the newspaper accounts of a tragic plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon in California. The crash had resulted in the deaths of 32 people, 4 American citizens and 28 migrant farm workers who were being deported from California back to Mexico. None of the migrant workers were named in the reports, only the flight crew and security guard —only the "real" Americans. As for the others, as Guthrrie said in his song, "the radio said they are just deportees."

I read the lyrics again. "The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'ning. The oranges piled in their creosote dumps." There was the part my dad had made light of. "They're flying them back to the Mexico Border to pay all their money to wade back again." This was the subtle more telling part. Who or what is flying who or what back? So you start with the workers juxtaposed with the crop itself, faceless objects on a par with the "oranges piled high in their creosote dumps" —but then the song does something amazing.

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't need names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"

This was my high school in the early 1970's and the '60's were just behind us. I'd heard about protest songs before and wondered about the form —what exactly was the point of politics that rhymed, that you sang, that got strummed along with on the guitar. (As you might have gathered it wasn't a genre greatly appreciated around my household.)

But 'Plane Wreck at Los Gatos' wasn't mere protest song. Or if it was protest, it was also something more. It struck me just then that this song didn't merely complain of the injustice and indignity of treating these "illegals" as nameless faceless objects who ended "scattered like dry leaves" lifeless on the canyon floor. The song pointed to and challenged that nameless fate —and changed it, with those names.

"Juan, Rosalita —adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria."

Something powerful happened for me in that moment, in my high school English class, as I quietly read to myself, as I took in the song and the stories behind the song. I suppose I appreciated something of that import of poetry and song that my teachers wanted me to gather in, but I was also forever changed in my perception of "illegals" —I learned something of the meaning in a name —the difference between a name and a label. I learned how words can be powerful and terrible, inspiring and sobering. To this day whenever I find myself involved in or witness to some abstract discussion about "immigration reform" and someone uses that term "illegals" something of that song sounds inside of me. I think of those names. I am that much reminded of their human faces. And I take that as a gift —and I thank Woody Guthrie.

This July 14th is Guthrie's 100th birthday. Maybe for some the day will be just another Bastille Day —a day for The Rights of Man and red wine and soft cheese —a day to pause in the summer heat, hoist the tricolor flag and harken to La Marseillaise.

Not so for me. There's another song I'll have in mind.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Thank you, gentlemen

Well the twenty foot stares in ten foot rooms have been the rule of the day for me, today. And it may be that way for me for a while. Sighs... long sighs. The other night, with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter of the seventh game, it all simply slipped away —like some small boat loosed from its mooring in a moving stream... with no one aboard.

It felt that helpless watching.

It was a heck of run though for our Boston Celtics. Despite the sad showing in Game Six and the sad result of Game Seven, I think it is only fair now if Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy makes a public show of eating every printed copy of the article he wrote two weeks ago dismissing Celtic chances against the daunting Miami Heat.

We gave them a run for their money.

Over the past couple of weeks I've really enjoyed watching the games and on occasion the thought has occurred to me that I shouldn't be so entirely dismissive of sports when I go off complaining about our flawed politics —descending to the level of mere sport. (That sounds like something I would say, right?)

There's actually some stuff I've noticed in following the Celtics that I wouldn't mind seeing a bit more of in our public life. Sure the rivalries can get heated, irrational hatreds can come to the fore. (Father forgive me my utter contempt for D-Wade.) But then there are statesmen like Doc Rivers who have the ability to step outside the rivalries and pay due respect... when it is indeed due. (Like for Lebron after Game Six). There's a level of respect there among the true seekers —an honesty about the rival contestant that doesn't for a second discount one's own integrity —dull one's own desire or diminish one's heart. Just the opposite.

Watch Doc's post game comments and tell me where you find something lacking.

And there are the moments like KG's pushups in Game Three. Slammed to the floor so hard in play beneath the basket —rather than howl in anger or protest, Garnett composed himself like he was in pres-season practice and he was doing those kinds of exercises you do for your coach and your team when learning something deep down is so important —to yourself —and to them. You could write a whole lot of words and never quite get the entirety of what those KG pushups said —to the Miama Heat, to his own Celtic team mates —to the Universe. That was some first class human being right there.

And now there's this feeling... sure it hurts. Losing sucks. But there's some lesson in it, too —about what cannot be lost —cannot be taken away —not if you bring it in the first place.

