Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Stranger

“There’s nothing more frightening than a man with a gun in his hand, and nothing more helpless than a man without one.”
   —the worst bad-guy in “Godless”


“Godless,” the name of a new tv series, describes the territorial American west where it is set and most of the men who drift and plunder there. Inevitably, in the way of these stories, we root for the least-bad bad-guy. Sure, he’s killed some men, but he teaches a boy to ride and be a good man and he defends a town against ravaging marauders.

It’s any Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. It’s the Magnificent Seven.

But something about the way “Godless” is told brought home to me in a way none of those epic westerns ever has how close we are still to those fearful times. When a stranger comes to the door in “Godless,” he or she is greeted with a gun; and if he doesn’t account for himself quickly enough, he is shot. Not just by the hard guys, but by most anybody. Even Michelle Dockery, for Pete’s sake—Downton Abby’s Lady Mary after a long and harrowing journey west.

In the west of “Godless,” it didn’t pay to give a stranger the benefit of the doubt.

The stranger killed a whole town, just because they harbored someone he had a grudge against. (A nod to the way the Nazis handled towns harboring Jews, now that I think of it.)

The stranger came to your campfire and took your woman for the night. In the morning, he ridiculed you for not laying down your life for her.

The stranger hid in the dark bar and lit the lamp so the sheriff got one last look at who was about to kill him.

It’s tempting to say that Donald Trump is the murderous stranger who has taken us back to the land of “Godless,” but all he did was lead us out of town and set us down around a campfire with darkness all around and start making noises like someone was coming for us. It didn’t take much to stimulate our primitive fears, the conditioned reflex that has in dark times permitted us to survive.

Are these dark times? Do we have that much to fear? Is the stranger coming for us?

That depends. Not on Trump, but on us. Will we fall for his demagogic rants that we are in mortal danger from the other? Will we allow ourselves to be whipped into a murderous frenzy by his taunts and humiliations? 

Or will we realize that the stranger is not someone with a different skin color or a different religion, or even someone who undoubtedly wishes us ill but who from a practical standpoint is unlikely to be able to harm us? Will we take a step out of the darkness and see that, each to the other, we are ourselves the stranger? That, to paraphrase FDR, we have nothing to fear but ourselves.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Echoes

When I was in law school, I was a bore at cocktail parties. I had few opinions on the great issues of the day. Why not? I was certainly opinionated—I couldn’t otherwise have survived in my father’s house—but law school was teaching me to learn all the facts before making up my mind. Easy enough in the legal cases we studied, almost impossible on subjects like economic policy and foreign affairs. So, no opinions.

That phase didn’t last. I have plenty of opinions now, but my legal training still makes me yearn for facts. When I was younger, Walter Cronkite told me what I needed to know, or at least all there was to know outside the C.I.A., and I believed him and formed my opinions based on his facts and my judgments about what would be good for society.

But Uncle Walter is long gone—I can still see him taking off his black-framed glasses and wiping away a tear as he told us President Kennedy was dead—and reliable facts are getting harder to identify in the torrent of digital news. It’s a paradox of our time: more information, less truth.

In self-defense against the barrage from unreliable sources, we tend, naturally, to rely on those we have come to trust over the years. Some trust sources that tell them what they want to hear. Some trust sources that have a track record of getting the facts right. Lately, the sources I have always relied upon, like The New York Times, have come under attack from those who are only interested in news that confirms their pre-existing beliefs.

So they have their sources, many and varied, and I read The New York Times and The Washington Post, both known for journalistic integrity and for getting the facts right. Do I feel superior? No, but I do feel informed.

Today, a friend and political sparing partner responded to a spoof I sent him about Paul Ryan’s concern for the poor with a suggestion that I make a resolution for 2018 to “spend more time outside the echo chamber.”

He no doubt meant it good-naturedly, but it irritated me because it's another example of the false-equivalency virus that's going around. I may be living in an echo chamber, but it's echoing the truth, or at least as close to the truth as I can feret out in this complicated and contradictory world.

I’m interested in economics, for instance, especially as it informs our choices on fiscal and monetary policy. I’ve read big-government advocates like Stiglitz and Krugman, but I’ve also read libertarian conservatives like Hayek and Friedman. It turns out, if you read the works of any of these brilliant thinkers fully, you can find plenty in each to agree with. It’s all a matter of balance. And the sad truth is, still, in economics we aren’t always sure what produces what result.

