Friday, November 28, 2008

This is why I always did my X-Mas shopping Dec. 24:

I know they call it "Black Friday", but this is outrageous. There's a deep sickness in America that it won't be easy to address, but it's going to be up to our new President to at least try to put down this out-of-control culture of greed in our country. It goes from the top to the bottom, whether it's a shopper stepping on a worker to save a few bucks on a TV or a President sending a nation to war over billions of dollars in oil. Republicans talk a good game about establishing a "culture of life", but this culture of greed we've established stems from the same principles that drove the Reagan revolution: greed is good. I don't know if our new President can do anything about this, but I'm hopeful that his call to service may stem the tide. We can hope.

A Wal-Mart worker died early Friday after an "out-of-control" mob of frenzied shoppers smashed through the Long Island store's front doors and trampled him, police said.

The Black Friday stampede plunged the Valley Stream outlet into chaos, knocking several employees to the ground and sending others scurrying atop vending machines to avoid the horde.

When the madness ended, 34-year-old Jdimytai Damour was dead and four shoppers, including a woman eight months pregnant, were injured.


Even officers who arrived to perform CPR on the trampled worker were stepped on by wild-eyed shoppers streaming inside, a cop at the scene said.

"They pushed him down and walked all over him," Damour's sobbing sister, Danielle, 41, said. "How could these people do that?

"He was such a young man with a good heart, full of life. He didn't deserve that."


"I look at these people's faces and I keep thinking one of them could have stepped on him," said one employee. "How could you take a man's life to save $20 on a TV?"

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Future of the Republican party

I want the Republican party to get back on its feet, for the same reasons I was so distressed with the idea of them running everything: echo chambers are not conducive to good governance, and a variety of ideas and points of view are necessary in order to pluck the best ones from the crop.


For the future of the Republican party, I like what I see from Gov. Pawlenty of Minnesota:


Not because of his specific policy proposals, which are rather vague in this article, but because he gets it: he understands that if a hammer is only making things worse, the answer isn’t a sledgehammer.  Just because the hammer got the job done when the job was to nail some plywood to a 2 x 4 doesn’t mean that the hammer is the right tool for setting glass plating.


Basically what I’d like is to have two political parties who both have a number of good ideas hashing them out together and coming to a consensus on which ones are best.  Seemingly what we have now are the Republicans, who believe that every problem can be solved by cutting taxes or blowing up another country, and the Democrats, who believe that every problem can be solved by some new government program.  Neither view is correct.


A couple of places where I think the Republicans can start:


1.        Universal health care is something that Americans want, whether Republicans do, or not.  However, I don’t necessarily think that a big new government bureaucracy is the way to go, especially with our massive existing federal deficit.  The Republicans could fashion something workable that would be free market-based and managed at the state level.  The problem with many of the Republicans’ health care proposals to date have been that they’re either designed to fail or don’t address the actual problems.  If the Republicans could come up with something like that, they’d be competitive again by 2012.

2.       The inequitable nature of public education is a long-standing problem in this country, dating back to segregation.  The Democrats have largely tried to bail out the Titanic with a Dixie cup on this issue, and Republicans’ sole policy proposal has been to man the lifeboats by giving out vouchers.  However, once again, manning the lifeboats doesn’t address the actual issue: there is no reason that public education cannot be as high quality as private education.  I’ve seen that in Green Bay: we had high quality public schools in that city, mainly because the people and the government made it a point to deliver high quality education in their schools.  The Republicans can take the lead on this issue by discontinuing their efforts to simply abandon the public school system and begin to work at the local level to fix the system.  Once again, I don’t think a massive federal program can fix this: it has to be the people on site doing the job, but the Department of Education can coordinate by studying school districts like Green Bay to figure out what they’re doing right and then studying school districts like Milwaukee to figure out what they’re doing wrong and then providing actual guidance (not just testing) to those failing school districts to get them back on track.