Thank you, gentlemen.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Indiana wants me... Lord, I cant go back there

I don't know much about Indiana, I've never been there. But chances are real good that pretty soon I'm going to start seeing appeals in my email, asking me (of all people) for money to fund a campaign for a Democratic senate candidate I've never heard of. You see Dick Lugar, six-term Republican Senator from the state of Indiana, has lost his primary election bid. The seat of his that had been something of a lock for him as an incumbent for 36 years is now in play. The "urgent" messages I am sure to receive will tell me "we" have a chance now to "pick up a seat" in the Senate.

That's how the sportscasters are seeing it.

There are several factors that all weigh in to all but guarantee that I won't be sending the DCCC any of my money. (First being that I ain't got none to send, but that doesn't feed my argument so much.) As I said, I could not even tell you the name of the Democratic candidate slated to run against Richard Mourdock (the fellow who beat Lugar). There are those that would tell me that I have the Democratic Party Platform as my guide to define his or her views, but I've said before and I will say again that what a party platform describes is an orientation, maybe an inclination. It does not define the candidate and his or her substance sight unseen. But perhaps the largest factor weighing against my sending the first or last dime to Indiana is the sad sinking feeling that I would be buying into the problem our politics face in this day and age, not contributing to a solution.

Reports are that one of the reasons Lugar lost his bid for his party's nomination is that upon the national stage he has been seen as entirely too moderate in his views, reasonable even. That is not to say he hasn't been a Republican with decidedly Conservative outlook, but there have been those occasions when he strayed from the entrenchments of convention, talked and even voted "across the aisle". This kind of behavior didn't sit well with the GOP's more extreme conservative base of activists and deep pockets. From all across the country money came in to support Richard Mourdock, and maybe to punish Richard Lugar.

And I have to agree with how Steve Kornacki writing for sees the resulting scene:

Lugar’s loss is a blow to the Senate not so much because he’ll be absent from it starting next January but because of the lesson that the Republicans who remain will take from it. The rules and traditions of the Senate, after all, have long encouraged senators to conduct themselves as Lugar has, remaining generally loyal to their party but also exercising individual prerogatives as they see fit. But the GOP’s conservative base has in the Obama-era risen up against this approach and launched a relentless campaign to turn the party’s Senate and House ranks into a uniform bloc of ideologically “pure” partisan warriors.

To be clear, this tendency is not something that limits itself to the GOP. I think it turns on the matter of money, on the nature of commercial grade politics (pun intended). Lugar may be lost to the Senate because moderation isn't quite as marketable as starkly partisan posture, but we've also seen the phenomena come to general elections. A Senator or Congressman who steps outside of the "uniform bloc" doesn't get the national level support, party operatives notice and suddenly the crosshairs are trained upon that "vulnerable seat."

Should we be surprised that our discourse dumbs down, when money is supposed as speech —and we're all asked to shout about what we don't even know?

I think Lugar himself points up the larger problem even as he talked about the particulars of his difference with the GOP rival who beat him out for his party's nomination:

He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party. His answer to the inevitable roadblocks he will encounter in Congress is merely to campaign for more Republicans who embrace the same partisan outlook.

What Lugar describes is a politics not premised upon debate, but upon contest. What he describes is democracy diminished. And we shouldn't expect anything better if we all practice it ourselves.

So in response, when the DCCC sends me their fund raising messages they can expect this from me in reply, "Indiana wants me? —but Lord, I can't..."

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Political Junkies Hitting the Books for March and April

Holliston DTC's Political Junkies Book Club has already taken on some challenging issues and thought provoking authors. Religion in politics with E.J. Dionne's "Souled Out" and the America's place in the Global Economy with Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum's "That Used To Be Us —we've had some interesting ideas to consider and some vigorous debate and discussion going on about where those ideas should lead. And we've had an enjoyable time in the process. With our next books selected it looks like we'll be headed for more of the same.

Our selection for March is Bill McKibben's "Eaarth" —a book with some promise to move beyond the sometimes seemingly fruitless debate about who is most to blame and on to the basic facts of climate change —even past the simple sounding of alarm —and on to the more pressing challenge of what now is to be done about it.

Here's how noted essayist Rebecca Solnit describes
Bill McKibben's "Eaarth":

"The terrifying premise with which this book begins is that we have, as in the old science fiction films and tales of half a century ago, landed on a harsh and unpredictable planet, all six billion of us. Climate change is already here, but Bill McKibben doesn’t stop with the bad news. He tours the best responses that are also already here, and these visions of a practical scientific solution are also sketches of a better, richer, more democratic civil society and everyday life. Eaarth is an astonishingly important book that will knock you down and pick you up."

