Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Will 2014 be the year we finally end perpetual war?

This year one of the most important articles I wrote was about the reduction in the number of drone strikes. But that was way back in February. On May 23rd President Obama gave a speech about our counterterrorism efforts and focused specifically on our policy about the use of drones.
In the Afghan war theater, we must -- and will -- continue to support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014. And that means we will continue to take strikes against high value al Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces. But by the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we’ve made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.

Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces. And even then, the use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists; our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute. America cannot take strikes wherever we choose; our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty.

America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set.
He didn't promise to immediately end the use of drones, but provided us with the circumstances under which they would be used. And so, with 2013 coming to an end, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how this year compares to what has happened in the past.
This is data I compiled from the Washington Post and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

A headline in Pakistan Today reflects what you see for that country in these numbers: Drone strikes lessen to all time low since 2008. It is also important to note that over half (7) of the drone strikes in Yemen came in July/August this year during the time that intelligence reports of threats prompted the US to shut down embassies all over the Middle East.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has been quite critical of President Obama on the use of drones, had this to say about the result of his efforts to curtail civilian casualties.
There were no confirmed reports of civilian deaths in the six months after the speech. However this could be a continuing trend rather than a direct consequence of the speech. Total civilian casualties have been falling since 2009, and the average number of civilian deaths in each strike has also been declining over the past four years.
I realize that we've all moved on from fear-mongering about drones to worrying about the NSA. But the truth is that President Obama is keeping his promise to bring an end to perpetual war. And as we look forward to the day our troops come home from Afghanistan in 2014, its pretty clear that he meant what he said back in May 2012.
My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon. The Iraq War is over. The number of our troops in harm’s way has been cut in half, and more will be coming home soon. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan, while delivering justice to al Qaeda...

This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end.

How bad are things for the GOP? Their new mantra is "no fools on our ticket."

Lots of people are making predictions about what is going to happen in 2014. My suggestion is that we all join Stephen in stocking up on popcorn to watch the battle that is about to be waged in the Republican Party. It promises to be highly entertaining.

After years of pandering to the lunatics in their ranks as a way to gin up Obama Derangement Syndrome, the 1%ers in the party have had enough. And of course, their response is to assume that they can buy the party back from the lunatics if they just spend enough money. Why would that surprise any of us coming from the folks who think money can fix anything?

And so on Christmas day, the Wall Street Journal told us that the Chamber of Commerce plans to spend $50 million "to support establishment, business-friendly candidates in primaries and the general election." But what was really amusing is how low they've set the bar.
"Our No. 1 focus is to make sure, when it comes to the Senate, that we have no loser candidates," said the business group's top political strategist, Scott Reed. "That will be our mantra: No fools on our ticket."
Might I suggest that when the best you've got is "no fools," its time to rethink a few things?

On the other side of the coin, the lunatics are gearing up for a blood bath. These are the folks the Chamber so affectionately calls "fools." How do you suppose they're going to react to that? Yep, the very same energy the Republicans fueled to win the 2010 midterms is now being unleashed against their own establishment.

Couldn't happen to a more deserving party...bring on the popcorn!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Color Commentary

When you look at a picture like this, what stands out to you? If, by chance, you noticed how overwhelmingly "white" the White House Press Corp is, then give yourself a gold star. The closer the people in the photo are to the front row, the more you're seeing the group of folks who have made it to the top ranks of the profession of journalism...and the less likely you are to see a person of color. 

Given the fact that in just a few years time, white people will lose their majority status in this country, you'd think that this would be changing. Well, according to Politico, you'd be wrong. They recently published a list of the 10 journalists to watch in 2014 and there's not a person of color to be found apparently. David Dennis noticed. And he came up with a pretty good reason for why this continues to happen.
A few months ago, I wrote a commentary for the Guardian about how unpaid internships create an unfair funnel system to media outlets. They create a homogenous voice that excludes those who don't have the money or privilege to work for free. This, to me, is the biggest challenge facing the media.
If being able to work for free is a requirement to getting your foot in the door at most media outlets, that would do a pretty good job of excluding a variety of points of view - including those of people of color.

Obviously Dennis has talked to various publications about this deficiency and he hears the same old line one often hears when white employers seem to have good intentions about diversifying their work force, but fail..."we just can't find qualified applicants." Dennis has a great response:
...the internet is full of thousands of people writing about issues from diverse perspectives every day. There are blogs, websites and even Twitter feeds full of brilliant, poignant and diverse writing pushing envelopes and driving conversations. These writers just need bigger platforms to affect change and shed light on issues.
There is no excuse if people are really interested. The talent is out there. But bringing it in would mean change - and there's the rub. Whether its media or some other business, the truth is that changing the demographics of your work force beyond tokenism is going to change your business. When it comes to journalism, that is likely going to mean a change in the kinds of stories that are covered and the kinds of perspectives that are included. By not being willing to go there, much of our current media will maintain the lens that distorts their racial, cultural and patriarchal view of the world.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Retired anchor affirms what's wrong with the media

Its become standard fare these days to complain about the media. And like almost everything else, those complaints have become politicized with liberals complaining that the media is controlled by conservatives and conservatives complaining about the liberal media.

I personally think that both accusations are wrong. What's wrong with the media is the same thing that is wrong with much of the corporate world...everything is about the bottom line of profit. Here's David Simon talking about that in the larger context:
If we don’t exert on behalf of human dignity at the expense of profit and capitalism and greed, which are inevitabilities, and if we can’t modulate them in some way that is a framework for an intelligent society, we are doomed. It is going to happen sooner than we think. I don’t know what form it will take. But I know that every year America is going to be a more brutish and cynical and divided place.
And so it came as no surprise to me when a retired anchorman published a fascinating op-ed in our local newspaper. Don Shelby was the news anchor for the Twin Cities CBS affiliate for 20 years. Recently he went to a premiere of the movie Anchorman 2 - a comedy starring Will Ferrell. But his review of the movie was no laughing matter.
The movie was filled with funny lines...I laughed, too — until the shame began to cover me like a wet blanket.

