Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Bright Spot amidst the gloom

I have always had varied and eclectic musical taste.  Baroque, Classical, Modern, Dixieland jazz, Be-Bop, rock, 50’s doo-wop, Heavy Metal, Euro-dance, Techno, New Wave, World Beat…  Note that this is not the same as being indiscriminate - far from it!  Within each category, I am quite particular.  For example, I love Jefferson Airplane, and have no use for the Grateful Dead.  The difference is virtuosity: the Airplane were really good with their instruments and they had some great voices, led of course by Grace Slick.  The Dead, not so much, no matter how charming you might find their sloppy, self-indulgent jams (if you want to hear a band that can jam, try the Allman Bros.)  I sometimes wondered if they even knew how to tune their instruments.

Some genres get a “no opinion” because I simply haven’t been interested enough to dig into them.  One such is “vocalists”.   Most of them strike me as soulless technicians obsessed with being the center of attention (yes, that means Streisand and Sinatra, first and foremost), or belters with lots of heart but middling voices (most rock and soul singers when they are not being drowned out by their bands).  Celine Dion and Whitney Houston are/were megastars with huge followings, but in all honesty, Dion’s voice is ordinary, and both she and Houston wasted themselves on a lot of atrociously bad material. Popular, yes, but so is Yanni, who puts out the musical equivalent of Pop Tarts. 

Popular singers increasingly get by on staging, recording tricks (Autotune has become ubiquitous, the great leveler that makes talent almost unnecessary) or vulgarity.  It is the rare singer who can transport the listener purely by the sound of her voice.  I can think of three from the pop realm:  Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Orbison and Linda Ronstadt.  They were vastly different from each other, but had flawless instruments.  They also did great material (Orbison had the added distinction that he wrote almost all of his own stuff).  They packed an emotional punch without having to force it.  Fitzgerald and Ronstadt covered a vast range of material, almost never sounding an off note.    There have been others with the emotional gut-punch effect, but they did it despite, or perhaps because of, unconventional, even bad voices:  Billie Holliday, Edith Piaf, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin come to mind.  I love all of them, but not because of the sheer beauty of their voices.

Then, of course, there is opera.  It takes focus and dedication to really “know” opera, so I plead relative ignorance.  While I love the great Puccini arias, and I find the mythology behind the Ring fascinating, I have sat through very few full length performances.  Still, there is no denying the power and beauty of voices like Placido Domingo, Leontyne Price, and Anna Netrebko.  No “pop” or “R&B” singer has their quality (just listen to Aretha Franklin trying to sing opera…then again, don’t, because you can’t un-hear it).  Crossover singers like Brightman and Bocelli are closer, but still not in the same league.   Then again, they don't claim to be opera singers.

I never really thought systematically about any of the above--it was just part of the background, the context for my taste in music.   And so, when I stumbled across Jackie Evancho, I was completely unprepared.  My reaction almost scared me--a tightening in my stomach, a desire to weep, an out-of-body sensation, a feeling of astonishment.  I dug around and found the videos of her performances at the ages of 8 and 9, and, to quote a professional singer who had performed with her, I was “gobsmacked”.  The videos of her as a 10 or 11 year-old remain jaw-dropping even after many viewings. I went on a month-long binge, and I can still listen to her for hours and feel the same sense of astonishment.  Shortly after her 11th birthday, as a guest of Britain's Got Talent, she sang Nessun Dorma, an aria that some have said women should not even be allowed to sing (few have ever tried).  She completely owned it.  Watching that video alone is an almost life-changing experience:

When I first came across some of her fan reviews, they sounded unhinged.  There was talk of her literally being an angel sent by God, or, echoing a comment from one of the judges of America’s Got Talent, that she must be an alien.  Admittedly, most of her fans use such terms metaphorically, but the message is real:  She is other-worldly.  She induces a kind of ecstatic trance, or involuntary weeping, in many of the people in her audiences.  Watch her concert videos, and you will see grown men and Grammy award-winning stars wiping tears from their faces as they listen to her.  Humans invent supernatural explanations for things that they can’t explain any other way, so it is with Evancho.

Scientists are studying her to try to understand how she achieves her tone.  How does one describe it?  First, she is often described as “bell-like”, meaning that she hits her notes precisely, with purity and clarity, and no false overtones or distortion.  (Note: distortion is not bad per se—it is what gives some famous voices their unique character.  Evancho’s uniqueness is the astonishing purity of her voice.)  It also means there are no “holes” in her sound.  If you listen to her next to Streisand, with whom she released a duet, it is Streisand’s voice that sounds damaged, as though something important is missing. 

A sound engineer’s explanation is of little use to non-geeks, so I use the analogy of a rainbow.  Evancho’s voice is like a full rainbow, the colors bright and in perfect balance.  Almost every other voice I have heard is like the rainbow with some of the colors missing, or viewed through a smudged or cracked window.  Among female pop vocalists, the only comparable voice I can think of is Linda Ronstadt at her peak, and hers is still a distinctly "pop" voice.  A better comparison is with the great operatic sopranos Netrebko and Barbara Bonney. Even Maria Callas sounds out of balance, with too much yellow and orange, and not enough blue and purple, though that may also be an artifact of older recording technology.  And Callas (whose greatness lay in her emotional presentation) did not hit all her notes spot on.   Evancho's errors are so rare that some of her fans can list them (from hundreds of hours of video replayed over and over). 

Second, Evancho has almost the power of an operatically trained singer, without the “trumpet-blast” sound typical of opera.  She sings with a microphone, so any proper comparison is with singers also using mics.  As it happens, Domingo, Pavarotti and Carreras used mics in their crossover concerts.  So do Netrebko, Sumi Jo, Fleming, Sissel, Villazon, Hvorostovsky and many others, as well as Bocelli and Brightman, so there are plenty of benchmarks.  Evancho has performed with many of these people --some the world’s biggest stars have lined up to sing with her. At the age of 10, she already belonged on the stage with them, not as a curiosity, but on a completely serious footing.  The common reaction people have to her, even now that she is 16, is that a voice this big can’t possibly come from someone so petite.  It creates a kind of cognitive disconnect that must contribute to the effect she has on her audiences.

There is yet another aspect of Evancho that sets her apart.  Back to our earlier image: We usually see a rainbow when the sun shines through the mist after a rainstorm.  The brighter the sun, the brighter the rainbow.  Now, imagine seeing a rainbow after nightfall, with no sun to illuminate it, yet somehow shining brightly in the darkness.  Evancho’s voice is like that:  luminous and penetrating, yet surrounded by something dark and melancholy.  It seems to come from nowhere, and carries a hint of an echo.  This may owe itself in part to what vocal trainers call “cover”, which can be taught as a matter of technique, but in her case seems in-born.  Whatever the explanation, I suspect that it is this combination of radiance and darkness that reduces her audiences to tears.  Ronstadt had a bit of that quality as well.  The only male singer I can think of that had it was Orbison, which was why he could stand motionless and sing for two hours and still have audiences weeping and calling for ten encores.

This darkness is also an odd juxtaposition with Evancho’s physical appearance, which is golden and innocent, almost angelic.  When she first appeared on the scene, as a 10-year old on a global stage, happy and poised and charming, instinctively in command of the stage and yet so unabashedly a little girl (what excited her most about one trip to California was finding a sand dollar on the beach), it must have shocked people. I missed it when it originally happened, and it shocks me now when I watch the video record. 

Evancho’s voice is maturing and deepening, yet her high notes remain pure and transcendent.  To get a sense of her progression, listen to her rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water, one of the few since the original by Simon and Garfunkel that does not sound ridiculous (Elvis Presley’s may be the only other).  Then move ahead a year and half, to her album “Awakenings”.  Many of her fans, used to a diet of classic arias, were bracing themselves for disappointment.  They need not have worried.  This album is beautiful, even if some of the song selections are ordinary.  She makes them her own in a spectacular way. 

There was a lot of worry (and too much malicious hope, from jealous or bitter people, one guesses) that Evancho would burn out, or ruin her voice, or grow out of her talent.  It was a reasonable concern. But she hasn’t burned out, appears to love what she does, and continues to grow.  If you have watched the videos, you know she is also ethereally beautiful.  It seems completely unfair, but she is so modest, humble and grateful for her gifts that it is impossible to begrudge her any of them.  May she shine on for a long, long time.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What does reform look like?

As the Republicans argue over whether to reform at all, we can ask ourselves, what would reform look like?  We actually have a recent historical precedent:  the Democratic party.  Of course, it is not news that Bill Clinton is credited with having dragged the party toward the middle, thereby saving it.

