We have come a long way, to be sure, but after two terms of a black man in the White House, a time we naively believed meant that we were suddenly “post-racial,” a time that has been punctuated by the ugliest racism we’ve seen since the Sixties, it is obvious that for as far as we have come, we have a really long way to go.
As this election season heats up, we should all seek a better understanding of Congressional inquiries. Let’s turn the prism, and see these hearings in a new light.
The history of the Congressional hearing is mixed. Sometimes, as in the case of Watergate, it was a high quality, public method of exposing truth. It’s wake was long and significant. A president was impeached and resigned before he was tried. Campaign finance rules and oversight ensued.
Sometimes, the Congressional hearing is just political theatre. Inquiries on Capitol Hill got at the facts of the Iran Contra scandal, but precipitated very little actionable reform. Sure, Oliver North went to jail briefly for lying to Congress, but the Reagan Administration was largely untouched and unrepentant (oh, and Ollie North became a hero to the fetishists of the Hard Right, and was enriched by publishers and Fox News, but I digress.)
Sometimes the political theatre has real and damaging results. Take for instance, the McCarthy Era, when one despicable Senator from Wisconsin was able to parlay the “Red Scare” during the Cold War into the wholesale ruination of many lives.
It was only when the Chief Counsel for the United States Army, in defense of a helpless young witness, famously confronted McCarthy with the immortal words, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no decency?” It was the beginning of the end for McCarthy, because the mantle was picked up by Edward R. Murrow of CBS news—this was back when TV news was a trusted institution—and Americans turned on Joe McCarthy, who was thusly forced to slink ignominiously into history.
Today, you can add a new wrinkle to the Congressional hearing. The Republican majority—the one that chairs these committees and has the power to issue subpoenas demanding witnesses appear before them—has a new strategy.
The hearings are raw footage for campaign television commercials. They are the body copy for mailers to the faithful, and fuel for internet-driven conspiracy theories for consumption by the indoctrinated.
At their base, they are show trials intended to keep controversy alive without substantive fact, all in the service of raising the life blood of reelection campaigns—money.
That’s right: they exist not to find truth, but to create compelling commercials, to ruin the reputations of political opponents, to keep the herd’s anger fresh. And, above all else, to fundraise.
Of course Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican, didn’t give Planned Parenthood’s president a chance to actually answer his questions. She was a just prop in his fiction about the selling of baby parts. And of course multiple Benghazi hearings haven’t yielded any new information. As the former Republican counsel to the committee investigating Benghazi admitted publicly last year, they were staged merely to hurt Hillary Clinton’s chance of becoming president.
I’m curious to see how the water crisis in Flint plays out in Congress. The fact that Michigan governor, Rick Snyder, whose appointee ordered the switch that has created an unprecedented public health crisis in a major American city has not been called to testify, is very telling.
Our job as citizens gets harder and harder. Now that we can no longer take Congressional hearings at face value, we have to learn to weigh the organizers’ motives, and decide for ourselves whether the outcome has value.
The fact that ISIS out-messages us by reaching alienated young people online, and motivates them to acts of unthinkable inhumanity, is unacceptable.
They seem to own social media, and are lauded at every turn for their expertise in recruiting vulnerable young people who have lived a life of deprivation under the thumb of one dictator or another. Easy pickings, I guess. When you have no job and no prospects, most anything that gives you some power in a powerless world looks better than what you have.
I know it’s more fashionable to roll out the drums of war and talk about bombs and boots on the ground, but if our formidable advertising industry turned its sites on young impressionable potential jihadists, they just might be able to inspire a new generation of nation-builders instead of destroyers.
If you think it can’t be done, consider that our marketers repeatedly do the improbable. After all, they taught the world to sing in perfect harmony, got women to smoke a “feminist” cigarette and remade the VW Bug from Hitler’s proletarian-affordable vehicle into an American middle-class icon.
We can certainly turn our messaging–okay, propaganda–skills to the very social media where disenfranchised young Arabs and Muslims live, and fight the slick ISIS presentations with even slicker propaganda. As it is, we’re leaving some of our most potent weapons holstered.
C’mon. We invented the modern advertising game. It’s time we play to win.
