Thursday, February 26, 2009
Any time you mix hard times with race or ethnicity, what you end up with is the potential for scapegoating. Somehow, in order to empower themselves, people blame, mock and attack others, simply because of the group they belong to.
Ironically, it has not been society's dis-empowered who have made the news recently. Instead, public individuals who hold considerable power have done or said things that have come into the racist/anti-Semitic spotlight. These acts have occurred all too regularly to be isolated incidents and must be considered scapegoating.
Typically, scapegoating comes from a sense of anger and frustration. Targeting scapegoats, using racist or anti-Semitic language or acts to take revenge upon the targeted group, ebbs and flows at the popular level. We have been in an era where educated and powerful in our society have increasingly repudiated such expression. However, if we are not careful and vigilant, we are seeing an increased amount of pointing at scapegoats, in a way that is often disguised through the strategy of "Innocent Ignorance" by those same educated and powerful individuals in our society.
For two months, Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson has been in the news after Pope Benedict XVI lifted Williamson's excommunication. Williamson, it is crucial to note, is a holocaust denier. Somehow the Pope was simply hoping the world wouldn't notice. Jewish and other human rights organizations expressed their outrage at such a papal move. Then, suddenly, the Pope began to put pressure on the Bishop to recant his "research."
It took until today for the Bishop to make a formal apology. It is wonderful that Williamson finally apologized after many years of denying the holocaust. But, why did it take so long? And, why didn't the Pope vet Williamson before lifting the excommunication? Because the Jews are scapegoats. As Abe Foxman, Director of the Anti-Defamation League, stated, "One of the constant classics of anti-Semitism is Jews and money. When an economic crisis comes, you look for whom to blame." [Italics mine]
Two easily-targeted groups in America are Jews and African-Americans. If you followed the link for the Foxman ADL quote, you might say, "Well, that took place in Venezuela." Indeed, in her article, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Trudy Rubin did focus initially on the attack on a synagogue in Caracas. It was trashed, defaced, and computers were stolen, with lists of Jewish members on the hard drives. Anti-Semite Hugo Chavez, of course, blamed it all on Israeli intelligence. By the end of her piece, Rubin warns her readers of the potential for broadening scapegoating.
Was that an over-reaction? No. Anti-Semitism in the United States is growing. An example occurred in the Klein, Texas High School newspaper, the Klein Bearchat. A person of power, a teacher, allowed an anti-semitic article and an editorial to be published on January 30th. How could this happen? There are only 10-15 Jews among the 3000 students in the school. The only answer can be scapegoating.
During an economic crisis, there is no need to be careful and to teach young people properly. It's easier to let things slide. No one will know, particularly since it's a minority of people who care. And the strategy of Innocent Ignorance can be used to explain away the whole incident.
Unfortunately, the pattern is growing for African Americans also being targeted. The infamous New York Post chimpanzee cartoon is the first example. Fortunately, the Post offered an apology. Unfortunately, it was couched in terms of Innocent Ignorance. The wording included, "It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill. Period. But it has been taken as something else - as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism. This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize."
New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote a blog piece today, "Not Yet Human," reminding us of the history of psychology in engraving racism into our social psyche. The Post and Sean Delonas, the cartoonist, pretended not to be aware of any of the stereotypically racist images from our past. How convenient, instead, to use Innocent Ignorance.
The mayor of Los Alamitos, California mayor, Dean Grose, sent out an email with a fake photo of the White House with watermelons on the front lawn. The caption read, "No Easter Egg hunt this year." Once the mayor was informed of the offensive, racist interpretation of the email, he suddenly apologized by saying, "“It was just poor judgment on my part and I am deeply sorry.” Ah, yes, Innocent Ignorance. Once again.
Unfortunately, racism does not always appear through such supposedly "vague" means. Diversity, Inc. documents public displays of nooses on its Noose Watch map. In the last two years, seventy-eight reported incidents have occurred in the U.S. The vicious symbol of the noose is still too freely used.
Barack Obama was elected with sixty-seven million votes, 53 percent of the voters. Yet, each day in the news, Republicans - including powerful Alabama Senator Richard Shelby - drop hints that Obama should not be President because he is not an American citizen. In this manner, they plug into xenophobic and racist tendencies in our society. Always next day, the Republican official, of course, backs away and feigns innocence. "Oh, no, that's not what I meant to day." Voila, no harm, no foul. Innocent Ignorance employed.
But the seed has been planted. The scapegoat has been identified. In the Germany of the 1930's, the same seeds of distrust and hatred sown during difficult economic times led to Kristallnacht.
It could never happen here! Right? I wish I could remain totally optimistic and say, "No, of course not." Yet, I can't because I see the use of scapegoating gradually increasing.
I worry most about the children. Children easily learn to follow what they see and hear around them. What I've learned, however, is that adults tend to follow, as well. They see what is and is not acceptable. And those in power are the ones who lead in positive ways and negative, in how to be racist and how to appear not to be.
In these very difficult economic times, we must call out anti-Semitism and racism wherever we see them. We must not accept the Ignorant Innocence from anyone, especially the disingenuous powerful. And, if we don't stand against racism and the scapegoating growing around us, we deserve the "cowards" moniker Eric Holder gave us -- as well as the dire consequences that may follow.
Friday, February 20, 2009
Indeed, in just the last few days three controversies about race took center stage. The New York Post published a cartoon mocking President Obama over his economic stimulus and comparing him to a chimpanzee. This morning U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D, SC) stated that the refusal of federal stimulus funds by a group of southern governors is "a slap in the face" of African Americans in those states. Sandwiched in between Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney General, gave a speech in which he referred to Americans as a "nation of cowards" when it comes to discussing the topic of race.
As evidenced by the heated exchanges on news programs and angry retorts on editorial pages and in the blogs, none of these three cases has been easy for America to deal with. We have seen ugly, racist stereotypes (the cartoon) and systemic injustices (the refusal to spend stimulus funds in states where African Americans are disproportionately impoverished) resurface, and personal hurt and anger have followed. Once again , white and black fingers have pointed back and forth.