Democrats, and liberals in general, bought into some really wacky theories.   Find someone who thought medical researchers had long ago found the cure to cancer, but were hiding it so they could keep their jobs, and that person was most likely a Democrat.  Liberals bought into the idea that who we are is 100% nurture, and tried to persuade everyone that boys and girls are really, really the same until we get our culturally biased paws on them and corrupt them.  Well, in the post-structuralist ivory tower, that may be an interesting philosophical exercise, and in some kind of abstract reality, it may even be true.  But for millions of people trying to raise children and confronted with the practical realities, it was just an insulting assertion.

The Democrats accomplished something profoundly important in the New Deal and the civil rights advances of the 1960's,  but they allowed the battle to sink into trivialities which ended up destroying their credibility.  By getting mired in "self esteem" classes, ethnic studies curricula and other exercises grounded in separatism, and pushing public funding for nonsense like "grief counselors", standing by in every town in case there is a mass shooting, they sullied their original mission of giving everyone a fair chance.  By structuring AFDC (welfare) to create incentives for fathers to be absent, they fueled the tragic disintegration of families in both inner cities and trailer parks.

Every dogma has its perverse and unexpected consequences, and perhaps no case is more tragic than the liberal push to abolish the draft.  The result is that children of the rich do not have to fear conscription, and the rich therefore have no incentive to oppose the endless wars we seem to get ourselves into.  The burden of service falls on the poor and brown.  No surprise that the Republicans don't want to spend a dime on these people once they come back, no matter how grievously wounded.  They were expendable from the start.  And it was liberals who unwittingly created the endless supply of cannon fodder for Republican wars.

The rise of labor unions was a huge boon to working people in this and many other countries. Unfortunately, the leaders of the largest unions stopped working in the best interests of their members.  The worst case is the teachers' unions, which have backed themselves into a box, fanatically protecting the bad teachers while rejecting the idea of greater pay for the good teachers. 

Starting with Clinton, the Democrats have managed to marginalize or walk back some of their stupidest bits of dogma.  No one of any political stripe seriously tries to insist any more that we raise boys and girls identically.  Ironically, the hard-wired nature of gayness may have contributed to the demise of the old nurture-is-all dogma.   The recent exciting victories for gay rights have been based heavily on the understanding that gender orientation is not a choice.  Pedantic multiculturalism has become less relevant, as de-facto multiculturalism becomes more and more the reality.  President Obama has taken Black youth to task for their gangsta' posing and their taste for misogynistic music and sagging pants.  Confronted with the weirdly obtuse Republican rejection of science, the Democrats have embraced science, and one rarely hears them championing bee pollen over real medicine any more.

This writer disagrees with Obama's continuation and expansion of the Bush doctrine, but at least you have to say that under Obama, the Democrats didn't just surrender to our enemies as so many right-wing commentators insisted they would. 

This is what reform looks like.  When your previous precepts are exposed as mistaken or downright stupid, you change your views.  You may not own up to your previous mistake, but you change course nonetheless.  Right now, the Republican party is in the grip of a philosophy that if the facts prove you wrong, you just create new "facts", and shout them as loudly as possible.

After 2012, the Republicans vowed to reform.  They didn't actually do anything to further that goal, and then 2014 seemed to vindicate their decision not to change.  Since then, they seem to have raced even further to the extreme right, so that their current presidential candidates are competing to appeal to the most regressive, ignorant and racist elements in the party.  If this proves to be a successful strategy, the country is in real trouble.

Monday, March 04, 2013

An Open Letter to Republicans

“I’m very disappointed with Governor Romney’s analysis... we didn’t lose Asian-Americans because they got any gifts.  This is the hardest-working and most successful ethnic group in America — they ain’t into gifts.”      --Newt Gingrich

Dear Republicans:

Like all stereotypes, this one has its exceptions.  Not all Asians are successful, just as not all Asians are “nerds”.  But hey, being stereotyped as successful is better than the alternative, so we’ll take it.

What’s more, the "successful" stereotype is based on some truths.  (Alert:  what follows contains some generalities, so if you prefer, insert “frequently” or “a majority of” or “in general” wherever it makes sense. )  Most Asian cultures place a fanatic emphasis on education and upward mobility.  It’s not always fun---just ask any Asian kid who isn’t allowed to hang out with his classmates after school.  Also, perhaps because of tradition, we tend to maintain intact families—happy or not.  And we have little tolerance for the stupid antics most Americans consider normal for teenagers.  As Gingrich observed so succinctly, we grow up with a strong work ethic, which makes companies want to hire us.  So, if we take your rhetoric about "family values" and “personal responsibility” literally, we should be natural Republicans.  Why, then, did 75% of Asians "refudiate" you?

Let’s leave aside that fact that your notion of “takers” is a shameful canard (are veterans, retirees, students and working-class people who haven’t caught their break all takers)? Lots of people you call "makers”—not just Asians–-voted Democratic.  Let’s call these people “honorary Asians"--they share our values, so why not?  Seen that way, the 3% of voters who are ethnic Asians symbolize a much larger voting bloc.  You might think you can put off dealing with us for another election or two, but if you count all the "honorary Asians", that may not work so well for you.

Your ongoing bout of so-called self-examination doesn't offer any answers.  You think the problem is purely about messaging:  "If we just sound a little less hostile, run a few more ethnic candidates, and keep morons like Todd Akin off the airwaves, everything will be ok!"  From David Brooks to Marco Rubio, you are convinced that Romney was just a bad candidate.  All you have to do is stick to your "conservative" principles, get the message right, and you'll be just fine…right?

I have news for you.  It’s not just your tone.  It’s your ideology, whatever you choose to call it.  You see, we Asians are generally conservative in our outlook, so we know conservative when we see it, and you ain’t it.  Let’s start with the most charged issue of all, so we can get it out of the way:

We do not like abortion. So, we raise our kids to be careful and to have self-respect. Trying to keep them ignorant is NOT part of the solution.  Have you noticed that countries which teach their kids about sex have less abortions?  No, of course you haven’t, because FOX dismisses that as communist/islamo-fascist/anticolonial propaganda.  Well, actually, it’s the truth.  And, when someone does need an abortion, we believe it is a private matter.  When you stake a claim on a woman's body, that is not conservatism.  It is Big Government overreach at its worst.  Got that?   By the way, many of us emigrated from countries where governments try to control private behavior.  We have had enough of that for several centuries.

Then there is public education.  We believe in it!  That is how most of us have made it.    By the way, it is also a big reason America became Numero Uno.  In our ancestral countries, education was unavailable to the masses and so, guess what: the masses were poor--and so were those countries.  So, what are you doing, destroying public education here, even as our ancestral countries are finally racing to catch up?  And stop lying to us about "reform".  Yes, public education needs reform, but you don’t want reform, you want destruction.  Many of you have slipped up and admitted it.  Remember the old saying, "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime?”  That used to be the Republican mantra.  Now it’s “Take away the damn fishing pole, you're just coddling him.”

Regarding education:  One of the bothersome things about it is that it doesn’t always confirm what you already "know".  What would be the point?  We want schools that encourage our kids to think, to weigh the evidence.  Come to think of it, if folks like Columbus hadn’t challenged what everyone “knew”, ie., that the earth was flat, the good ol’ USA wouldn’t be here.

Here’s where we get to talk about science class.  We understand that many of you believe in the biblical story of creation.  Guess what:  Many Asian-Americans are evangelical Christians—did you know that?  But we don’t confuse science and religion.   The military and technological supremacy of the U.S. owes itself to its embrace of science, and to its embrace of all the immigrants who came here because their own countries tried to shackle their minds.   Why do you want to take science out of our schools, and teach our kids to ignore evidence, whether about evolution, climate change, teen pregnancy, or anything else, for that matter?  Ignorance leads to serfdom.  Sorry, we experienced that where we came from.  We don't need it here.

Speaking of immigrants,  will you stop trying to shut the doors?  Even the most conservative members of the Chamber of Commerce know that immigrants are the life-blood of our economy, the spark in our most innovative industries.  You can lie all you want, but our immigrants are “makers”, not “takers”. When America stops welcoming immigrants, what will make us different from the backward and xenophobic places our ancestors fled?

We believe in infrastructure.  Have you been to China?  Their rise has been super-charged by investment in telecommunications, highways, trains, airports and utilities.  Go ahead, call it socialism, but it is a big reason the Chinese are breathing down our necks. The fact that you consider investment in these things a “gift” to “takers” is cause for astonished laughter over there.  They are trying eat our lunch, and you’re going to serve it to them!

We believe in tolerance.   A lot of Asians, unfortunately, are as racist and homophobic as you are, but we consider it a private matter.   Because of, not in spite of, our conservative outlook, we don't believe in using government to impose our personal values on other people.  We emigrated from countries where governments exploited intolerance to to keep certain groups down.  When you incite hatred of Blacks, Latinos, or Gays, we know we could be next—in fact, we’ve experienced it.  The whole point of America is that everyone has a fair shot at making it.  Your rhetoric about personal responsibility is a scam: What you really mean is that government should abandon its responsibility to protect everyone's fair shot.  That is not conservatism, it is “refudiating” the whole reason our ancestors and yours came to this country.