This is why I felt ashamed — the comedy might as well have been a drama based on true events.
Shelby goes on to describe some specifics of how Ron Burgandy (Ferrell's character) actually mirrored his own experience - like killing a story because it would have hurt an advertiser and the whole process of focusing on unimportant stories that drive up ratings. And then he ends with this:
We are watching a comedy about our own careers in a business that used to be about finding ways to make us all better informed. But something went haywire...

Anchors are granted a wonderful gift. They are believed and respected. In return, they must read the tough lines and tell the truth, good and bad, about our communities and our country. It is not, as television management sees it, a popularity contest.

After you see the movie and laugh at the ridiculousness of television news as Ron Burgundy portrays it, go home and ask whether what passes as journalism today really is journalism.
Of course its easy for Shelby to say this now that he doesn't have to depend on television management for his paycheck. What he's basically saying is that he and his fellow anchors sold out to a business that sold out a long time ago. And as long as we are stupid enough to believe and respect them for it, they'll continue to sell us out.

In the meantime, all this makes our job of finding the truth quite a bit harder. Thanks to the internet, we're able to piece together what's happening by looking beyond the linkbait and asking the hard questions. That's what I'll continue to try to do.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

May I remind you?

Before the Duck Dynasty idiot spoke up, this happened:





And so, may I remind you that the more we win, the more ridiculously stupid things these people are going to say. Better get used to it because we're winning on this one...big time!

Wallace, Oscar, and Trayvon

GQ Magazine chose Michael B. Jordan as one of the "breakout men of the year" in 2013 for his role as Oscar Grant in the movie Fruitvale Station. Perhaps because he cast Jordan in the role of Wallace in the HBO series The Wire, they asked David Simon to write the accompanying article.

For those of you who either didn't watch The Wire or have forgotten, Jordan's character meets the same end there as he does in the true story about what happened at Fruitvale Station. In the former he is shot at the hands of fellow drug dealers and in the latter, it was a cop. Simon makes the connection:
The drug war? Stop and frisk? Racial profiling? Black-on-black violence? Our separate Americas? All that is commentary. If you need white folks to actually feel something, it pays to aim a handgun at Michael B. Jordan’s delicate and nuanced humanity and pull the trigger. Suddenly the risks of being young and black on an American street are apparent...

Now Michael B. Jordan, an actor honed by a decade of meaningful work, turns in a performance that surrounds the doomed Oscar Grant, making him seem idiosyncratic yet average, ordinary yet precious. That’s the power of Fruitvale.

It’s easy to say as much, but to feel it? And it’s harder when we are obliged to consider those who wear hoodies, who smoke a little weed, who text the wrong thing to a girl, who ever make a single mistake in their short lives. Harder still if the dead man can’t win us with his smile.

And there’s the lesson.
Oops, all of the sudden we're not talking about the movies anymore.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Racism: "America will not elect two African Americans in a row"

When white people find themselves in uncomfortable discussions about racism, they'll often say things like "I don't see race," usually followed up by a vow of allegiance to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Of course the idea that we can be colorblind is a lie.  Even though the whole concept of "race" is based on an unscientific illusion, we've all be conditioned our whole lives (both consciously and unconsciously) to "see" race.

Don't believe me? Then check out this conversation I had recently on Daily Kos in one of the endless discussions amongst liberals about who the Democratic presidential candidate will be in 2016. I mentioned that if Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick ran, I'd support him 100%. The immediate reply I got had nothing to do with his record or policies. Short and sweet, it was "America will not elect two African Americans in a row." End of story.

Now just imagine if that had been the reaction to John Adams exploring the possibility of running for president after George Washington..."America will not elect two white people in a row." Come on people! We had 43 white guys in succession before Barack Obama broke through. But now that we've given you black folks one, its time to go back to the default mode. We're SOOOO done with that "black thing." Never mind exploring the "content of their character." If one of the best candidates has black skin, ain't gonna happen.

I don't know if Gov. Patrick is going to run or not. All I'm saying is that if he did - he's got a helluva record to run on. To simply dismiss him because this country is still too steeped in racism to even consider two black presidents in a row is clearly an example of how far we still have to go to live out King's dream.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

2013 Most Memorable Moments

If you haven't already, please check out the collection of posts by people at The Obama Diary showcasing their most memorable moments of 2013. Its a wonderful reflection on the last 12 months as we begin to get ready for the new year. Chipsticks was gracious enough to allow me to join them with a guest posting of my own most memorable moments. In case you missed it, here it is.

10. Big Sis
As someone who has a big sister and knows how trying that relationship can be at this age, I LOVED this one.

9. A wise and empathetic Latina on the Supreme Court
This year Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor published her book "My Beloved World." I read it immediately. It moved me beyond words to think that we have someone on the Supreme Court who has lived her life. During her book promotion tour, this happened:
"At her Wednesday night book talk here, Justice Sonia Sotomayor glided through her audience of 700, dispensing homespun wisdom through a cordless microphone, interrupted by impromptu applause. 
When the moderator read a question from Tabbie Major, age 7, about which books Justice Sotomayor loved as a child, she found the girl, locked her in an embrace, held on while reminiscing about Nancy Drew mysteries and then called out for a photographer to capture the moment. "
8. The evolution of mom dancing

Nuff said. FLOTUS pulls off the comedy gold of the year.

7. Marriage equality spreads like wildfire
This is how we celebrated in Minnesota.

6. Those red shoes!
We all know what happened that day. Wendy Davis showed us how its done. We'll love her forever for that!

5. The day Antoinette Tuff "stood up, spoke out, and got in the way"
In case you've forgotten what this extraordinary woman did, remind yourself.

4. The President doesn't do schtick well - Jon Favreau

Yes, I'm a Jon Favreau groupie ;-) But it was SO great to hear him say what many of us already knew about this President.
"He's the least remote person I could imagine. He's warm, he's friendly, he's patient. He's never - in all the stress he's been under and all the situations he's been in - yelled at me, raised his voice, walked out of a room like really angry. He's very honest with you. And he also - like - wants to know about your life, you know. He's "How's everything goin? How's your love life? You havin' fun?" He's a really good person. 
I think that the remoteness thing comes from...he doesn't do artifice well. He doesn't do schtick well, right? It goes back to that authenticity thing. He knows who he is, he believes who he is and he's not going to put on some facade just because he's supposed to glad-handle someone. He would rather actually get to know that person...talk to them, have a real conversation - not recite talking points - and enjoy that person's company. "
3. An activist White House
After Cabinet members, staff and VP Biden visited Fast for Families, POTUS and FLOTUS stopped in to provide their support the day after Thanksgiving. As I asked at the time: When has a White House shown this kind of support to activists? The answer: Never.

