Sunday, August 31, 2014

No commentary required 8/31/14

Looks like I'm not going to be writing much today, so here are some things you should read:

Pundits and right wingers are positively freaking out about their assumption that President Obama doesn't have a strategy to deal with ISIS. He does. And Secretary of State John Kerry says its something I've been talking about all along...partnership.
In a polarized region and a complicated world, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria presents a unifying threat to a broad array of countries, including the United States. What’s needed to confront its nihilistic vision and genocidal agenda is a global coalition using political, humanitarian, economic, law enforcement and intelligence tools to support military force.
The most comprehensive look at President Obama's foreign policy comes from Michael Cohen: The punditry vs the presidency: How the constant chorus of "do something" Obama foreign policy critics gets it wrong. Nope, I'm not going to provide an excerpt. You'll just have to go read the whole thing!

On the topic of great minds thinking alike, I'll just point out that last week I said this about how technology is affecting our view of the world:
We now see and hear about events both around the world and here at home with an immediacy that is unprecedented. I've often thought that when it feels like the world is going to hell these days, the truth is that its always been that way...we just didn't know it.
Friday night, President Obama said this:
The world’s always been messy ... we’re just noticing now in part because of social media.
So yeah, me and POTUS - we're like this:

;-)

Finally...the most important read of the day. As you may have heard, this week Barack Obama will be the first sitting president to visit Wales. In preparation for that historic event, Chipsticks has given us the "10 things you need to know about Wales." Foreign policy pundits will be lost this week if they don't check that one out.

For some pictorial enlightenment today, its important to remember that First Daughters are allowed to throw some shade at their Dad.


But its always good to follow it up with a little "Just kidding, Dad."


Saturday, August 30, 2014

Beyond Ferguson: Understanding the big picture

I just want to say that Carol Anderson nailed it in her column titled: Ferguson isn't about black rage against cops. It's white rage against progress.
When we look back on what happened in Ferguson, Mo., during the summer of 2014, it will be easy to think of it as yet one more episode of black rage ignited by yet another police killing of an unarmed African American male. But that has it precisely backward. What we’ve actually seen is the latest outbreak of white rage. Sure, it is cloaked in the niceties of law and order, but it is rage nonetheless.

Protests and looting naturally capture attention. But the real rage smolders in meetings where officials redraw precincts to dilute African American voting strength or seek to slash the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment. It goes virtually unnoticed, however, because white rage doesn’t have to take to the streets and face rubber bullets to be heard. Instead, white rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures and governors, who cast its efforts as noble, though they are actually driven by the most ignoble motivations.

White rage recurs in American history. It exploded after the Civil War, erupted again to undermine the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and took on its latest incarnation with Barack Obama’s ascent to the White House. For every action of African American advancement, there’s a reaction, a backlash.
That is essentially the same message we hear from Rev. William Barber when he talks about the fact that we are in the midst of a third reconstruction.


The reason its important to remember this is that it keeps the focus where it should be...on racism. But it also allows us to acknowledge the strength of our cause. Change is happening and the backlash is very real. But as I've said so many times, the dying beast is lashing out in its death throes. That's why I loved how Rev. Al Sharpton ended his remarks at Michael Brown's memorial service.
I don’t know how long the investigation will be. I don’t know how long the journey’s going ot be. But I know how this story gonna end. The first will be last. The last will be first. The lion and lamb gonna lay down together. And God will! God will! God will make a way for his children! I been to the end of the Book. Justice is gonna come!
The backlash we're experiencing now was triggered by just that kind of hope.
We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember that, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change...

For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.

It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.
P.S. Perhaps that's why I can never watch this video without shedding a few tears. And perhaps its also why Rev. Joseph Lowery chose to include these words in his prayer at the inauguration of Barack Obama as this country's 44th president:
God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who has by thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path we pray

Friday, August 29, 2014

The limits of empathy

Its clear that President Obama believes that empathy is a necessary ingredient for solving our differences. That's why in his book The Audacity of Hope, he wrote:
I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.
As we've watched him over the years, this is not the empathy of weakness or surrender. It is about recognizing your own limitations and combining that with a deep understanding of your opponent.

And yet, when I hear him talk about ISIS, I hear the limits of empathy. He's come to the conclusion that they must simply be defeated via force, not understood.

I am reminded of what he said in his Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech:
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason...

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another -- that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.
Frankly, this is something I struggle with. The folly of war is so immense. I remember this coming home for me in my 20's when I shared my apartment with a young woman who was visiting from Germany. We watched a war movie together and afterwards talked about the fact that if our fathers had been born just a few years earlier, they could have met on the battlefield...trying to kill each other. That was unthinkable to us.

On the other hand, one of President Obama's favorite philosophers - Reinhold Neibuhr - gave up his commitment to non-violence when he witnessed the ravages of Nazi Germany in Europe. In many ways it was a case of the lesser of two evils rather than a moral justification...an acceptance of "the world as it is rather than as we want it to be."

And so, I want to continue to struggle. That's why I appreciate the thoughtful way this President approaches this kind of decision. And its why I find Bill Kristol's "lets just bomb them for awhile and see what happens" to be morally repugnant.

I'll admit that I find no empathy in my heart for ISIS at this point. But engaging in war - while sometimes necessary - is always "an expression of human folly."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Thought for the Day: Sometimes...


Years ago a friend and I took a vacation to the Enchanted Circle of New Mexico. One day we were hiking and stopped to take a break. The view was so beautiful and calming that I wanted to be able to reflect on it when I got home and the stressors started to build. So I focused, not just on what my eyes were seeing, but also what my ears were hearing and my nose was smelling and my mouth was tasting and my skin was feeling. I wanted to record the whole package.

As we resumed our hike, the tears started to fall unexpectedly. Recording that scene had put me so "in the moment" that I'd shed all the layers of accommodation I normally carry around to protect the most vulnerable part of myself. In that one moment - I was truly and authentically me. They were tears of relief at being found, not sorrow.

Or as Norah Jones would say...
And in this place
where your arms unfold
here at last, you see your ancient face.
Now you know...
Now you know.