But we are pretty sure of a few things. Trickle-down has been largely discredited. And lower taxes aren’t likely to meaningfully increase GDP, not with taxes at current rates. This isn’t some wild-assed guess or article of liberal faith; it has been tried a few times and it hasn’t worked.

So when Paul Ryan, defending the current tax proposal, says lower taxes will boost the economy, what am I to think? This is what: he wants to lower taxes for his own reasons—to shrink government, for instance—and is trotting out old dogma that he almost certainly knows to be incorrect to try to convince us it’s a good idea. 

Plenty of people lie and get away with it. O.J. comes to mind. But that doesn’t mean I have to fall for it. And it doesn’t mean that just because I don’t, just because I go back to the studies that have disproved these theories in the past, that I am living in an echo chamber of mis-information. 

In fact, what I am doing is educating myself to be able to sort fact from fiction in the post-Uncle-Walter age. It takes more work than turning on The CBS Evening News every night, but it’s the only interesting and helpful way to consider problems and possible solutions.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

"I'm Just So Lonely"

I keep hearing my mother say that: “I’m just so lonely.”

She only said it to me once, many years ago, but I hear it over and over in my mind. It’s a mark of how oblivious I was to her emotional needs at the time that I don’t even remember what year it was. Was I living in L.A.? Baltimore?

I suppose I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it. She came out to visit once in a while. I went to see her now and then. That’s just the way it is with parents and kids living in different cities.

My father died when he and she were fifty. She lived alone after that, for 34 years.

Late in her life we were in the same cities again for a dozen years. I saw her often. I hope she wasn’t lonely in those years, but to tell the truth, maybe she was.

Loneliness is a funny thing. It’s a kind of desperate longing. You can be in a crowd and be lonely. You can have casual friends and be lonely. Close family is usually a pretty good antidote for loneliness, but that cure can sometimes be worse than the disease. Old thoughtless habits, old grievances. Sometimes you may want a stressful family member, or even a well-meaning one who is pushing you to do things you don’t want to do, to be things you are not, or are no longer, to just go away so you can be lonely again.

Loneliness has to do with living alone, of course. It also has to do with having too much time on your hands. Too much time to look back, to reflect, to regret.

There is no cure, I think. There are moments of respite—of remission, one might say—but once it has crept into your life, loneliness seems to persist despite everyone's best efforts to chase it away.

It’s a form of getting ready for death, I suppose. A gradual release of one’s hold on the world, and of it on you.

Mom died in a nursing home in another city, two thousand miles away. I’ve been thinking about her lately because it was about this time of year eight years ago that I flew with her to my brother’s hometown and had her furniture sent to the nice private room we had arranged for her there. She needed 24-hour care, and all she could have afforded in my town was something like a cubicle with a sheet between her and her roommate, in a place that said for her not to bring any of her lovely clothes, only a few sets of sweatpants and comfortable tops they recommended I buy at Target. 

I missed her and felt guilty about not being with her. I visited as often as I could those last few months of her life, but it wasn’t that often. When I saw her she always asked me to wheel her around to a cage of parakeets in a hallway. She loved their happy chatter and companionship.

A hospice nurse called me not long after my last visit to say Mom had died. Not from anything in particular, the nurse said. Failure to thrive, she called it.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Jim Crow Healthcare

Graham-Cassidy comes up for a Senate vote next week. Here’s why I hope it does not pass.

First, and initially foremost, it will make health insurance harder to get for tens of millions of vulnerable Americans. In ten years, when Medicaid funding is further reduced, it will essentially gut the system we have laboriously established over many decades to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. Medicaid is not a perfect system, but it’s there, and it works.

Second, The ability of the states essentially to opt out of pre-existing condition protections will return us to our darkest, and least-humane period. Got cancer? Oh sorry, good luck with that, but you’re going to have to pay more for your coverage now, a lot more.

Finally, and this is almost as big a reason as the first two, health care should not be left to the states. With few exceptions—I’m looking at you Massachusetts, with your Obamacare precursor that is working so well—they have a bad track record. Why is that? I’m not sure. Overall—and you can note my preconceptions in this—I think health care is too complicated and requires too much expertise to be handled locally. There’s a reason we all go to major medical centers for major surgery and not local clinics. Size and scale, managed correctly, beget expertise and good results. Google. Facebook. Amazon. 

Why do I think the feds can manage a large healthcare program, either insurance or single-payer-based, better than states? Two reasons:

Big problems with big societal consequences attract big thinkers. We don’t ask states to manage national defense. Making good medical care broadly available is a challenge that requires the heavyweights of policy and process.