3.       The programs of the Great Society failed to fix the problem of poverty and have instead institutionalized it.  Kudos to LBJ for trying, but it didn’t work.  Unfortunately, the Republicans have offered little more than “let the churches handle it” as an alternative solution to the problem.  This is a messy issue, and no one big sweeping program will fix it.  It’s going to take a number of approaches, and I really do think the Republicans do have some potential to offer some constructive input on this front.  The Republicans are terribly fond of telling people to pull themselves up by their boot straps.  They should take it a step further and show people how.  Work with the business and religious communities to change people’s mindsets from one of dependency to one of empowerment.  Take the “homeless shelter” model and take it a step further: help those who want it, even those who are not homeless, to overcome drug and alcohol addictions.  Offer work to those want it in exchange for a minimum wage, shelter, food, and job training.  Don’t just hand it out to them: make them earn it.  There is always litter to pick up and graffiti that needs to be painted over.  If they do good work, provide letters of recommendation for prospective employers.  Don’t just feed them hand to mouth: make them productive citizens.  I think everybody wins in that arena.  And give the churches and private charities the freedom to operate as they see best, with some bare minimum standards in place to prevent unlawful discrimination.  Each community’s needs are going to be different, so too stringent of standards will only ensure failure.

4.       The Republicans need to address the perception that they are a “whites only” and “Christians only” party.  The percentage of people in this country who are other than white or other than Christian is growing, and if the Republicans don’t get on board with that reality, they’re going to be left in the cold.  The first step in addressing that perception would be to shun the racist and Christianist elements of their party.  In the short term, that will  cost them some votes in the south, but one thing I’ve learned is that one need not be white or Christian in order to be socially conservative.  I’ve met atheist Republicans and black Republicans.  It’s the people who are saying, “you’re not like us, you’re not welcome here” who are creating this problem in the Republican party.  Following the nomination of Barack Obama, we had a number of closet racists in the Democratic party (“PUMAs”) bolt for McCain.  Good riddance, I say.  Let the Republicans and Democrats once and for all say to these people, “You have no place in our party.  Make your own party.”  And here’s the thing: the Republicans don’t have the monopoly on racists.  There were plenty of racists in the Democratic party, but the Democrats didn’t try to pander to them the way the Republicans have with their “southern strategy”.  Well, the southern strategy has come full circle: the Republicans are now officially the Party of Dixie, since they weren’t able to consistently win outside of the old CSA and flyover country in the Midwest.  New England, the Great Lakes states, and the west coast are all lost to them.  The first step to fixing a problem is admitting that you have one.  If the Republicans keep trying to act as though this is a simple question of marketing or that “those darkies are too stupid to know what’s good for ‘em”, then they’re going to continue losing ground with minorities, and thus with the country as a whole.

5.       Finally, having a firm hand on the world stage doesn’t mean slapping everyone who looks are you cross-eyed.  Not everybody who says mean things about us is automatically our enemy (France and Venezuela come to mind) and we should be receptive to at least saying, “Okay, I’m not saying you’re right, but let’s talk about this.”  If Nixon could go to China… if Reagan could talk to the Soviet Union… then there’s no reason Obama shouldn’t be able to meet with the Iranian president, is there?  Finally, if the Republicans can finally make a distinction between world leadership and world domination, then I think that would go a long way in making them credible on the world stage again.


Republicans are going to have a choice in 2012, and I think it’s going to boil down to Pawlenty vs. Palin.  Will they be a party of substance or will they become, as it was put in The Economist recently, the “stupid party”?


I’ll be frank: Pawlenty in 2012 doesn’t guarantee a win for the Republicans unless Obama’s first four years are marked by a Katrina-like disaster for which Obama takes the blame.  Barring that, if Obama’s first term is even marginally successful, I think he has a good shot at getting re-elected in 2012.  However, it would be an important first step in the right direction for the Republicans and set the stage for a Jindall candidacy in 2016 (I regard him as too young to be a credible candidate in 2012).  I believe that a Palin candidacy would solidify the Republicans’ “stupid party” label and set the stage for a generation of Democratic presidents and Congresses.  I don’t think Palin has the good sense to lay low and brush up on her understanding of world and national issues to be a credible threat to Barack Obama in 2012, even with a Katrina-like disaster.  She’s going to keep running her mouth in the press to try to get face time with the American public, and the press will continue handing her the rope with which to hang herself.