2. A refutation of fear
If I had to pick any day over the last 5+ year that I was most proud of President Barack Obama, it might be May 23, 2013 when he challenged us to start thinking about ending the indefinite war and moving away from the fear that gripped this country after 9/11.
"Our victory against terrorism won’t be measured in a surrender ceremony at a battleship, or a statue being pulled to the ground. Victory will be measured in parents taking their kids to school; immigrants coming to our shores; fans taking in a ballgame; a veteran starting a business; a bustling city street; a citizen shouting her concerns at a President. The quiet determination; that strength of character and bond of fellowship; that refutation of fear -- that is both our sword and our shield."
1. For Grace
My number one moment isn't actually a moment, but something that President Obama does every day. When he was recently interviewed by Chris Matthews he said that the most important characteristic of any president is the extent to which s/he stays in touch with the people s/he is elected to serve. Here's how President Obama does that after the dreadful day in Newtown.
"When I visited Newtown last month, I spent some private time with many of the families who lost their children that day. And one was the family of Grace McDonald. Grace’s parents are here. Grace was seven years old when she was struck down -- just a gorgeous, caring, joyful little girl. I’m told she loved pink. She loved the beach. She dreamed of becoming a painter. 
And so just before I left, Chris, her father, gave me one of her paintings, and I hung it in my private study just off the Oval Office. And every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace. And I think about the life that she lived and the life that lay ahead of her, and most of all, I think about how, when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us, we must act now -- for Grace. For the 25 other innocent children and devoted educators who had so much left to give. For the men and women in big cities and small towns who fall victim to senseless violence each and every day. For all the Americans who are counting on us to keep them safe from harm. "

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Let me tell you something about the Jesus that I know"

This post by kid oakland is a tradition for me on Christmas. I can think of no better way to honor the birth we celebrate tonight.
Let me tell you something about the Jesus that I know.

He was a real man. Born in a poor region to working poor parents. He loved learning, he loved his mother and his father.

But he left them and spent his life with the poor, the outcast, the rejected, the defiled, the sick, the sinners, the bedraggled, the bereft, the self-hating, the lonely, the banished, the foul, the miserable, the desperate and finally, those sick with their own power.

He did this, not because of his ideology or his creed. He did this not because of his doctrine. He did this, quite simply, because he loved them. He preferred them.

Their company, their stories, their lives, their environs, their plight and their faith.

And they loved him. Because he touched them. He looked them in the eye and believed in them. Because, at the end of the day, when they looked to him they saw that his commitment to them was a commitment unsullied by qualifier or clause. It was a commitment to love them, even upon pain of death. And they saw in him, a love that promised to love them as they were, who they were...fully, without judgement or flinching glance, or hypocritical accomodation.

This man, Jesus, was surrounded by friends and disciples whom he mentored....not by carping or enforcing rules...but by example and teaching. By the force of his actions. By his resolute commitment to the least, the smallest, the most in need.
It strikes me that if that was the Jesus we celebrated, the words of this Christmas carol would come true:
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease

Why the media didn't fact-check Snowden/Greenwald

I see that Edward Snowden is following the lead of George W. Bush in prematurely claiming Mission Accomplished. Someone might want to tell him that it didn't work out so well for the guy who said that last time. But politicians and pundits from all across the political spectrum are lining up to canonize the guy.

All of this totally ignores some very inconvenient facts related to the lies and misinformation that have been spread by Snowden/Greenwald. I might remind you that one of Snowden's opening statements was that he could wiretap the President's phone from his desk if he wanted to. Not true. There was that whole PRISM thing about "direct access" that turned out to be a hoax. Of course there were also the lies of omission. Like the fact that the Snowdenistas have produced zero "revelations" on the NSA's policies - enforced by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court - about the minimization procedures that are in place to protect the privacy of Americans. Then there are all the things we still don't know. Like the fact that Snowden admitted he took the job at Booz Allen specifically to steal information and the questions that raises about when/how he first made contact with Greenwald/Poitras. Or what was the significance of Snowden not only fleeing to Russia, but staying in their embassy while in Hong Kong?

Can you imagine how different this whole story might look if the media ever really looked into all that? It might actually resemble how President Obama talked about it at his end-of-the-year press conference. Heaven forbid!

Based on all this, I went to Politifact to see if they've ever fact-checked Snowden/Greenwald. Oops, they don't do that for "whistleblowers" and journalists...only politicians. When it comes to journalists, Media Matters does an amazing job of fact-checking the right wingers. But we've known since the run-up to the Iraq War that there is precious little fact-checking of the MSM.

Snowden/Greenwald have been able to exploit that opening by fueling the media's love of hysterical accusations and blinding cynicism to produce a narrative that paints Snowden as a hero and NSA as the villain. I don't know about you, but my experience tells me that no story is ever that black and white. Silly me...what kind of linkbait is that going to produce?

Monday, December 23, 2013

For all the Humbugers

Gawd, I love this guy!!!

Inequality is first and foremost a moral question

Over and over again, President Obama has said that income inequality is the defining issue of our time. Lately we've seen that issue being engaged...whether it was OWS screaming at Wall Street or Mitt Romney dismissing the 47% of "takers." As the battle over policies to improve or worsen the situation is engaged, I think its important to ground ourselves in the moral arguments that are being made.

Recently, Timothy Egan did a good job of summarizing some of the things Republicans have said about that. The message is that the poor are morally inferior.
“The explosion of food stamps in this country is not just a fiscal issue for me,” said Representative Steve Southerland, Republican from Florida, chief crusader for cutting assistance to the poor. “This is a defining moral issue of our time.”

It would be a “disservice” to further extend unemployment assistance to those who’ve been out of work for some time, said Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky. It encourages them to sit at home and do nothing.