What Ferguson triggered

One of the things social media has highlighted lately is the fact that words/events can "trigger" the emotional reliving of trauma from a person's past. Without naming this phenomenon, Jelani Cobb suggested that Ferguson was a trigger for African Americans.
In the days after 9/11, it was common to hear people say that it was the first time Americans had really experienced terrorism on their own soil. Those sentiments were historically wrong, and willfully put aside acts that were organized on a large scale, had a political goal, and were committed with the specific intention of being nightmarishly memorable. The death cult that was lynching furnished this country with such spectacles for a half century. (The tallies vary, but, by some estimates, there were thirty-three hundred lynchings in the decades between the end of Reconstruction and the civil-rights era.) We know intuitively, not abstractly, about terrorism’s theatrical intent. The sight of Michael Brown, sprawled on Canfield Drive for four hours in the August sun, dead at the hands of an officer who was unnamed for a week, recalled that memory. It had the effect of reminding that crowd of spontaneous mourners of their own refuted humanity. A single death can be understood as a collective threat. The media didn’t whip up these concerns among the black population; history did that.
I suspect that this pretty much nails what it is that white people have a hard time understanding about the reaction of African Americans to the death of Michael Brown. We've allowed ourselves to be oblivious to the terror we never experienced and how events today trigger all that for those who did.

Perhaps we can fire up our mirror neurons of empathy if we image that, for a moment on 9/11/01, we felt the terror that African Americans felt for decades of slavery and lynchings. Many of us feel that terror triggered when we see video of that awful day in September. And we've done some pretty dumb things as a result...everything from invading the wrong country to freaking out over the building of a mosque in New York City.

The fear that terror instills can be debilitating and/or dangerous. And so I'm reminded of what HamdenRice wrote a few years ago about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.

He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south...

It wasn't that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn't sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.

You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement used to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth's.

It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.

This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people...

The question is, how did Dr. King do this—and of course, he didn't do it alone...

So what did they do?

They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.

Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.

If we do it all together, we'll be okay.
Understanding the fear and the triggers and the true legacy of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. would go a long way to helping us understand the events we're witnessing today. And it might also give us some lessons about how to deal with our own fears.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Shutting the conversation down

I always shake my head at the irony of a Fox News pundit claiming that President Obama has politicized the death of Michael Brown. This comes from the folks who - along with other rightwing media outlets - have made it their goal to politicize EVERYTHING.

I was reminded of how that happens when I read this article in PowerLine about the politicization of history. But we have plenty of evidence about how the right has politicized everything from science (evolution and climate change) to math (unscewing polls). The success of these attempts can be seen by the fact that where we shop is political, how we acknowledge holidays is political, and cultural icons are political.

Fox News and other right wing media play on all this to set up one side as righteous and the other as out to destroy America as we know it. So if you are a truly patriotic American, you agree with our side and any other position is to be excluded as the enemy. It is this attempt to politicize everything that Julian Sanchez calls epistemic closure.
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile...If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation.
In order to halt any real conversation, one of the tools often used by right wing media is to cast every issue as an either/or. Media Matters has been doing a pretty good job lately of showing how Fox News edited the remarks of President Obama and AG Eric Holder about the situation in Ferguson by eliminating the balance in their statements. They aired only the side of these remarks that was sure to inflame their audience and eliminated the side conservatives might have agreed with.

There are two reasons why its important to understand this pattern. One is so that we can recognize what the right wing media is doing. But perhaps even more important - so that we can check ourselves and make sure we're not doing the same damn thing.

An astute commenter here pointed out how Michael Eric Dyson did the exact same thing (in reverse) to statements made my President Obama about the situation in Ferguson. Dyson basically wrote a script for what he thinks the President should have said:
And I'm saying to you that if he could inform American society that, look, yes, we must keep them law, yes we must keep the peace, people must calm their passion, but let me explain to you why people might be hurt, why they might be angry and why they might be upset. That is his responsibility to tell that truth regardless of what those political fallouts will be.
Now here's what President Obama actually said:
As Americans, we've got to use this moment to seek out our shared humanity that's been laid bare by this moment -- the potential of a young man and the sorrows of parents, the frustrations of a community, the ideals that we hold as one united American family.

...I’ve said this before -- in too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement. In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear.
To give Dyson the benefit of the doubt, I'm going to suggest that he heard what the President said that made him angry...and not much else. Brittany Cooper did exactly the same thing when she critiqued Rev. Al Sharpton's remarks at the Michael Brown Memorial.

So while our walls of epistemic closure might not be as high or as impenetrable as those on the right, we fool ourselves if we don't admit that they exist. Because anger is such a strong trigger, we go there and shut the conversation down - never getting to the possibilities of where we might agree.

I actually think that Rev. Sharpton spoke eloquently to exactly what is going on - and sounded an awful lot like Bernice Johnson Reagon in the process.
Sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves won't solve our problems. Sitting around having ghetto pity parties rather than organizing and strategizing and putting our differences aside. Yes, we got young and old. Yes, we got things that we don't like about each other, but it's bigger than our egos. It's bigger than everybody. We need everybody because I'm gonna tell you, I don't care how much money you got, I don't care what position you hold. I don't care how much education you got. If we can't protect a child walking down the street in Ferguson, and protect him, and bring justice, all you got don't matter to nobody but you!

Monday, August 25, 2014

"We must substitute courage for caution"

Today, as Michael Brown's parents and family said goodbye to him, I was reminded of the words Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at a funeral for four little girls in Birmingham 51 years ago. His wisdom is as much of a challenge to us today as it was to those in attendance back then.
And so this afternoon in a real sense they [the four little girls] have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream...

And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.
Talk like that is why Ta-Nehisi Coates said Dr. King had a "shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity." Was he right to harbor that faith? Can white people "learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality?" Believing its possible and working towards that goal is what courage is all about.

Photo of the Day: Until justice rolls down like waters...

For Michael:


Are Americans in a permanent funk?

That's from Gallup on August 15, 2014. They note the following:
The last time a majority of Americans were satisfied with the direction of the country was more than a decade ago, a 55% reading in January 2004. Further, satisfaction has not topped 40% since July 2005, amid a struggling economy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and declining confidence in government.
I'll just add a caveat that I've written about before: it is people of color who are the optimists among us these days.  Even so, we might ask ourselves what has put so many of us in such a funk. I'm going to take a stab at outlining three things that are contributing to it.