It is clear that the cartoon was racist - and to a certain extent the Post apologized - but only to those who were offended and not intent on taking revenge against them. Sure, there are some folks who would say that the cartoon was not meant to be racist, but the Post's "apology" is nothing but a smoke screen for continued racism.
Clyburn's concern, however, hits closer one of the central issues Holder was getting at, that of the history of race in America. The governors who so far are refusing the stimulus funds have stepped into a racial quagmire by forcing their political ideology upon the systemic historic racism endemic to the south.
Can we discuss the racial issues that persist within the fabric of our American society? Do we avoid these discussions? Do we react defensively?
Oh, how we personalize critique. I am a white man and have had to look inside of myself in looking at the question of power within our society. I have had to work hard to understand that who I am allows me to hold advantage for who I am - white, male, straight, middle-aged, etc.
Too often, white middle-aged men, especially on the news, are asked to respond to questions of race. All to often, they personalize the concern. We white men often take controversial statements personally. The gamut of negative responses to Holder's speech is here, here, and here. What we need to do is take a step back and attempt to develop a broader, deeper understanding of race and power in America.
So, are we a "nation of cowards"? I'd like to look at that for a moment. In order to do so, I would like look beyond that phrase and get a fuller understanding of Holder's speech.
Holder's speech focuses us on the entire discussion around race, as well as offers potential solutions to our racial conundrum. Yes, he referred to us as a "nation of cowards." But, let's look at why he says that. I find three primary terms - education,dialogue, and segregation - as potential elements within a solution to the problem of our ignorance surrounding race, as well as to the question of "cowardice."
Education is the grounding factor of Holder's speech. He is saying that we must no longer leave African American history on the sidelines. It is only through the study and understanding of the history of race in America that everyone, of any ethnic background, can gain a full understanding of who we are as Americans.
It takes courage to make the curricular changes necessary for this to occur because it requires more than just changing textbooks. It means changing the mind set of educational communities, administration, teachers, parents and students. Everyone would need to be brought into the process of making changes. Ultimately, part of the most difficult changes would come during teacher training, sessions that would guide teachers in how to talk about race openly and sensitively, as well how to guide their students in a similar process.
Historically, we have avoided this process. Why? Is there a true philosophical approach here? No, it's because of ignorance and cowardice. Pure and simple, it's hard. Holder is saying: "No cowards need apply." It would be difficult, but it could certainly be done with determination and courage.
Such a process could open up dialogue across communities, both geographically and racially. As this courageous conversation develops and especially as children become increasingly open to such dialogue, it becomes more natural and normal to talk about race. Once people from different races start to test their new skills out with one another, they will begin to see that instead of fearing or demeaning such conversation, they will understand that it can be transformational, on both a personal and group level.
Ultimately, this addresses the problem of self-segregation. Once people become more comfortable with one another, they will find ways to socialize and perhaps live near one another. Again, this requires courage, not cowardice. It would involved risk taking and a changed view of what the future entails for oneself and for ones family.
So, in the end, what do Holder's words mean? Let's look beyond the words "nation of cowards" to find that he is ultimately evoking a need for a new courage in our country. And once that courage, the rejection of cowardice, takes hold, our society has a chance of changing, moving into a new era of race in America.
What term would I have used - coward or courage? Unfortunately, it depends on my level of motivation. I would have probably avoided "coward" and used "courage." But I completely understand Eric Holder's use of the word "coward." He wanted to be provocative; I am less so, and can afford to be. He wanted to push the dialogue towards seeking a new modus operandi in our schools, homes and society.
And if we are unwilling to take risks, go beyond fear and emotions, and open ourselves to new personal and societal possibilities, we will, indeed, end up being - as we have been for far too long - a nation of cowards.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Attorney General Eric Holder at the Department of Justice African American History Month Program
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Every year, in February, we attempt to recognize and to appreciate black history. It is a worthwhile endeavor for the contributions of African Americans to this great nation are numerous and significant. Even as we fight a war against terrorism, deal with the reality of electing an African American as our President for the first time and deal with the other significant issues of the day, the need to confront our racial past, and our racial present, and to understand the history of African people in this country, endures. One cannot truly understand America without understanding the historical experience of black people in this nation. Simply put, to get to the heart of this country one must examine its racial soul.
Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation’s history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us. But we must do more- and we in this room bear a special responsibility. Through its work and through its example this Department of Justice, as long as I am here, must - and will - lead the nation to the "new birth of freedom" so long ago promised by our greatest President. This is our duty and our solemn obligation.
We commemorated five years ago, the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. And though the world in which we now live is fundamentally different than that which existed then, this nation has still not come to grips with its racial past nor has it been willing to contemplate, in a truly meaningful way, the diverse future it is fated to have. To our detriment, this is typical of the way in which this nation deals with issues of race. And so I would suggest that we use February of every year to not only commemorate black history but also to foster a period of dialogue among the races. This is admittedly an artificial device to generate discussion that should come more naturally, but our history is such that we must find ways to force ourselves to confront that which we have become expert at avoiding.
As a nation we have done a pretty good job in melding the races in the workplace. We work with one another, lunch together and, when the event is at the workplace during work hours or shortly thereafter, we socialize with one another fairly well, irrespective of race. And yet even this interaction operates within certain limitations. We know, by "American instinct" and by learned behavior, that certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks, at best embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character. And outside the workplace the situation is even more bleak in that there is almost no significant interaction between us. On Saturdays and Sundays America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some fifty years ago. This is truly sad. Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated.