Imagine the power of thousands of new teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, technologists and people of all kinds working toward building something they own and can grow, instead of strapping on suicide vests.
Are you telling me that we can’t be more persuasive on social media than the people who are motivating them now?
I don’t believe it.
Man, there’s a lot of hate out there.
I’ve been thinking about the things that unite us and divide us. For reasons obvious and not, our differences are important, positive, even. Sometimes they challenge us to think differently and pave the way for innovation: my steam engine is faster than your horse; you may have launched the first satellite into orbit, but we will land on the moon before you.
Our differences also inspire our worst instincts: need I enumerate the ever more efficient ways in which we denigrate, impugn, accost, jail, maim and kill our fellow men? I think not, but if you need examples turn on the news. Anytime.
The Conventional Hate the Unconventional
Our disdain for our fellows knows no bounds. Monday, the Wall Street Journal had an article about the collaboration between Rolling Stone Keith Richards and drummer Steve Jordan for the new Richards album, “Cross-eyed Heart.” A reader commented that “somehow, successful degenerates” don’t make him feel “warm and runny inside.”
In response, I wrote the following:
You probably would not have liked Christ, Galileo, da Vinci, van Gogh or Einstein either. They were all successful degenerates according to the cultural norms of their times.
Seers, visionaries and creatives march to a different drummer, create new standards for spirituality, art and science, suffer the remonstrations of their cultures, and not incidentally, remake their societies along the way. If they sought approval from conventional “leaders,” or sublimated their authentic selves to the whims of current society, we would all be poorer for it.
Or, as Salmon Rushdie said, “The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas—uncertainty, progress, change—into crimes.”
That’s an example of the least destructive form of disagreement: an argument over art and artists. And it is proof that we will fight about anything.
My Ethnic Group Hates Your Ethnic Group
Blood is rarely spilled when debating the relative merits of painters or guitar players, but you don’t have to wait very long for carnage to ensue when the topic is class, religion, nationalism, or ethnicity. Sure, we could write a multi-volume book (we’d call it A Bloody History of the World) about the purges, putsches, assassinations, deportations, mass-migrations, burnings, bombings, and all out wars caused by religion and culture clashes, but for the sake of brevity, let’s just lump all those things together here, and say that where you live and how you were raised powerfully influence your time on earth.
In listening to the NPR talk show, “On Point” this morning, I was struck by the large conversation that is preceding the release of the buzz worthy movie, “Meet the Patels,” a docu-styled film about Indian culture generally, and arranged marriage specifically. It’s an internal culture clash that has some traditionalists saying they will not walk away from their cultural institutions like arranged marriages, and some younger, more Westernized Indians saying they can’t get away from arranged marriages fast enough. The discussion was primarily between Anglicized Indians and their parents in the old country, and it got fairly pitched.
Loud, and at times uncomfortable, at least it wasn’t violent, which is more than we can say for so much of our collective past. Whether Hitler trying to exterminate the Jews, or the sectarianism of ISIS Sunnis trying to exterminate their rival sect, the Shia, history is rife with examples of cultural cleansing of the “other.” Through ritual, suspicion, fear, ignorance, superstition, tribalism and religion, our species does not play well with “others.”
A friend loves to tell the story of her racist father’s reaction to the election of Barack Obama in 2008. He cried to his daughter that he just couldn’t believe we had elected a black man President, to which she replied, “No, Daddy, he’s only half-black. You know, like your grandchildren are going to be.” Of course her sarcastic remark was made out of petulance and frustration, but a la Shakespeare, many a truth is said in jest.
Inter-Marriage as Salvation?
I have no empirical data to support this idea, but maybe, to cure most forms of bloody disagreements, we just need to marry one another. Common sense points us toward this goal, and at the same time predicts that we cannot overcome our innate suspicions and culturally derived prejudices, making the effort to save ourselves futile. If nothing else, imagine the beautiful babies! So pick a side: we save ourselves vs. we are doomed to destroy ourselves.