Holliston DTC hosts these gathering, but all are welcome! Holliston's own Coffee Haven stocks "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).

Our March meeting will be held at the home of Maryanne Placentino at 125 Robert Road, Wednesday, March 28th at 7:00 pm. Please call Judy Gagnon, our book club committee chair, with questions at 508-429- 9852 or email

For those looking ahead to April we will be reading
"Republic Lost, How Money Corrupts Congress —and a plan to Stop it" by Lawrence Lessing.

"With heartfelt urgency and a keen desire for righting wrongs, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig takes a clear-eyed look at how we arrived at the current crisis... While America may be divided, Lessig vividly champions the idea that we can succeed if we accept that corruption is our common enemy and that we must find a way to fight against it. In REPUBLIC, LOST, he not only makes this need palpable and clear—he gives us the practical and intellectual tools to do something about it."

Come join us!

On big money wagers and the prevailing wind

We all remember the bet, right? It was a while back in the primary campaign in a GOP debate. Rival candidate Rick Perry of Texas was accusing Mitt Romney of redacting his past arguments about Massachusetts' example to the nation for healthcare insurance reform. Perry was offering that what Romney had once pointed to as an example and model for the nation he was now distancing himself from as policy. There had been the matter of some editing for emphasis between the hardcover and paperback versions of Romney's book. As was often the case with Good Old Governor Oops, Perry didn't quite have a real firm grasp of the facts. (There had indeed been some editing between the two releases but with not quite the utter reversal Perry was positing.) This was where Mitt pounced with his $10,000 bet. He knew he was right (in a very small way) he had Perry wrong with his facts (about the book anyway).

"So you wanna bet $10,000?"

Romney has been called "a master of the technicality" —and this is just one more example of how he has earned that distinction fair and square. Romney may have come off a little upper worldly bandying about that kind of dough on a dare, but he managed to beat Perry's larger point back with his bet. Romney was right about the careful rewrite of his own book. But as it turns out Perry was right about many faceted Mr. Mitt's change of face about —let's call it— Rom-Bam-na-Care.

These days the talk is of a recently unearthed relic, a 2009 USA Today editorial Romney wrote, which was of course, dutifully, roundly condemning Obama's approach to the Healthcare Insurance Reform Bill."Mr. President, What’s the Rush?" was his headline at the time. But also at that time —just as Governor Perry claimed in the subsequent debate— Romney was pointing to the very most controversial feature of 'RomneyCare' as an accomplishment the President should take as a model.

"Our experience also demonstrates that getting every citizen insured doesn't have to break the bank. First, we established incentives for those who were uninsured to buy insurance. Using tax penalties, as we did, or tax credits, as others have proposed, encourages "free riders" to take responsibility for themselves rather than pass their medical costs on to others. This doesn't cost the government a single dollar."

Excuse me, but this is the point Perry was trying to make way back when in the debate, that Romney had pointed to this particular policy of the individual mandate as a model for the country. Romney could accurately parse that he hadn't said so much in either copy of his book exactly. But mightn't it have been just little more candid of the guy to admit he had indeed done so writing an op-ed for the USA Today?

"Health care is simply too important to the economy, to employment and to America's families," Romney wrote, complaining of the "rushed" approach Congress and the administration were taking to healthcare reform back in 2009. "There's a better way. And the lessons we learned in Massachusetts could help Washington find it."

It takes a subtle mind to read what Romney wrote and not see him as advocating the Massachusetts approach as model. (More subtle than mine, I'm afraid.) And no one ever figured Rick Perry as a fellow with a subtle mind —so I have to ask, in all Solomonic fairness, cutting the baby in half —don't you think Mitt Romney owes Rick Perry at least $5K?

Ryan Grim, writing for Huffington Post, has another take on this same new old news:

The immediate reaction to Mitt Romney's 2009 USA Today op-ed on health care reform has zeroed in on his suggestion that President Barack Obama pursue an individual mandate. But that focus misses a broader problem the op-ed creates for the former Massachusetts governor.

Romney the campaigner has tried to make the most of his argument that his signature healthcare program and its approach are fine for state level policy. And that taken to the federal level he can join in in the chorus of 'Obamacare' condemnation.

But Romney's op-ed, published during the heat of the health care debate and recently unearthed by BuzzFeed, is squarely on the side of health care reform being driven by the federal government. In fact, the national plan that Romney sketched out as acceptable to conservatives closely resembles the one that Obama ultimately signed into law...