As a nation we should use Black History month as a means to deal with this continuing problem. By creating what will admittedly be, at first, artificial opportunities to engage one another we can hasten the day when the dream of individual, character based, acceptance can actually be realized. To respect one another we must have a basic understanding of one another. And so we should use events such as this to not only learn more about the facts of black history but also to learn more about each other. This will be, at first, a process that is both awkward and painful but the rewards are potentially great. The alternative is to allow to continue the polite, restrained mixing that now passes as meaningful interaction but that accomplishes little. Imagine if you will situations where people- regardless of their skin color- could confront racial issues freely and without fear. The potential of this country, that is becoming increasingly diverse, would be greatly enhanced. I fear however, that we are taking steps that, rather than advancing us as a nation are actually dividing us even further. We still speak too much of "them" and not "us". There can, for instance, be very legitimate debate about the question of affirmative action. This debate can, and should, be nuanced, principled and spirited. But the conversation that we now engage in as a nation on this and other racial subjects is too often simplistic and left to those on the extremes who are not hesitant to use these issues to advance nothing more than their own, narrow self interest. Our history has demonstrated that the vast majority of Americans are uncomfortable with, and would like to not have to deal with, racial matters and that is why those, black or white, elected or self-appointed, who promise relief in easy, quick solutions, no matter how divisive, are embraced. We are then free to retreat to our race protected cocoons where much is comfortable and where progress is not really made. If we allow this attitude to persist in the face of the most significant demographic changes that this nation has ever confronted- and remember, there will be no majority race in America in about fifty years- the coming diversity that could be such a powerful, positive force will, instead, become a reason for stagnation and polarization. We cannot allow this to happen and one way to prevent such an unwelcome outcome is to engage one another more routinely- and to do so now.
As I indicated before, the artificial device that is Black History month is a perfect vehicle for the beginnings of such a dialogue. And so I urge all of you to use the opportunity of this month to talk with your friends and co-workers on the other side of the divide about racial matters. In this way we can hasten the day when we truly become one America.
It is also clear that if we are to better understand one another the study of black history is essential because the history of black America and the history of this nation are inextricably tied to each other. It is for this reason that the study of black history is important to everyone- black or white. For example, the history of the United States in the nineteenth century revolves around a resolution of the question of how America was going to deal with its black inhabitants. The great debates of that era and the war that was ultimately fought are all centered around the issue of, initially, slavery and then the reconstruction of the vanquished region. A dominant domestic issue throughout the twentieth century was, again, America's treatment of its black citizens. The civil rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's changed America in truly fundamental ways. Americans of all colors were forced to examine basic beliefs and long held views. Even so, most people, who are not conversant with history, still do not really comprehend the way in which that movement transformed America. In racial terms the country that existed before the civil rights struggle is almost unrecognizable to us today. Separate public facilities, separate entrances, poll taxes, legal discrimination, forced labor, in essence an American apartheid, all were part of an America that the movement destroyed. To attend her state’s taxpayer supported college in 1963 my late sister in law had to be escorted to class by United States Marshals and past the state’s governor, George Wallace. That frightening reality seems almost unthinkable to us now. The civil rights movement made America, if not perfect, better.
In addition, the other major social movements of the latter half of the twentieth century- feminism, the nation's treatment of other minority groups, even the anti-war effort- were all tied in some way to the spirit that was set free by the quest for African American equality. Those other movements may have occurred in the absence of the civil rights struggle but the fight for black equality came first and helped to shape the way in which other groups of people came to think of themselves and to raise their desire for equal treatment. Further, many of the tactics that were used by these other groups were developed in the civil rights movement.
And today the link between the black experience and this country is still evident. While the problems that continue to afflict the black community may be more severe, they are an indication of where the rest of the nation may be if corrective measures are not taken. Our inner cities are still too conversant with crime but the level of fear generated by that crime, now found in once quiet, and now electronically padlocked suburbs is alarming and further demonstrates that our past, present and future are linked. It is not safe for this nation to assume that the unaddressed social problems in the poorest parts of our country can be isolated and will not ultimately affect the larger society.
Black history is extremely important because it is American history. Given this, it is in some ways sad that there is a need for a black history month. Though we are all enlarged by our study and knowledge of the roles played by blacks in American history, and though there is a crying need for all of us to know and acknowledge the contributions of black America, a black history month is a testament to the problem that has afflicted blacks throughout our stay in this country. Black history is given a separate, and clearly not equal, treatment by our society in general and by our educational institutions in particular. As a former American history major I am struck by the fact that such a major part of our national story has been divorced from the whole. In law, culture, science, athletics, industry and other fields, knowledge of the roles played by blacks is critical to an understanding of the American experiment. For too long we have been too willing to segregate the study of black history. There is clearly a need at present for a device that focuses the attention of the country on the study of the history of its black citizens. But we must endeavor to integrate black history into our culture and into our curriculums in ways in which it has never occurred before so that the study of black history, and a recognition of the contributions of black Americans, become commonplace. Until that time, Black History Month must remain an important, vital concept. But we have to recognize that until black history is included in the standard curriculum in our schools and becomes a regular part of all our lives, it will be viewed as a novelty, relatively unimportant and not as weighty as so called "real" American history.
I, like many in my generation, have been fortunate in my life and have had a great number of wonderful opportunities. Some may consider me to be a part of black history. But we do a great disservice to the concept of black history recognition if we fail to understand that any success that I have had, cannot be viewed in isolation. I stood, and stand, on the shoulders of many other black Americans. Admittedly, the identities of some of these people, through the passage of time, have become lost to us- the men, and women, who labored long in fields, who were later legally and systemically discriminated against, who were lynched by the hundreds in the century just past and those others who have been too long denied the fruits of our great American culture. The names of too many of these people, these heroes and heroines, are lost to us. But the names of others of these people should strike a resonant chord in the historical ear of all in our nation: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Walter White, Langston Hughes, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Charles Drew, Paul Robeson, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Vivian Malone, Rosa Parks, Marion Anderson, Emmit Till. These are just some of the people who should be generally recognized and are just some of the people to whom all of us, black and white, owe such a debt of gratitude. It is on their broad shoulders that I stand as I hope that others will some day stand on my more narrow ones.
Black history is a subject worthy of study by all our nation's people. Blacks have played a unique, productive role in the development of America. Perhaps the greatest strength of the United States is the diversity of its people and to truly understand this country one must have knowledge of its constituent parts. But an unstudied, not discussed and ultimately misunderstood diversity can become a divisive force. An appreciation of the unique black past, acquired through the study of black history, will help lead to understanding and true compassion in the present, where it is still so sorely needed, and to a future where all of our people are truly valued.