As to the question of whether the Republicans have been “too conservative” or “not conservative enough”,  I think the real answer is that they need to dispose of the “left vs. right” paradigm and start thinking in terms of pragmatism and good government.  The modern Republican party is simply too caught up with labels and dogma to govern effectively, which is why they haven’t and why it was best that they lost this election resoundingly.  However, if the Republicans are left to lie in the gutter for too long, then the Democrats will simply become what the Republicans have been.  We need a viable opposition party in this country to keeping the majority party in check, and the Republicans right now are a complete mess.  Their ideology is morally, intellectually, and (of late) financially bankrupt.  They need to go into the back room and do some serious re-thinking of their platform.  Hopefully the ideas I’ve presented above can help.

Friday, November 14, 2008

What if history isn't repeating itself?

Yesterday I went home after a very frustrating day at work of inventories and a futile search for a computer which nobody has used for over a year. It's been sitting in a corner gathering dust in somebody else's work center and somebody finally moved it somewhere where I cannot find it. Such is life for an equipment custodian. I went down for an hour nap around 6:30 last night and just woke up twenty minutes ago, at 5:30 this morning. I did some rather intense dreaming, but for all its vividness, it was remarkable mostly for its absurdity. It featured Homer Simpson using a magic beard to propel himself over a wall. Finally after things went badly, we all started running, but I found myself trapped in a cage with a large guard dog with security guards bearing down on me with rifles. I realized there was only one way out: I woke up.

After eleven hours of sleep, I got some water and went outside. The sun is just now rising and I can see the full moon to the west from my balcony. Sitting out here on my twelfth story balcony, seeing the full moon and two planes passing in the night over my tropical island paradise, I decided it was time for blogging.

I've given a lot of thought to this past Presidential election, and sentiment aside, I always try to place these things in some sort of historical context. You can usually look back at history and see when something similar has happened in the past, no matter how new and unique a particular event may seem at the time. I've been trying to contextualize the 2008 Presidential election, and while a number of past elections seem to fit on the surface, the comparisons fall apart upon further analysis.

Is it like 2000? In all senses, no. Then Governor Bush and Vice President Gore were running during a time of economic prosperity. Bush ran against Clinton's character and Gore ran on his and Clinton's record. Gore's margin of victory was so narrow that he actually lost. What followed was eight years of mismanagement and strife that set the stage for 2008.

Is it like 1992? Again, no. We were in a recession, but Americans didn't want to fundamentally change the way we did business; they just wanted someone they thought could do it more competently than President Bush did, so they elected then Governor Clinton.

Is it like 1980? In some ways, yes. Reagan represented a fundamental shift in how the government did business. He wasn't simply running to the right of President Carter, but also to the right of President Nixon, and that's how he governed. Reagan set the stage for the next twenty-eight years. Even President Clinton was forced to govern to the right of himself as a consequence of the political climate of the time.

But upon further analysis, 2008 is actually the antithesis of 1980. What Reagan represented was a turn away from responsibility and service. You shouldn't have to pay high taxes, he said. You shouldn't have to worry yourselves about what's going on overseas, he said. Those Soviets are the Evil Empire, and you shouldn't have to think about it any further than that. We're Number One. Reagan simply asked Americans to trust him to do the right thing, whatever that may be. The Reagan presidency marked the beginning of America's great apathy toward its government. After Watergate, Americans simply concluded that “they're all a bunch of crooks” and voted for the guy they found personally likable – the guy who wouldn't ask anything of them, but who would take care of things himself while they turned on the TV and tuned out of their government: seemingly forever.

2008 can be likened to a great awakening of the body politic. Suddenly, everybody's paying attention. Suddenly, everybody is greatly concerned about the future of their country – even those who don't support Obama. I'm not just talking about the millions of people who either donated to or volunteered for Obama's campaign, although that's significant enough in of itself. I'm also talking about the disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters who for a time refused to vote for Obama because they believed so strongly in her candidacy. I'm also talking about the disaffected Republicans who, although they may not have liked the performance of their current standard-bearer, believed enough in Republican ideals that they still supported McCain. I'm talking about disaffected Republicans who were so fed up with the direction their party has taken that they chose, for the first time ever, to vote for a Democrat for President of the United States. And, of course, I'm talking about evangelical Republicans who'd almost given up on being relevant in politics, only to find their new standard-bearer in Sarah Palin.