Do you notice a pattern here?  We don't like your politics because you remind us of the backward places where our ancestors came from.  Some of those were really bad places.  We wonder whether you appreciate, as much as we do, what makes America special.   You can't fool us by waving the flag, when your words and actions send a different message.  We have worked our butts off to be worthy of the opportunities this country has given us.   So when you say that you love America more than the rest of us, it makes us want to gag.

There are some things we agree on.  Most Asians don't like ethnic identity politics, which is why we have so few advocacy groups, and fewer political representatives.

We think tenure for teachers is a bad idea, unless they’ve proven themselves for much longer than two years, which is currently the bar for getting tenure in many districts.  But we also think the good ones should be paid more.  A lot more.

We don't like contrived multiculturalism.   We accept that English is the de facto national language of the U.S., so we make sure our kids grow up speaking perfect English.  We don't get all resentful about it.

We don't like indulgences like "self-esteem" classes and armies of “grief counselors” on the public payroll.  Self-esteem comes from meeting challenges and succeeding.  And humans have had to deal with grief since we could walk—we don’t need poorly trained strangers to help us.

We don't need feminists preaching that boys and girls are the same.  That would be a disservice to our girls, who are outperforming your boys in school by embarrassingly huge margins.

We believe in "family values".  On average, we appear to be doing a better job of living up to those values than what you consider “real America”.  When your teen pregnancy rates and divorce rates are as low as ours, and your kids' graduation rates are as high as ours, and your politicians stop getting caught with gay prostitutes, then we'll sit down to talk family values—but not on FOX.  We’ll take you out for a beer instead.

Finally, we are fiscal conservatives.  We take pride in living below our means, not above.  The credit binge that put this country in such a hole spared most of us, by our choice.  If you were sincere about balanced budgets, we might vote for you.  The 25% of us who did vote for you probably hoped you could get the fiscal house in order.  Of course, the last time you controlled the government, you dug us into two wars and a Medicare expansion without paying for them, and you did so with a smirk.  Meanwhile, you bribed the voters with tax cuts, knowing many would be stupid enough not to ask questions.  Why should we take your rhetoric about balancing the budget at face value?  It is time you step up with some honest suggestions.  And yes, taxes are probably part of that.  We know a lot of us will bear some of that burden.  That is part of taking care of our country.

Go ahead, whine that I am suggesting you abandon conservative principles.  Please.  True conservatism starts with staying out of our private lives, our spiritual lives, our bodies and our relationships.  It means not allowing any one group to impose its norms and religion on any other group.  (Remember the Pilgrims? Google “Mayflower” if you need a refresher.)  It means government investing where (and only where) the private sector is not the best solution.  Now, the list of things we want government to do seems to include some things not on your list.  That’s ok.  As it happens, our list is based on history, not ideological obsession.  Remember the GI Bill, Eisenhower, and the national highway system?   Please, get back on the side of progress, where you were a generation ago.

Asians tend to be apolitical.  We are party-switchers.  A few elections ago, we mostly voted Republican.  We don't care which "team" wins.  The Democrats are engaged in a bit too much gloating.  They won a close election, but they will sooner or later mess up.  The party on top always does.  That is no reason for you to sit back and wait, rather than make a sincere effort to reform.  The Democrats did it in the ‘90’s, at the risk of alienating some of their core constituencies.  Their ability to evolve (ooh, there’s that word!) saved their party--and is also one of the reasons you hate Bill Clinton so much.  You need to take a lesson from him and find a way to evolve, too.

If you want to win back our votes, a simpler, narrower definition of what you stand for would be a great start.  Here's a suggestion:  Stick to the ideas of fiscal responsibility and a sober foreign policy, and tell the intolerant and dictatorial elements of your own party, the “know-nothings” and haters, that they no longer control the agenda.  If you can do this, you will find yourself winning back a lot of "Asians", both the ethnic kind and the honorary kind.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Asians and the Republicans

In all the ruminating over the scope and nature of this past election, one thing that most commentators have agreed on is that the Republicans have badly damaged their brand when it comes to groups traditionally viewed as "minorities":  Blacks, Latinos, Asians and the majority-minority, women.  David Brooks and others have suggested that Asians, the smallest but fastest-growing of these blocs, are natural Republican constituents (industrious, self-reliant, with strong families and respect for elders) but that we may not identify with the GOP's rugged-individualism meme because we come from societies with a "collectivist" view of progress.  I think this misses the mark.  As anyone knows who is of Asian descent or who spends as much time in China as I do, the Chinese, despite the "socialist" label on their government, are not in their hearts collectivist.  And some vague notion of collectivism does not explain the vehemence with which we rejected the Republicans.

The reason many of us rejected the Republicans comes down to one major issue: Education.  Most of us are one or a few generations removed from abject poverty.  For those of us who have made it, education was our ladder.  For those still struggling, education is their hope.  The Asian "model minority" stereotype is too simplistic, and ignores the real struggles many Asians face in finding upward mobility, but it contains more than a grain of truth.  There is a reason why Asian kids so handily top the test scores and grading curves in our schools.  It is because they come from homes where there is no option but to do your best in school.  Many Asian kids pay a price: Just as happened a generation ago, Asians continue to be bullied and taunted as "nerds" and "geeks".  Asian boys face especially tough odds in a culture where learning is seen as a "sissy" activity.  The fact that they persist is a testament to grit and determination. 

So when we are confronted with a political party which scorns academic achievement, glorifies ignorance, and demonizes intellectuals, we are horrified.  And when we hear public schools dismissed as a giveaway to "takers", we are offended.  All the industriousness in the world matters not if there is no school available to teach your kids.  None my friends and colleagues grew up in families that could have afforded private schools, even if their parents had believed in them.  We are not takers.  We believe education is something we all owe our children, and incidentally, it helps them become "makers".

But the issue runs broader than this.  Education is closely tied up with science and rationality.  This was the gift of the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment is the one great contribution of Western civilization most appreciated by the Asian immigrants to this country.  So when the party that wants to destroy the public schools also denies the theory of evolution, and insists in the face of all evidence that climate change is a hoax, we see something more than horrifying ignorance.  We see a frightening nihilism, a willingness to destroy our country and the world simply to make a point.  Irrationality can be cute when when it concerns the trivial.  It is not acceptable when our world may be at stake.

The Democratic party is far from perfect on education.  One of its pillars, the teachers' unions, long ago went astray, giving us seniority systems that protect bad teachers, locking our pedagogy into a narrow template based on their pet theories of teaching, and ignoring subject-matter expertise as a criterion for teacher qualification.  This has hurt the many great teachers who try to work within the system, and has hurt our kids.  But the solution is not to destroy the unions.  It is to fix them.  Ironically, Obama, this president who has been demonized as a socialist and union stooge, is the first major politician to take on the teachers' unions in a way that might actually bring constructive change.  He has talked of doubling teacher pay in exchange for their willingness to give up the current tenure system.  That would be a wonderful start.

And so, not only do the Republicans present a wholly unacceptable front on matters of education and science, but we happen to have in Obama the first national political leader who seems to "get it".  For a voting bloc that cares about education, far more than we worry about our tax bill, doesn't it seem obvious why we went 3:1 for the Democrats?

Thursday, November 08, 2012


The mainstream media have bought into the meme that our current state of polarization is equally the fault of both sides. Certainly, if one listens to the current mix of commentators or reads the blogs, one could agree. However, this ignores how we got here. The truth is that the modern tactics of personal destruction and wholesale misdirection were formulated and perfected by conservatives, some of them working in well-funded think tanks and employing sophisticated linguistic and psychological analysis. This happened to correspond to a period when the Democrats unilaterally disarmed. Ironically, in the long run that may have helped the Democrats more than it did the Republicans.

One of Bill Clinton's major achievements was to marginalize and even excise from the Democratic party its worst and most vitriolic elements. In doing so he helped make it a more serious party, and also saved it from extinction. One of the reasons Republicans hated Clinton so much is that they were afraid of exactly that.  The Republicans have gone through no such reformation, and the media do us a disservice in not pointing out the difference. Yes, there is now an emerging cadre of liberal commentators who have adopted similar methods of ridicule and ad-hominem destruction, but they are not the drivers of the liberal polity, and they are comparative amateurs at the art.  And they are largely reactionary.