At this time, I am in the midst of recuperating from surgery. Until I'm feeling better, I won't be able to put time or energy into a new article. Nonetheless, with Roland Burris back in the news again, I'd like to share at previous post, in which I quoted Jerry McGuire, "Show me the money!"
Former Illinois Governor Rod Blogojevich has since been impeached and removed from office. He has not yet been found guilty in a court of law, though. Well, have they found "the money" on Burris now? Did Burris lie regarding contact with Blogojevich staff or family and was there a pay to play approach to getting his senate position? If he did make that contact and if he was named to the senate position through questionable means, will he be removed from office? Remember, it take a 2/3 vote to do so. We'll see in the days ahead what ultimately happens.
Maybe by then, I'll be back up and on my feet...
B & B: The Masters of Hardball
Jan. 12. 2009
Today Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader confirmed Roland Burris's designation to the U. S. Senate: "The Secretary of the Senate has determined that the new credentials presented today on behalf of Mr. Burris now satisfy Senate Rules and validate his appointment to the vacant Illinois Senate seat. In addition, as we requested, Mr. Burris has provided sworn testimony before the Illinois House Committee on Impeachment regarding the circumstances of his appointment.
"We have spoken to Mr. Burris to let him know that he is now the Senator-designate from Illinois and as such, will be accorded all the rights and privileges of a Senator-elect. Accordingly, barring objections from Senate Republicans, we expect Senator-designee Burris to be sworn in and formally seated later this week. We are working with him and the office of the Vice President to determine the date and time of the swearing-in. We congratulate Senator-designee Burris on his appointment, and we look forward to working with him in the 111th Congress."
This is exactly what I anticipated a few days ago. In that recent post I said he would be seated in the Senate, in spite of what most pundits were saying. Of course, what tilted things in Burris's favor was the law, not public and political opinion.
Now it'll be interesting to see what happens to Governor Rod Blagojevich. The bad boy of Illinois will see his day in court. I'd love to see the evidence against him, but it seems to so far, that what he's guilty of is (1) a potty mouth, and (2) saying he was going to do some illegal things, including something fairly out of line - selling the seat of former senator Barack Obama.
To quote the movie Jerry McGuire, "Show me the money!!" If the feds don't have the goods, Bad Boy Blago will walk. He'll then continue as the governor of Illinois until his term is finished.
Remember, B & B took politicians and pundits alike "to school." They have, thus far, shown themselves to be the teachers - the masters of hardball politics. I particularly don't like or respect Blagojevich, but when all is said and done he beat everyone at their own game.
As for Burris, it's his job now to roll up his sleeves and work hard to get our new president's agenda through the Senate.
I must say that after all the rigamarole in recent days, I'm looking forward to it.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
In yesterday's post, Republicans Are the Rival Team, I outlined steps we need to take to make sure Republicans don't swindle themselves back into a position of power. Today, I am pleased to share with you a piece that comes from Joan Walsh, Editor in Chief of Salon.com. Joan is both a wise and passionate journalist and an unabashed liberal, a champion for all Americans, especially the poor and dispossessed. We should certainly heed her voice in the months and years ahead.
Joan's article was published two days ago, on February 13th, before the Senate passed the stimulus bill. It complements my urging Progressives to remain loyal to Obama by urging the President to remain loyal to his progressive base. In other words, the question of loyalty is a two-way street, especially in a time when true bipartisanship has become so problematic.
Joan was very gracious in giving me permission to reprint her article in its entirety. Thank you, Joan, for allowing me to do so.
And you, Dear Reader, enjoy!
Friday February 13, 2009 17:15 EST
It shouldn't have been a shock that the stimulus bill got zero Republican votes in the House, but I was a little surprised anyway. There had been talk about somewhere between six and 12 GOP members in Obama-supporting districts bucking their party, and Salon's Mike Madden reports that even the House leadership didn't expect to hold its caucus without any dissent.
Of course the bill passed the Democrat-controlled House overwhelmingly anyway, but I imagine House Minority Leader John Boehner will have a giddier Friday night than speaker Nancy Pelosi. Party on, John!
The bill is still expected to pass the Senate tonight, but with ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy unable to return for a second vote, it may only get 60 votes -- and that's if Sen. Sherrod Brown makes it back early from attending his mother's funeral. As Atrios noted today, "You'd think in that backslapping love nest known as the US Senate, a Republican or two might tell Sherrod Brown that he doesn't have to rush back from his mother's funeral." But no. It's still possible, though unlikely, that one of three GOP Senate apostates who've supported the stimulus compromise could get cold feet. Obama will probably get the bill to his desk, but what will he have learned?
He better have learned that Washington bipartisanship is dead. If he hadn't already, he surely got the lesson last night, when GOP Sen. Judd Gregg publicly humiliated the president by withdrawing his bid to be Commerce secretary. Gregg, who'd voted to abolish his own agency but then lobbied Obama to get the job, had no business in this administration to begin with. But his disrespect for Obama, on a day that might have been hailed as a great victory with a House-Senate deal on the stimulus, was still shocking.
Nothing about Obama's policies changed between the time Gregg said yes and then suddenly said no. He recently backed a stimulus bill along the lines of the House-Senate compromise: "We need a robust one," Judd said after he was chosen last week. "I think the one that's pending is in the range we need. I do believe it's a good idea to do it at two levels, which this bill basically does, which is immediate stimulus and long-term initiatives which actually improve our competitiveness and our productivity." Then he rewarded Obama for reaching across the aisle with a political slap in the face. Classy.
Obama took political and economic risks trying to get Republican votes for his stimulus plan. His willingness to compromise by cutting spending and including massive tax cuts, most notably by reforming the alternative minimum tax, means the bill will be less stimulative than it should be. And even with those compromises, he still got almost zero GOP support. As he himself said in Fort Myers, Fla., this week, "You didn't send me to Washington to do nothing!" But if he continues to let Republicans shape his initiatives, and then obstruct even his attempts at compromise, that's exactly what he'll accomplish: nothing.