America isn't tuning out like they did in 1980. They're finally tuning in. And while I have no idea what kind of changes this sort of resurgent democracy will bring, I do think that I can safely say that the days of the next American Idol commanding more attention than the next President of the United States are drawing to a close. People are really paying attention, and what that means for our next President is that he's going to have to govern accordingly. Gone are the days when a President can pull a fast one on the American public and simply ask them to trust him. Bush saw to that when there were no WMD in Iraq.

There were other historical comparisons made. There was fear of a repeat of 1968. That hasn't happened. There were no riots in the streets, there were no assassinations of major public figures. 1968 was the year America lost the last vestiges of its innocence and gave up on hope. 2008 is the year that, just based on the mere fact of an African American being elected President, America has begun to realize that hope never actually died and that fundamental change really is possible. It's like America blacked out for forty years and is suddenly asking itself, “wait, how did I get here?”

It's not 1960. 2000 was really a lot closer to 1960. Kennedy ran to the right of Nixon on foreign policy in order to appease the Cold War fears of the day. Obama actively ran against an on-going war (note of caution: Nixon also ran on a promise to end the war in Vietnam in 1968, so Obama supporters hoping to see an end to the war in Iraq will need to remain vigilant, even during an Obama presidency. Now, Nixon ran on a “secret plan”, while Obama made his plan public. But the point remains: stay on top of this. We haven't won this fight until the last man is out.)

You could make a case for 1952. General Eisenhower ran against Governor Stevenson, who was burdened by being from the same party as the very unpopular President Truman. There was an unpopular war in Korea from which the public was largely disengaged. Neither candidate was a sitting President or Vice President, and that's actually the last time that has happened. Mostly, however, Stevenson was burdened by the simple fact of not being Eisenhower, much the way McCain was burdened by the simple fact of not being Obama. But ultimately, Eisenhower's election was an affirmation of people's approval of his performance in World War II and an easing of their concerns of having a dovish Adlai Stevenson as President in the midst of the Cold War. In 2008, the American people have simply said, as the Wisconsin state flag does, “FORWARD”. Obama's election is not about what he has done, but about what people hope he will do. Indeed, that has largely been the greatest criticism of his campaign. What's he done? What's he accomplished? The answer really is, “not much... yet.”
I'll end with another year people have compared it to: 1932. In that year, people voted Herbert Hoover out of office in favor Franklin Roosevelt. This has mostly been based on the economic issues of the day, which even a superficial analysis will show are not as dire today as they were then, mostly thanks to the safeguards which were put into place by Roosevelt in the years following. People have raised the possibility of a generation of Democratic Presidents similar to the generation of Roosevelt and Truman. But again, this is faulty. What we're seeing is not a rejection of Republicans per se, but a rejection of politics as usual, which is to say a rejection of, once again, “trust me” politics. If Democrats expect the American people to simply go back to sleep after this election and simply go along with everything they do, they're in for a big surprise. The Republican party will return as a legitimate force in national politics within the next eight years. I'll caveat that by saying that it will be longer if the evangelicals manage to make Sarah Palin the standard-bearer of the party. The Republicans can no longer cheaply win elections by appealing to the worst in people. The gratuitous use of Obama's middle name to score cheap political points didn't work this time around. That in of itself should send them a signal: they can't use those types of dog whistles anymore. They're going to have to stop being lazy and win on the merits of their ideas, and that means they're going to have to actually come up with some new ideas. Supply side economics isn't a winning policy position anymore. They're going to have to retool and come up with something new. If they don't, then yes: we'll see a generation of Democratic Presidents. If they do, then I think we'll see a purge of the business-as-usual Democrats who've only managed to stay in power because they're not Republicans. That means you, Harry and Nancy. You're on notice: if you don't recognize the winds of change all around you and adapt to them, you'll be swept away by them eventually, too.

And let that serve notice to our President-elect, as well. We're not looking for another Clinton administration of small, incremental change. We're looking for fundamental change: a new New Deal. Think big. Act bigger. And most importantly, listen to the people. I'll give you a name of someone who's been really good about that: Russ Feingold. Bring him into your administration. He's been in the Senate for sixteen years and hasn't lost touch with the reasons he came to Washington in 1992. You can learn a thing or two from him if you're really interested in changing Washington instead of being changed by it.

But what of the historical context? How do we place this election in the larger scheme of things? Has a man who belongs to a race of people who were once enslaved by his nation ever been elected its leader? When viewed in that context, this election is almost Arthurian. But we can't afford those types of mythical comparisons. This isn't a story book we're reading: it's real life. That means that we simply have to admit that we have no idea where this is going, and if for no other reason than that, we all must stay engaged in the navigation of our ship of state for the next four years.


