October 25th, 2012
This is the first of fourteen posts, a narrative divided by news cycles and polls, lies and litigation, twinges of hope and waves of despair, as we Americans make our final decisions about whether to vote and who to vote for. I'm writing this series because i need to try to make sense of things for myself, to sort out how it is possible for half the country to think the way they do.
My first vote ever was for George McGovern in 1972. His death this week brings into focus how far we have moved over the past forty years, moved from a culture of 'we' to a culture of 'me'. The climate (figurative and literal) is different, something fundamental has happened with this swing to the right, this narrowing down of what matters-- an insatiable thirst for money and property, a fever of religious extremism, an indictment of the disenfranchised.
Each day for the next two weeks I will post a short piece inspired by the news of the day. Perhaps the pieces will start to fit together. The final post in this series will be on November 7th, 2012.
October 26, 2012
Of phone calls and cab rides.
A couple of days ago, straight off the morning news and the frightening polls, I hailed a cab in New Orleans to get to a meeting across town. I asked the driver, a Hispanic man, who he was voting for. “I don’t like politics,” he said. “The election is politics,” I answered, “but it’s what comes after that matters.”
A few minutes of silence, and then he picked up the ball: “And who are you voting for?” I honestly can’t remember if anyone else has asked me this question (my friends know me, and I live in the Bay Area), “Obama” I answered. At a stop sign he turned to face me, utterly shocked: “But what about Obamacare? It will ruin the country!” I asked him if he himself had health insurance. “Unh unh-- I can’t afford it,” he said.
We had reached my destination, but I asked him if he'd mind pulling over with the meter running. I told him a bit about Obamacare, and a bit more about the president’s policies. He seemed excited, asked questions, vowed to go talk to his family and friends. I realized that I had just had a substantive conversation with what the folks on tv have been calling a ‘low-information voter.’ But on countless other occasions, it's been the other way around-- a cab driver teaching me a thing or two about politics.
There is something remarkable about that time in between, the time of the urban car ride with a stranger-- not too long and not too short; it's just right. (And so different from sitting next to someone on an airplane when one has come armed with laptop and headphones and reading material.) And unlike the unsolicited phone call, we are not interrupting the taxi driver's daily life.
In 2008 I made calls to Arizona and Colorado; last weekend I went door-to-door in Virginia. I press that magic “$25 donation" button whenever I get really scared. But that day in New Orleans a $15 cab ride felt more productive than any of these other strategies to get 'our guy' reelected. Over the next ten days I will be in Washington, St. Louis, Cleveland and Berkeley. I plan to forego public transportation and take as many taxis as I can.
(postscript, October 27)
Just read that taxi drivers in several states are offering free rides to the polls on election day. Taxi driver-- one of the great unsung occupations.
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October 27th, 2012
All these media arguments-- about whether Mitt Romney is severely conservative or moderately reasonable, whether he flips on a dime or evolves over time, whether he will govern from the right or from the middle, which of his statements have represented his ‘truth’ and which his 'lies’-- miss the essential point: Mitt Romney is a master of doublethink.
According to George Orwell, here is how doublethink works:
“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. . . . This process has to be conscious, otherwise it would not be carried out with sufficient precision. But it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt.” (my emphases)The primary characteristic of Orwell’s universe is not the domination of one system or ideology over another; it is a world in which the very concept of truth (and its countermeasure fiction) is abolished. Truth itself is has become a myth. Thus the ‘lie’ and its consequences of guilt and remorse, and the humiliation of being ‘caught’, no longer exist. This is also the universe of Mitt Romney’s campaign.
Like the charismatic inner-party member O’Brien in Orwell’s novel 1984, doublethink comes naturally to Romney. This is why he could say without so much as a blush or a blink in that first debate in Denver:
“Regulation is essential.”
“My (health care) plan covers pre-existing conditions.”
“I am not proposing a $5 trillion tax cut.”
This is why he so brazenly called out the imperative of ‘change’ seventeen times! in a speech yesterday in Iowa, even as he and his party seek to return us to the reprehensible ultra-conservative policies of the past.
The mastery of doublethink trumps the need for the proverbial ‘flip-flop.’ Instead, it allows one to hold multiple and contradictory opinions at the same time, to be both consciously clever and unconsciously sly in charting one’s path to personal victory at the expense of an entire electorate. It is an ability that will frustrate any of us who embrace debate and argument as a way of teasing out the essence of our shared interests. Fortunately, a few of us file the transcripts, some of us hold the memories, and most of us still value our fundamental convictions. When the doubletalk starts, we call it out for what it is: an Orwellian moment in an otherwise rational, moral and compassionate society.