The compromise stimulus is probably better than nothing, with its expansion of food stamps and unemployment benefits, its tax rebates for low-income workers, aid to states and cities and billions for infrastructure projects. But it won't be as effective as a bigger spending bill would have been, and let's hope Obama doesn't come to regret how much he gave Republicans to get so little.
I still think it's possible Obama will earn some political capital among Republicans and independents outside of Washington with his efforts to reach across the aisle (yes, I also love puppies and kittens and romantic movies with happy endings). I enjoyed the symbolism of his hosting rollicking town halls in Elkhart, Ind. and Fort Myers., even though they didn't vote for him in November. That was actually the essence of his bipartisan approach during the campaign. A year ago, in Manchester, N.H., I noted the way he distinguished between Republican ideologues and Republican voters in his standard stump speech:
Acknowledging that "Republican operatives" will work to defeat his plans, he explained, "I'm more interested in Republicans and independents outside of Washington. We can reach out and create a working majority," and he added: "I'm in this race to win an election, but also to govern."
Well, he won the election with a few Republican votes (9 percent of GOP voters backed him, to John Kerry's 6 percent in 2004), but Washington Republicans are clearly going to make it hard for him to govern. GOP leaders are playing a game of chicken with Obama, and with the economy, by bucking a desperately needed stimulus package backed by a popular, newly elected president at a time of national emergency. They believe opposing Obama and his plans is the route back to power. I'm willing to grant that some Republican Congress members genuinely believe the stimulus is too expensive, but a lot of them voted against this bill because they put party loyalty ahead of the country. Let's hope more Republican voters reward Obama's faith in them by punishing GOP obstructionists in 2010.
In the meantime, let's hope Obama rewards Democrats' faith in him by being tougher on the GOP, by fighting harder for the policies and programs he believes will make a difference, not compromising their effectiveness for the sake of a handful of votes. Obama's party has only controlled the White House for 12 out of the last 40 years because Democrats routinely fail to deliver on their promises to voters (and also, paradoxically, because Lyndon Johnson did deliver on his civil rights promises, and left the door open to a racially divisive "Southern Strategy" that finally failed to work in 2008). He's a quick study; I assume he'll see what's gone on and change course. But if he doesn't, liberals need to remind him who elected him, and why. Judd Gregg sure as hell wasn't change we can believe in.
Saturday, February 14, 2009
Yesterday afternoon, the House passed the bill with, again, nary a Republican supporter. In the Senate, Ted Kennedy was too ill to travel back from Florida, so Sherrod Brown of Ohio had to return late from his mother's funeral to cast the 60th Aye vote. Three Republicans - Susan Collins and Olympia Snow of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania - crossed over and provided the necessary bipartisan support to move the bill onto Obama's desk for signing.
In the past few days, we've also had a chance to celebrate the 200th birthday of two champions from the past: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. "On the Origin of Species," Darwin's scientific masterpiece, gave the world the paradigm of 'natural selection,' - or 'evolution' - which has since caused an incredible clamor in many corners of society. Indeed, Gallup recently found that only 39% of Americans believe in evolution.
Nonetheless, Darwin's thought and work not only gave us a model for understanding where we came from, but they also provided modern scientists the conceptual framework to create new vaccines and other medicines that prevent so many of us from suffering.
We celebrated Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday not because of an invention or discovery but because of who he was. As our 16th president, he is remembered for being the Great Emancipator, as well as for refusing to accept the destruction of our country. He saved the union and, yet, after the Civil War refused to punish those fought for the South.
Lincoln was also a unifier by bringing together a Team of Rivals, a cabinet of diverse opponents, who ultimately served him well. Through much turmoil, Lincoln gave of himself in the service of his country and, in many ways, we enjoy our existence to his presidency and who he was an individual.
President Obama has, indeed, modeled his presidency after Lincoln, bringing in a wide range of individuals to serve in his cabinet. He has also reached out, attempting to build a bipartisan collection of Congressional supporters.
Unfortunately, Obama's extended hand - offered to build mutual effort - has been bloodied by Republicans in the process. The surprise of Republican Judd Gregg removing his name from the nomination for Secretary of Commerce and with the unbending GOP front have put Obama's bipartisan efforts into question.
Obama has to think less in terms of Lincoln's notion of a Team of Rivals and more in terms of Rival Teams. What the President urgently needs now, once his cabinet is completed, is a foundation of loyalty that will support him in the difficult days ahead. He needs a body of individuals that will keep an eye on him, challenge him when necessary and yet protect him from destructive forces around him.
Like the Secret Service watches for his physical safety, Obama's White House team must watch his political back. America is now heading into dangerous times in so many ways: economically, militarily, socially, and politically. Although the Republicans talk about wanting to work in a bipartisan fashion, all they have done up to now is chop the President off at the knees. As Rush Limbaugh has suggested, Republicans ultimately want to see Obama and his presidency fail.
So, Obama had better watch himself and lose his naivete. The Republicans are desperate, they're losing their influence all over the country and are on the verge of extinction. Although the vast majority of them do not believe in Darwin's principles of evolution, they know in their gut that they are a part of the evolutionary process as a political party. And it don't look pretty for them because they are quickly moving towards the disappearance of their gene pool. Therefore, they are behaving like a cornered animal and are willing to die in the process of fighting not just for their outdated principles, but for their simple survival.
President Obama must pull back his proffered hand for a period, slow down, and not attempt to bring the Republicans over for awhile. Yes, this smacks of partisanship. But, he found out what happens when he reaches out to a cornered dog.
I am glad that Obama survived the bite he received during the stimulus process. Yet, he needs to learn from that and wait for Republicans to reach out to him. He needs to realize that the Republicans are NOT ON HIS TEAM and will attack him, slap him, hit and kick him without cause.
In the spirit of of confronting the Republicans, I consider myself to be a member of Obama's Team of Rivals. I, and other Democrats, have worked too hard and too long not to meet our goals. I believe we mustn't lower ourselves to their level for we are one nation, and the Republicans are not our enemies. But, make no mistake, they do mean us harm!