Changing technology

Robert Fisk has written an interesting article about how ISIS is exploiting social media. Its just another example of how technology has made our world smaller. We now see and hear about events both around the world and here at home with an immediacy that is unprecedented. I've often thought that when it feels like the world is going to hell these days, the truth is that its always been that way...we just didn't know it. We face the choice of either ignoring what's going on or developing a serious case of compassion fatigue.

Changing world 

While its true that the world has always had a certain amount of chaos, most Americans who are alive today have had simple frames of good/evil with which to understand those events. During World War II the enemy was fascism and during the Cold War it was communism. In search of a way to frame what is going on now, some conservatives have tried to rally us around a new ideological frame of reference by seeing the enemy as Islam or terrorism. But much of that breaks down when we can't locate who the "good guys" are in tensions between Assad's Syria and ISIS - as just one example.

But the world is changing at home too. We just elected our first African American President...twice. And in about 20 years, white people will no longer be a majority in the country. In states like California and Texas - that has already happened. Folks can see the change coming. And the dying beast is lashing out - even as it knows its days are numbered.

Changing media

In the past, most Americans got their news from the same sources. We knew what was going on in the world because Walter Cronkite told us.

Now people get their news from whatever source tends to reinforce their world view. People have been pointing this out for a while now. But I think its important to add that partisan reporting is based on an assumption that the "other side" is out to destroy the country. This happens on both the left and the right.

While you might think that one side of that equation is correct, its important to notice the corrosive effect this has on all of us. We are constantly being told that this is the fight of a lifetime and if our side doesn't win, it is the end of America as we know it. To make that point, we are barraged with news about all the horrible things the other side is doing/saying. As much as I love Media Matters, I have to take them in small doses or I get in a pretty ugly funk myself.

Some people are even suggesting that President Obama might be in a bit of a funk lately. That's amusing because before he went on vacation a couple of weeks ago, the news was all about how "the bear is loose." But if he does ever get discouraged (which I'm sure happens), I suspect that ISIS and Ferguson are not what lingers. It probably has more to do with our ongoing struggle to accomplish this:
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.
Continuing to work at that requires optimism (i.e., hope) that says its possible to achieve. That kind of optimism becomes contagious when we look at what we've accomplished so far - against some pretty big odds. When the bear gets loose again, I'm sure he'll go right back to where he was before he (sorta) went on vacation.
I do not believe in a cynical America; I believe in an optimistic America that is making progress. And I believe despite unyielding opposition, there are workers right now who have jobs who didn’t have them before because of what we've done; and folks who got health care who didn’t have it because of the work that we've done; and students who are going to college who couldn’t afford it before; and troops who’ve come home after tour after tour of duty because of what we've done.

You don't have time to be cynical. Hope is a better choice.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

On patriotism and dissent

Today I ran across a speech that candidate Barack Obama gave in June 2008 on the topic of patriotism. We'll just leave alone the irony of the fact that he gave that speech in Missouri. But one of the things he talked about is that patriotism is often defined by dissent to our government/leaders.
Of course, precisely because America isn't perfect, precisely because our ideals constantly demand more from us, patriotism can never be defined as loyalty to any particular leader or government or policy. As Mark Twain, that greatest of American satirists and proud son of Missouri, once wrote, "Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it." We may hope that our leaders and our government stand up for our ideals, and there are many times in our history when that's occurred. But when our laws, our leaders or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism.
We can look at that from a couple of different angles. First of all, President Obama has continually supported the right of protesters in Ferguson to assemble and speak their minds about the shooting of Michael Brown and the response of local government officials.

In addition, some people have chosen to speak out against President Obama's response to the events in Ferguson. I'd suggest that he would find their dissent patriotic. But for me the, question arises as to whether or not that kind of dissent is effective.

Not too long ago, the President told young people at his My Brother's Keeper town hall meeting what kinds of critiques he takes to heart. He mentioned three questions he poses:
  1. Does it advance a common goal?
  2. Is it a criticism of what you do rather than who you are?
  3. Does it include a suggestion for how to improve?
We can apply those questions to the critiques we've heard lately. Some of them actually meet these criteria. But when it comes to patriotism, candidate Obama talked about something else he includes:
Beyond a loyalty to America's ideals, beyond a willingness to dissent on behalf of those ideals, I also believe that patriotism must, if it is to mean anything, involve the willingness to sacrifice - to give up something we value on behalf of a larger cause.
 That reminded me of this moment last November.


That is a picture of the President and First Lady visiting the people involved in Fast 4 Families. At the time this happened, I noted that it was likely the first time a sitting president showed that kind of support for an activist movement. They got the attention of our "Community Organizer-in-Chief" specifically because they were engaging in the very definition of patriotic dissent. 

Finally, Al Giordano wrote something in response to the speech from Obama that I think is at the heart of the difference between effective and ineffective dissent. 
My duty to the causes I care about is not to cry that we've been victimized, or that "the sky is falling," or to play armchair quarterback shouting from the bleachers at the captain on the field that he must make his next play a run or a pass. Nor is it to yell, "I'm taking my money and support and game board and going home." It is, rather, to inform and organize greater public opinion to grow to see the issue as I see it, so that whenever he may take office, he will have to deal with the reality that we have created with or without him.

People that care deeply and legitimately about misunderstood or unpopular issues like abolition of the death penalty for anyone (even for child rapists), or that Israel has to end its terrible treatment of Palestinians, or that there should be no immunity for telecommunications companies that spy on behalf of the government on Americans that communicate abroad, or fill-in-your-pet-issue-here, have to first educate and organize the citizenry to demonstrably agree with them before they can realistically insist that any political candidate stick his neck onto their pet chopping block.
I've commented before that the great civil rights leaders of our past didn't spend their time calling out politicians for their failures. On everything from bus boycotts to lunch counter sit-ins to breakfasts for pre-schoolers, they spent their time organizing the community...until the politicians had to listen.

Those who think that dissent is all about critiquing what President Obama does/doesn't do forget something every community organizer knows in their bones...

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A pragmatist's musings on ending racism

Racism is a highly-charged emotional issue in this country. Rightly so. But I find it helpful to step back from the emotions every now and then to take a rational pragmatic look at where we are and what our goals should be going forward.