Perversely, even while ratcheting up the viciousness of their attacks, conservatives have adopted all the language of aggrieved, persecuted minorities. This in spite of the fact that they still largely represent those who have the biggest bite of the apple. They scream about "dictatorship" and call their listeners to stock up on guns.  The question is:  what did everyone else do to merit such loathing?

As far as I can tell, all that the most hated groups (blacks, latinos, feminists, gays) did was ask to be invited to the dance. Civil rights was about black people wanting membership in our society. Feminism was about women wanting admission to the club. Gay rights are about gay people wanting simply to be treated as human beings. Yet they are slandered as "takers", "feminazis", and worse, and those who stand with them are attacked as anti-American traitors and terrorists. 

Yes, liberals can be vicious and condescending. But it has always been from a position of weakness, from the standpoint of someone who just wants to stand on level ground, NOT from the standpoint of someone who wants to put others down. With the exception of a few, marginal aberrations (eg., the Black Panthers), organizations associated with the cause of inclusion have not advocated the destruction of the ruling class.  They have simply asked to be included in the discussion.  Have their methods been the right ones? Often not. Multiculturalism courses; ethnic-studies; the insistence that boys and girls are the same until we corrupt them; public funding of "grief counselors"; self-esteem training--all of this has been rightly called out by conservatives as so much rubbish. But all of these things were part of a broader mission, which is to help groups that were excluded find a footing as equals in our society. Never has it been the policy of liberals to tell other groups to go back where they came from, or worse, to drop dead.

The Democratic party has major failings. It has never been close to incorporating fiscal discipline into its world view. Conservative rants that liberals just want to be "Santa Claus" have a grain of truth. But that is not a failing that comes even close to the moral depravity it takes to defend racial, gender and religious hatred. Conservatives have learned to cloth that hatred in phrases like "personal responsibility" and "family values", but the fact is that their policy positions have too often amounted to defending violence against groups that don't look or think like them.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Why I Can't Vote for Romney, part II

In the early 1990's, as Mitt Romney was launching his political career, he used to make the rounds of local Boston businesses to take the temperature of the people working there. He seemed an intelligent and thoughtful guy, pro-business but progressive on cultural issues. He impressed us with his balanced and hands-off attitude toward personal values--he was pro-choice, fine with gay rights, supportive of all our progress on civil rights. He believed in the social safety net and an enlightened foreign policy. He foreshadowed some of what he would do as Governor, especially on healthcare reform.

It is hard to capture the sense of disgust and disappointment at seeing and hearing this guy sell out every ounce of reasonableness to cater to the lunatic right. He is trying to out-tea-party the tea-party. Even Rick Santorum expresses concern for the poor. Even Newt Gingrich gets the importance of science and technology--heck, he gets laughed at for his visions of moon colonies, which are actually kind of interesting. Ron Paul offers an alternative to the Rambo foreign policy advocated by most of the party. Huntsman acknowledged climate change. Even W advocated a humane immigration policy. Romney has taken the most extreme position on every one of these issues. If you believe him, his conversion is complete.

Many on the hard right distrust him because they don't believe it. If only we could be sure! If his new-found ideological purity is even half real, his election would be a tragedy for this country. Newt Gingrich is correct that Mitt was once a Massachusetts moderate. And that is a a terrible irony, because we could use a Massachusetts moderate in the Republican party.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Why I Can't vote for Romney, part I

You see, the hardest working people in the country are actually not the middle class, to whom all the politicians pander. The hardest working people are the ones at the top and the bottom. The 1% and the bottom 20%. The ones at the top work hard because they have set themselves up for huge payoffs if they succeed. (Don't believe all the rhetoric about lazy fat cat bankers. The typical investment banker works 90 hour weeks and only goes home to pick up his dry cleaning.) The bottom 20% work hard because their lives depend on it. They get no breaks, and the common slander that they just sit around and sponge up government benefits is just that, slander.

The Democrats, Obama and the rest, have made a fetish of pandering to the "middle class", despite the very obvious fact that it hasn't won them any more votes from whoever makes up that amorphous group. Now Mitt has joined in the chorus, if only to try to rationalize his dismissal of the poor. Wow! These are the people who waste their lives tracking the Kardashians, support five ESPN channels, and have made a fetish out of "Thank God It's Friday"--they even named a restaurant after it. There are exceptions, of course, but if they are hurting it is because most of then never met a credit card they didn't like, and they worship fake luxury brands because it makes them feel like, well, the 1%. They do not deserve pandering, from either the Democrats or the Republicans, and the funny thing is, they know it. Otherwise they wouldn't hold their noses when they hear the politicians sucking up to them.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Do cultural issues matter?

When this correspondent was in college, he was asked to join the campus Republican Club. The person inviting me, call him Robert, was one of my best friends. He knew we didn't share many, if any, political views. This was the late 1970s: the Vietnam War was still a bleeding wound, the Civil Rights movement was on fragile footing, the establishment media still largely condemned popular culture, and Robert and I disagreed on the meaning of all of it. But Robert thought he had a trump card.

"Why are you going to college here? It's a top school. It's your ticket to the upper class! I know you grew up poor, but that's why your parents sent you here--so you can make it to the top. Why look back? Why vote against your interests?"

I was against big government, and so did not fit the then-emerging definition of "liberal" (I was actually surprised when I heard the term "big government liberal" because sounded oxymoronic, but that's another story!) We all knew the American story was strongly rooted in resistance to central authority. So, without knowing it, because the term wasn't widely used, many of us who opposed the Vietnam War were perhaps more Libertarian than anything. But that's the point: we had to choose to vote based on cultural and moral issues, or to vote based on narrow economic self interest. Neither major party offered both, so many of us chose the former.

Which brings us to today. It has become routine among liberals to ask of working-class conservatives: "Why do you vote against your self interest?" The question is asked earnestly by some, sneeringly by others, and rhetorically by those who think they know the answer: systematic brainwashing by conservative propagandists. It is true that those who listen to right-wing mouthpieces like Limbaugh are drinking a fire-hose of dishonest rhetoric that might fool some of them into voting self destructively.

But for liberals to assume that this is all that is going on is wrong. It is insulting to cultural conservatives who sincerely care about things like abortion, perhaps more than they do about tomorrow's paycheck; it is condescending to those who sincerely believe in conservative economic theory; and it is counterproductive, because the conservatives know they are being insulted, which only hardens their positions. Admitting that cultural and social issues matter to people is the first step in being able to talk with them, and perhaps even to win some of them over to more moderate politics, starting with those issues where there IS shared ground (Wall Street, anyone?)

Think this is impossible? Consider that the Republican Party has long cynically used cultural conservatives for votes, without even trying to deliver on their promises to those voters (see this interview with David Kuo), and more and more of them realize it. There have been two responses among conservatives: one is to try to take over the Republican Party, and on that front, they have come dangerously close to succeeding, especially for the old guard. The other, however, is to return to a view of government that says it should not be mandating personal behavior, but should be focused on the limited mission of ensuring a level economic playing field for all (see for example, this from a prominent evangelical Christian progressive).

It is the latter that offers some hope. If you have read the prior posts here, you know that this column finds nothing attractive about the social conservative world-view. As a prescription for policy, it is frightening and disheartening for anyone who thought the Enlightenment was winning. This does not mean, however, that it is wise to dismiss the views of the social conservatives as somehow insincere, superficial, or diversionary. They should be taken very seriously. And for that reason, it is essential to engage and encourage the evangelical progressives. The ideal would be to strike a bargain in which all sides agree to take fundamental belief out of the political dialogue, not because belief is silly, but precisely because it is too serious to be the basis for politics, and focus our government on those things that rightly fall within its purview.

One of the great lies that the conservatives have been fed, and which many believe, is that there is a big conspiracy to suppress their beliefs. It is important to show them that this is a lie, because it is that fear which has fueled much of their zeal to impose THEIR beliefs on the rest of US. We must replace a win-lose scenario with a mutual survival scenario. Make tolerance based on mutual respect a core part of the bargain, and, as the above examples show, there ARE progressive ideals lurking in the hearts of some evangelicals, ideals which, if tapped, could change the discussion in this country.

The liberal elite (yes, there is such a thing, just as there is a conservative elite) tend to be people who would actually benefit from conservative economic policies, but who see the cultural and social fabric of the country as even more important determinants of their own children's, and the country's, future well-being. In other words, the liberal movement, and the Democratic party by proxy, is led by people who vote against their short-term economic self-interest because they see a bigger picture. So why do they so monotonously insist that conservatives can't do the same? To do so is to shut off one of the few openings for dialogue left to us.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Voting Against Your Interests

When I was in college, I did not fit any doctrinaire labels of "liberal" or "conservative"--I was against big government, but also against our wars; I believed in personal responsibility, and also believed that included responsibility to those around us. I rejected identity politics and multiculturalism, but believed in civil rights and a social safety net.