Indeed, Romney said in 2009 that Republicans would back the federal reform effort —under a few conditions.

"Republicans will join with the Democrats if the president abandons his government insurance plan, if he endeavors to craft a plan that does not burden the nation with greater debt, if he broadens his scope to reduce health costs for all Americans, and if he is willing to devote the rigorous effort, requisite time and bipartisan process that health care reform deserves," he wrote in the final paragraph of his op-ed.

The "rush" Romney complained of would turn out to be a 14 month process, where the conditions he outlined for bipartisan acceptance of the bill were ultimately met. Still he can't quite conjure the courage to defend the law. Instead he promises repeal day one of a Romney administration. Not sure how that works in terms of the constitution, but I suppose that kind of talk is fair and fine as far as political calculations go. It's just that neither people who are in agreement with what he is saying now or the people who might have bought what he was saying in 2009 should entertain the illusion that they would have in the person of Mitt Romney a president interested in leading on the issue of healthcare insurance reform. What they would have in Mitt Romney is just the guy in the picture I posted along with this piece: a guy pretending to lead and testing the wind with his finger.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Malice towards none

Well, Presidents Day is upon us and those so inclined might take a moment to look back at the presidents that the holiday is meant to commemorate. We might ask if there isn't some wisdom or instructive example in the history we could bring to bear on the current day.

My thoughts turn to Lincoln.

We've had some conversation —or at least some contentiousness— going on about matters of religious faith in our politics as of late. Some seek political traction in framing public policy debate as the proxy of some war upon religion immediately at hand, and of some larger longer cosmic contest as well. Without the slightest sense of irony, the President is accused by some of being a 'secret Muslim" and running a "secular Socialist machine" at the very same time. Just this past week Rick Santorum, a leading contender in the GOP field of prospective presidential candidates, was quoted characterizing President Obama's policies as based in "some phony theology —oh, not a theology based on the Bible— a different theology." Santorum had previously opined "America as we know it will cease to exist" unless we can remove the current occupant from the White House. He offers himself in service at this hour of our existential crisis.

As troubling as some might find such apocalyptic comments, what I find almost as troubling is the reaction these culture war callings manage to elicit from warriors of the opposing number. We are told that candidates like Santorum do indeed speak for the religious in this country —for Catholics and Evangelicals— and that these are by definition narrow thinking bigoted folk —best to be defeated in an election contest, rather than reasoned with in any considered and constructive debate.

I find that answer every bit as disturbing as the insult it responds to.

What with these theological themes astir in the current debate, and on a Presidents Day weekend, I couldn't help but be reminded of Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural address. Lincoln gave the speech just a month before the Civil War —and his own life— came to an end. That March day in 1865 it seemed all but certain that the war would conclude with the Union preserved. Yet Lincoln's tone wasn't a triumphal one. He looked to the future with hope, but also across the past with grief. He saw the war as something chosen by those who had wished to dissolve the Union and those who had wanted to preserve it, both. He saw the pain of it borne by both and he recognized that...

"Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."

Believing in the Union as he did, Lincoln was positing that one side wasn't about to defeat or win out over the other. Rather, for the public he addressed that day, he framed the terrible war all but behind them as God's judgement upon the both sides, upon the lot of us.

"Fondly do we hope —fervently do we pray— that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue," he said, it would continue " still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'"

Some might see this rhetoric as a clever construction by a challenged political leader —one who had won himself an election and another term, one who had led a successful war effort to preserve the Union, but who still faced enormous challenge. On some level I am sure that is true. But on another level this language appeals to a wisdom beyond the practical realities of political conflict or even civil war. There is a profound humility and insight being expressed, a realization that neither side could claim God's endorsement in the campaign. And each must humbly accept the judgement.

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in..."

Maybe the work never is truly "finished" —but still not bad advice, I'd say.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Are you one, too?

"I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat."

~ Will Rogers

Every one has heard that quote, a little piece of self deprecating humor dating back to the 1930's, to a time not so unlike the present when the country faced economic hard times and the world seemed suddenly small and dangerous. Rogers was a humorist of those times. He used to play up his down-to-earth cowboy persona for comic effect, sharing sardonic observation about politics and society, and the occasional rope trick. With that quip about his own party affiliation Rogers no doubt remarked upon the fact that there were Democrats with different ideas about what to do in the face of challenge.