In order to do that, its important to recognize the two broad categories of racism: personal and systemic. Personal racism includes both the covert messages we've all internalized as a result of living in a white supremacist culture as well as overtly racist words/actions. Personal racism is basically a white-people's problem as my friend Robinswing articulated a while ago when she said "We Can't Fix Ya!" Ending personal racism is an individual journey.

I can't speak for anyone else, but that journey for me was initiated and has been maintained by some very patient people of color in my life. I have tried my best on this blog platform to pass those lessons on to the few people who read here. White people are "my people," and its important to me that we eventually get it.

But the truth is, people of color can walk away from personal racism. Unless they care individually or collectively about our opinions, they can chose to ignore us. Even the racist rantings of a Sterling or Bundy or Robertson (Duck Dynasty) are meaningless unless we give them weight.

Ultimately it is systemic racism that impacts people of color directly. It happens when racism becomes embedded, both overtly and covertly, in institutional patterns and practices. Both the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement were successful in ending different forms of systemic racism: slavery and legal segregation. But those patterns and practices have been embedded in our systems of education, health care, housing, employment, immigration and criminal justice.

While personal and systemic racism are certainly intertwined, I believe that the former is a slow process of personal transformation. No one can control when/if another person is open to that process. We can only seize the moments that are presented to us.

But if, as Rev. William Barber has articulated, we are in the midst of a Third Reconstruction, I think it behooves us to focus on further eradication of systemic racism. Others may disagree, but I think the most pressing areas today are in our education, immigration and criminal justice systems.

When viewed in this light, our "talk" about racism should be focused on gaining allies to do the work of dismantling systemic racism (you can see that on display with Rev. Barber's Moral Mondays Movement). This is where the current work of criminal justice reform presents a fascinating opportunity. Conservatives have joined the fight - not to rid the system of racism - but to reduce government spending. There are similar alliances developing with big business on the issues of education and immigration.

Now...if you've been paying attention, you might have seen how President Obama is providing leadership on these issues. His administration is busy advocating for universal pre-K, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, opening up the opportunity for a college education to more young people, passing comprehensive immigration reform, cracking down on police brutality, initiating a clemency initiative, and being Smart on Crime.

When the President's critics - like Michael Eric Dyson - say he needs to step up, use the bully pulpit and provide leadership, what they mean is that he should talk about racism. That is aimed at tackling the personal. For better or worse, this President has decided to focus on the systemic.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Photo of the Day: Fathers and Sons

A father talks to his son about Michael Brown

The presidency is more than a bully pulpit

There are times when I listen to President Obama's critics that I think they must assume that the only power granted to the presidency by our constitution is access to the infamous "bully pulpit." Lately its been Michael Eric Dyson who has gotten a lot of attention for criticizing the President's statements about Ferguson while totally ignoring anything the administration has actually done.

An example of this phenomenon can also be found in Paul Waldman's attempt to explain President Obama to those who are criticizing his response to Ferguson. He cites the political polarization in polling about what the President has done. But then he assumes that all he's done is talk.
The important context to keep in mind for these figures is that Obama hasn’t actually done much of anything to either be pleased or displeased about. His statements on the subject have been designed to offend no one, trying to touch every possible perspective...
Nowhere in that article does Waldman mention that the FBI has initiated an investigation or that AG Holder visited Ferguson yesterday. And of course there's no talk about what's been going on behind the scenes with telephone conversations President Obama, Eric Holder and other members of the administration have had with community leaders and local officials. Its as if Waldman thinks the only tool a president has for dealing with a situation like this is the bully pulpit.

That's why this editorial in the NYT by Tali Mendelberg and Bennett Butler is such a refreshing change of pace. They take on the critique by many on the left that President Obama hasn't addressed poverty.
A true measure of a president’s priorities lies hidden in plain sight in his budget proposals. Under that standard, Mr. Obama has been more committed to communities like Ferguson than any Democratic president in the past half century.

By looking at what percentage of the budget presidents propose to spend to fight poverty, we can compare their degree of commitment...

Using this method, we find that President Obama attempted to deliver far more than his counterparts. The Congressional Budget Office’s inflation-adjusted numbers show that Mr. Obama sought to spend far more on means-tested anti-poverty programs than other first-term Democratic presidents. 
After providing data to demonstrate their point, the authors attempt to explain why - given this record - President Obama is subjected to this kind of criticism. Their answer is that he doesn't talk much about poverty..."Mr. Obama has been spending without saying."

But I'd challenge them on that point as well. If you pay attention to how President Obama talks about these issues, you will almost always find him talking about "the middle class and those who are struggling to get into the middle class." In other words, he addresses their aspirations rather than their current condition. That kind of nuance doesn't show up on a nexus search on the word "poverty" and it often goes right over the head of most pundits. But its just another way this President demonstrates his empathy.

So yes, words matter. But in the end, when it comes to the presidency, actions matter more.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Seeing racism

Nailed it!!!


On a more hopeful front, Josh Marshall published this comment from a reader:
It's incredibly unfair that it worked out this way but I think the historical take of the biggest success of the Obama presidency will be this.

As a white, suburban, middle++ aged liberal, I saw the run up to his first election as proof of what I believed for a long time - we were in a post-racial world where the only thing that was holding individuals of color back was a willingness to do the hard work that the rest of us were doing to get ahead.

The re-surfacing of the hidden racism that had become invisible to me was (and is) worldview shattering. The breadth and depth and virulence of both institutional and individual racism is so enormous that I have a hard time coming to grips with it. I'm entirely embarrassed by my pre-Obama beliefs and am still trying to figure out what I can do to move from being part of the problem and becoming part of the solution.

While discussing Ferguson with folks who fall in to the "don't think there's any racism" category, I'm seeing a shift. Events like this, and the pro-protester media coverage seems to be chipping away at the middle. More people are starting to see the world like it really is.

Looping back to my hypothesis, I suspect that without an Obama presidency, the lens through which we view the current events would have been much less sympathetic to the protesters.

Oh, and healthcare.