“People who are perfectly capable of working are buying things like beer,” said Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, on those getting food assistance in his state.
That reminded me of something Rick Santorum said while he was running for president. His position was basically that the suffering of poor people was good for them.
During a town hall meeting in Ottumwa, Iowa Friday afternoon, Rick Santorum argued that Americans receive too many government benefits and ought to “suffer” in the Christian tradition. If “you’re lower income, you can qualify for Medicaid, you can qualify for food stamps, you can qualify for housing assistance,” Santorum complained, before adding, “suffering is part of life and it’s not a bad thing, it is an essential thing in life.”
What's been interesting lately is to see some conservatives not only talk about the moral failings of the poor, but to actually engage in this discussion by attempting to extoll the moral superiority of the wealthy. Joseph Epstein made just such an argument recently in the Wall Street Journal. Speaking wistfully of the days that the WASP elite ran this country, he says:
Yet the WASP elite had dignity and an impressive sense of social responsibility. In a 1990 book called "The Way of the Wasp," Richard Brookhiser held that the chief WASP qualities were "success depending on industry; use giving industry its task; civic-mindedness placing obligations on success, and antisensuality setting limits to the enjoyment of it; conscience watching over everything."

Under WASP hegemony, corruption, scandal and incompetence in high places weren't, as now, regular features of public life. Under WASP rule, stability, solidity, gravity and a certain weight and aura of seriousness suffused public life. As a ruling class, today's new meritocracy has failed to provide the positive qualities that older generations of WASPs provided.
Oh my!!! Some people were so stunned by this outrageous argument that they questioned whether Epstein was writing ironically. I guess not. Frankly, the whole idea of taking it upon oneself to decide whether the rich or poor are morally superior is stunning to me.

On the other side of the coin, Pope Francis is shaking up the whole world these days with a very different kind of argument.
How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape...

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.
Wow! All of the sudden we're not talking about someone else's morality (the rich or the poor), but our own. Now its getting personal. That's exactly how President Obama posed the issue to the graduating class of Northwestern University back in 2006:
...we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principle goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.

They will tell you that the Americans who sleep in the streets and beg for food got there because they're all lazy or weak of spirit. That the inner-city children who are trapped in dilapidated schools can't learn and won't learn and so we should just give up on them entirely. That the innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes half a world away are somebody else's problem to take care of.

I hope you don't listen to this. I hope you choose to broaden, and not contract, your ambit of concern. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all of those who helped you get to where you are, although you do have that debt.

It's because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. And because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential - and become full-grown.
While I applaud those who find their religion to be helpful in exercising this kind of "collective salvation," I'm thankful for humanity's sake that it is not a requirement.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Republican's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 2013

According to most pundits and the White House Press Corp, the big story right now is that 2013 was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year for President Obama. Of course they have facts like the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov and his low poll numbers to back up that claim.

But one way to demonstrate the distorted lens through which the media tends to look at things like this is to think about how 2013 looked for Republicans. Their primary goal lately has been to see Obamacare fail. They were given an assist on that when the web site launched so badly. And BOY, did they run with it!

As anyone who is interested in more than a few days of our frenzied media market knows, a web site can be fixed...and it has been. Now what? They can freak out all they want over Pajama Boy, but the reality is that come January, millions of Americans will have affordable health insurance. And there's nothing they can do to stop that.

What about the rest of 2013?
  • It all started with the so-called "fiscal cliff" that resulted in taxes being raised on the wealthy - a component of deficit reduction that has been anathema to Republicans. 
  • Then there were the "scandals." Republicans got their hopes up that stories about Benghazi and the IRS would prove to be worse than Watergate, ensuring that a second Obama term would end in disgrace. Not happening. 
  • With the war in Iraq over and Afghanistan winding down, Republican hawks have been itching for our involvement in the Syrian Civil War or at least the possibility of starting one in Iran. For the time being, neither one looks likely. 
  • Majority Leader Harry Reid dashed Republican efforts to obstruct President Obama's appointments by ending the use of the filibuster.
  • Shutting down the government over a demand that Obamacare be repealed was perhaps the lowest moment of the year for Republicans. Even Speaker Boehner admitted it was a big mistake.
  • All over the country, as a result of referendum, state legislatures and the courts, marriage equality is spreading like wildfire...even in the red state of Utah.
  • That whole thing about Republicans reaching out to women and minorities blew up faster than the time it took for Karl Rove to concede the 2012 election results.
  • Of course there were the off-year elections where the entire leadership of the state of Virginia went from Republican to Democratic control.
  • While the media focuses on President Obama's approval ratings, only 24% of the public approves of the job Republicans are doing in Congress
  • And finally, we witnessed Boehner, Ryan and Cantor pleading with the teapublicans to embrace "common ground" and pass a bipartisan budget. What? No hostage-taking?
Looking forward to 2014, we have the prospect of an all-out civil war in the Republican Party with the teapublicans promising a blood bath in the primaries for mid-term elections. So tell me, other than a botched web site, what is it the Republicans have to show for all their efforts this past year?

Without the patriarchal lens of only looking at one authority figure, the whole notion of who had a "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year" in 2013 looks a bit different. That's why seeing the big picture is so important.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

"Sweet Darkness" on the Solstice

Sweet Darkness

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb
tonight.

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

-- David Whyte

President Obama commutes the sentences of 8 people. A lesson in outrage vs organizing ensues

Perhaps you've heard by now that this week President Obama commuted the sentences of 8 people convicted of using crack cocaine under the former disparate sentencing guidelines. Here is part of his statement:
Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness. But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.
Right on cue come the howls of "THAT IS NOT ENOUGH!" Here's Meteor Blades at Daily Kos:
No president, no attorney general can fix all that is wrong with our sentencing laws, even just our drug-sentencing laws. But in the case the crack-cocaine convicts, the president could wipe the slate clean without waiting for Congress to give him something to sign: Commute the sentences of those 7,000 federal prisoners who wouldn't be incarcerated right now if they had been sentenced under the 2010 law.

Nothing radical in such a move, just an act of justice and fairness. But it would take courage and the willingness suffer the inevitable barrage of media and nutcase attacks that would be delivered to any president who dared take such action.
And along comes the great Al Giordano to take down that nonsense:
To say, "Oh, it's only eight, he should have released all tens of thousands of them" is trademark "Eeyore Activism" (the syndrome in which any one step toward progress is never enough, in which some even express anger at the person who made that step). As one with scar tissue upon scar tissue from the slings and arrows of having fought to end all imprisonment for drug crimes for so long, I see it as a watershed moment. It "normalizes" the concept for public opinion, opening the door for the rest of us to organize to free the rest.