The second reason is that although national management of issues has its own risk of bloat and inefficiency (which, incidentally, I don’t think is any greater than on the state level), it has fewer racial and economic biases. This is why we needed federal Civil Rights legislation a half-century ago. Because of racial prejudice, the southern states were making a hash of it. Not only were they not helping, they were making things worse for blacks.

Why do I think prejudice might impede good healthcare decisions by states today? Just look at the large number of states that refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. The expansion would have benefited their poor and would have been almost entirely paid for by the federal government. Yet they passed. They said they didn’t like the future costs. They said they didn’t like the constraints. What I think is that they just didn’t think it was important to help their poor if it meant letting the federal camel get its nose under their tent. And the fact that many of those poor were black? Coincidence?

Milton Friedman, the famous economist from the University of Chicago, was more of a libertarian than I am. He thought government should be as small as possible. And when government had to be involved, he believed that the best decisions were made locally. He saw centralized government as the beginning of the end of liberty.

He was right, in principle. Especially when the choice, as it was for him, was between capitalism and totalitarian control of the economy. But even he acknowledged that it is the proper role of government to enable us to do collectively what we cannot do individually. Healthcare is a perfect example of such a need. It requires that we share our healthcare risks broadly among us, so that no one of us is left to bear the full furry of bad genes or bad luck. The bigger the risk-sharing pool, the better that system will work.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Identity Theft

Can you hear it, the flapping of little wings as the youngsters leave the nest? We have a number of friends this year who will be participating in that poignant ritual. Participating in the sense of shopping for college-dorm-room sheets and reading lights and standing on the outside of “The Gate of Tears,” which is what the University of Chicago calls the final portal through which freshmen pass and parents may not.

I had kids under eighteen in the house for so long I hardly knew what to do when I didn’t. I started this blog then. Writing about my feelings helped. 

I haven’t tried my hand at advice to new empty-nesters. Throw yourself into your work. Travel. Make love in places you never could before. If you have a dog, be nice to it, as it will become your replacement child.

This too will pass, I could say, except that I’m not sure it’s true.

When your kids leave home, it’s a form of identity theft. You are no longer who you were, no longer snack-maker, homework-nagger, chauffeur and spy. The role of parent is not one you play, it is who you are. When they leave, you are still that, but you have no duties to perform. You are consigned to straightening the comforters on their beds, dusting their trophies, hoping they will call.

If someone steals your credit card or your social security number, they can steal your money. We call it identity theft, but it isn’t really that. Only your children can steal your soul.

It won’t pass—at least it hasn’t for me, even after seven year—but it will get better. The pain will dull. The longing will abate. You’ll begin to share in their lives and achievements in different ways. You’ll meet them at lake houses and invite them to join you in Paris. They may not, but even the hope of it will be exhilarating. You’ll remind them to renew their passports.

It will get better, but it will always be there, that small empty spot. Like the damage to your self-confidence when you tried out for football in eighth grade, like the BB-sized hole in your heart from your first lost love. The scar will fade so that you’ll hardly feel it except on sad, rainy days. Or on sunny days, when you’re sitting alone on a bench in a park watching a scrum of third-graders in a soccer game and your foot twitches as if to kick the ball, a reflex called up from a time when you knew with certainty who you were.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

R.I.P. Traveller, and that Guy on your Back

I remember dating a girl in high school who lived in Franklin, Tennessee, which, having been a big Civil War battleground, was full of confederate monuments. They loomed over the town square like ghosts from the past. At the time, when I was sixteen, I didn't think of them as celebrating white supremacy, I just thought the South had a hard time accepting that times had changed. 

If you talked to people in those days, a good many of them were nostalgic for the Old South. I don't know if they still wanted slaves, but they certainly wanted a world in which people of different races knew their places. I guess that was white supremacy in a more genteel form. No burning crosses, at least not from most folks, but if you got them going after a few beers you could see the torchlight in their eyes. 

I haven't thought about those monuments much until now, when we are all thinking about them. Whatever fantasies we have about the nobility of the Southern Cause, there was nothing noble about slavery, and that is really what the Civil War was about. Nor is there anything noble about the latent longing for segregation that Civil War monuments tacitly symbolize. 

They have to go. However beautiful they may be as art, what they represent is ugly.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Penumbra of the Eclipse

Maybe its because of Charlottesville. Or BLM. Lately the news is full of stories about discrimination. Even white folks trying to get into Harvard think they are being discriminated against. Jeff Sessions has their backs.