Maybe in our race with extinction, our only way out is to erase the biggest perceived differences. It would take many generations of marriages across cultural, socio-economic, racial, ethnic and geographic lines for us to become one color, one sect, one religion and one culture. And time is not even the entirety of the trick. The really hard part is to integrate the species without obliterating the useful and meaningful contributions that the disparate parts have brought to the whole. A cautionary tale might be the histories of two great nations: The melting pot that is America, a place of new beginnings and second chances where anything is possible, has spawned some spectacular innovation. Compare that to the cultural homogeneity of China that has bred out innovation in favor of conformity. I’m not willing to give up innovation for conformity.
I’m sorry to do this to you, but I have to leave this on a question, for I do not know the answer: Is it possible to live in peace and find motivation to innovate in art, technology, science and medicine, or do we have to be driven by our darkest selves? And are we likely to kill our species before we find a way to live together?
Regarding the NY Times story on employment practices at Amazon, it is critical to note that Amazon is a public entity, and if its shareholders so choose, they can change the way things are done there and make it a more employee-friendly company. I suspect they like the ROI—not to mention competitive prices and fast, free delivery—and will do nothing, as is their prerogative.
But the societal change which underlies the Amazon employment environment is classic Art of War: as Sun Tzu proposed many centuries ago, to unite your people, create an enemy. It works every time you want to distract people from the truth. And the truth is, we have become obsessed with money over community. We might ask ourselves how and why this sea-change has occurred in our society. Why the individual ethic has trumped the all-for-one-and-one-for-all ethic of the Post War Era. Why it is that instead of hating poverty, we now hate the poor, labeling minimum wage workers who can’t support a family of four on two paychecks, “lazy.” And why, instead of hating hunger, we hate the hungry, and call them “takers” so the self-proclaimed “makers” can feel better about themselves.
And now, the Super PAC-class wants to donate without attribution—they want to control our politics, but leave no fingerprints. We’ve always valued disclosure as a field-leveler in politics, but now the structure of the 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations and their relationships with the opaque Super PAC’s has been engineered intentionally to hide their billionaire-donors’ identities. One answer, offered by Thomas Frank in his seminal book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, shines a light on the immensely cynical strategy the society-controlling one-percent (really, one-tenth of one-percent) foists on socially conservative Middle American voters, the good old bait-and-switch: promise them you’ll repeal Obamacare, abortion rights, gay marriage and loose immigration laws, then, when they elect you, focus solely on tax cuts for the rich and other breaks for the monied special interests.
In contemporary Europe, and, for what it’s worth, in Mid-Twentieth Century America, Amazon’s nasty employment habits, like shooing cancer victims out the door as uncommitted drags on the company’s productivity, would be shamed by the public, and contained by labor laws. Unless and until we regain some focus on society as a whole versus aggrandizing the super-wealthy we perceive as magically rugged individualists, we will see this kind push and pull.
Is this like the Dallas season-ending cliff-hanger where millions wondered Who Shot J R, only to discover that it was all a dream? Will we awaken from this nightmare to discover that CNN is still a responsible, go-to news source?
Look at this fromTV Newser (a television trade pub.):
A CNN iReport that mistook a fraternity hand sign Missouri Patrol Captain Ron Johnson made for him being a gang member has been taken down. The Washington Post reports the iReport suggested Johnson was making hand signals members of the group the Bloods use (shown below). Captain Ron Johnson throws up “gang signs?” Really @CNN? You’re just gonna leave that up?http://t.co/DSLFprbHv1 pic.twitter.com/jAUN8qIIgH – DJ Digital (@callmeDjDigital) August 19, 2014 The sign is actually the… read more>>
Two summers ago, when, in my judgment, the news channel was still salvageable, I opined in some detail, How to Fix CNN.
Now, I’m less sure that it can be restored to its previous luster. There’s been a lot of neglect. Back then, they had simply lost their way, and the channel’s IQ tumbled. Fox and MSNBC had “middled” them. Not an insurmountable problem. Just find the breadcrumbs and get back on the path of smart, fair, informative journalism, minus the polemics of the other two. It’s what God and Ted intended. But then they replaced the president, Jon Klein, with Jeff Zucker, famous for morning shows that masquerade as news. (OK, that charade was over some years ago. Nobody at Today or GMA currently pretends they’re anything but tabloid fare for 25-54 women.) Mr. Zucker appears to have brought that same non-news sensibility to CNN. The most recent manifestation of their flirtation with Ready-Fire-Aim news is this sad chapter of casting aspersions at the Missouri Highway Patrol’s Captain Ron Johnson, outwardly at least, the only character in the Ferguson drama who seems to genuinely have empathy, a working moral compass, and an informed, workable plan.