On that last point, my views were clear. I believed in equal opportunity, and equal protection under the law, and believed that some safety net was simply part of a basic social contract. For this, my more conservative friends berated me endlessly for "voting against my interests." Attending an elite school, they said, was "your ticket to the top." "There will always be winners and losers, no matter how fair you try to make things," I was lectured. "Don't be naive! Don't you want to be one of the winners?" they asked. One of them went so far as to say that "The only way you know you're rich is if there are a lot of people who aren't! Why would I want to level the playing field?"

In once sense, they were right. Looked at from a narrow, winner-and-losers perspective, my social views were not self-serving. Looked at broadly, the "liberal elites" who constantly campaign for equal opportunity ARE voting against their narrow self interests. The idealistic among them feel it is simply a moral issue. Others, myself included, who are not "bleeding heart liberals" but still support some kind of social equity, simply believe that a flatter society is more stable and ultimately better for all of us. But we are still accused of being naive, of supporting charity for people who don't deserve it, and of voting against our own interests.

I recount this because it has become fashionable among liberals to ask why the social conservatives in the heartland constantly "vote against their own interests." Those people are being duped by big corporations into blaming their ills on the less fortunate, so that they will vote for politicians who will in turn coddle the same corporations, or so the story goes. Is there some truth to this? Of course there is. The alliance between the social conservatives and the anti-regulators was invented for the purpose of putting the anti-regulators in power. It worked because they shared a common enemy, one they hate more than they hated Osama bin Laden: Liberals. Of course, the strategy may be unraveling, because the social conservatives have taken over much of the Republican party. And THAT is why it is really important to take a new look at what they are.

My conclusion: The real danger lies in NOT taking them seriously. We make a mistake if we condescend to them by saying that their social issues are a sideline. First of all, what right does anyone have to dismiss someone elses convictions so casually? It's also important because the more you condescend to someone, the more you make them mad. Most important, what will happen if we fail to take them seriously, and find them running the country?

For make no mistake: The social issues ARE important. It is our social and cultural orientations, not our bank accounts, which determine who we are and what we will be remembered for. And on the non-economic front, the social conservative movement is frightening. Economic policies will come and go, and we will go through cycles of more or less regulation, more or less of an economic safety net, more or less equity. These will ultimately self correct, whichever "side" you favor. But a culture's core assumptions can last a long time.

I would argue that it IS the social and cultural issues which are important, far more than our banking laws. If we allow our country to wallow in tribalism, bigotry and the oppression of women; if we allow science to be removed from our schools; if we make one religion the source of our laws and values, at the expense of other belief systems; if we go back to a world of fear and censorship; if we recriminalize normal human behavior and decriminalize police brutality; if we end the free exchange of ideas; if we throw out the immigrants that drive our economy; in short, if we reject the Enlightenment and the freedoms that made this country great, we will sign the death warrant for the American Era. The social conservatives love to wave the flag, but it is plain as day that if they were in charge, this country greatness would become nothing more than a memory.

THAT is why it is folly to dismiss the conservatives' cultural and social viewpoint as a mere distraction. For them, it is the real thing, and we had better pay attention.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Desperate Times

Of course the media are full of stories of desperate times. Middle-class families losing jobs, homes, and self-respect. Huge backlogs in social assistance queues. Intractable unemployment. Millions of people are in desperate straits, and the word "despair" is increasingly apt for what is happening in this country.

These are also desperate times for another reason. Our country is torn between two political agendas which have no basis in reality, either one of which will result in our destruction. As we try to figure out how to meet the challenges and opportunities of a resurgent Asia and an emerging Latin America, here at home we seem bent on suicide. Perhaps it is to be expected: People under unbearable stress sometimes go insane. Maybe countries do the same. That's arguably what happened to Germany in the 1930s.

Our two political parties are not equally to blame for how we got here, but they increasingly share the blame for making things worse. The Democrats have shown their intransigence in how they responded to the initial proposals from the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission. By rejecting the proposals out of hand, they have thrown away an enormous opportunity to make progress in saving our country's finances, while still preserving some of the things they say they care about. This is irresponsible at best, if not pathological. They have matched the stupidity of the Tea Party (cut all taxes! keep all the programs!) with stupidity of their own (if we pretend there is no deficit, maybe it will go away!) They have doubled down on their intransigence by defending earmarks, one of the few issues on which the Republicans are right, plain and simple.

The American voters have shown that, no matter how often they are treated as stupid by the Right or the Left, they do understand the danger of unlimited deficits and institutional corruption. Their own shocking come-down since 2008 has taught them a lesson. For the Democrats to ignore that lesson is to invite an even worse shellacking in 2012. And that would be a disaster for the nation and the world, because on a lot of other issues, they are the voice of reason. The tragedy of the Democrats' impending immolation is what will be sacrificed along the way.

That is because, for all their stupidity on this issue, they are right about so many other things, and the Republicans (since being taken over by their insane) are wrong. Climate Change tops the list. The Republicans flatly deny the evidence that we are destroying our planet. They call the consensus of tens of thousands of scientists, working in disciplines as far apart as insect biology, paleontology, and atmospheric science, an ad-hoc assumption, akin to superstition. Or worse, they label it an anti-American conspiracy. Put them in charge and we greatly damage the future of our children and all the life that we depend on for our own existence.

The Republicans, having produced Lincoln, have "refudiated" everything he symbolizes: equal protection, equal rights, equal opportunity. They stand with the racists, the abusers, the bullies and the haters, and cloak it under "free speech"--the only time they are fond of invoking the First Amendment. They actively fund organizations which stir up hate and resentment. They have out-unioned the unions in demonizing immigrants, most of whom work their butts off for a chance to live as we do.

The Republicans want to teach religious doctrine in our schools in place of science. Do they not see how unpatriotic that is? The Chinese, investing ferociously in trying to educate their masses, must be laughing at us. Where did American supremacy in so many industries come from? Who led us to global leadership in modern technologies? Certainly not people who think Evolution and the Laws of Thermodynamics are hoaxes.

The Republicans sent us yukking and gloating ("Shock and Awe, baby!) into two wars in the Middle East, with only partial justification for one, and no plan. They took out Saddam, yes, but he was the only thing keeping Iran running in place. Take him out and Iran runs wild. There are actually people who predicted this would happen, and they were threatened with arrest or shouted down as traitors. Worst of all, the Republicans betrayed their utter hypocrisy regarding fiscal probity by refusing to count the money spent on these wars.

And, speaking of the budget, the Republicans have now adopted a scorched-earth ideology that will leave millions of their own family members unable to fend for themselves. Dickens wrote about an England in which most people starved while a few feasted. The miracle of America is that we created a society that played by different rules, without sacrificing the self-starting, entrepreneurial drive that made us the envy of the world. The Republicans see a table with four legs, and want to throw three of them away. It is the height of insanity, and will hasten our fall. The smart ones, the ones who are profiting from this insanity, know that, and don't care. If that is not treason, what is?

The Democrats have a value system that most polls show reflect the majority view in this country, with the singular exception of fiscal responsibility. But fiscal responsibility is also a life-or-death issue for this country, and people have finally had enough. The Democrats, in standing against any kind of fiscal reform, risk being flushed, and with them, all those other values that are so important. It would be easy to say they deserve what's coming, except that the rest of us, the whole country, will pay the price. And if America goes down, who is left to rule the roost? China?

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Lessons Learned?

The immediate post-election analysis is predictably filled with conservative commentators trying to paint the Democrats into the "too liberal" corner, and liberal commentators fighting over whether the Democrats need to move left or right. All of this betrays a basic flaw in our entire approach to defining "liberalism" or "conservatism": we leave no room for anyone to pick and choose their issues. If you are "liberal", you have to buy the entire package, even if you don't agree with all of the components. Same with being "conservative". Both parties have taken a zero-tolerance approach to deviation from the party line, with the result that few rational people really have a place to go. No wonder polls suggest people are disgusted with both parties. Not everyone can articulate the reason for their disgust, but no doubt a big part of is is having to hold your nose no matter which way you vote.

To set the record straight, the Democrats (led by Obama) have hardly been liberal in their approach. They have made no progress on most of the social/cultural issues that define liberalism. Healthcare reform? A huge windfall for insurance companies. Even their failed initiatives hardly merit the label of "socialist" that is thrown at them. If anything, they have tried at every turn to bend over to compromise with the Republicans, to the point of appearing craven. The reason the Healthcare Bill is an atrocity is not that it is too liberal, but that it has no coherence. The authors dropped in various provisions at random, that they thought would secure some Republican votes (mandatory insurance was originally a Republican idea!), and it got them nothing.