Can you imagine the media shit storm if all tens of thousands were released on the same day before public opinion was ready to embrace it, the media witch hunt sensationalizing any error made by any single one of them after release, the blowback and subsequent retreat setting back our cause another 20 years? Every long march happens one step at a time. A step in the right direction should always be applauded and encouraged. In fact that's the only thing in history that has ever paved the way for the second step to be taken, something the Eeyores would do well to study and understand better…
What Meteor Blades is advocating smacks of the kind of "Daddy save us" patriarchal authoritarianism I was talking about the other day. He is a master of the old liberal guard wallowing in their disappointment that nothing those in authority do is ever enough...sigh. What a perfect name for that - Eeyore Activism!
But as usual, Giordano gets what an important step this is from a President who believes in the power of partnership (ie, democracy) and the long game that can bring about transformational change.

Friday, December 20, 2013

President Obama doesn't want to defeat his opponents, he wants to co-opt them

I've always thought that this interview of President Obama with Jeffrey Goldberg on Israel and Iran contained subtexts that help us understand this president's overall strategy. Particularly revealing is how he talked about his approach with Iran.
I think it's entirely legitimate to say that this is a regime that does not share our worldview or our values. I do think...that as we look at how they operate and the decisions they've made over the past three decades, that they care about the regime's survival. They're sensitive to the opinions of the people and they are troubled by the isolation that they're experiencing. They know, for example, that when these kinds of sanctions are applied, it puts a world of hurt on them. They are able to make decisions based on trying to avoid bad outcomes from their perspective. So if they're presented with options that lead to either a lot of pain from their perspective, or potentially a better path, then there's no guarantee that they can't make a better decision.
I suspect that pretty well sums up President Obama's approach to his opponents in general. His goal is to set up a situation where its in their interests to cooperate with him. This is what drives some folks on the left positively batty...he doesn't want to defeat his opponents, he wants to co-opt them.

We've seen this strategy play out over and over again. Think, for example, about how he approached the issue of ending DADT. Perhaps you'll remember how angry GLBT activists got at him for not simply issuing an executive order. What the President did instead was to co-opt the military brass into pushing for its repeal.

Rather than fight the health insurance industry and the Republicans on healthcare reform (which is what led the Clinton's to defeat), President Obama bargained with the former - using a series of carrots and sticks that provided incentives for them to transform the system.

In taking on Republican obstruction, we've seen how conciliatory rhetoric as a ruthless strategy has led to the development of a common sense caucus that is willing to break that cycle and work with the President and Democrats on finding common ground.

In the coming weeks I predict that President Obama will co-opt all the energy the Greenwalds of the world have generated about surveillance into his own platform to reform our national security apparatus.

Beyond being a pragmatic approach to change, this kind of strategy is what leads to actual transformation rather than the backlash that most often accompanies attempts to defeat your opponent. Its also an approach that goes against the grain of our western patriarchal attachment to competition and dominance as the only way to deal with an opponent. As I've talked about before, President Obama's strategy tends to align itself more with the Aikido Way.
...every technique we study in Aikido involves practicing the art of creating a change in the situation...

Creating this change requires four things from us:

1] We must maintain our own balance while taking theirs
2] We must react fearlessly
3] We must enter into the very center of the conflict
4] We must understand our opponent's intentions in order to achieve resolution

When we follow these four steps for creating change, we don't just change the situation, we change our opponents.
There are no guarantees that this kind of strategy will always be executed perfectly or that it will succeed in the short run. We saw President Obama take a huge risk on coming up with a Grand Bargain in the 2011 fight over the debt ceiling and he came up short. But if what ails our system is a march towards increasing partisan polarization leading to endless rounds of backlash, its the long game that could bring about real and lasting change.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The cultural lens that distorts the media's perception of President Obama

Part 1: The patriarchal lens that distorts the media's perception of President Obama
Part 2: The racial lens that distorts the media's perception of President Obama

I'm not a reporter and I don't play one on the internet. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that the media in this country is in trouble. Print media is dying, cable TV is losing subscribers and no one has figured out the formula for making money off of internet journalism. Then along comes Fox News, conservative talk radio and right wing web sites demonstrating that one way to survive is to cater to a niche market and we're off to the races.

In his seminal piece that got him kicked out of the conservative intelligentsia, David Frum wrote about the effects this was having on the Republican Party. But I'd suggest that it fits pretty well as an overall critique of our current professional media.
I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.
I'll leave it for you to decide when it was that the overall mission of the media went from informing the public to the bottom line of profit on the balance sheet, but the truth is that the latter is what drives an awful lot of what we see - moreso than the endless accusations about the media being either liberal or conservative.

And so in this environment, linkbait is the name of the game. On the extremes, that leads to the approach of everyone from Ann Coulter to Glenn Greenwald. The more sensational you can make your claims, the better. But it also tells you why CNN has gone back to their once-derided format of Crossfire. Even better than hysterical accusations is two sides yelling them at one another.

Now contrast that with what then-Senator Barack Obama said back in 2005 should be our goal.
I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate...

Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.
So what I would suggest is that the cultural lens of the media is directly in line with the goals of the Republican Party ("to chip away at the very idea of government") and at odds with President Obama's. Add to that what Jon Favreau said about the President not doing schtick well, and you begin to understand why the media so often assumes that he is remote, aloof and professorial.
I think that the remoteness thing comes from...he doesn't do artifice well. He doesn't do schtick well, right? It goes back to that authenticity thing. He knows who he is, he believes who he is and he's not going to put on some facade just because he's supposed to glad-handle someone. He would rather actually get to know that person...talk to them, have a real conversation - not recite talking points - and enjoy that person's company.
Nowhere was this dynamic more in evidence than back in 2009 when Ed Henry expressed his outrage at President Obama's slowness to outrage over Wall Street bonuses.


President Obama's insistence on knowing what he's talking about BEFORE he speaks literally does not compute with people whose only interest is in hyperbolic linkbait. As we all know by now, we're talking about "no drama Obama." It is the ultimate clash of cultures.