If it’s all a bad dream, maybe I’ll awaken to find CNN is reliable news source, and if I’m really lucky, I’ll never have heard of Ferguson, Missouri, because Michael Brown will still be alive.
There is a dangerous and specious argument afoot that says big money political advertisers should not have to disclose their identities.
While money does not appear to have been decisive in the high profile elections where profligate spenders Carly Fiorini and Meg Whitman were defeated, it may be that the very public nature of their profile prevented the overwhelming spending from being effective. Secretive spending in lower profile cases may have been effective, but absent disclosure, we will never know. Moreover, as a long time media owner/operator, consultant, and researcher, I can tell you that the money is smart and will learn from its mistakes. They will correct their errors, refine their processes, and reach their goal of exercising anonymous influence in the market of ideas, and over an unsuspecting electorate. This strikes me as patently un-American.
Fear of undue influence and unscrupulous behavior is precisely why the Federal Trade Commission demands identification of commercial sponsors. We decided long ago, and properly, in my estimation, that “truth in advertising” was a basic consumer right. We banned outlandish, unsupported claims, outright lies, and the anonymous wielding of the huge power of advertising. Why in the world would we demand less of something as critical as our political speech?
The fear of reprisal argument that disclosure opponents are proffering is a red herring. The plutocrats–that is people whose power derives from their wealth– suggest that if their identities are known, they risk personal, potentially violent, reprisal and commercial boycotts. But simply put, the public’s right to know trumps any advertiser’s professed right of anonymity. When you enter the public square, you do so with the knowledge that speech has consequences. Not wanting to endure the consequences of unpopular speech is not reason enough to be allowed to act anonymously in the public square.
The fix is also simple: require the 501(c)(4) organizations that bundle money for the Super PACs to disclose the identity of their donors. It’s the American Way.
I’ve dreaded this moment from the first instant I saw those two puppies fourteen and a half years ago.
I didn’t want them. I knew how dogs change your life. They have to be fed and walked. Played with. They’re always in a good mood. Always full of love, so when you’re not, you feel guilty until they’ve made you feel better. They insinuate themselves into your life in a thousand ways. You love them in a way that you don’t love your parents, siblings, spouse or kids. Not better or stronger, just different. And you will outlive them. Knowing all this, it is no wonder I paused at the top of the driveway and blinked hard. The kids wanted them. Laura wanted them. Alison wanted to name them after dogs past. Adam and Cameron were enthralled with the Greeks. The little sister was no match for the boys. The dogs were to be Atlas and Apollo. End of story. Beginning of story.
Burt was painting houses. Living here in exile from San Diego and Oahu. He was like that painter on Murphy Brown: indispensible on so many levels. He was engaged in one Sisyphean task after another. Jobs that never ended, or melted into one another. He shepherded those dogs from hand to chair to crate.
Steve was living here too. Also a dog guy, he knew it was important for them to have company, love and exercise. Laura and I were busy outside the house. Our brothers largely raised those dogs for the first year.
Part of the rescue deal is neutering. Burt got a wry look on his face when the boys returned from castration. “Nutless and Noballo, welcome home!” We’re still laughing.
Black and white, like those Ralph Lauren dogs, Atlas and Apollo were rambunctious, sweet, fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand puppies. They were full of life, chasing chipmunks, tennis balls, squirrels, or laser-pointers. Trotting up the deck stairs, each proudly holding an end of a (dead) three-foot black snake in their mouths. Was that the Lab half or the Border-Collie half? Atlas had the Border-Collie traits. A girl at the pet rescue place observed, “He got the good blood.” He was the brains of the operation. Apollo, bigger and more densely built dog had more Lab traits. A waterdog. A hunter. A huge heart.