That is one reason there is an enthusiasm gap between the parties. True progressives have nothing to show for their support of this party or this president. The sad thing is that no amount of accomodation would have sufficed to appease the far-right wing. To expect any compromise from them was naive, and perhaps the singular failure of this president. It resembles nothing so much as Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler just before the blitzkreig. Hillary Clinton was right to campaign on the worry that Obama would not have the steel to stand up to America's enemies. What she omitted to say was that the worst enemies would be here at home, in the form of a rabid mob that have seemingly taken over the GOP.

Let's make no mistake: that takeover is a tragedy for the country. The old-guard Republicans were advocates of fiscal probity, but they were also advocates of color-blindness. After all, their icon, Lincoln, led the way. The few that are left are subject to venomous attacks by the new right, for not being pure enough. The Tea Party crowd have announced their intention to get rid of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, for daring to work with Democrats. They already did it to Lincoln Chaffee, who has re-emerged in Rhode Island as an independent.

All of that notwithstanding, the Tea Party are right on one thing: Spending. Of course, the Republicans have always been budget hawks, or so they say. In practice, it turned out differently. We gave them the power to decide what to spend, and they broke the bank. The Tea Party may turn out to be equally hypocritical, but for now, at least, they are saying the right thing. The bailouts were wrong, at least in execution. The same crooks who robbed the country of much of its 200 years of accumulated wealth, took the bailout money and walked away with that too. It is unforgivable that this was allowed to happen. Unfortunately, the Tea Party vote has put in power a bunch of people who are owned by the same crooks. Boehner? Coates? Who are we kidding? These are not small-government folks at all, no matter what they say. They are crony-government types. Obama largely failed to guard the hen-house, but we have now handed the keys directly to the wolves.

Leaving aside the issue of corruption, however, there is still the fundamental issue of fiscal sanity. A big part of the electorate's anger stems from the feeling that neither major party has the integrity to address this issue. It is not a mere platitude to say "I have to balance my budget, why can't the government do the same?" Our children WILL have to pay the bill. Both parties have had an enormous opportunity, and wasted it.

Ironically, it is the Democrats who had the better opportunity to do it, not the Republicans. Just as Nixon went to China, the Democrats could have negotiated with their own constituency, where the Republicans seem bent on wholesale destruction. Safety nets are essential, but why do public employees now make more than private sector workers, get to retire earlier, and keep pensions up to 90% of their working wages? They won't compromise, so they may find themselves being eviscerated by the Republicans. Medicare is an enormous success, but Part D was an atrocity. The Democrats had a golden opportunity to make sure there were cost controls, and failed. Social Security should be updated and the payroll tax made progressive. As it is, it is regressive, and will soon be broke.

The reason the Democrats can't even comprehend these opportunities is that they have accepted someone else's label for them. They have willingly let themselves be defined as the party of Big Government. There was a time when tax revolts came from the Left. Now the Left campaigns for ever-increasing spirals of taxation and spending. Just as the Republicans are irresponsible in wanting to cut taxes without figuring out how to pay for things, the Democrats are irresponsible in voting for every spending measure without having the money to pay for it. Even that canny campaigner, Bill Clinton, gives speeches defending the role of government in our lives. When are they going to learn that this resonates like a lead balloon?

I have written before about this, of course to no avail, but here it is again: Liberals are right on 90% of the issues. Environment? Check. Women's rights? Check. Minority rights? Check. Wars of aggression? Check. Banking regulation? Check. Urban planning? Legalizing Pot? Funding schools? Domestic spying? Check, check, check. But we live in a fiscally conservative country. Note: I do not say we live in a conservative country, as the Wall Street Journal likes to claim. A FISCALLY conservative country. And rightly so.

If the Democrats were to embrace fiscal conservatism--if they had pinned the bailouts on the real perpetrators (Bush and Paulson) and refused to continue in that vein; if they had taken the lead on belt-tightening and, FDR-like, inspired people to accept some sacrifice for the long-term good; if they had spent a trillion dollars employing people to rebuild this country, rather than on the automobile companies and is they who would be looking at a generation-long majority.

As it is, the Republican victory is not just part of the political cycle. It is a tragedy for the world, for it means setbacks on global climate change, financial reform, and international relations. The Democrats are as much at fault, for accepting their label as big spenders, and forgetting all the other things they once stood for.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What to do about Detroit

As is so often the tragic truth, the debate over saving the Big Three seems to have come down to a choice between "Do it" and "Do nothing". There is a third way, which would have the effect of letting these companies die their richly deserved death, while saving most of the jobs. We should save the money that would go into bailing them out (they are doomed anyway), and instead divide that money into two pools: One pool would go to providing unemployment benefits to the affected workers; the second pool would go into tax incentives and other benefits to attract the Toyotas and Nissans of the world to rebuild the industry here in the U.S., with requirements that they hire and retrain most of the displaced workers. No one from the Big Three who held a title of Vice President or above would be eligible. They have proven they are ineducable.

This plan is about as close to win-win as is possible in this situation. Make no mistake about it: the culture of the Big Three is such that if we simply throw them a life line, we will be facing this question again, and again, and again, after each bail-out. They are beyond hope and should be put to sleep.

Biting the Hand (link)

Several observers have noted that in the recent election, the drift of wealthy/high-income/rich people away from the Republicans picked up steam. David Brooks, among others, bemoans the GOP's practiced ability to alienate the professional classes, noting that even bankers contributed to Obama vs. McCain by over 2:1. It took genius, as Brooks points out, to achieve that.

As the country debates whether this election was a cry for change from a center-right country, or a mandate for a more leftward course, there has been a rise in volume from the traditional populists, who, even with the election won, are stepping up the rhetoric of vengeance against everyone making $250,000 or more, the number which Obama has arbitrarily defined as the boundary between "wealth" and non-wealth.

I am not against hard measures against individuals who committed malfeasance. There are many Wall Streeters who deserve to be put out on the street. These are people who harvested in a few years much of what this country took 200 years to build, mainly through clever tricks of financial manipulation and the purchase of a number of congressmen. They deserve punishment they are unlikely to receive. As we contemplate the bailout of the auto companies, we ignore the very real betrayals by a generation of executives, who willfully refused to adopt modern management methods to run their companies. All the blame being placed on the unions would be moot if those companies had kept making cars that people want. Many of those executives deserve time at hard labor for sheer negligence.

But to demonize everyone making $250,000 or more, most of whom actually contributed to Obama, is an early step toward destroying the still new and fragile coalition that has reversed the past decade's slide into the Rove-ian abyss. We have voted against our immediate financial self-interest, in part out of revulsion at the kind of conservatism that has taken over the Republican party, and in part in the conviction that our long-term interests ARE best served by a fairer, more tolerant and more stable society.

There is, however, a limit. Very few of the so-called "rich" are actually so rich as not to have to care about their tax bill. Most people in the educated/professional classes have a number at which they feel their own livelihoods threatened. Reach that number, and they will move back into the GOP column.

Leaving aside the need for short-term government spending to dig us out of the current crisis, there are many progressive goals that do not require still further increases in government spending, but simply require a change of policy. Environmental responsibility, equality under the law, respect for privacy and habeas corpus, reproductive rights, teaching science instead of religion in schools, and not launching wars of choice--all of these are things that would not require more money, or would in fact be LESS costly than current procedure. The new administration would do well to focus on some of these goals and be careful about too much "spreading the wealth". A safety net is one thing, and is essential, but it should not depend on pulling the net out from others.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Washing Their hands

The images were, and continue to be moving, even days after the election. A black mom sitting on the floor of her church, overcome with emotion as her little daughter touches her face. Jesse Jackson, standing alone in the crowd at Grant Park, tears streaming down his face. Mobs of young people, white, black and everything in between, dancing with joy.

A significant portion of white America voted for the other guy, but it is undeniable that millions of white people have stood shoulder to shoulder with blacks in the struggle for "a more perfect Union", millions of people of all colours worked for this day, and millions celebrated together in victory. This election was about far more than electing a black man to be President. It was also a referendum on a certain way of governing, and on the direction of this country. But the colour of the candidates had every potential to override the substance of the debate, and we showed, at last, that we could work together to get past colour.
Only, something went wrong in California. A group even more hated and despised than blacks were handed a bitter repudiation, as California amended its constitution to enshrine the idea that they are less than human. And blacks, even as they voted overwhelmingly for Obama, also voted overwhelmingly to kick that other group in the teeth. Over 70% of the Black vote went in favor of Proposition 8. In the midst of the celebration of their triumph, one has to wonder if it occurred to these people that they have simply handed off the role of nigger to another group of human beings.

I have spoken with a number of black people about this: colleagues, fellow school parents, friends. I have listened to their rationalizations on the radio. It is clear that the directive to vote for Prop. 8 came from the pulpit, from the very churches where blacks have gone for generations to exorcise their torment. What is remarkable is the lack of questioning with which they marched to the polls to vote for this piece of hate, and the utter blindness to the similarities between their own story and the story of this even more hated group.