President Obama and AG Holder working together


At his press conference on Monday, President Obama recalled some of the work he did on criminal justice reform while he was a state senator.
One of the things I was most proud of when I was in the state legislature, way back when I had no gray hair and none of you could pronounce my name, was I passed legislation requiring videotaping of interrogations and confessions and I passed legislation dealing with racial profiling in Illinois.
That reminded me that two years ago I wrote about a whole spectrum of work on criminal justice reform then-senator Barack Obama had done during his short tenure in the state legislature. I found it documented at - of all places - the Daily Caller, where they were horrified at the extent to which President Obama had engaged in this type of reform (i.e., "he's really a blackly-black radical!"). It is rare to non-existent to see stories about this in the mainstream or liberal media.

That's why I find articles like this one, where supposedly professional journalists project their own assumptions into their work rather than actually look at the historical record, to be nothing more than lazy reporting. The tag line reads: "Holder and Obama Differ in Approach to Underlying Issues of Missouri Unrest." They describe AG Eric Holder as a "child of the civil rights era," and contrast that with this about Obama:
He was too young and removed to experience the turmoil of the 1960s, growing up in a multiracial household in Hawaii and Indonesia. As he now seeks balance in an unbalanced time, he wrestles with the ghosts of history that his landmark election, however heady, failed to exorcise.
Its true that Eric Holder is 10 years older and grew up in Queens. I'm sure the two men don't always agree about everything. But even as the authors attempt to paint them at odds on these issues, they can't ignore that President Obama chose Eric Holder as his Attorney General precisely because of their shared vision on "overhauling the justice system." In the end, this is an attempt to create a story that doesn't exist.

I would posit that what we have in this country right now are two leaders who grew up as African American males in different circumstances, but came to the same conclusion about the need for reform. Right now they have different jobs they've undertaken to produce that reform. And they're doing a mighty find job of working together to get it done!

The new sheriff in town


The shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent events in Ferguson, MO have resulted in the media finally waking up to something I wrote about over three years ago: the Civil Rights Division of DOJ has been extremely aggressive in going after police brutality
"I think the Civil Rights Division in this administration has been much more aggressive in pursuing police misconduct, both in criminal cases and especially the big civil 'pattern and practice' cases ... to reform police departments," said Samuel Bagenstos, a University of Michigan law professor who was the administration's second-ranking civil rights official from 2009 to 2011.
And so, when AG Eric Holder visited Ferguson yesterday and met with community members to discuss their concerns, this was at least one of the messages he was sending to local law enforcement as they investigate the shooting of Michael Brown and respond to protesters:
"I expect that when all this cools down, you'll see the Civil Rights Division pursing a pattern-and-practice investigation" of the Ferguson police, he [Bagenstos] said, "both for what happened to Michael Brown and what's happened since."
Time to straighten up boys. There's a new sheriff in town.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Who are the peacekeepers?

Journalists on the ground in Ferguson last night credit the reduction in violence to the presence of community peacekeepers.


I remember this same thing happened in St. Paul in 2008 when local law enforcement adopted a militarized response to protesters at the Republican Convention. Community members came forward to receive training and act as mediators between the police and the protesters.

While I think that this is ultimately the answer to what is happening in Ferguson right now, it begs the question about the role of law enforcement. Shouldn't we be expecting THEM to be the peacekeepers? Isn't that what they are supposed to do? We won't get to the root of this problem until we get that one right.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Obama Way...on Ferguson


Yesterday President Obama once again talked about the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent events in Ferguson. Like clockwork, he got criticized from the right for "racializing" the situation and from the left for not being bold enough in talking about the racial dynamics. Same story, eighty-second verse.

What I find interesting is that this time around, we're seeing some journalists attempt to explain the President's measured response to his critics on the left. Ezra Klein jumped into those waters as did Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessy at the LA Times. Both articles make claims that President Obama has learned from "mistakes" in the past and that he has changed his approach to dealing with this issue. I suspect there there is an element of truth to that. But overall, his response seems to fit perfectly into what I have always seen as "the Obama Way."

Klein goes on at length about candidate Obama's speech on race. He sees it in high contrast to the President's remarks about Ferguson. But as many pundits have done with the 2008 speech, he totally overlooks this section.
Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
That was candidate Obama empathizing with the anger that fuels white racism. This is a man who has an extremely developed set of mirror neurons and always seeks to view a conflict from the perspective of his opponents. Remember...in 2006 he said that we were required to see the world through George Bush's eyes. That doesn't mean we agree with him - but we understand his perspective. For Barack Obama, that has always applied to racial conflicts too. His remarks on Ferguson carry on that theme.

Pasons and Hennessy point out that President Obama spoke very pointedly about race during the Trayvon Martin situation. But it is crucial to note that he did so AFTER the Zimmerman verdict was announced. I remember some of the same critics being just as angry when he didn't engage initially about Trayvon Martin's death. Yesterday the President was pretty clear about why:
I have to be very careful about not prejudging these events before investigations are completed because ... the DOJ works for me. When they're conducting an investigation, I've got to make sure that I don't look like I'm putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other.
In addition to that, it has never been the Obama Way to enter into a conflict with strident remarks. When passions are high - he always takes his time to think through the situation and focus on solutions. We've seen this happen over and over and over again during his presidency. Its what drives Maureen Dowd crazy (LOL). At these times its important to watch what the President is DOING more than what he is saying. NAACP President Cornell William Brooks nailed it in regards to the situation in Ferguson.
"But his actions speak volumes," Brooks said. "The prose of his conduct and decisions outweigh the poetry of any press release."
I really love how David Swerdlick put it.
...although there are a lot of different voices that can underscore the racial injustice that surrounds Ferguson and the killing of Michael Brown, there’s only one person who can direct FBI resources and order the Justice Department to investigate a civil rights violation: Obama. And I’d rather see someone who does understand black anger fulfilling that role rather than focusing on making speeches.
Finally, I'd point out what President Obama said during his remarks following the Zimmerman verdict.
There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven't seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.
Here's what I had to say about that at the time:
He didn't seek this job to be a civil rights movement leader. He sought it to be POTUS - and to be the best damn POTUS he could possibly be.

If you want to know what is absolutely driving the white male patriarchy nuts about our first African American president - its that he's succeeding in doing that. Their freak-out is all about the fact that their game of dismissing this black man as a "boy" who is out of his league, is up.