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October 28, 2012
The Other World Series
Six nights ago, a lifetime in sports and politics, I was dreading the stress and pressure of the third presidential debate but feeling compelled to watch. My daughter advised me to tune into the Giants-Cardinals game instead. By carefully managing the remote, I was able to switch between Obama’s monologues and few of the Giants’ hits and runs.
But in the post-game and the post-debate coverage, the tone of the commentary was remarkably similar. We’ve reduced our presidential campaign to a sport. Daily and hourly the pundits opine: “Romney hit a double,” “Obama punted,” “Ryan is up against the ropes.” In the famous secret 47% tape, Romney used a sport metaphor when he talked about just dribbling the ball down the field in the game of forming a Palestinian state. In other words, he hardly expects to score even a goal, let alone a ‘win.’
Politics-as-sport is nothing new. As far back as the eighteenth century, a political cartoon in England depicted the Brentford election as a horse race. (published in Town and Country Magazine, April 13 1769). And in September of this year The Atlantic—a publication that I count on for some gravitas when all other media are running amok with sensationalism—put this image on their cover:
I hated this graphic on sight, perhaps mostly because my guy was taking a hard one to the jaw. (I assumed these images were photo-shopped, but it turns out that these are look-alikes, made up and trained in both the art of impersonation and the sport of boxing.) By this time in the campaign season everyone was spoiling for a fight. As Charles Krauthhammer said after the 2nd debate: “We love this stuff. This was a boxing match, this was heavyweight, this was Frazier, Ali.’ We’re all talking about the game, the fight, the race. Everything but the work itself, whose wins and losses are not so clear, not so euphoric, and mostly open to interpretation.
Obama has used the sports metaphor himself in the case of the auto bailout. Speaking to a group of auto workers at a rally, he said of Romney’s plan to let Detroit go bankrupt: “Think about what that would have meant not just for Ohio but for America . . . . You would have been benched for good.” But he was not talking about politics; he used the metaphor to refer to an industry that is, indeed, still in the game. In fact, it is part of the president’s job to make sure that the game of the American economy is always in extra innings.
Here is one important difference between sports and politics: in sports, the games are definitively over. The last run is not like an election victory-- there are no promises to be kept, no agenda to pursue. The end is the end, not the beginning. When the next season begins, the playing field is level again.
But if the post-primary debates are the ‘post-season’ games in the world of politics, the job of being president is no game. So while Mr. Romney spent days and weeks over the summer, holed up with his coach in a big New Hampshire house ‘in training’ for the first debate, President Obama was busy with his day job. I was mad mad mad when he blew that ‘game changing’ event on October 3rd. But really: Do we want a president who drops the ball that matters in order to score a couple of cheap rhetorical shots?
So while I’m incredibly proud of the Giants for winning the series tonight, I’m beginning to feel equally proud of Obama for ‘losing’ that first debate. The illusion that these months and days leading up to an election are merely a race to be won diminishes the same democratic principles that allow that very race to happen.
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October 29, 2012
Federal Responsibility, States Rights, Private Privilege
A late summer hurricane has met up with an early winter storm. Global warming? October surprise? Reality check on the value of our federal government?
Once again Mitt Romney’s words come back to haunt him. Here is what he said, in a primary debate in December 2011, about whether or not he supported the de-funding of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA):
"Absolutely," he said. "Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?"
"Including disaster relief, though?" asked debate moderator John King.
Romney doubled down: "We cannot -- we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we'll all be dead and gone before it's paid off. It makes no sense at all."
What is immoral is putting the protection and rescue of citizens at the mercy of a private contractor, whose ultimate goal is one of profit. Let’s imagine what this might mean in the era of ‘citizens united.’ Corporations and individuals with a lot of money would hold ‘executive’ power. Where exactly would be their incentive to serve the public good? Who would set the priorities of who gets rescued and who remains on her rooftop, who gets food and shelter and who is left out in the cold? Of all Romney’s specious plans, the proposal to privatize disaster relief is in a class of its own. (His running mate Paul Ryan thinks the churches should play a larger role.)
Romney’s seemingly less radical proposal—to place disaster relief in the hands of the states—reveals a different kind of fallacy, residing as it does within the larger project of what is normally called ‘states rights.’ The paradox of ‘states’ rights’ is that it has historically worked in opposition to human rights; in the south in the 1960’s, the term was a euphemism for the right to maintain segregation in one’s own state. Currently, state budgetary policies determine who has the right to public education; in Romney’s and Ryan’s world, it would determine who has the right to health care, and the right to be rescued from a storm.