There was a piece in the LA Times today about the systematic housing discrimination in LA that begat Watts. It wasn’t all private deed restrictions. The federal government wouldn’t let public housing for blacks be located in certain places, and insisted that blacks not be allowed to live in complexes that were predominantly white. This was the New Deal federal government, the post WWII federal government. The housing segregation so established is now perpetuated through zoning regulations that limit housing density in white neighborhoods: no housing projects (for you know who) need apply.

Then there was the piece two days earlier in the New York Times about how uneven enforcement of our drug laws has locked up blacks at a much higher rate than whites. Blacks go to jail. Whites go to rehab. The numbers are alarming.

So I posted those two pieces on Facebook and noted that we whites need to face up to our history of racial discrimination and make amends. Apparently not everyone agrees.

One person suggested that the government can’t help those who don’t help themselves. Welfare creates dependency is the root of that argument.

Another said he didn’t think blacks wanted me telling them who should be their neighbors. They like being together. You know, like my southern ancestors used to say: “They be happy down on the place.”

My point in writing this is not that ever since slavery, ever since Jim Crow, even today, racial prejudice holds back blacks and other people of color, it’s that we whites have apparently become weary of admitting it. We’re not as bad as holocaust deniers; we admit that slavery was a thing; we even admit that discrimination lasted a long time. But we have taken to denying that it continues. And we have taken to denying that its pernicious effects linger, continuing to limit opportunity for blacks, who have almost as hard a time breaking out of some pockets of segregated poverty, in places like the south side of Chicago, for instance, as their slave ancestors did getting off the plantation.

I thought this debate was put to rest by the court cases and laws of the civil rights era. Not so, as it turns out. 

But we have come a long way since MLK died for our sins in how we invoke the majesty of the law to insure equal justice for all: our Department of Justice has gone from defending the civil rights of blacks to insisting that they not take white boys’ places at Harvard.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Collecting My Poeple

“White people, save all your heartbreak and sadness and get off your ass and collect your people. #Charlottesville.”
       —Ferguson Freedom Fighter, Kayla Reed

Kayla Reed’s tweet was quoted in a recent sermon posted online by Mike Kinman, an Episcopal minister from Pasadena, California. “We have met the white racists,” they might have said, “and they are us”; or if not us literally, then at least they are our cousins. They may not be carrying torches, but they are sympathetic, even if they have spun elaborate webs of rationalization to avoid admitting it. Rev. Kinman’s thesis was that “after all we have put people of color through in this nation’s history…as white people we must not burden them with the responsibility of dismantling these systems and defeating this evil.”

We must collect our people. Bring them around to the view that not only is white supremacy unacceptable, black people and others of color have legitimate grievances that it is the obligation of whites to redress.

I’d like to do that, collect my people. I’ve been trying, but I’m not succeeding. I’m either singularly ineffective as a persuader, or I’m up against something I don’t understand well enough to argue against. I fault my understanding rather than the views of those I am failing to reach because I can’t believe the people I debate—smart friends and family members—are heartless racists.

In their view, leftist violence is a bigger problem that violence on the right. I cite studies showing that violence on the right is three times more prevalent in recent decades that that from the left, but the response I get is BLM is a bunch of thugs.

Blacks are takers, some of my friends say. When we give them more welfare, we aren't doing them any favors, we’re merely creating dependency, stripping them of individual initiative and self-respect. No amount of data about the deplorable poverty in which many black children are raised seem to alter this view. “They just need to try harder.” Never mind that they don’t have the resources to support individual effort, resources so abundant to those born to privilege, largely white.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to tediously trot out all the arguments back and forth. What I want to explore instead, is why no amount of rational debate seems to change minds. At least not the minds I’m trying to change. As I said, it may be that I’m just not an effective debater, but I think it’s something different. I think we’ve mostly made up our minds and are now spending out time defending our positions rather than openly reconsidering their correctness.

Economic and political policy thought has become like religion. You're taught to believe a certain thing, and that’s it. You believe. It doesn’t matter if there are countervailing facts. Facts have never gotten in the way of faith.

Of course, I may have just joined my own cult. Maybe I’m as resistant to facts as I accuse my friends of being. I think I’m open-minded and curious, but I’m sure they do to. I think I’m right. They do too.

I have spirited debates over dinner with friends who are smart conservatives. I always come away thinking we have bridged the gulf between us, if only over one of the narrower tributaries. Then we have dinner again and start right back where we were. When we thought we were coming together, we were just being polite. That woks fine over dinner, less well over torches and AK 47s.