Of course this President's commitment to the long game is also directly at odds with the need for linkbait 24/7. What Michelle Obama said about her husband is exactly what angers so many in the media.
Here's the thing about my husband: even in the toughest moments, when it seems like all is lost, Barack Obama never loses sight of the end goal. He never lets himself get distracted by the chatter and the noise, even if it comes from some of his best supporters. He just keeps moving forward.

And in those moments when we're all sweating it, when we're worried that the bill won't pass or the negotiation will fall through, Barack always reminds me that we're playing a long game here. He reminds me that change is slow — it doesn't happen overnight.
But there is yet another cultural lens that distorts the media's perception of this President. Perhaps it is the legacy of Watergate, but its hard to ignore the overall 'gottcha" nature of today's media. It has been ingrained into the whole system that every reporter/pundit must assume a cynical attitude towards presidential power. There is nothing inherently wrong with that as long as it leaves the door open for the possibility of authenticity. But in making the assumption that all politicians are liars or con artists and our job is only to point out how, the media excludes the possibility of an authentic leader.

I would posit that we have just such a leader in President Obama. Of course that doesn't mean that I think he's perfect. The fact that I even have to write that demonstrates how our culture has absorbed the either/or binary of hero/villain. What it actually means is that he's made mistakes. But I've watched him long enough to see that his words match his deeds. So I believe what he says. I know that doesn't happen very often in politics. But the fact that so many in the media think it never happens is part of the cultural lens that distorts their perceptions.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The racial lens that distorts the media's perception of President Obama

This is part 2 to: The patriarchal lens that distorts the media's perception of President Obama.

We've all witnessed the racial backlash to the election of this country's first African American president. What I want to talk about is not the obvious racism of the teapublicans with their birther conspiracies about the Kenyan socialist. There's something more insidiously racial in how the mainstream press covers this President and the effect their analysis has on our conscious as well as unconscious biases.

So what I want to talk about is all the subtle (and not so subtle) ways the media portrays President Obama as incompetent. Right on cue comes pearl-clutcher-in-chief Peggy Noonan's latest column which she so aptly titles Incompetence. Of course all she's really got to work with is the botched roll-out of healthcare.gov. But boy, does she run with it.
...in recent weeks I have begun to worry about the basic competency of the administration, its ability to perform the most fundamental duties of executive management...

It all looks so lax, so loosey-goosey. In the place of the energy and focus that would go into the running of things, the administering and managing of them, we have the preoccupation with spin, with how things look as opposed to how they are.
You'd be right if you suggested that it is pretty much Peggy Noonan's job to criticize and distort what a Democratic administration is doing. But why focus on the trope of incompetence? Its because that way of looking at a black man already has resonance with herself and her readers. As Jonathan Chait so eloquently wrote recently, our legacy is a racial system "in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person." And so if you are a Republican wanting to discredit this administration among white people who have been programmed their whole lives to see black people as incompetent, the platform is ready-made for you to exploit.

Unfortunately, its not just the Peggy Noonan's of the world who peddle this meme. Those who aren't in the business of promoting Republicans often pick it up as well...just more subtly. Yesterday xpostfactoid pointed out one of the ways that happens with an article titled: If only Obama would say what he's never stopped saying. If only he would do what he's done. In it he chronicles how pundits (usually on the left side of the political spectrum) so often give President Obama "advice" about how to say/do things without ever really acknowledging his record. That's another way of dismissing the President's competence.

Perhaps the most insidious way the media reinforces this meme is by suggesting that President Obama is lucky whenever he has successes. This one runs through almost every achievement of his in the last 5+ years. You might remember that it all started when - in the most obviously racial example of all - Geraldine Ferraro suggested that Barack Obama was beating Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries because he was lucky enough to be black. Here are a few examples of how its played out since then:

Tim Dickinson on the Obamacare contraception controversy:
If this were a political mistake, Barack Obama seems impossibly lucky to have stumbled into it. Every repercussion is redounding to his favor.
Dana Milbank on the economy:
In politics, it’s better to be lucky than good, and Obama has come into an unexpectedly large quantity of luck. Five straight monthly drops in the unemployment rate have boosted consumer confidence and stock markets.
 Gary Younge on his opponents:
Barack Obama has often been lucky with his enemies...

Now, as he heads for reelection, he must be saying a prayer every day in thanks for Mitt Romney...

The principal beneficiary would be Obama. The president should be fighting for his life. Instead, he's living on his luck.
Kevin Drum on the Obama/Romney townhall debate:
He [Obama] let Romney dig himself into an ever deeper hole, and just smiled when Romney tried to get him to directly deny it. This turned out to be either lucky or smart, because it gave Candy Crowley a chance to fact check Romney and confirm that she was there and she heard Obama refer to Benghazi as an act of terror on the very next day.
 p.m. carpenter on Romney's choice of Paul Ryan:
The choice of Ryan would seem to confirm two perpetual truths about Gov. Romney and President Obama: the latter is the luckiest politician since Reagan, and the former is the worst presidential candidate since Dukakis.
 Megan McArdle on Syria (this one was repeated by an awful lot of pundits):
But if it does turn out “well,” this will be because the president was lucky, not brilliant.
And finally, Chris Cilizza simply opines on how President Obama is generally lucky:
In politics — as in life — it’s better to be lucky than good.

And, as the last week of the presidential campaign has made clear, President Obama is both — benefitting from a series of political advantageous moments that few could have predicted even a month ago.
Of course that list is not exhaustive, but is meant to give you an idea of the breadth of people making this claim as well as the number of issues to which it has been applied. Its impossible to escape the overall message: this President isn't competent in his accomplishments, he's just lucky.

Without the racial lens of incompetence, the media might have noticed that this President has had to traverse all kinds of racist minefields that are simply ignored by this kind of analysis. After we've taken that into account, how about recognizing that he took office when we were involved in two wars and suffering from the worst recession since the 1940's? Upon taking office, he faced the most partisan obstructionism we've seen in our lifetimes.

To do that would be to recognize that this black man is one of the most competent people to have ever held the office of President. And that would be to presume that he is equal to - or, heaven forbid, better than - a whole host of white guys.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

When real progressives took on the national security apparatus

"In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left such is the capability to monitor everything...There would be no place to hide.