The airwaves are full of retrospectives on this election. The debates over what to do about Prop. 8 are all about raising more money, organizing better, reaching out to conservatives to show them that gay people pose no threat, etc. Yet there is no voice with the courage to tell us the truth that stares us in the face: if the black vote had just been 50:50, that would have been enough to block Prop. 8.

It is time for the progressive and enlightened conservative community to turn to their brothers and sisters in the black community and say "We worked with you to get to this day, and it is time you close ranks with other oppressed people. Gays are the only group left that society thinks it is OK to oppress. You can't abandon them now."

It is time for us to go to Washington to revoke the tax exempt status of every black church that incited its parishioners to vote for Prop. 8. If Progressives don't apply the same rules to these churches as they are trying to apply to white churches that have been promoting Republican causes, then they, and we, are all hypocrites. It is time to get ALL of the preachers out of the business of making law, regardless of their colour or creed.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Economist

Oct 30th 2008

America should take a chance and make Barack Obama the next leader of
the free world

IT IS impossible to forecast how important any presidency will be. Back
in 2000 America stood tall as the undisputed superpower, at peace with
a generally admiring world. The main argument was over what to do with
the federal government's huge budget surplus. Nobody foresaw the
seismic events of the next eight years. When Americans go to the polls
next week the mood will be very different. The United States is
unhappy, divided and foundering both at home and abroad. Its
self-belief and values are under attack.

For all the shortcomings of the campaign, both John McCain and Barack
Obama offer hope of national redemption. Now America has to choose
between them. THE ECONOMIST does not have a vote, but if it did, it
would cast it for Mr Obama. We do so wholeheartedly: the Democratic
candidate has clearly shown that he offers the better chance of
restoring America's self-confidence. But we acknowledge it is a gamble.
Given Mr Obama's inexperience, the lack of clarity about some of his
beliefs and the prospect of a stridently Democratic Congress, voting
for him is a risk. Yet it is one America should take, given the steep
road ahead.

The immediate focus, which has dominated the campaign, looks daunting
enough: repairing America's economy and its international reputation.
The financial crisis is far from finished. The United States is at the
start of a painful recession. Some form of further fiscal stimulus is
needed, though estimates of the budget deficit next year already spiral
above $1 trillion. Some 50m Americans have negligible health-care
cover. Abroad, even though troops are dying in two countries, the
cack-handed way in which George Bush has prosecuted his war on terror
has left America less feared by its enemies and less admired by its
friends than it once was.

Yet there are also longer-term challenges, worth stressing if only
because they have been so ignored on the campaign. Jump forward to
2017, when the next president will hope to relinquish office. A
combination of demography and the rising costs of America's huge
entitlement programmes--Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid--will be
starting to bankrupt the country. Abroad a greater task is already
evident: welding the new emerging powers to the West. That is not just
a matter of handling the rise of India and China, drawing them into
global efforts, such as curbs on climate change; it means reselling
economic and political freedom to a world that too quickly associates
American capitalism with Lehman Brothers and American justice with
Guantanamo Bay. This will take patience, fortitude, salesmanship and

At the beginning of this election year, there were strong arguments
against putting another Republican in the White House. A spell in
opposition seemed apt punishment for the incompetence, cronyism and
extremism of the Bush presidency. Conservative America also needs to
recover its vim. Somehow Ronald Reagan's party of western individualism
and limited government has ended up not just increasing the size of the
state but turning it into a tool of southern-fried moralism.

The selection of Mr McCain as the Republicans' candidate was a powerful
reason to reconsider. Mr McCain has his faults: he is an instinctive
politician, quick to judge and with a sharp temper. And his age has
long been a concern (how many global companies in distress would bring
in a new 72-year-old boss?). Yet he has bravely taken unpopular
positions--for free trade, immigration reform, the surge in Iraq,
tackling climate change and campaign-finance reform. A western
Republican in the Reagan mould, he has a long record of working with
both Democrats and America's allies.

That, however, was Senator McCain; the Candidate McCain of the past six
months has too often seemed the victim of political sorcery, his good
features magically inverted, his bad ones exaggerated. The fiscal
conservative who once tackled Mr Bush over his unaffordable tax cuts
now proposes not just to keep the cuts, but to deepen them. The man who
denounced the religious right as "agents of intolerance" now embraces
theocratic culture warriors. The campaigner against ethanol subsidies
(who had a better record on global warming than most Democrats) came
out in favour of a petrol-tax holiday. It has not all disappeared: his
support for free trade has never wavered. Yet rather than heading
towards the centre after he won the nomination, Mr McCain moved to the

Meanwhile his temperament, always perhaps his weak spot, has been found
wanting. Sometimes the seat-of-the-pants method still works: his gut
reaction over Georgia--to warn Russia off immediately--was the right
one. Yet on the great issue of the campaign, the financial crisis, he
has seemed all at sea, emitting panic and indecision. Mr McCain has
never been particularly interested in economics, but, unlike Mr Obama,
he has made little effort to catch up or to bring in good advisers
(Doug Holtz-Eakin being the impressive exception).

The choice of Sarah Palin epitomised the sloppiness. It is not just
that she is an unconvincing stand-in, nor even that she seems to have
been chosen partly for her views on divisive social issues, notably
abortion. Mr McCain made his most important appointment having met her
just twice.

Ironically, given that he first won over so many independents by
speaking his mind, the case for Mr McCain comes down to a piece of
artifice: vote for him on the assumption that he does not believe a
word of what he has been saying. Once he reaches the White House, runs
this argument, he will put Mrs Palin back in her box, throw away his
unrealistic tax plan and begin negotiations with the Democratic
Congress. That is plausible; but it is a long way from the convincing
case that Mr McCain could have made. Had he become president in 2000
instead of Mr Bush, the world might have had fewer problems. But this
time it is beset by problems, and Mr McCain has not proved that he
knows how to deal with them.

Is Mr Obama any better? Most of the hoopla about him has been about
what he is, rather than what he would do. His identity is not as
irrelevant as it sounds. Merely by becoming president, he would dispel
many of the myths built up about America: it would be far harder for
the spreaders of hate in the Islamic world to denounce the Great Satan
if it were led by a black man whose middle name is Hussein; and far
harder for autocrats around the world to claim that American democracy
is a sham. America's allies would rally to him: the global electoral
college[1] on our website shows a landslide in his favour. At home he
would salve, if not close, the ugly racial wound left by America's
history and lessen the tendency of American blacks to blame all their
problems on racism.

So Mr Obama's star quality will be useful to him as president. But that
alone is not enough to earn him the job. Charisma will not fix Medicare
nor deal with Iran. Can he govern well? Two doubts present themselves:
his lack of executive experience; and the suspicion that he is too far
to the left.

There is no getting around the fact that Mr Obama's resume is thin for
the world's biggest job. But the exceptionally assured way in which he
has run his campaign is a considerable comfort. It is not just that he
has more than held his own against Mr McCain in the debates. A man who
started with no money and few supporters has out-thought, out-organised
and outfought the two mightiest machines in American politics--the
Clintons and the conservative right.

Political fire, far from rattling Mr Obama, seems to bring out the best
in him: the furore about his (admittedly ghastly) preacher prompted one
of the most thoughtful speeches of the campaign. On the financial
crisis his performance has been as assured as Mr McCain's has been
febrile. He seems a quick learner and has built up an impressive team
of advisers, drawing in seasoned hands like Paul Volcker, Robert Rubin
and Larry Summers. Of course, Mr Obama will make mistakes; but this is
a man who listens, learns and manages well.

It is hard too nowadays to depict him as soft when it comes to dealing
with America's enemies. Part of Mr Obama's original appeal to the
Democratic left was his keenness to get American troops out of Iraq;
but since the primaries he has moved to the centre, pragmatically
saying the troops will leave only when the conditions are right. His
determination to focus American power on Afghanistan, Pakistan and
proliferation was prescient. He is keener to talk to Iran than Mr
McCain is-- but that makes sense, providing certain conditions are met.

Our main doubts about Mr Obama have to do with the damage a
muddle-headed Democratic Congress might try to do to the economy.
Despite the protectionist rhetoric that still sometimes seeps into his
speeches, Mr Obama would not sponsor a China-bashing bill. But what
happens if one appears out of Congress? Worryingly, he has a poor
record of defying his party's baronies, especially the unions. His
advisers insist that Mr Obama is too clever to usher in a new age of
over-regulation, that he will stop such nonsense getting out of
Congress, that he is a political chameleon who would move to the centre
in Washington. But the risk remains that on economic matters the centre
that Mr Obama moves to would be that of his party, not that of the
country as a whole.