But remembering Rogers' remark, it's also worth remembering what we managed to accomplish with that "no organized political party." Let's see, there was the small matter of The New Deal... the formation of Social Secuty, the FDIC and SEC, the votes to create a federal minimum wage, guarantee overtime compensation and ban child labor. There was working our way out of the Great Depression and facing world wide armed conflict of a scale never before or since seen.

Not bad for a bunch of disorganized Democrats.

And that was just the Democrats Will Rogers was complaining about. Come to think of it, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Voting Rights Act of 1965 were both the products of "no organized party" —of Democratic majorities in Congress and Democratic presidents in the White House. So was The GI Bill, the formation of Medicare and Medicaid and The Fair Housing Act. Then there's the affordable Care Act of 2010.

You see it turns out, there's actually some worthwhile stuff that comes of bringing people with different ideas together. 2012 seems like it might be a really good time to do so again.

The first important step in that process comes soon with us calling on all local Democrats to attend The Holliston Democratic Caucus, where we will elect our community's delegates to the state's Democratic Party Convention, June 2nd in Springfield. There are a total of eight delegate positions to be filled, as well as alternate seats and information about special at large delegate participation we will be sharing.

The date and time for the Caucus is 10 AM, Saturday, February 11th at Holliston Town Hall's Selectmen's Meeting Room. Please arrive early, we need to close the doors at 10:15 to commence voting. All registered Democrats are invited to participate, be they organized or not. The event is handicapped accessible.

Join us.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Consensus... imagine that.

Comments on President Obama's recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by one very likely candidate for the U.S. Senate for Massachusetts in 2012:

"I support President Obama's appointment today of Richard Cordray to head the CFPB. I believe he is the right person to lead the agency and help protect consumers from fraud and scams. While I would have strongly preferred that it go through the normal confirmation process, unfortunately the system is completely broken. If we're going to make progress as a nation, both parties in Washington need to work together to end the procedural gridlock and hyper-partisanship."

Comments on the same subject from the other very likely candidate for the U.S. Senate for Massachusetts in 2012:

"The President made every effort to present a candidate for a Senate vote, but he was right not to let Senate Republicans block full implementation of the consumer agency. Senate Republicans will surely complain about the recess appointment, but their refusal to allow an up or down vote on Cordray's nomination is just another example of the political games in Washington that must end."

Notice anything?

I think what's being described here is a... c-c-c-consensus.

Of course around the blogosphere and in the hothouse climate of current day political opinion we're hearing those who take a somewhat different tack on The President's recess appointment of Mr. Cordray. Maybe this citing of these remarks —this consensus— is meant as something of a rebuttal to the howls of indignation and calls for impeachment, but I think it is also interesting on another angle.

Imagine a political campaign, in this day and age, where the rival candidates from opposing political parties actually might have the audacity to agree with one another.

I was having a conversation just this past evening with some politically active friends of mine. Democrats. A couple of us had seen Elizabeth Warren speak in Franklin Monday night and were very excited about the prospect her candidacy. I've seen the candidate's stump speech a couple times now, myself and I still found her compelling. But I don't mean to recount Ms. Warrens's speech with this particular post. What I want to note is that what I most appreciate about Professor Warren's candidacy is the fact that her campaign appears to be about something, about substantive ideas and practical ideals that she seeks to advocate and advance. It is not simply a contest for her I don't think. It is not a campaign about how to defeat Scott Brown.

Warren describes her own career as something made possible by a vision of this country as a place of opportunity. She notes that this was a shared vision that was actually actively enabled and advanced by deliberate public policy through much of the last century. She also has a sense of when and where we started walking back from that notion of expanding opportunity for working people and middle class families. She wants to reverse that trend. She proudly points to the work she did to help found the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as a part of that activism. I take heart when I hear Senator Brown giving that work its due respect as well.

Make no mistake, we aren't likely to have an election contest for "the people's seat" in the U.S. Senate that doesn't involve politics in its uglier aspects. We've already seen the PAC funded political ads that paint Professor Warren as a freakish radical anarchist bent on the destruction of free market capitalism —and— we've seen the ads that paint Senator Brown as the darling of crony bankers who intend to rape the environment and smother our children, all the while feathering their fetid nests. But with little scenes like this one here I am trying to applaud, there might be the possibility of another kind of contest, a better debate where at least certain of the tasks and goals of government are agreed upon and we manage a candid constructive conversation about how best to get there.

Imagine that.