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Wit and Wisdom


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Tough Luck

Posted on March 6, 2011 at 8:21 AM Comments comments (7)
The anguished complaint by liberals that Democrats don’t know how to bargain-- that they start at the middle instead of the left, and thus wind up too far right-- was effectively addressed by the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein on Bill Maher’s show “Real Time” March 4.  

Maher was expressing grudging respect for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for staking out an extreme position on public employee unions, one that would eventually yield in compromise everything he really wanted in the first place.  Maher wondered why  President Obama didn’t do something similar with health care reform: initially demand Medicare for all, in order to wind up with a public insurance option as part of a market-based system.

Klein pointed out that big opening gambits are often counterproductive.  He predicted that if Obama had unveiled a single-payer system, the next day “eight conservative Democratic Senators would have withdrawn their support,” essentially killing health care reform for another 20 years. And Klein said Walker may well have overreached with his absolutist stand, leaving him no easy way to back down.

Even though it’s true that when it comes to policies and programs, most Americans are more liberal than they realize, their reactions to language and ideas is predominately conservative.  Because politics traffics in language and ideas, liberal politicians have to tread more carefully than their conservative counterparts, lest they be quickly vilified and marginalized for good plans that “sound wrong.”

As satisfying as tough talk and non-negotiable stances are to ardent advocates, they are not the stuff of effective policy progress, especially on the left. For all it’s faults, a comprehensive health care system is finally in place, one achieved through often frustratingly moderate means. 

A Serenade for Governor Walker

Posted on February 21, 2011 at 11:39 PM Comments comments (9)
Mad As Hell In Madison
(A swelling chant that sounds something like a jazzy “Farmer in the Dell”)

We’re mad as hell in Madison!
Take up a yell in Madison!
The protests swell in Madison!
And we’re not going home.

A budget con in Madison.
All reason’s gone in Madison.
A struggle’s on in Madison
To save our hearth and home.

Brave justice roars in Madison.
Our spirit soars in Madison.
This battle’s yours in Madison
Wherever you call home.

The cause we hail in Madison--
It must prevail in Madison.
How could it fail in Madison?
America’s our home.

We’re mad as hell in Madison!
Take up a yell in Madison!
The protests swell in Madison!
And we’re not going home.

The Wrong Target

Posted on February 14, 2011 at 8:06 AM Comments comments (40)
Deficit-reduction talk is full of the need to “make tough choices.”  But are the people on the rough end of these tough choices really the ones who should be asked to make the sacrifices?

Anyone old enough to remember the early Reagan Administration will find a sickly echo in today’s proposals to cut child nutrition programs and education grants to low-income students.  Once again the budget cutters are focusing on the easiest targets:  services for people without high-powered lobbyists to protect their interests.  These are lifeline  programs-- like weatherization assistance for poor people in cold climates-- that operate on a shoestring now, often have waiting lists, and should be expanded, not cut.

As pointed out in a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, it was the Bush tax cuts, the Great Recession and two wars that got us into this deficit mess.  Discretionary programs ensuring baseline services to the poor and middle class played no part. (Entitlement programs Medicare and Medicaid are in a separate category, but these too can be fixed without punishing the poor.)

Sacrifice should be asked of those (like Wall Street bankers, military contractors and those who live off unearned income from stocks and bonds) who’ve benefited from the tax and spending policies of the past 30 years.  They’re the ones who’ve been having the party-- they should get the bill. 

Gipper Gab

Posted on February 5, 2011 at 10:20 AM Comments comments (26)
INTERVIEWER:  Thank you, President Reagan, for joining us posthumously as part of the overblown celebration of your 100th birthday.
REAGAN: You’re welcome. But for me it’s just another gig.
INTERVIEWER:  Are you at all surprised that after basically snoozing malevolently through the eight years of your presidency you’re now being held up as some kind of combination philosopher king, conquering hero and secular saint?
REAGAN: Not really. But you have to realize I worked in Hollywood. They made people believe Victor Mature could act.
INTERVIEWER:  So you’re not buying all the hype about you?
REAGAN: Listen, if I believed all my own press I would have cheated on my wives far more often than I actually did.
INTERVIEWER:  Did you help devise the “Reagan Naming Project”: the scheme by conservative zealots to slap your name on as many public buildings, streets and other venues as possible, in order to permanently ingrain your memory--and by extension, your ideology--into the public consciousness?
REAGAN: How old are you? Do you remember my governing style? I could barely keep awake through your question.  
INTERVIEWER:  You seem like the Reagan Conservative least excited by the Reagan Centennial.
REAGAN: Again: remember your history. Whether it was Warner Brothers, GE, or the White House, my only questions were: when’s lunch, when do I get paid, and when do I go home? Speaking of which...
INTERVIEWER:  Were almost done here.  Any final words for all your modern-day acolytes?
REAGAN:  Never share the screen with children, animals or reforming Soviet premiers.  Any idea, no matter how discredited and hurtful, can be resuscitated if you deliver it with enough ham. (Remember when they thought blaming the poor would never come back?) And no matter how much they dangle on the back end, get all your money up front.  You do know that just because I’m dead, that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to my customary speaking fee?
INTERVIEWER:  But this is a news interview!
REAGAN:  I care? I still get residuals from my press conferences. It’s all show business, baby.
INTERVIEWER:  Thank you, Mr. President.
REAGAN:  No, thank you-- and the William Morris Agency.