So Mr Obama in that respect is a gamble. But the same goes for Mr
McCain on at least as many counts, not least the possibility of
President Palin. And this cannot be another election where the choice
is based merely on fear. In terms of painting a brighter future for
America and the world, Mr Obama has produced the more compelling and
detailed portrait. He has campaigned with more style, intelligence and
discipline than his opponent. Whether he can fulfil his immense
potential remains to be seen. But Mr Obama deserves the presidency.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Off the radar screen

We are not a very scientifically literate society. Apparently, our leaders don't think that matters. If our leaders WERE scientifically literate, and could be trusted to make good decisions about the funding and the use of science, it might be okay that the rest of us are not all that informed (although putting anything entirely in the hands of experts is dangerous--look at our banking system).

Unfortunately, some of our leaders are worse than ill-informed. They are knowledge-hostile knuckleheads. The new knucklehead-in-chief appears to be one of our candidates for VP. Click on the header of this post to see it for yourself.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Beyond the Pale?

From today's blogs:

"...there is an emerging debate—one with the potential to last for a long time about the role of vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

One school—including syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker and Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal—called her a drag on the ticket and implicitly rebuked McCain’s judgment in picking her. Another school believes she is the future of the party, a view backed by Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard: “Whether they know it or not, Republicans have a huge stake in Palin. If, after the election, they let her slip into political obscurity, they’ll be making a huge mistake.”"

Why is any of this even surprising? Of Course she's the future of the Republican party. The last eight years, whether you like the policies of the Bush adminstration or not, left the Republican party hollowed out. Who was going to lead them in the post Bush-Cheney era? Every credible moderate was excommunicated from the party. Who is left? Rick Santorum? Gone. Tom Delay? Too toxic, and gone as well. Huckabee? perhaps, but events have proven him to be Palin Lite. He doesn't come close to her in terms of pull. No one expected Caribou Barbie, but she is here, and let's face it, she inspires the faithful like no one since Reagan. Win or lose, Palin IS the face of the GOP for the next several years, at least.

For any liberals out there recoiling at the thought, take some solace in this: If Sarah Palin indeed becomes the face of the GOP, the GOP will in turn become a minority party for many years. Saying that she is by far their most likely future presidential candidate, does not mean she is likely to win. The Republicans began transformation thirty or more years ago, when they adopted the "Southern Strategy", appealing to the worst instincts of beleaguered working-class whites in the heartland. That process initially looked like a winner, because it secured the votes to keep them in power most of the past three decades. But the Joe Sixpacks they invited into the tent took over the party. The old elites that ran the party are gone.

It has long been an axiom that you have to tack right to win the GOP nomination, then tack to the center to win the election. The Republicans probably have any number of potential candidates who could win the presidency any given election. Unfortunately, those candidates will never win the primaries, and the GOP will become a purely reactionary, theocratic party. It makes for great rallies but is not much of a strategy. So take heart: we will have to put up with Palin for a long time, and she will probably be the next GOP nominee for President, but as long as people don't lose their minds, she will never BE president. A third party is more likely to form before that happens.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Underestimating Sarah Palin

Just as they did with Ronald Reagan, those of Democratic/Liberal/Progressive leanings are underestimating Sarah Palin. No, I am not predicting a McCain/Palin victory, though that is not out of the question by any means. But if you think an Obama victory will rid the world of Palin, you are mistaken. Educated people have had a field day making fun of her tortured syntax, her fem-bot-like delivery of sound-bites, her obvious cluelessness about almost anything requiring actual thought. Just as many dismissed Reagan as an amiable dunce, too many dismiss Palin as nothing more than Caribou Barbie.

Here is a prediction: Sarah Palin, win or lose in November, will become face and the standard-bearer of the GOP. She is the closest thing to a transformative figure the Republicans have had since Reagan. She is nowhere near being in Reagan's class as a thinker or politician, but the times are different. Reagan was part of a very deep generation of conservative politicians, especially in the day when the Republicans actually had a diversity of viewpoints and philosophies. Palin stands almost alone, after eight years in which the party has been systematically purged of diversity and stripped of any philosophical trappings. Who else is left? Huckabee? He has been exposed as Palin-lite. Romney? Even Republicans see through him. The younger generation, epitomized by Rick Santorum, have fallen by the wayside, at least for now, in part because they were one-note wonders. And none of them represented a divergence from the social conservatism that is far more ably represented by Palin. In other words, had they survived they would still be eclipsed by her.

The question is, what will this mean, and should we be afraid? If you are a moderate or libertarian-leaning Republican, you should be afraid. The Palin era will bring with it the culmination of the purge which began at least as early as 1992: all vestiges of considered and rational deliberation, all receptiveness to diversity or to internationalism, will be excised from the Party. It will devolve into a purely and openly fundamentalist lobby. The Faustian bargain that the old Republican elite made, to bargain for the votes of Joe Sixpack, will come home to roost, with the Wall Street crowd completely losing any voice they once had.

The moderates and libertarians will have to consider forming a new party, perhaps inviting centrist Democrats to join them (although, in the afterglow of a winning election cycle, few are likely to jump ship). There might after all be a chance for a viable third party, though it remains unlikely.

There has been talk of Karl Rove's notion of a permanent majority being turned on its head. Democrats are talking about a long-term reversal of fortunes. It is almost too bad that they will not have had to suffer through a few more years in the wilderness. I say "almost", because that would also have meant more years of Republican rule, which would be unaccepable and even suicidal. But the Democrats have returned to their worst instincts, demonizing rich people (by their definition of "rich", most rich people are contributing to them, not to the Republicans), openly defending Big Government, and so on. The Democrats could ensure a "permanent" mandate if they would make fiscal conservatism part of their DNA, even while standing up for the environment, equal rights, equal opportunity, healthcare reform, education and an enlightened foreign policy. But they won't do it.

Still, as long as the Republicans have to deal with the Palinization of the Party and all of its consequences, the Democrats will have a window of opportunity to get some things right. We can only hope that Obama is in fact as thoughtful and balanced as he has appeared on the campaign trail.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Letter from Calcutta

I am sitting in a room here in Calcutta, without an internet connection, hoping to get a connection sometime soon so I can send out a letter. In a couple of hours I will be heading out on the Ganga in a small boat, to scatter my Mom’s ashes. The Ganga is of course India’s holiest river, but this is also the place where she was born, so it all seems appropriate. She was not a religious person, but she tried to live her life according to the principles claimed by many religions: generosity toward those less fortunate, stewardship of the world we live in, respect for all living things. She did a better job of it than most who claim to be religious.

While I wait, I reflect on what I have seen of the country she loved, and over which she despaired. From the brief snapshot I have had in Delhi and Calcutta, India remains a place of incredible life and energy, but also a place mired in suffering. The filth and chaos in the streets are noticeably worse than when I was here two years ago. The truth is that India’s remarkable economic growth is benefitting too few people, and the birth rate remains sky high—India is about to surpass China as the world’s most populous place, and there are simply no resources to keep up.

Ironically, modernization is making the problem worse in many ways. When the streets were filled with camels and cows, and the garbage was more organic, the animals did a decent job of recycling the detritus. Now, a dense mesh of discarded plastic bags forms an indestructible trap for filth that lines the sides of the streets, and the soot of millions of recently added cars mixes with the dust to form a suffocating brown haze that leaves everything with a gritty coat. In the midst of it all, the poorest women still manage to wear their brightly coloured saris with something like aplomb, as they navigate the chaos.

One irony is that Calcutta, long the icon in the West of monumental Asian misery, looks to be a cleaner and more functional place than Delhi. It is certainly a warmer place, built on a more human scale and inhabited by less isolated people. It seems no worse than it was two years ago.

The same cannot be said of Delhi. Already designed to be people-unfriendly, it has become noticeably more miserable. The traffic is ludicrously bad, the streets more crowded, the dust inescapable. There is no sign India's economic boom, reported so breathlessly in Western papers, has touched this place, the capital of India. There are a handful of stores, often in compounds under armed guard, that sell luxury designer goods at prices that would make Neiman Marcus blush. Just steps outside, emaciated men offer shoe shines for 50 cents and maimed children beg, risking their lives in the traffic to knock on the windows of cars.

The stunning thing about it is the lack of anger. Indians of all classes seem resigned to the conditions around them. The papers, which even the poor read voraciously, cover petty political scandals (the level of personal attacks makes Washington look genteel, indeed), the dalliances of Bollywood stars, and cricket. The media are admirably free in India, and if there were a groundswell of discontent, one can be sure the press would cover, if not fan the flames. There is a lesson for us spoiled Westerners, in the easy smiles and quick generosity of people who have so little. Yet one almost wishes more of them would get angry, for the sake of their children.