If every state were responsible for its own safety and recovery, the level of redundancy needed would be sadly wasteful and dangerously inefficient. The rate of response and clean-up would be much much slower, the economic challenges unpredictable and the economic consequences exponential. The federal response in this post-disaster nightmare scenario in the case of a Romney presidency and a Ryan budget? The chief executive might conceivably weigh in with this editorial comment: “Let New Jersey go bankrupt.”
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October 30, 2012
There has been a lot of talk about Mitt Romney ‘acting presidential’ at the debate in Denver, and thus reassuring the American electorate that he is qualified to be president. Acting presidential is a staple of Hollywood. Martin Sheen has done it; so have Jamie Foxx, Michael Douglas, Henry Fonda and countless others. http://en.wikipedia.org/...
Ronald Reagan played the part for real.
To be sure, we are a gullible bunch; let us remember that on this very date in 1938, Orson Wells, using only his voice, convinced radio listeners that we were being invaded by Martians. From this event Dorothy Thompson, a New York Tribune columnist, concluded that politicians would be able to use mass communications to create theatrical illusions, and thus to manipulate public opinion: "All unwittingly, Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time," she wrote. "They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition.”
Romney’s rhetoric is certainly fantastical. But he is actually not a very good actor. While he can memorize lines, he has a limited range of facial expressions. He can look stern, but not compassionate. He can portray the illusion of a listener, but not the authenticity of a leader. He can modulate his voice in a semblance of Christian sincerity, but the false notes are an unmistakable indication of his mendacity.
Mitt Romney wants to play this role real real bad, and is still auditioning hard. Today, he staged his try-out for president at a ‘disaster relief’ rally in Ohio. (Paul Ryan, too, is no stranger to auditions. Last week, he tried out for the part of a soup kitchen volunteer. Perhaps because of his inexperience, he only attempted to wash pots that were already clean.) Worried that his supporters might not bring the goods as requested, Romney and his minions spent $5000 at Walmart on canned soup and diapers. With his shirtsleeves rolled up (this is what presidents do in a time of disaster, right?), he hefted big boxes into a truck headed for, presumably, New Jersey. If I had to guess, the truck probably circled the block and returned the merchandise to the store for a refund. After all, the Red Cross has made it clear that they do not want canned goods. Particularly in a situation where there is no electricity, and no way to heat the soup.
In spite of the critical acclaim for his performance in Denver, Romney cannot mask his true nature, he cannot improvise, his performances are universally self-serving, and this American drama is too important to cast him in a leading role.
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October 31, 2012
Build it Forward
The design of the physical environment is historically decades behind other forward-looking decisions. Spatial rights lag behind all kinds of civil rights—voting rights, rights of equal pay, marriage rights. But spatial rights are human rights; and nature is not always our enemy.
In certain coastal landscapes, dunes and dune plants serve to stabilize the sand and keep back the tides; in others, we have constructed seawalls to maintain the separation of land and sea. On Monday night, Superstorm Sandy breached both these types of barriers. Today, aerial photographs along the Jersey shore reveal images of a true “beach town”—houses in a field of sand, no lot lines, no paved paths of travel, no cars.
Sand is a medium that defies definition, rejects hierarchy; it yields to wind, rain, waves and footsteps. But after these natural disasters, our first inclination is always to ‘build it back.’ Political sensibility does not enter into this seemingly universal desire to have things return to just the way they were before the storm. But perhaps there are opportunities to take President Obama’s campaign slogan “Forward” into an approach to post-disaster environmental design. Is there a way to imagine these beach towns differently, with cars held back, dunes and plants reintroduced, the paving underneath the sand made permeable, some or all of the houses lifted up on stilts, an evolving ecology establishing itself among the pilings?
An alternative to the mandate to ‘build it back acknowledges not only that the floods may come again, but that the fragile, unstable beach may hold a lesson in the beauty of contingency—which is itself a kind of freedom, a kind of spatial right.
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November 2, 2012
Children of BAIN
“I love teachers!” enthused Mitt Romney in a recent presidential election debate. He also professes to love cars (especially American cars), the height of trees in Michigan, Big Bird and Jim Lehrer. Presumably, he also loves children. But as we have seen, neither his business practices nor his policies reflect any of these affections. And the holdings of his former corporation, Bain Capital, have turned the care of children into just another profit machine.