That's the role Barack Obama chose to play in this struggle. It doesn't mean that its the only one that is needed in this country for us to continue on the path to a more perfect union - that requires an "all hands on deck" approach. But the integrity and competence he's bought to the office is an important piece of the puzzle.
I suspect that at some point President Obama will speak more in-depth to what has happened in Ferguson. But it is likely to be when passions subside and there is the possibility for a "teachable moment." Remember, he plays the long game. That's the Obama Way.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Context: What it means to be a black person in Ferguson, MO

My number one wish for this country is that white people across the land would fire up their "mirror neurons" and take a moment to think about what it means to be a black person living in Ferguson, MO.
The fraught relationship between African Americans, a majority in Ferguson, and the nearly all-white police force long preceded the eruption of protests.

In interview after interview, black men and women talked about their fears of random stops while driving in the city, as well as in neighboring municipalities.

Marcus White, an acquaintance of Brown who works for a moving company, said he frequently has to spend the night in his employer’s office because he can’t find anyone to drive him home to Ferguson.

“They’ll tell me, ‘I don’t go past Goodfellow,’ ” he said, referencing one of the streets near the line that separates the county of St. Louis from the city of the same name.

Many here have their own catalogue of towns that they dare not drive through. They sketch long, circuitous routes to avoid the small areas where they feel most targeted, a concern buttressed by statistics that show far higher numbers of traffic stops involving African Americans than whites in the St. Louis suburbs.

“More than four people in the car, they’re going to pull you over,” said Earl Lee Jr., a 41-year-old warehouse worker who lives in a nearby suburb. “Tint on your windows, they’re going to pull you over. Too early in the morning, they think you’re up to something. Too late, they think you’re up to something. When are you supposed to drive?”
That is the context in which folks experienced the gunning down of an unarmed teenager on their streets by a police officer. I won't say it equals the atmosphere of Jim Crow. But its pretty damn close.

Did you see what they said? Marcus White has to find someone white to drive him home at night or sleep at work to avoid getting pulled over by the cops. When is the last time you had to weigh those options? I think I can pretty safely guess never.

Until we begin to understand what it means to live like that in a country that pretends to espouse "freedom," we have zero business judging what's going on in that city today.

What Michael Brown's preliminary autopsy does/doesn't tell us


The New York Times released this graphic from the autopsy done by Dr. Michael Baden at the request of Brown's family. The local police have done their own autopsy but not released any results. Yesterday the FBI announced they will perform a 3rd independent autopsy.

What we learn from these results is:

1. Michael Brown was not shot in the back. That conflicts with at least one eye witness testimony and precludes an almost automatic conclusion of murder.

2. Its difficult to imagine the shots to the inside of the hand/arm unless Michael Brown did in fact have his hands up, as several witnesses said.

3. The shot to the top of the head raises the most questions and was described by Baden:
One of the bullets entered the top of Mr. Brown’s skull, suggesting his head was bent forward when it struck him and caused a fatal injury...
Baden goes on to suggest that could be because he was giving up or because he was charging forward at the officer. But the latter explanation seems like a stretch. Its hard to imagine putting your head down as you charge someone who is in the midst of shooting at you and its inconsistent with the shots to the inside of the hand/arm.

We still have a lot to learn about what these autopsies reveal. But this information points in the direction of confirming that Michael Brown was indeed "Hands up. Don't shoot" when he was killed.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Captain Ron Johnson, "That's my baby."

Just grab a tissue and listen.

What's going on in Ferguson?

My head is a jumbled mess these days about what is going on in Ferguson, MO. That's probably a result of spending too much time following the story on twitter. You get the news first there. But its mixed in with all the emotional reaction. So I decided its time for me to analyze what I think we do/don't know.

First of all, I think its helpful to recognize that there are two separate issues to deal with. First there's the shooting of Michael Brown. Secondly, there's the police response to the protests.

An awful lot of people are assuming we know what happened in the altercation between Michael Brown and Officer Wilson. Those who have been paying attention have heard a couple of eye witness reports and a reported friend of Wilson tell his side of the story on a radio call-in show. I certainly hope that at some point we get a clear picture. But there's a lot that is disputed or unknown right now.

I suspect that its very likely that there was a verbal altercation between the two when Wilson told Brown to get out of the middle of the street. It escalated and at some point Brown walked away. If the autopsy shows that even one of the 6-10 shots fired hit him in the back, it will be nearly impossible to see that as anything other than murder. End.of.story.

The disturbing part of all of this is how the local police handled the shooting:
  • Didn't allow CPR on the scene
  • Left Brown's body on the street for hours
  • Didn't interview any witnesses
  • Allowed the officer to leave town
  • Withheld the officer's name for 5 days
  • Still haven't released the incident report on the shooting or the autopsy results
  • Against the advice of DOJ, released a video purporting to show Brown involved in an unarmed robbery and then admitted it had nothing to do with the shooting
Hence the protests. On Friday the Brown family's lawyer confirmed that an autopsy had been performed by both local law enforcement and the family. So someone has answers to the question of whether or not Michael Brown was shot in the back. But they're not telling the public. 

All of the concern about the militarization of law enforcement has come as a result of the initial police response to the protests (not the shooting of Michael Brown). Its true that there has been some looting. And its right for people to call that out. But its been by a few and, for the most part, the community has done what they can to stop it. Overall, the situation was only inflamed by the over-response from police to the protesters and their lack of action in dealing with the shooting.

That summarizes what I've been able to suss out about what's been happening. At this point its clear that we can't trust local law enforcement to deal with either the shooting of Michael Brown or handling the protesters. The FBI has been sent in to rectify the former and Capt. Johnson is doing his dead level best to deal with the latter. 

But I suspect there are serious power plays going on behind the scenes about all that. And the fact that things haven't clarified yet shows they are likely pretty intense and still in play. Governor Nixon seems to be playing both sides of that isle - which is why things are still muddled. 

Stay tuned...

Friday, August 15, 2014

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

I don't know why nobody told you how to unfold your love. 

The power of "You Belong"

In response to the events in Ferguson, President Obama said this yesterday:
I know that emotions are raw right now in Ferguson and there are certainly passionate differences about what has happened. There are going to be different accounts of how this tragedy occurred. There are going to be differences in terms of what needs to happen going forward. That’s part of our democracy. But let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family. We are united in common values, and that includes belief in equality under the law; a basic respect for public order and the right to peaceful public protest; a reverence for the dignity of every single man, woman and child among us; and the need for accountability when it comes to our government.
The bolded phrase reminds me that for years now he has been talking about empathy and expanding our moral imagination. His focus on that is totally validated by this video about the possibilities of an empathic civilisation. Please take a few minutes to watch this. I promise you won't regret it.