They ran like the wind, and wore a path from the driveway, around the railroad tie wall and up into the wooded backyard, usually with one’s mouth around the other’s neck. They growled and barked and nipped at each other constantly. If you didn’t know they were playing, you’d have thought they were trying to kill each other as loudly as possible.
I was able to keep them out of my heart through the first year. Between Steve, Burt and Cameron, they were held constantly. Like Alison, I don’t think their feet touched the ground during that first year. But then Burt moved back to Hawaii, Steve moved back to Ohio, and the dogs got too big for the shared crate. They began to howl at night, so we let them come upstairs, they would, however, under no circumstances, sleep on the bed. Ever.
They were rascals. Atlas was the alpha, but when it came to scamming food, Apollo had no equal. Just when we had convinced ourselves that he would forever be in Atlas’s thrall, we came home one evening to find Apollo in the great room, perched on the forbidden couch, high up enough to survey the groceries sitting on the kitchen island. We had apparently interceded in the nick of time.
One day we (very) mistakenly left a chocolate cake mix (boxed, no less) on the island. We returned to discover he had somehow (how is a mystery that went to the grave with him) managed to climb up there, snatch the cake mix, and drag it to the living room where he opened the box, punctured the thick plastic bag that held the delicious chocolate powder, and proceeded to lick it into the white carpeting. Visitors always note the unusual Mexican tile that has been in that room since.
And so it went from 1999 through 2003. I had always traveled a couple of days a week for work, but in 2004 I started commuting to New York City at zero dark thirty Monday mornings, coming home on the last one out of LaGuardia Thursday night. While I was gone, Laura discovered the Chattahoochee National Forest and the series of trails therein. A wide exercise loop that runs along the river, and some dandy trails that give one a good sense that one is indeed in the Appalachian foothills. We started taking the dogs Saturday and Sunday mornings. There, we met some now longstanding friends. Dog people. Our boys, who had lived outside on the deck and in the heavily wooded backyard, were used to the woods, and having each other for company. They were therefore easily socialized into the river scene. Most of the dogs they encountered were also pretty social and with one notable exception where a canine of our acquaintance shredded Atlas’s ear in an inexplicable and unprovoked attack, the biggest worry was spooking a snake sunning itself around a blind corner.
When my commuting gig ended, and I started working out of the house, Atlas and Apollo became my associates. After sharing cereal and yogurt for breakfast, there was the morning walk, which quickly became a daily ritual—dogs like routine—we settled into the basement where the boys slept on their bed when not performing secretarial chores for me. (I began to refer to our walk as the Three Mile Tranquilizer since it made them sleep and let me work.)
That walk became (and remains) ritual. The highlight of everyone’s day, canine and human alike. It is the friends there who are helping us through this time of grief. They know what it means to lose a long term companion.
I’ve never met a dog that didn’t like to go in the car. I’ve heard of dogs whose only automotive trips were to the vet, and those dogs, understandably, hated to see the keys come out. These dogs were normal, though, and the car was a second home. They so completely ravaged my last car that I had to go to K-Mart and buy rubber backed bathroom rugs to salvage what little was left of the rear seat.
The years marched on, unnoticed except for new lines in the mirror’s face, and high school, college and law school graduations to mark the passing. Matt met Monica, and grandchildren were soon sharing the floor with Atlas and Apollo. Atlas was predictably aloof, surveying all from his perch. Call it the Ottoman Empire.
Apollo was hungry, and saw the small children as easy marks. Satisfied with licking a toddler’s hands and face clean, he was never far from those kids.
Young Cean shared his father’s relative indifference, but Baby Kier, taking after her mom, became fast friends with “the puppies.”
Essential to this story is that Apollo was our “special needs” dog. He had his first epileptic seizure while I was away. Laura says it was a doozy of a grand maul seizure. It happened at home. Then it happened at the river. We read up on Labs and epilepsy, and were not encouraged. He was about three, and we figured the days ahead were borrowed time. Phenobarbital became a staple of Apollo’s diet, and the seizures relented. Over a couple of years time we realized the medicine was aging him quite dramatically and consulted the vet. He said our choices were to take him off the drugs and watch carefully, or leave him on the sedatives and watch him age unnaturally. We opted for the former and got lucky. The seizures never returned with the previous frequency or devastation, but the damage was done.