Before launching Bain Capital in 1984, Romney worked as a management consultant for Bain and Company, the same firm hired by the University of California, Berkeley in 2009 to conduct an efficiency audit of campus operations. Euphemistically called ‘Operation Excellence,” Bain and Company produced a report that included the recommendation to outsource childcare for campus families to a private enterprise. There was considerable resistance to this idea when the report was first released in 2010; since then, Bain has entertained no discussion with the campus community.
Yesterday, it came to the attention of the Berkeley faculty that Bain has recommended the for-profit company “Bright Horizons” for the UC Berkeley childcare contract. “Bright Horizons” happens to be owned by Bain Capital, the very same firm launched by Romney and friends. Unlike some of Bain's other company takeovers, which resulted in some domestic job cuts, Bright Horizons has added 880 employees nationwide since Bain bought the company. It now employs more than 15,000 people in the U.S. Just last week, Bain announced that it is taking “Bright Horizons” public.
“Bright Horizons” management take-over of campus childcare at Berkeley is scheduled for January 2013, and the intention is to phase in Bright Horizons employees in all teaching and administrative roles over the next three years. Meanwhile, concerned faculty and staff parents at Berkeley have discovered that “Bright Horizons” has had a number of licensing violations at its Cornell University operation, where they have a similar contract. At the National Science Foundation in Arlington Virginia, “Bright Horizons” is under investigation for reports of neglect and abuse. On a parents’ web forum, one parent wrote: “BH basically treats their centers as businesses, and don't care about the families. As long as they make their profit, they are happy. We were actually told to leave if we weren't satisfied.” Another wrote: “These Bright Horizons people simply could NOT DO THEIR JOBS. They had a former clueless director who drove the place downhill, and their “upper” management people only made a bad situation worse. They simply didn’t understand how to run a daycare/preschool.” There are dozens of similar remarks. Members of Berkeley’s faculty are continuing to investigate allegations against “Bright Horizons,” and are demanding a more inclusive and democratic process to resolve the long-term planning for childcare for campus families.
If Mitt Romney loses this election, as many of us expect he will, we also hope that he does not return to Bain Capital, and thus to the business of childcare.
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November 2, 2012
Those that win, govern; those that lose, teach.
It seems that in elections as in life, this conventional wisdom holds true: “Those that can-- do; those that can’t— teach.” And some of Paul Ryan’s chief allies, though publicly projecting confidence in a win on Tuesday, privately indicated that they and the Congressman are considering alternatives.
Here is an excerpt from an article today in the Huffington Post, discussing Ryan’s immediate future in the case of a Republican defeat: “(S)ome of Ryan's biggest boosters are considering whether it wouldn't be better for him to resign from the House. He could write a book – "saving America" is a theme often bandied about – or teach at a university.” The sources claim that Ryan’s wonkishness on matters budgetary prepares him for an interim career as a visiting professor, before returning to become the candidate at the top of the ticket in 2016.
As one who teaches and writes books for a living, I find this to be a disturbing extension of the old joke that teaching at a university is somehow in lieu of ‘doing’ something. For those of us with a sabbatical in the offing, perhaps we should sign up for a short stint in Congress—the place that so much gets done.
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November 3, 2012
Mitt Romney wanted the housing market to hit bottom. This, he said, is what is necessary for a market recovery. For alcoholics, touching bottom is the first step toward sobriety. In the swing of the country to the ultra-conservative right, the bottom for the Republican party was probably the 2010 mid-term elections. All of the emerging Luddite ideology, not so visible for the first two years, has come into focus in this current election season.
But if it seems like we are still heading down, drilling through what we thought was a bedrock of hard-won women’s rights and voting rights, environmental protection and progress in national health care, we are perhaps giving the noise too much importance, and not listening to the voices of reason, moderation and frustration with the current state of the GOP. The resignation of Maine senator Olympia Snow was a quiet wake-up call; the endorsement of Colin Powell for President Obama was a loud alarm. The former Republican presidents who are still living are silent; Eisenhower and Reagan are turning over in their graves.
The public’s approval of Congress has also touched bottom. After Tuesday, we might find the visible politics of the right floating back toward the center, the obstructionists stripped of power, a new generation of moderates emerging from the wreckage, thus allowing President Obama to do some governing in his second term.
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November 4, 2012
According to Almost Everyone opining about this election, the citizens of contemporary America vote with their wallets. True? Then very, very sad.