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Tears of joy.

I didn't expect it to come on so quickly. I was sitting in my hotel room here at Keesler AFB in Mississippi, in the heart of the old Confederacy, on the base where I watched the nation begin its long downward spiral, watching Obama's 30 minute video on my laptop and then turned my eyes up at the TV, which had the volume down, and saw a name and a number:


I stared in disbelief. Was I really reading it? Had it really happened? Am I really here, on this night, watching the end of this long national nightmare? Good god in heaven, have I really come full circle to the place where I watched the sun begin to set on my country only to watch day begin to break? Then it came on. Waterworks. I'm not ashamed to admit it; it was such a relief. More than one person in my life was talking about leaving the country if McCain won, and I was one of them. Looks like I'll be sticking around after all.

Goodbye to all of that.

Goodbye to Vietnam. Goodbye to our nation's original sin, to the permanent sense of fear which has gripped our nation since the planes struck the Twin Towers. Goodbye to the war on the middle class, to the excuses for not doing better for our citizens, to the notion of patriotism being a Republican value. Goodbye to the notion that a young man with the wrong colored skin being raised by a single mother doesn't have a chance in this country. Goodbye to the Confederate States of America, to Jefferson Davis and to George Wallace.

Goodbye to our past. Hello to our future.

But what does that future hold? We don't know, and that's the beautiful thing about it. Our future is wide open. We're no longer bound by the limitations of the past. What's past is prologue, but it's been gone over so many times. Tonight we've gained back something that we seemingly lost forever when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy died 40 years ago:


Down to the wire.

Today is Election Day, but I'll not share my thoughts on this day until the final results are in. It's bittersweet for me; I'm back here at Keesler AFB, MS: the same place I was eight years ago when everything went terribly awry. Today presents an opportunity for America to show how far they've come and how much farther we are capable of going, to show that our best days have yet to come and that while we may stumble on occasion, we will always get back up stronger than before. Or else we can accept the status quo and push out an entire new generation because of our inability to let go of our petty fears and hatreds. That's the choice we face today: the future or the past. For the first time in a while, I have faith in my countrymen to make the right decision.

We'll see if that faith is reinforced.

What I want to share with you right now is my experience in the city of New Orleans over the weekend. Those of you who know me know that I am very fond of that city, and those who know me well know that I play hard when I'm there. On Halloween, I played very hard and blacked out for four hours. I discovered myself wandering around in a strange part of town (Gentilly) which I didn't recognize, thinking I was somewhere else. The reorientation process was disconcerting to say the least, and I wasn't exactly in the best neighborhood.

To the extent which anybody had any reaction to me, it was fear. I was obviously out of my mind, and they felt threatened by me. Some people were hesitant to help me because I was so obviously out of place, but one finally called me a cab so I could get back to the Garden District where my dear friend and fellow contributor Queen Elizabeth lives. The only thing I was missing was her spare key, and I initially believed that someone had slipped me something in my drink and had stolen her key because they knew who I was and where I was staying. Hey, if you find yourself wandering around in a strange neighborhood with no idea where you are or how you got there, you'll get paranoid too, believe me.

What struck me is that for all that people make of the high crime rate in New Orleans, nothing happened to me. I was essentially helpless as a babe in a situation of my own making, and yet nobody saw fit to take advantage. In fact, I get a feeling that some bartender along the way told me that I'd had enough to drink and told me to go home. Now, maybe (s)he could have called me a cab? But really, I was left alone as I wandered for miles after dark. What does that tell me?

Not so much that people are fundamentally this or that, but that they're never as bad or good as you might assume they are. They didn't exactly jump out of their seats to help me after I started regaining my senses, but they didn't lift my wallet or steal my clothes, which they easily could have in my state. They mostly just let me alone, from beginning to end. It also tells me that true friends are invaluable, because aside from them, you're on your own, and that having a friend around not only helps you stay out of trouble, but helps you get through it when it finds you. Simple stuff, but I'd become overly self-reliant over the years, and it's nice to find friends who are willing to let you rely on them.

I'll have comments about the implications of tonight's election results after they come out.