"...I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return."
Want to know who said that? No, it wasn't Glenn Greenwald or any other Snowdenista. It was Senator Frank Church in August 1975. In one of the most progressive victories against the national security state in this country's history, Senator Church chaired a committee that investigated illegal activities by the CIA, NSA and FBI.

The revelations that prompted the investigations of the Church Committee included not only the fact that the government was spying on American citizens, but also things like this:
Among the matters investigated were attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, including Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, the Diem brothers of Vietnam, Gen. René Schneider of Chile and Director of Central Intelligence Allen Welsh Dulles's plan, approved by the President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to use the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro of Cuba.
Compare that to the kinds of things we're hearing from Snowden and you might understand why many of us who lived through those years are greeting these current revelations with a certain amount of "ho-hum."

As a result of the Church Committee's reports, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to stop these abuses, including the formation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). To hear many folks talk about FISC today, you'd assume its the root of all evil instead of one of the most important progressive victories in our history.

So now we have a federal judge appointed by President Bush who issued a ruling in favor of the guy who recently said that conservatives should demand that this president put the Quran down, get up off his knees, and figuratively come out with his hands up. And this one is being celebrated by so-called progressives even though it directly contradicts one recently declassified by FISC.

All I'll say is that a little history on the work of progressives in this area would go a long way towards some common sense on the issues at hand.

The hardest part of following President Obama's example

Many of us have watched President Obama's brilliance over the last 5+ years. We appreciate his pragmatism, intelligence, compassion and commitment to the long game. But there's one part of his message that remains difficult for many of us. That would be his refusal to demonize his opponents.

When it comes to political debate in this country, that tendency to demonize the opposition is almost a knee-jerk reaction. If someone disagrees with us, it MUST be because they are evil - or at least have evil intentions. This is why political debate - whether its Democrats vs Republicans, Obamarox vs Obamasux, or any other variation - becomes so personal and toxic. It is assumed that we not only disagree, but that our opponent exhibits moral failings that must be called into question.

Once that kind of discussion gets going, our job is to find as much evidence as possible to caricature our opponent's moral failings and put as much distance as possible between them and us. Our ultimate goal becomes to defeat them by any means necessary. We are justified in doing so because our cause is righteous.

Almost as much as teapublicans, the folks that ignite this kind of reaction from me are the ones I sometimes call the "dudebros"....Glenn Greenwald as exhibit A. Of course Greenwald's stock-in-trade is the demonization of his opponents, so its almost impossible to not respond in kind. But take a look at how President Obama responded in his interview with Charlie Rose at the height of the controversy over the Snowden/Greenwald revelations.
I've got to tell you though Charlie, I think this is a healthy thing because its a sign of maturity that this debate would not have been taking place 5 years ago. And I welcome it. I really do because - contrary to what some people think - the longer I'm in this job the more I believe on the one hand, that most folks in government are trying to do the right thing. They work really hard, they're really dedicated...On the other hand, what I also believe is its useful to have a bunch of critics out there who are checking government power and who are making sure we are doing things right so that if we've triple-checked how we're operating any one of these programs, lets go quadruple-check it. I'm comfortable with that and I'm glad to see that we are starting to do that.
To those of us who not only disagree with Greenwald but fantasize about him going up in flames, this is pretty maddening. It reminds me of how Ta-Nehisi Coates talked about his feelings about Martin Luther King, Jr. during his younger days.
King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King's belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.
We all know that MLK's belief in white people NEVER meant that he accepted their racism. What we're talking about here is not appeasement or simply giving in to their arguments. I'd suggest that its all about that "bet that they are no different" from us that is the point. And no matter how much we disagree, we all share this in common.
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

- Alexander Solzhenitsyn
And so, what President Obama (and MLK and Mandela) know is that no matter how strong our disagreements are with one another, we not only share the capacity for evil deeds, but for good as well. Here's how James Kloppenberg described what President Obama does with that awareness.
Although Obama’s reform agenda echoes aspects of those advanced by many Democrats over the last century, he has admitted—and this is the decisive point in understanding his outlook—that his opponents hold principles rooted as deeply in American history as his own. “I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him,” he wrote in Audacity. “That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.” Obama rejects dogma, embraces uncertainty, and dismisses the fables that often pass for history among partisans on both sides who need heroes and villains, and who resist more-nuanced understandings of the past and the present.
Just as demonizing an opponent puts more distance between them and us, empathy looks for common ground. In one of my favorite speeches that President Obama has ever given, he laid out the challenge to an audience of primarily black people at a celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday.
But of course, true unity cannot be so easily won. It starts with a change in attitudes – a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our hearts.

It’s not easy to stand in somebody else’s shoes. It’s not easy to see past our differences. We’ve all encountered this in our own lives. But what makes it even more difficult is that we have a politics in this country that seeks to drive us apart – that puts up walls between us.

We are told that those who differ from us on a few things are different from us on all things; that our problems are the fault of those who don’t think like us or look like us or come from where we do...

So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us the task of changing our hearts and minds. The division, the stereotypes, the scape-goating, the ease with which we blame our plight on others – all of this distracts us from the common challenges we face – war and poverty; injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late.

Because if Dr. King could love his jailor; if he could call on the faithful who once sat where you do to forgive those who set dogs and fire hoses upon them, then surely we can look past what divides us in our time, and bind up our wounds, and erase the empathy deficit that exists in our hearts.
Yeah, all that sounds nice and pretty...until you ask me to apply it to someone like John Boehner or Glenn Greenwald, then it makes me "suck my teeth." It's so damn hard. But its also what made people like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela such great leaders. And I suspect its also at the heart of what makes President Barack Obama one as well.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The patriarchal lens that distorts the media's perception of President Obama

Years ago the world of media and pundits landed on a frame for understanding the difference between our two national parties...Republicans are the "Daddy party" and Democrats are the "Mommy party." While that framework bore some resemblance to the truth (Daddies are associated with structure and Mommies with nurture), it places the same kinds of limits on the lens through which we view politics that patriarchy places on men and women. Its an either/or frame that distorts our perceptions.