The ideal of the American Dream as defined by growing one’s wealth was shaped in the years following World War II, when the United States emerged into peacetime under a mantle of victory, world leadership, and a thriving economy. My father rose to adulthood during this time, and manifests the best possible version of the dream—from growing up in a poor immigrant family, to receiving a college education and professional training that were essentially free, to attaining the rank of Captain in the Army, returning home to marry, start a professional practice, buy a house and car, have a child, build a stock portfolio, rise in the profession, build a bigger house, become active in local politics, serve as mayor of a small city, take on partners in his practice, retire comfortably with the means for leisure and travel, and ultimately move into an expensive retirement home where he can live with dignity, and reminisce with great pride and no regrets on a life well lived. But he never voted with his wallet. He voted with his heart.
The idea of taxes being put toward the common welfare—ie. toward the health and education and housing of those who cannot afford private-sector versions of these very expensive things—is what we think of as the bedrock of a liberal agenda, as expressed in this excerpt from a post- WWII party platform:
We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs—expansion of social security—broadened coverage in unemployment insurance —improved housing—and better health protection for all our people. We are determined that our government remain warmly responsive to the urgent social and economic problems of our people.Are you assuming that these are the words of Adlai Stevenson’s democratic party? Jimmy Carter’s? John Kerry’s? Nope. This is from the Republican party platform of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956.
How and why this kind of liberal rhetoric has become a political liability, why it is assumed now that even the most ardent of Democrats has become a ‘wallet voter,’ why the compassionate heart has become a character flaw, are very big questions that must be answered before we can return to collective pride in the effective redistribution of wealth for the common cause.
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November 5, 2012
After two weeks of travel to red states and swing states, I am back in California for election week. Here at my University, politics revolves around allocations of FTEs, implementations of PDFs, and policies for GSIs.* This week, the campus is also tuned into California ballot measure Proposition 30.
In this notoriously ‘liberal’ state, I assumed that I would be voting for a proposition that would easily pass. This is a measure that for 98% of Californians has the net impact of raising sales tax by ¼%, from 71/4% to 71/2%, for four years. State income tax is raised incrementally for those with incomes over $250,000, with the highest rate at 13.3% for those earning over $1million—an implementation of the famous “Buffet Rule.” This tax is also ‘temporary’, for a period of 7 years.
This tax revenue, estimated at $6billion, is earmarked for public education. The effect on higher education would be substantial, and would forestall another huge tuition increase for the university system. In Los Angeles, the K-12 schools would be able to maintain their 175-day school year, instead of shortening it by two weeks. The proposition is smart and relatively cheap for us average voters, yet polls now indicate that it is destined to fail.
Outside money is largely responsible for the negative ads. An obscure group hailing from Arizona, with the innocuous name “Americans for Responsible Leadership”, gave $11million to defeat the Measure. Similar kinds of donations have far outpaced any positive messaging for Prop 30. In the last month, the polls show that support has slipped from 55% to 46%. Here is California, the red states are spreading lies and putting our tradition of public education at peril.
Of course this is reminiscent of the role of outside money in the 2008 passage of Proposition 8, a measure that turned the clock back on same-sex marriage. Prop 8 is no mere temporary measure; it is an amendment to the California Constitution that overturns a former California Supreme Court ruling. The new provision, Section 7.5 of the California Declaration of Rights, states “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” This is California!
But more than half of the outside money in support of Prop 8 came from the Church of Latter Day Saints, based in Utah. Mormons came by busloads from Utah to California to canvas door-to-door in support of the measure. The First Presidency (this is what the head of the Mormon church is called) announced its support for Proposition 8 in a letter intended to be read in every congregation in California, encouraging all members to “do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means (money) and time.”
Last year, Mitt Romney claimed 29% of his income went to 'charitable donations.' The Church of Latter day Saints was the recipient of 80%, or $1.1million, of this giving.
This man of outside money and special interests wants to be president of the United States.
*full time equivalencies, professional development fees, graduate student instructors.
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November 6, 2012
All the media talk has been about this election being decided in the swing states. Pundits are parsing county by county, interest group by interest group. The technical result may indeed depend on this relatively small constituency. But if we have an electoral college victory for Obama and a popular vote for Romney, it does not bode well for post-election possibilities. So even if you live in a 'blue' state or a 'red' state, and think your vote doesn't matter, it really really does. We all need to VOTE."
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November 6, 2012
Me or We?
Me or we?
Mine or thine?
Or centered state?
Or plan for health?
The game is done.
“We” has won.