At Thanksgiving 2010, Apollo had a major seizure following a particularly manic episode on the river trails. He recovered slowly, and by January was pretty much his old self, but a new pattern was emerging: manic episode, seizure, recovery (although not quite a full recovery). A roller coaster ride where each succeeding peak is lower than the last one, and each succeeding depression lower too. All told, a long story of decline.
In January of 2012, Apollo had a vestibular incident—vertigo. It didn’t look like any seizure I had seen, and after riding it out for far too long a time without the typical resolution, Monica and I rushed him to the emergency vet. They told us he would regain most of his balance, but the head tilt, a hallmark of vestibular disorder, would likely stay. Again, against all odds, Apollo rebounded and the head tilt went away. But his balance was never the same, and somehow, all this neurologic stress had robbed him of the lower body strength that made him a great swimmer and hunter. I thought he was in pain, but it turned out he really just couldn’t feel much below the waist.
His decline accelerated until all he could do was eat and take a slow walk. On July 13, 2013, at fourteen and a half, he had had enough.
So I offer this remembrance as tribute to a fierce watchdog and cuddly friend. We’ll see how his constant companion, Atlas, fares in his absence. Atlas, he of the “good blood,” has not experienced health issues until this year. He has lost most of his hearing. That’s a really isolating phenomenon for man or beast. Between his hearing loss and Apollo’s inability to climb up on the bed or the Dog Chair, they haven’t slept as bookends or interchangeable pillows much lately. Maybe that fact will help Atlas deal with the loss of a littermate who was not farther than the next room for a decade and a half.
I didn’t want these dogs. I knew what having dogs meant. Try as I did to stop it, these dogs got into my heart, and I’m paying for that now. I hope to come out the other side thinking that fourteen and half years of unconditional love was worth this hole in my heart that feels today as if it will never heal.
Rest in peace, Apollo. We miss you already.
Apollo Sinton 2/1/99-7/13/13
Apollo Sinton 2/1/99-7/13/13
Jon Sinton, Atlanta, July 14, 2013
While you were surfing the Internet, consuming video on-demand, texting on your smartphone, chatting on Facebook, or Tweeting about playing Halo 18, Neil Postman’s seminal 1985 work, Amusing Ourselves to Death, was coming true. Postman correctly predicted that while we were on guard against George Orwell’s Big Brother in the dystopian classic, 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World–the one where entertainment and self-indulgent behavior allow the political class to pull a fast one–emerged into our consciousness fully-formed. We have awakened from our amusements, well, some of us, anyway, to find a world gone mad. A president who lost his voice for four years, and a Republican party that thought it was outsmarting the electorate, only to realize, too late, that it had outsmarted itself. They had gerrymandered themselves into a technically unbeatable congressional majority, but left themselves at the mercy of their own right wing, known as the Tea Party, a sort of sesquicentennial tribute to the Know Nothing Party, that was made up of anti-immigration xenophobes. In 1850, no amount of evidence-based arguing could dissuade them from their beliefs. This may sound familiar to you.
As Ian Millhiser wrote in his article, Grand Theft Election: In 2012 Democratic House candidates received nearly 1.4 million more votes than their Republican counterparts. Yet Republican candidates currently hold a 33-seat majority in the House, due in large part to the fact that Republican state legislatures controlled the redistricting process in several key states. Indeed, Republicans were so successful in their efforts to lock in their control of the House of Representatives through gerrymandering that Democratic House candidates would have needed to win the national popular vote by more than 7 percentage points in order to receive the barest majority in the House. Republicans aren’t particularly shy about touting the success of their gerrymanders either: The Republican State Leadership Committee released an extensive memo boasting about how they used gerrymanders to lock down GOP majorities in the House.
The impact of the current congressional maps is most profound in six key states…President Obama did win Michigan by nearly 10 points, but Democratic candidates won only 5 of the state’s 14 congressional seats. Likewise, President Obama won Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin—in some cases by comfortable margins—but Republicans dominate the congressional delegations from these states. Notably, all six of these states are currently controlled by Republican governors and legislatures, meaning that all six of them could implement the Republican election-rigging plan before the 2016 election.