Unpopular Populism

Posted on January 30, 2011 at 2:19 PM Comments comments (9)
It’s a cliche of antagonistic diplomacy to pronounce no ill-feeling towards “the people” of another nation, only their benighted government.  This nice distinction is intended to preserve the friendship of the foreign population--or at least, temper any warlike tendencies--while driving a wedge between leaders and led. Whether the ploy ever works is unclear but unlikely, given the difficulty of manipulating distant alien public opinion through cheap psychological tricks and flattery.

Effective or not, the sentiment behind the maneuver is usually sincere.  People are people the world over, after all, with similar hopes, worries and appetites.  It’s only when the motivations of one group of humans are organized and concentrated in governments that they have much effect--good or bad--on other groups.  Thus it’s a fair bet that the inchoate aspirations of the “people” of another nation pose no real threat to your own. For a country like the United States, this assumption has the added benefit of supporting democracy: let the people have their way, the theory goes, and all will be well, for them and us.

The current unrest in Egypt highlights how that standard formulation has been for years stood on its head in our conduct of foreign policy throughout the Middle East.  Opinion polls, such as in Egypt, consistently show that radical Muslim parties would win free and fair national elections. Because we with reason view such potential theocracies as a threat to our interests we have for decades supported secular authoritarian regimes that keep them at bay (while softly murmuring objections to those regimes’ human rights abuses).  

When a crisis erupts, as in Egypt now, the U.S. scrambles to contain the damage, calibrating our language depending on who appears to be winning in the streets.  But there’s a credibility problem because for decades our message has been: we have no dispute with the government, only the people.

Advocacy & Accommodation

Posted on January 25, 2011 at 5:23 PM Comments comments (37)
Seeking consensus on public issues rather than victory does not debase your point of view, but rather makes it more valuable.  There is no contradiction between being a forceful advocate and a good-faith searcher for middle ground.  In fact, only by filling the first role can you perform the second. 

All this of course presupposes rational humility:  acceptance that, with all the world’s unknowns and the limited ability of humans to learn and understand, we can all be wrong about the large questions and probably are most of the time.  All we can do--but this is a lot--is bring to the table our experiences and ideas and the beliefs that flow from them.

So whether you fail to effectively express your views through unwarranted timidity or quash a different perspective through excessive aggression, your diminishing the collective conversation.  We need everyone’s contribution to approach the truth.

Responsible Liberty

Posted on January 19, 2011 at 9:33 AM Comments comments (13)
At a recent Rules Committee hearing on repeal of health care reform, a Republican House member extolled the importance of not forcing a business owner to offer his employees coverage “if he doesn’t want to.”  Like a lot of recent-- especially conservative-- rhetoric, this idea went to something very basic in political thought.  Modern debate is often criticized (rightly) for being too highly-charged, but it should also be praised for engaging more directly basic philosophical differences than do more polite exchanges.  

The health care reform law enacted last year requires larger businesses (those with over 50 workers) to provide health care coverage for their employees and sets minimum benefits for that coverage.  To liberals this seems like a necessary response not only to the fear and suffering of the uninsured (or underinsured) individual, but also to the societal phenomenon of cost shifting:  of large, profitable companies allowing more conscientious businesses and taxpayers to pick up the cost of their employees’ health care.  This happens whenever an uninsured patient shows up at the emergency room, can’t pay the bill, and the resulting cost is recovered through higher premiums and government transfers.  

Personal liberty is not the only public virtue.  As a Democrat on the same committee noted, if we lived in a society that accepted the idea of denying medical care to the uninsured-- of allowing people to bleed to death just outside the ER doors-- then the conservative position on employer health-care mandates would make more sense.  But we have set higher standards for ourselves, and everyone (including that reluctant business owner) must help pay the bill for those standards.