With that in mind, here is a list of principles for the Obama Team of Rivals:
- We will respect our opponents, but we'll not be lured by them.
- We will stand firm in our principles.
- We will consider compromise only after they reach out to us.
- We will respond directly and forcefully to any challenge presented us.
- We will stay focused on the needs of the American people.
- We will always move forward, intent on bringing about change.
- We will learn from our mistakes but not reverse course.
- We will rejoice in our victories yet remain cautious when faced with new adversity.
- We will challenge one another, yet remain loyal to one another.
- We will watch each other's back.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
In my piece, I was hoping that somehow a human face could be brought into the spotlight. In an Elkhart Truth editorial they spoke of Cara Servantez, an Elkhart woman who had lost her job and was unable to take care of her family as she'd hoped to. Cara would have been a great person for the President to lift up during his town hall meeting. Although many worthy individuals asked questions, Cara was not mentioned during the President's visit.
Today, in Fort Myers, Florida, Obama held another town hall meeting. Although Cara was not in the picture, another woman shared her story of suffering with the President. Her face and her struggle searching for a home, will stay in the mind of America for a long time.
Her name is Henrietta Hughes, and President Obama treated her with the utmost respect as he approached her in her moment of need. It is important to watch the following video:
We do not need a poster child for this recession. We do, however, need to lift up the human pain that comes with these difficult times. Henrietta Hughes did that for the President today. Indeed, she did that for all of us. When Fort Myers residents heard of her plight, they responded with an out-flowing of generosity through offers of housing.
Thank you, Henrietta Hughes. Thank you for your grace, strength and courage. Today you spoke power and power returned your heartfelt plea with a kiss, open arms and the promise of change for a better life ahead.
May our leaders remember Henrietta Hughes. May they look into her eyes to see the pride that refuses to succumb and only asks for a hand to get up and onto her feet again. May they all understand that Henrietta Hughes and Cara Servantez are multiplied by millions of others who are in similar assistance at this time.
Monday, February 9, 2009
Please refer to the graphs and you will see the gravity of this recession. It just plain scares me. The blue line represents the 1993 recession. 2001 is the red line. The green line is where we are at the present moment. I think we're gonna need a bigger boat..
Sunday, February 8, 2009
There is a tendency to look at the huge numbers: over 600,000 unemployed last month. 4.5 million since the recession began. And millions more overall. No question about it, we are definitely in deep, deep trouble.
There is still no sense of urgency on the behalf of many of our congressional representatives. They have no sense of the psychological damage that exceeds the financial harm that is being done to our country because what has happened to one individual who is laid off is being multiplied millions of times.
When all that our representatives see are the gigantic numbers, be they stimulus funds or unemployment rates, they run the danger of no longer identifying with the people involved. Indeed, it a the dehumanization of the problem - an anonymity if you will - that is a result. The message ends up being, "You are nobody."
What follows the sense of anonymity is a pain that cuts to the center of the heart and often makes its way out in the form of confusion, tears and rage.
This phenomenon is rippling quickly throughout our society and among folks of all socioeconomic levels. I was out talking with my neighbor George this afternoon. He works at a regional pharmaceutical company and feels lucky not to have been pink slipped...yet. Ten thousand have been cut so far this month and there are 15,000 more to come next month.
But these are only numbers until you consider George's questions: "How are they going to pay their bills. What about health insurance? What'll happen to their kids who are in college?"
Exactly. While Rome burns...
Tomorrow President Obama travels to Elkhart, Indiana to discuss the stimulus plan in a town hall meeting. Why Elkhart? It's just an out of the way town, right. What's the big deal?
Well, in the surrounding region of that "out of the way town," reside over one million people. And of that million, 153,000 are out of work. Yep, 15.3 per cent.
There was an editorial in the local paper, The Truth, this morning. I'd like to share from that piece cause it makes some important points:
The president knows the statistics. That's why he's returning to Elkhart. He knows how many area people lost their jobs last year. He knows how many local companies closed or moved.
But he's probably never met Cara Servantez. She lost her job as a convenience store clerk in December.
Cara, a single mother of two, told a reporter Friday that she can't make ends without the help of churches and friends.
"It's just never been this bad," she said outside the WorkOne Center, choking back tears. "The whole year of 2008 was bad. My kid, we didn't even celebrate his birthday."
You hear that kind of thing all the time now. Honest, hard-working people who once held jobs building RVs, trailers, manufactured homes and car parts all tell similar stories.
If the president can put Elkhart back to work, the rest of the nation will benefit. Our goals are the same.
The president wants to create jobs by promoting green energy. We want to supply the labor for emerging industries.
The president wants to fix roads and bridges. We want to build parts for the cars and trucks that cruise those highways.
The president wants cheap, clean and renewable alternatives to fossil fuels. We want to build lighter and more fuel-efficient recreational vehicles.
Finally, the president wants to end the nation's credit crisis and stimulate the housing market. We want to see the Federal Housing Administration back 30-year mortgages on manufactured homes to make them more affordable for low-income buyers.
Nobody here wants the government to spend a dime more than necessary, but the spending needs to begin now. Every Hoosier kid knows if you're not hitting treys, shoot twos. Not very exciting, but you can still win a lot of games.
President Obama needs to help Congress understand that the stimulus package isn't about politics. It's about survival -- the survival of people such as Cara Servantez in places such as Elkhart.It's big news that the President is visiting Elkhart tomorrow. I'm glad that he's going there. But, there are two more important elements of this piece that stand out to me: first, a name - Cara Servantez and second, the paper's observation - "You hear that kind of thing all the time now."
This local paper did something very important here. They humanized the problem. By giving Cara's name, the reader is able to humanize her. The anonymity, at least for a moment, is removed. Also, they stated the obvious that the problem Cara has is spreading.
I hope that President Obama can meet Cara. She could become a face for our nation to look at directly. To heck with "Joe the Plumber," I think we need to see "Cara the Unemployed Mother." You see, Cara is not a number; she's a living, breathing human being who is struggling mightily right now because she is out of work. With her face and story on news programs across the country, the entire issue of unemployment could be also given a face.