(That’s the one where they change the Electoral College rules in their presidentially-blue states so that it is no longer winner take all, but forces each district to cast its electoral votes in accordance with its congressional choice–that is, a rigged, foregone conclusion. It would signal the end of majority rule, and would have allowed Mitt Romney to win the presidency with five-million fewer popular votes than President Obama. You have to hand it to them: only once in the last six presidential elections have Republicans managed to win the Popular Vote; they know the only way to win is to rig the game, and they are okay with that.)
The President and PowerPoint
President Obama found his voice not a second too soon in the Fall election. Now I wonder if he’ll use it to tell the American people exactly what’s going on. I’ve read his books. He’s an excellent story teller. One hopes he will use that gift now when we need it most.
What has finally emerged is the indisputable fact that the country is faced with a vocal and vehement minority whose most closely held civic values revolve around self-sufficiency and letting the societal chips fall where they may. They want very limited government intervention, preferring to let the consequences of sickness, unemployment, injury, bad fortune, infirmity and old age play out like a Dickens novel. The descendants of those who fought FDR on Social Security and LBJ on Medicare are in full-throated alarm over Obamacare, the minimum wage and banking/business regulation.
The last election, be damned; evidence be damned, they will shrink government if not by hook, then certainly by crook.
So I wonder about the President and Power Point. Is it written somewhere that presidents cannot use audio-visual aids? Why doesn’t President Obama use his bully pulpit to outline the starkly different philosophies that are actually behind the gridlock in Washington? Why can’t he say that traditional Republicans are afraid of Tea Party Republicans who want a much smaller government where individuals rely on themselves, while Democrats, and not coincidentally, the majority of Americans, want the social insurance programs that have been in place since the Great Depression?
He could then tie these differing philosophies to the importance of redistricting, he could tell the American people that even though the majority of them want Social Security and Medicare, the conservative forces who opposed social insurance since its beginning now control congress through gerrymandering, and will through the remainder this decade.
He could explain the gridlock in this fashion, and show the American people that independent redistricting panels as a national policy enforced at the state level are the only way to ensure that voters pick their representatives, and not the other way around.
If I were he, I would hire the filmmakers and technologists behind Al Gore’s “An inconvenient Truth,” and lay out a graphic depiction of where we are and how we got here in a visually appealing animation that fifth graders would immediately grasp. I know that still leaves out wide swaths of the American landscape, but, trust me, enough people would still get it.
Independent Redistricting: Our Only Hope
I feel certain that there is a “State Plan” wherein Republicans long ago recognized their dim national prospects, so began an all-out war to control state houses, senates and gubernatorial races as a way to forward their agenda of electoral “fixes” like voter suppression through rule changes, intimidation and gerrymandering.
The good government group, Common Cause (full disclosure: I chair the Georgia state board, but in no way speak for the national or state organization here), is engaged in a long term battle against both parties to create independent redistricting as they did in California. It won’t be easy, but has to be tried if we’re to restore fair congressional elections in this country. There’s a recent documentary that chronicles the decade-long, winning battle in California. “Gerrymandering” serves as more than a history, it is a guide for states across the land who wish to restore fairness and sanity to our elections. We simply have to save our democracy from, well, us.
We have outsmarted ourselves. No matter what laws we create, partisans, lobbyists and corporations, given enough time and money, will find ways around and through our best intentions. Only a national plan for independent redistricting strikes broadly and simply enough to make sure there are no loopholes. It is complicated by the fact that we are a nation at play, not a nation at work. Where electoral politics are concerned, we are not a vigilant nation. I’m sure you know how many Twitter followers you have and how many Facebook friends as well, but do you know who your Congressional rep is, and a better question, why?
OK, excellent outcome. Not a mandate, but clearly a rebuke to Republicans’ misguided belief that hate and division can again pass for vision. Their pundits employed “selection bias,” the phenomenon where you pick the information that suits your argument (Karl Rove, Peggy Noonan, Rasmussen Polling, The Wall Street Journal, Talk Radio and Fox News) rather than the facts (Nate Silver). If you’re scoring at home, that’s Science 1 – Wishful Thinking 0.