There's a lot to digest. But its a powerful idea to consider that we are soft-wired to be empathetic and that our first drive is to belong. That explains why this writer - who had never been interested in poetry before - was totally hooked by this line from David Whyte the moment I heard it:
It doesn't interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
abandoned.
Its also why the most telling reaction to the election of Barack Obama as President came from Whoopi Goldberg, who said, "I've always thought of myself as an American. But today, for the first time, I feel like I can finally put my suitcase down."

When it comes to what is happening in Ferguson, compare and contrast these two images (top from the local police response on Wednesday and bottom when Capt. Ron Johnson took over last night) on what they say about sending a "you belong" message.


Is it any wonder that last night's response was so much more effective?

Its important to note that in the midst of this highly charged situation,  President Obama talked about being one American family. We all know that being family doesn't mean we all agree. Instead, it means that we tell each other, "no matter what you do or say, you belong with us." That's where empathy gains a foothold.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Photo of the Day: What Works

This one goes out to law enforcement all over the country. Take a look at what works...partnership with the community!

Captain Ron Johnson marches with protesters in Ferguson, MO

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What it will take to fix law enforcement

What is going on in Ferguson, MO after the killing of Michael Brown should horrify all of us. It is WAY past time that we took a long hard look at what is happening to local law enforcement. And I am very happy to hear that the Department of Justice is doing just that.

About 25 years ago I was surprised and impressed as I watched our local law enforcement embrace the concept of community policing. That whole movement developed far beyond the idea of cops walking the beat. It embraced the reality that in order for cops to do their job - they had to work in partnership with the community, not see them as a threat.

But 9/11 stopped most of that in its tracks. One high ranking officer told me that his work on crime prevention all got put on hold as the department geared up its anti-terrorism efforts. The culmination of that came into view when our local law enforcement geared up for protests at the 2008 Republican convention. It scared the shit out of me!


This is what was on display before anything happened. It was nothing but overkill and intimidation...IOW, all about dominance. 

Back in the early 1990's a Deputy Chief told me something that has stuck with me for a long time. Please excuse the sexism involved because I think its an important point. He said that the police department would be where it needs to be when over half the officers are women. That's because police work is mostly about negotiation and women tend to be better at that. 

I was reminded of that a few days ago while I was listening to a program about changing careers on public radio. One of the people who called in was a cop who said he should have become a farmer like his dad because police work was such a disappointment. He went on to talk about how he expected to be chasing "bad guys," but instead found he spent most of his time mediating and negotiating community conflicts. 

To me, that gets to the heart of our problem with law enforcement. We envision it as "good guys vs bad guys" and then recruit people for the job who want to stick it to the "bad guys." Racial sensitivity training is never going to cut it when the problem goes much deeper. Until we get to the place where we see law enforcement as a service working for/with the community and recruit folks who are good at doing that, we won't be able to fix this mess.  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Healing the wounds

President Obama released a statement today on the death of Michael Brown.
The death of Michael Brown is heartbreaking, and Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to his family and his community at this very difficult time. As Attorney General Holder has indicated, the Department of Justice is investigating the situation along with local officials, and they will continue to direct resources to the case as needed. I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions, but as details unfold, I urge everyone in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country, to remember this young man through reflection and understanding. We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds. Along with our prayers, that’s what Michael and his family, and our broader American community, deserve.
The sentence I bolded reminded me of the speech Robert Kennedy gave the day after Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. Please take a few minutes to watch this excerpt.

We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.

Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember - even if only for a time - that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek - as we do - nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again

Monday, August 11, 2014

Hillary Clinton's tone problem

Yesterday Al Giordano tweeted something interesting about Hillary Clinton's interview with Jeffrey Goldberg.

I starting thinking..."Yeah, its her tone as much as her policies. What is it about that?"

And so this morning I went back to an article Giordano wrote way back in September 2007 in which he predicted that Barack Obama "the insurgent" was going to give Hillary Clinton "the inevitable" a run for her money (literally). He pulled quotes from both candidates in New Hampshire talking about "change."

Listen to Clinton:
'Change' is just a word without the strength and experience to make it happen. . . . I know some people think you have to choose between change and experience. Well, with me, you don't have to choose. . . . I have spent my whole life fighting for change. . . . I will bring my experience to the White House and begin to change our country starting on day one.
And now Obama:
We need to turn the page. There are those who tout their experience working the system in Washington — but the problem is that the system in Washington isn't working for us and hasn't for a long time. Think about it. We've been talking about the health-care crisis in this country for decades. . . .

I believe this election cannot be about who can play this game better. It has to be about who can put an end to the game-playing.
What I notice is that Clinton wants to talk about herself and Obama wants to talk about the problem. You see that same "tone" carried throughout the interview with Goldberg. For example, he asked her about Netanyahu.
I had the last face-to-face negotiations between Abbas and Netanyahu. [Secretary of State John] Kerry never got there. I had them in the room three times with [former Middle East negotiator] George Mitchell and me, and that was it. And I saw Netanyahu move from being against the two-state solution to announcing his support for it, to considering all kinds of Barak-like options, way far from what he is, and what he is comfortable with.

Now I put Jerusalem in a different category. That is the hardest issue, Again, based on my experience—and you know, I got Netanyahu to agree to the unprecedented settlement freeze, it did not cover East Jerusalem, but it did cover the West Bank and it was actually legitimate and it did stop new housing starts for 10 months. It took me nine months to get Abbas into the negotiations even after we delivered on the settlement freeze, he had a million reasons, some of them legitimate, some of them the same old, same old.
Here she is talking about Egypt:
Egypt is a perfect example. The revolution in Tahrir Square was not a Muslim Brotherhood revolution. It was not led by Islamists. They came very late to the party. Mubarak falls and I’m in Cairo a short time after, meeting the leaders of this movement, and I’m saying, “Okay, who’s going to run for office? Who’s going to form a political party?” and they’re saying, “We don’t do that, that’s not who we are.”