From now on, we need to hear names and see faces, not numbers. Each of the 600,000 from last month - and the millions before them - need to be recognized. Congress need to hear of them and their plight.
We can be thankful for Obama traveling to Elkhart to recognize the suffering that the region is going through. And, the rest of the country must pay attention. Do not say, "There but by the grace of God..." The rest of the country is quickly becoming just like Elkhart, filled with individuals falling into unemployment.
Everyone who has lost a job is struggling with anonymity, the feeling that no one cares. As they go through this, their psychological and financial states collapse.
It is crucial that we not forget them. They are not nobody.
Every one of these people is hurting and needing support, just like "Cara the Unemployed Mother."
Thursday, February 5, 2009
The campaign is over, the transition is through and the first 100 days of the new administration are almost over - only 84 more to go - how time flies! Barack Obama and his family have moved into their new house and are able to share dinner together in the apartment above the work office. Our president has tremendous challenges before him, with great opportunities for success and ... lack of success.
For the time being, President Obama is still on a popularity roll. Although he has run into some road bumps in the form of Republican blockage and nominees slipping out the door, he continues to enjoy a 75% popularity rating.
We must remember, however, that Dubya also enjoyed high ratings during his first term, especially after 9/11. His ratings tumbled, though, and as he left office his positive percentage hovered around 25 points.
Some would point out that Obama's personality is what touches the heart of America. He appeared on Oprah and Ellen, where he appeared relaxed, caring, thoughtful and fun. He also made a visit on The View, a show where he appeared less comfortable as he constantly tugged at his socks while he was interviewed by Woopie, Barbara, Joy, Elisabeth and Sherri.
Others would say that it 's Obama's leadership style that brings him good fortune. He's focused, well-read, and open to working across the aisle, with mixed results thus far. His ability to collaborate is something we haven't seen in Washington for all too many years.
Leadership connected to popularity? Nah. We're talking about the American people here. They demand substance after all.
Recently, Andy Card - Dubya's Chief of Staff - criticized President Obama for embracing a shirt-sleeve work environment in the Oval Office. He feels that the wardrobe policy, which Obama certainly implemented through executive order, diminishes the regal nature of the presidency. Card must actually believe that a suit coat is required by the Constitution, which of course is a reflection of the respect that was always afforded that central document by the Bush administration...
Card's right about the importance of clothing. Indeed, it could have an effect on Obama's popularity rating. I would agree that Obama's wardrobe has had a impact on the polls - a positive one - but it has nothing to do with shirtsleeves or jackets.
It's gotta be the shades. Behind those Ray Bans, Barack gives off the appearance of being cool, relaxed and under control.
Chris Matthews feels they make Obama seem "elite" -- kind of like arugula, I guess. Maybe for Barack to look official and powerful it would be better for him to pack a shotgun, a la Cheney. Now, that might bring a spike in the polls!
For true, knowledgeable input, it would make sense to refer to a better pundit than Matthews to make such judgment. After all, what does a talk show host know about stylish eye wear?
So, who are you going to believe - Chris Matthews or...me? We definitely need a tie-breaker. So I called one of the most highly reputed and renowned journalists within the beltway. "Yo, Wonkette, you there? Pick up!" Finally, Wonkette picked up the receiver and gave me the info I was looking for.
Celebrated D.C. blogger Wonkette gave me the inside scoop. She saw true potential for popularity in Obama, who she calls the "President of Sunglasses." Evidently, they make him look "hot" and encourage all kinds of people to want to do all kinds of things with him -- kind of like six-pack abs, I guess.
Hmmmm. Yes, presidential...
So, there, you have it, all of you kiddies who aspire to the presidency. For a rapid rise in the polls, slip on those Ray Bans, throw your jacket over your shoulder, and slide on over the tarmac to your waiting jet.
You can't go wrong. At least it's worked for Barack.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
I celebrated Obama's victory with every fiber of my body and soul. I guess you could say I'm totally "in the tank" for him. I still follow each and every piece of news that comes out during the day. And, let's face facts, yesterday was not a good day. Or, let's be honest here - it sucked.
Due to a vetting process of his cabinet nominees that has seen its share of shortcomings, Obama's decision-making has been harshly criticized. Three nominees in particular, Tim Geithner (Treasury), Tom Daschle (HHS) and Nancy Killefer (Chief Performance Officer) had serious tax issues that got them all in hot water. This led to both Daschle and Killefer withdrawing their nominations.
Because of these issues as well as the struggle to move forward a leaner meaner stimulus package, Obama has dropped in the polls of public opinion by seventeen points. The press has begun to question his leadership. Headlines such as "Has Obama Lost His Luster?" have become commonplace.
Added to this image problem, Obama has appeared to suffer a loss of power due to the disrespect shown him by the entire House Republican caucus, and Senate
So, I sit at home and worry. Will he fail? Is it time for power politics? Should Obama begin to exert old fashioned partisanship? What's going to happen with his legacy?
Legacy?! I need to grab myself by the collar and pull back firmly but gently. Hey, it's too early for all the worrying.
Yesterday was just that, yesterday. Today is another day, and in the world of politics things change quickly.
Be patient. Remember New Hampshire. Remember Jeremiah Wright. Remember the primary. Obama is tougher than he appears. He has gone through the political crucible. He has been tested. A sixty-six percent approval rating is nothing to worry about.
"Will he fail?" is not the right question. President Obama is already a success. Has he only been in office for two weeks? It's seems much longer because he has already achieved so much.
Yet, there is still so much left to do.
Breathe deep. Relax. Be patient. This journey is more like hiking the Appalachian Trail than walking around the block. There will be all kinds of experiences, negative and positive, as we continue on this journey.
So, the worrying must stop. One election night, in Grant Park, Barack Obama already held up a marvelous vision for us:
"This election has not been about me. It's been about you, the American people...The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but, America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there...And, above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it's been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years - block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand."