The two headlines have to be Science and Demographics. The Obama campaign knew a year ago that twelve counties would decide this. They analyzed the Electoral College rules and knew how, when and where to deploy their assets. Demographics, because the emergent coalition of women, Millennials and minorities meant that no amount of safe white counties would be enough to win.
Still, the campaign was disappointing: substance free, nit-picking the tiny, inconsequential issues while ignoring the critical ones will be its hallmark. Both candidates were afraid to address real issues like global warming or the structural changes to our economy represented by the twin forces of Globalization and the broadly disruptive Internet.
Instead the Republicans invoked dog-whistle racism, and blatant misogynistic rape and abortion hot buttons.
And why did the President play small-ball? This election campaign has turned on taxes, unemployment, the size of government, and economic recovery, but let’s face it, presidents have much less power than we give them credit and blame for. If a president could control gas prices, for instance, would there ever be another one term presidency? Each September of an election year, the boss would just reprice gas at $1.76/gallon and get re-elected. How about if they could control the unemployment numbers? Same story: put Americans to work so the number gets to 5.5% or so, and voila! Congress has a lot more power over the economy than does the president.
What then is a president’s role? Well, for starters, the Commander in Chief is the last word on foreign policy. The president can mobilize the military and decide whom we talk to, whom we trade with, and who we bomb. But bigger still is the president’s bully pulpit, both at home and at broad.
And that, for me, is the big Obama disappointment. Not his foreign policy–for it has been the bright shining light of the Obama presidency–but his inability or unwillingness to tell the story of these years to the American people. Someone said the president is the Story Teller in Chief, and that, more than anywhere else, is where he let us down. Strange, too, because during the 2008 campaign, and right up through the inauguration, Mr. Obama seemed to get that. He’s a superb writer and an eloquent speaker, yet for some inexplicable reason, he stopped telling us what was going on.
Why, beginning with the stimulus, didn’t he lay out his plans, his outreach, and the opposition’s tack? How hard would it have been to let us know that history says when credit freezes and business stalls, government can prop up the economy long enough for it to regain its momentum? And when the opposition–loyal and otherwise–started to lie and obstruct, why didn’t he show us how wrong, spiteful and mean-spirited they were?
We sent him to The White House to fight for hope and change, and this president had the once-in-a-generation chance to re-stripe the field, but he would have had to tell us what he was going to do, and then tell us what he did.
The presidency stands for national leadership. I will grant you that in the Age of Information, when the huge messaging infrastructure represented by Fox News, Talk Radio, and a million Websites and blogs has the discipline to stick to the Heritage Foundation’s daily talking points, you have your work cut out for you.
But you’re the President. Your messaging infrastructure is the U.S. government and the entirety of the news media from serious newspapers to Entertainment Tonight.
So everyday you call the liars out and recast the story the way it should be told, in truths big and small. They make it so easy, really. As the great American philosopher, Ann Landers, said, “The best dressed lie is never as pretty as the naked truth.” How hard would it have been to stop Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on day three when he said publicly that his primary goal was to see to it that Mr. Obama was a one term president?
There’s no rule against presidents using Power Point is there? For four years I’ve wondered why the White House didn’t hire the people who made Al Gore’s Oscar™ winning movie “An Inconvenient Truth” to make a few slides depicting the wanton off-the-books spending of the Bush Administration, the structural nature of current unemployment that began in the Bush years, or the painful truth that trickle down economics has not resulted in income or job growth for the Middle Class.
To our detriment, both sides forwarded deluded “plans” to restore an economy that is so significantly changed by Globalization and the Internet that it will never return to the Industrial Revolution model we have relied on for a hundred years.
Women, Millennials, Latinos, African Americans, and GLBT minorities emerged in this election. It was their first election as the majority. All of this “take our country back” and social imagineering of a return to the 1950s Hollywood back-lot America is the last gasp of the WASP majority. They are anti-immigrant for good reason: they don’t want to lose their majority standing. This was their last hurrah.