Smart Tech, Dumb Talk

Posted on January 11, 2011 at 11:14 AM Comments comments (9)
For all our supposed media sophistication, it’s remarkable how schmaltzy our mass communications have become here in the early 21st Century.  It’s almost as if advances in technology have had an equal and opposite effect on content.

An obvious example is reality television.  The exagerrated acting style and unlikely story lines of Victorian melodrama and silent films have nothing on these curious modern playlets, where the dramatic payoff seems always to be a wide-eyed expression of outrage.

In the political arena, no pander to saccharine sensibilities is considered too great:  a labrador retriever in the candidate family portrait is good; a lab puppy is better.  More dangerous than puppy love, though, are appeals to angry emotions, such as may have inadvertently supplied a framework for the Tucson shooter’s psychosis. Even if tragedy doesn’t ensue, reliance on words and images that touch off repetitive emotional responses, instead of stimulate fresh thinking, impoverishes our political debate. 

I just saw on TV a scene from the Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movie “State of the Union”.  Presidential candidate Tracy skims through a proposed speech, reading aloud about “the palsied hand of government” resting on useful productive capacity, and how businesses must not be “treated like felons.”  Tracy looks up angrily, protesting: “This is double talk!”  The movie's from 1948; those phrases or ones like them can be found in any conservative political speech today. Similarly simple-minded and tired ideas  clutter up liberal expression as well.

Let's not just tone down our rhetoric post-Tucson, let’s smarten it up.

A Deadly Legacy

Posted on January 9, 2011 at 10:26 AM Comments comments (14)
It’s important not to overreact to the terrible shooting in Tucson: not make members of Congress less accessible to their constituents, not blame a political movement for a deranged act.  In any case, the first order of business is to feel for the victims and their families.

But once the shock has worn off, it will be reasonable to consider the line of inquiry already being pursued by some liberals:  namely, that the shooting of Representative Gifford and 18 others at a public gathering was a deadly manifestation of violent rhetoric on the Right.  

America is a nation birthed and bathed in violence.  Settled by Europeans in the age of firearms, until relatively recently boasting a wild frontier, and hostile to the kind of deference to and centralization of authority that has allowed other Western governments to better control the instruments and sentiments of deadly force, the United States has frequently suffered the consequences of this particular expression of its freedom.

While the extreme Left has known sporadic episodes of political violence (John Brown’s pre-Civil War insurrection, anarchists of the early 20th Century, revolutionaries of the 1960s), it is the extreme Right-- defending the founding credo-- that has consistently relied on personal deadly force to make its points.

After the Oklahoma City federal building explosion in 1995-- the victims of which included children in a day care center-- the leaders of the newly ascendant radical Republicans in Congress ceased to refer to themselves proudly as “bomb throwers.”  With one of the mortal victims of the Tucson rampage being a nine-year-old girl, perhaps the current leaders of the Right will use the most recent tragedy as an opportunity to draw their inspiration from a less violent part of our nation’s legacy.

Political Pull

Posted on January 5, 2011 at 7:37 PM Comments comments (37)
Deciding whether to back or buck the president shouldn’t cause progressives too much angst.  Supporters and critics are both needed to keep a movement going that Barack Obama himself has always rightly said was bigger than him.

Oppositional politics tends to coalesce forces; propositional to splinter them.  When the only object was to replace Republican rule, it was easy to hang together.  Once the process of governing began, it became easy to fall apart.  

Liberal gripes about Obama are understandable.  There certainly has been the appearance of negotiating with himself, giving in too early, trying to work with a nonexistent partner.  The public option in the health care bill, stronger consumer protections in the finance bill, fairness in the tax cut extension—all appeared sacrificed in the name of a chimerical bipartisanship.

But even his staunchest critics would never claim Obama was a stupid man; few people would call him naive.  As long as the Senate is hamstrung by archaic rules that make a mockery of democracy, determined minorities will dictate the outlines of a lot of policy.  The President’s press conference claim in December that he was keeping his eye on a “north star” of ultimate outcomes, and allowing himself to tack left or right to get there, was supported by the progressive accomplishments that ended the last Congress: abolishing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; START treaty ratification; even the unexpectedly long extension of unemployment benefits in the tax-cut bill.

Everyone has a role to play in progressive politics: just pick your spot along the rope line.  If you’re standing next to the President, you can cheer him on while you pull together;  if you’re too far to the left to cheer, at least you’re keeping him from drifting too far right. The important this is to keep on pulling.