Yes, I need to stop worrying. America will succeed because we will join with President Obama in overcoming the challenges ahead of us. It's not a short trip, but rather a long journey we must travel together. Once we reach our destination, he, no, we will then be a great success.
Monday, February 2, 2009
Indeed, she was condescending towards Senator Claire McCaskill (D, Missouri), Vice President Biden and President Obama because they had criticized the $18.5 billion of bonuses given to bank employees after the TARP funds had already been disbursed. Ms. Burnett called such criticism "populism" and "rhetoric," as if these three leaders had no idea of what they were talking about.
Here are Burnett's comments (with additional inserted observations):
Well, the story has gotten more interesting. This morning Adam Green of Progressive Change Campaign Committee posted an article on the Huffington Post also criticizing Burnett for her being "embedded" on Wall Street and, therefore, giving the party line for banks and financial institutions.
Evidently, later today, Burnett expressed her dismay at Green's concern to Jim Cramer, who then became her protector and ending up calling Green a "bozo." The entire situation is explained on Green's updated post, "An Open Invitation to Erin Burnett." Green invited Burnett to have an open exchange on a live blog, for all to observe.
I emailed Burnett, and cc'd David Gregory of Meet The Press, my disappointment with how she handled herself on the show. If you listen to Burnett's exchange with Cramer, she indicated she was upset that Green had not contacted her in advance. In his post, Green says he had indeed emailed her before posting his first article.
Here's the email that I sent to Burnett:
Dear Ms. Burnett,
I am writing to tell you that I was very disappointed with your Meet The Press performance yesterday, Sunday, 2/1/09. What bothered me the most was how condescending you were to the viewers - as well as to Senator McCaskill, Vice President Biden, and President Obama. I find it amazing that you would use the terms "populism" and "rhetoric" to criticize their expression of dismay over the Wall Street bonuses of $18.8 billion.
You were totally dismissive of the pain that people are feeling at this time. You said you understand the outrage. But do you understand the pain? Do you understand the injustice? Do you understand that the compensation of a Wall Street employee just might be excessive?
Even in your explanation of why an employee (Steve Forbes in your example) should get compensated for a job well done, you did't mention how much 'bonus' he should receive. So, if you would be kind enough, could you reply to me to let me know what the average bonus is for a Wall Street employee?
And, if that's not a 'bonus," what does such an employee make in salary? I'd just like to have those figures next time someone says I don't understand why $18.5 billion in bonuses should be given out in these times, with tax payer money (regardless of whether there is one pool of funds for disbursement or a thousand).
I have a request to make of you, Ms. Burnett. Would you please go over to the The Catholic Worker in NYC or the Sojourners Community in Washington DC and volunteer to feed the homeless. Or, volunteer to help build homes with Habitat for Humanity. Or, go visit an ER and talk with a poor mother who is there with her child for asthma treatment. And, then, only then go back to Jim Cramer and complain to him that the viewers didn't understand your condescension.
Finally, I have written Meet The Press and requested that they use a more balanced panel in the future. Two economists of opposing viewpoints would be better, and inform me more, than what I witnessed yesterday.
I look forward to hearing back from you regarding Wall Street compensation and about your experiences with the poor.
I'll be interested to see if Ms. Burnett replies to my email. I'm not holding my breath, but I'll keep you posted.
Sunday, February 1, 2009
When the news got out, Vice President Biden and President Obama rightly and righteously expressed their disgust and outrage Obama called such practices "shameful" and "the height of irresponsibility."
Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill went even further and, talking about the bank CEO's, she said "These people are idiots!" It was quite a display.
This morning on "Meet The Press," Erin Burnett expressed a concern regarding such displays of "populism." Burnett explained away the conflict by saying that this is the way that banks compensate their successful employees. She also indicated that the money used to pay the bonuses or "compensation" came from a different "pot" than the one holding the bailout money.
Frankly, I don't care if there are different "pots." It's condescending to intimate that the American people don't understand. The naive ones must include McCaskill, Biden and Obama, I guess. They're clearly not educated enough to understand the intricacies of the problem.
Call it "populism" if you wish, but I believe we have a bonus problem. The banks were about to go under and the taxpayers agreed to give them $350 billion to bail them out. It's arrogant to believe, then, that you can simply operate as you always have.
So, let's deal with this arrogance - now! And the Senator from Missouri is doing just that. McCaskill is not saying get rid of bonuses, but stop the large ones. Her bill, "The Chief Executive Officer Pay Act of 2009," would limit top pay to what the President makes.
Putting the focus of her comments on the financial institutions, she said, "Going forward, you want tax payers to help you survive, you want the people at your financial institution to have a job tomorrow, then you're going to have to limit everyone's pay at your company to the same salary that the President of the United States makes. Is that so unreasonable? It's eight times the median household income in the United States of America. $400,000 a year. I don't think that sounds like a bad deal."
Indeed, she's right. So far, we the taxpayers have been squeezed and our money's been wasted. Who's the chump? Up to now, the government and taxpayers.
Here is my overall take on the situation:
When will these huge financial and insurance institutions understand on their own?
Never. Money talks.
Why do they exist? To make money. (It's not out of the goodness of their hearts!)
Unless there is governmental regulation, they will not change. And we've had almost 30 years of deregulation. That is a large part of the reason why we're in this mess right now.
I found it simply incredible when former Fed chief Alan Greenspan testified before Congress last fall. He really felt there was a self-regulating quality involved. He sound like a distraught parent when he referred to the collapse of the financial system, "I never thought it would behave this way."
Give me a break! Money and profit drive capitalism, and similarly stimulate greed. If capitalism, i.e., our financial system, goes unchecked greed will rule the game.
I like McCaskill's proposal because it simply asks for control to become a part of the compensation picture when tax money is involved. Erin Burnett reacts as if the Senator is asking the carnivore banks to suddenly take on vegetarian ways.
Senator McCaskill is asking no such thing. She understands the eating habits of financial institutions and is only asking that they cut back - to modify their diet so to speak. And in so doing they could become omnivores, a more balanced animal than is currently the case.
Such an animal would then tend to respect the hand that feeds it, instead of biting it off.