Over the last few years we've seen that frame applied to President Obama as various pundits try to understand him. How that mostly plays out is that they come off as children in search of a Daddy. No one does this better than Maureen Dowd. But other pundits from across the spectrum have told him he needs to "man up," gone in search of his leadership defects for failing to dominate the Republicans, and labelled him as weak in negotiations that sought compromise on both sides. Those are all Daddy frames.

Of course the reality is that we're dealing with a President who focused like a laser beam on getting Osama bin Laden and who has been excoriated by many on the left for his prosecution of the war on al Qaeda. These folks want to cast President Obama as the ultimate Daddy by suggesting that he's a warmonger...at the same time that they yearn for a Daddy to lead us in battle against the Republicans.

Perhaps you're beginning to see how our concepts of Daddy/Mommy - which mirror patriarchal views of men and women - have infected much of the way our media attempts to understand this President. More than anything else, our patriarchal legacy tells us that to be strong and wield power is to dominate. While we pay lip service to the nurturing of Mommies, we tend to see that as weak and something to be exploited.

All of those frames are completely useless when it comes to understanding President Obama. The only way anyone will be successful in capturing how he operates is to do their best to throw it all out.

This is a man who is strong enough to take on Osama bin Laden, but also strong enough to cry when 20 beautiful children are brutally gunned down in their classroom. He's the counter-puncher who will do everything he can to find common ground, but crush you if you try to take advantage of that. He's secure enough in himself to let Putin take credit for a win on the international stage if it means that Syria gets rid of its chemical weapons.  He's savvy enough to play the long game of using Republican obstruction to so marginalize their positions that even Speaker Boehner breaks away in anger. He's grounded enough to say to Mitt Romney, "Please proceed, Governor" - knowing he'll get the last word.  He's confident enough in his own positions that he can reach out in empathy to try and understand someone like George W. Bush.

But perhaps most importantly, President Obama knows that dominance is not the means by which to achieve the power that is necessary for change. Whether its reaching out to the rest of the world to work together in pressuring Iran to the negotiating table on nuclear weapons, or reminding us that "nothing can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change," this is a President who believes in the power of partnership. As Rianne Eisler (author of The Chalice and the Blade) said:
Underneath all the complex and seemingly random currents and crosscurrents, is the struggle between two very different ways of relating, of viewing our world and living in it. It is the struggle between two underlying possibilities for relations: the partnership model and the domination model.
Our current-day expert on community organizing, Marshall Ganz, relates that to leadership:
Another important distinction is that between leadership and domination. Effective leaders facilitate the interdependence or collaboration that can create more "power to" -- based on the interests of all parties. Domination is the exercise of "power over" --a relationship that meets interests of the "power wielder" at the expense of everyone else.
Here's President Obama talking about the importance of partnership on the international level:
For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace. For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes -- and, yes, religions -- subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.
And here he is applying that same concept to our domestic politics:
We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That's what we believe.
The reason most media analysis of this President falls short is that they continue to cling to patriarchal notions of strength as a Daddy issue and dominance as the only form of power. Its not surprising because that's how we've all been taught to understand the world. Meanwhile President Obama is at work transforming what leadership will mean going forward in the 21st century. Its going to take a while for the media to catch up.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Barack Obama on Social Darwinism and Collective Salvation circa 2005/06

After some people reacted to President Obama's speech on income inequality by suggesting he was a newcomer to the topic, I went back through some of his earlier speeches as President to demonstrate the consistency with which he has approached the topic. And then I saw this tweet from David Axelrod:

That got me curious. So I dug back a little further. An example of what I found is the speech then-Senator Barack Obama gave at Knox College in 2005. Because the Great Recession hadn't happened yet, he talked about it a little differently back then. But overall, the message was pretty much the same.
Here in Galesburg, you know what this new challenge is. You've seen it. You see it when you drive by the old Maytag plant around lunchtime and no one walks out anymore. I saw it during the campaign when I met the union guys who use to work at the plant and now wonder what they're gonna do at 55-years-old without a pension or health care; when I met the man who's son needs a new liver but doesn't know if he can afford when the kid gets to the top of the transplant list.

It's as if someone changed the rules in the middle of the game and no one bothered to tell these people. And, in reality, the rules have changed. It started with technology and automation that rendered entire occupations obsolete...Then companies like Maytag being able to pick up and move their factories to some Third World country where workers are a lot cheaper than they are in the U.S...

So what do we do about this? How does America find our way in this new, global economy? What will our place in history be?

Like so much of the American story, once again, we face a choice. Once again, there are those who believe that there isn't much we can do about this as a nation. That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their government - divvy it up into individual portions, hand it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care, education, and so forth.

In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it - Social Darwinism, every man and woman for him or herself. It's a tempting idea, because it doesn't require much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say to those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford - tough luck. It allows us to say to the Maytag workers who have lost their job - life isn't fair. It let's us say to the child born into poverty - pull yourself up by your bootstraps...

But there a problem. It won't work. It ignores our history. It ignores the fact that it has been government research and investment that made the railways and the internet possible. It has been the creation of a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools - that has allowed all of us to prosper. Our economic dominance has depended on individual initiative and belief in the free market; but it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity - that has produced our unrivaled political stability.
What you don't hear from President Obama back then or more recently is an excoriation of Wall Street greed. I'd suggest that's because he thinks that is a problem that goes beyond the confines of the financial industry. When I was looking around at his speeches, I found this one at Northwestern University back in 2006 that hits a theme he comes back to regularly.
There's a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us - the child who's hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.

As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier. There's no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You'll be free to live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what's going in your own little circle.

Not only that - we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principle goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.

They will tell you that the Americans who sleep in the streets and beg for food got there because they're all lazy or weak of spirit. That the inner-city children who are trapped in dilapidated schools can't learn and won't learn and so we should just give up on them entirely. That the innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes half a world away are somebody else's problem to take care of.

I hope you don't listen to this. I hope you choose to broaden, and not contract, your ambit of concern. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all of those who helped you get to where you are, although you do have that debt.

It's because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. And because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential - and become full-grown.
As a matter of fact, you might want to listen to this whole speech. It hits on themes we've heard often from this President and is a good reminder of who he is behind the never-ending policy battles.