And I said that there are only two organized groups in this country, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, and what we have here is an old lesson that you can’t beat somebody with nobody.
Now don't get me wrong, these are a couple of excerpts from a very deep discussion about foreign policy. Hillary Clinton demonstrated that she has the chops to go toe-to-toe with anyone on that subject.

But she takes any opportunity she can to bolster her own image - often at the expense of others. The recovering therapist in me sees someone who is not quite comfortable with herself and therefore tends to be defensive. Yeah, I know, that's what most politicians do. But its the overt and covert "digs" at others that is at least part of the off-putting "tone" that Giordano was referring to. The "Pavlovian response" is about remembering how that felt in 2008 (as well as Obama's pitch perfect response). It also probably explains why her tendency so far has been to distance herself from President Obama this time around. She's still feeling the need to define herself...after all this time.

I happen to be someone who thinks that "how" a politician operates is often just as important (if not more important) than "what" they want to do. Hillary Clinton certainly isn't the first or last politician to be constrained by ego problems. But I worry that if she becomes the first woman president, all holy hell will come her way - just as its come to Barack Obama as the first African American president. Defensive bluster won't cut it when that happens. You have to be strong enough to rise above it - otherwise the country will suffer.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Soft, medium and hard power

One place where I agree with Hillary Clinton is on the importance of "smart power."
That’s why I use the phrase “smart power.” I did it deliberately because I thought we had to have another way of talking about American engagement, other than unilateralism and the so-called boots on the ground.
The problem is, she never indicated what she means by smart power. It strikes me that President Obama has actually defined three options: soft, medium and hard power.
  1. The President has expanded the traditional definition of soft power beyond the idea that its mostly about foreign aid. In situations where international norms/ideals have been breeched, he has worked to develop partnerships to impose sanctions on the offending country (see Iran and Russia).
  2. He has also used medium power in calling for targeted military strikes (no boots on the ground) to prevent mass killing/genocide (see Libya and Iraq) or the use of chemical weapons (Syria). 
  3. Finally, he has reserved the power of full military response (hard power) to situations where the American people are directly threatened or our allies are in danger (warnings to Russia about incursions into NATO countries).
Much of the criticism of the President's foreign policy has focused on highlighting only one or two of the options he has laid out. I would suggest that having the full spectrum of responses available to deal with varying levels of challenges/threats is preferable. The trick is in accurately diagnosing the situation and matching it to the response that is most likely to reach the desired outcome. That would be my definition of smart power. IOW, the Obama Doctrine.

Hillary Clinton is wrong about the lessons of the Cold War (updated)

Jeffrey Goldberg has published a fascinating interview with Hillary Clinton about her views on foreign policy. Its disappointing that the headline: "Hillary Clinton: 'Failure to help Syrian Rebels led to the Rise of ISIS" is so misleading. In the actual interview, she states that she supported a policy to arm the rebels early on - in disagreement with President Obama. But when pushed to say whether or not it would have led to a different outcome, she declined (three times) to do so.
I can’t sit here today and say that if we had done what I recommended...that we’d be in a demonstrably different place.
There are several places where I disagree with Clinton - such as her unequivocating support of Israel's recent actions in Gaza and her suggestion that disagreement with that position is fueled by anti-Semitism. For many liberals like me - we have a much more nuanced view of that situation. But my tendency is always to look for the big picture. It was in her recounting of what we should learn from the Cold War that I saw where many of my issues with her approach to foreign policy lie.

One of the themes Clinton espouses was captured in the article's tag line: "Great nations need organizing principles." Citing an example for what that would mean in responding to current "jihadist" threats (her words) in the Middle East, she takes a lesson from our victory in the Cold War.
I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat. You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union, but we made a lot of mistakes, we supported really nasty guys, we did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, but we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it.
I'll leave it for those with more knowledge than I have to discuss what actually led to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. But she's right, along the way "we made a lot of mistakes and supported really nasty guys." Clinton wants to excuse all that because "we won." And therefore our "organizing principle" of seeing every global situation through the lens of anti-communism was justified.

I would suggest that it was the myopic vision of seeing struggles for democracy as nothing more than communist threats that led us to make some of the biggest mistakes in our country's history. It was the unholy alliance between US corporate interests and fear mongering about the communist threat that led us to support murderous dictators all over the globe.

None of that is meant to justify the actions of the Soviet Union during that era. They were willing to exploit every opening we provided. But in the post-WWII era, as one country after another attempted to break away from colonial rule, the voice of the people was silenced via kidnappings, torture, "disappearances" and coups as they were used as pawns and proxies in our Cold War with the Soviet Union. That's exactly why President Obama's policy of "its up to the people to decide" is such a dramatic and necessary change.

Its was our inability during the Cold War to respond to each country individually in support of democracy that led to horrific policies. That's what happens with an "organizing principle" wedded to ideology and corporate interests. Of course the alternative leads to a tremendous amount of complexity. And I suppose that Hillary Clinton isn't the only one that would prefer a simple organizing principle like the anti-communism of the cold war (i.e., Global War on Terror). But that's not how the world works. We shouldn't be fooled into thinking otherwise.

P.S. Its interesting to compare and contrast this Goldberg interview with Clinton to the one he did with President Obama about Iran and Israel back in March 2012. Both are noteworthy for their depth.

UPDATE: A question for Clinton: Did your need for an "organizing principle" lead you to buy George W. Bush's rational to invade Iraq? Global War on Terrorism? With us or against us? Fight them there so we don't have to fight them here?

If so, that's another indication of how it can be dangerous.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

"There's something subterranean about the way these people process things"

Eleanor Clift has written a totally superficial column suggesting what she thinks will define Barack Obama's post-presidency. I'm not going to bother responding though, because embedded in the article is this fascinating exchange.
Dallek is among a small group of historians invited to the White House on an occasional basis to meet with Obama. He recalls at one point talking to Obama about the Tea Party and its anti-government rhetoric: “I called it the politics of resentment, and he said, ‘Bob, I think you’re right, there’s something subterranean about the way these people process things’.”

“We didn’t talk about race,” Dallek told the Daily Beast, “but I took it as an expression of feeling on his part that race is part of the resentment...
Ya think?


Of course, leave it to President Obama to express it so eloquently. Did he nail it, or what?!