So I’m not doing a very good job of “collecting my people.” I’m giving it my all, in conversation and in writing, but I don’t think I’m making a dent.

Maybe I should try another approach. Waterboarding, perhaps. Or maybe I should just give up. 

Every time I think that, that I should just shut up, I remember one of the most powerful thoughts I’ve ever heard: MLK when he said, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

When you think of it that way, we have no choice but to keep speaking up, all of us.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

What I'm For

Republicans opposed Obama. Democrats oppose Trump. In its turn, each side has asked, “But what are you guys actually for?” 

Here’s what I’m for.

Personal Freedom:

I hate being told what to do. By anybody. Anytime. I put up with it when I must and do my best to avoid it the rest of the time. I'm a big fan of the Bill of Rights.

Self Reliance:

Work hard, be frugal, earn your way. Personal freedom depends on not being pushed around by the government, but it also depends on having money so that you can actually afford to enjoy your freedom as opposed to being stuck in a dead-end life where even if no one is bossing you around you might as well be in jail. When it comes to money, if you want more than a pittance, you have to earn it yourself.

A Helping Hand:

We all need help sometimes. Lord knows, I did. Someone was there for me when I needed them, and I like to think I’ve been there for others. Lately, the main way I do that is by paying taxes and supporting social safety net programs. I could volunteer more, but I don’t. I guess that’s selfish of me. But I’d happily pay more taxes to help those in need. There are so many who need help, and they are so scattered into so many communities and families, it’s really the only practical way.

Progressive Taxation:

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Yes, I know who said it. No, I don’t advocate communism. But it’s a pretty good underlying principle for progressive taxation and what I would call socialist-lite income redistribution, aka a helping hand.

International Engagement:

National isolationism doesn’t strike me as a good idea. It has a mediocre history. We might do okay for a while withdrawn into our protectionist self, behind our walls and oceans, but I think the world has gotten too complex and interrelated for that to last. In any event, we certainly will give up global leadership at a time when the values we champion—freedom of the press, equal treatment of women, democracy—continue to have fragile footholds in many parts of the world. History teaches, I believe, that turning a blind eye to the despotism and abuse that throughout the world survive like cockroaches does not work out well for us.

For me, in order of importance, that’s pretty much it; or enough of it from which to extrapolate.

I have a few conservative friends with whom I debate regularly. As you can imagine, we find plenty of common ground on the first two points: personal freedom and self-reliance. Where we get tripped up is on the specifics of how to implement point three: a helping hand. I’m fine with taxes and government safety-net programs, but some of my friends think that private enterprise and personal charity will do the trick. I think that’s unrealistic. I would say I think it's naive, but none of my conservative friends is naive. They know it’s unrealistic, I suspect, but something in them can’t let go of it. I suppose it cuts too hard against personal freedom (theirs, from taxation and inefficient government) and self reliance (what the needy should be practicing more of).

So we disagree. I’ve had these discussions with these same smart people or ones like them for many years. We cite facts and figures to one another and occasionally I learn something I didn’t know and make an adjustment at the margins of my philosophy, but overall the principles I believe in remain the same (at least in what I would call the time of my Enlightenment, which began after the certainty of my youth wore off). Maybe I’m hardheaded. I prefer to think I’ve just thought things through and come to rational conclusions.

There is lot of talk now about how we liberals need to work harder to understand Trump supporters. I understand them. I’ve been debating with them for years. I grew up debating with their ideological forebears, one of whom was my father. I just don't agree with them.

An obvious point that nevertheless bears making it that the basis for one’s conviction matters. Science is a stronger foundation than religion. There is nothing wrong with religion from the standpoint of personal faith and comfort, but the authors of the Bible, for instance, stopped doing scientific research over a thousand years ago. Science is fact. Religion is faith. They both have a place in modern life, but they should try not to poach on one another’s territory. There’s no arguing with faith, of course. I used to think there was no arguing with fact, but recent political events have proved me wrong.

So what does all this mean in terms of my personal engagement in this fractious world? I do my best to stay informed. I debate with people who have other views, both for the fine sport of it and to make sure I’m not missing anything obvious. I balance new ideas against the things I care about. I support reasonable limitations on personal freedom to promote public safety (TSA lines), but not to discriminate (voter ID laws, Muslim immigration bans). I accept taxes as my contribution to our collective enterprise and well-being. I don’t particularly like or trust government, which is inefficient and occasionally corrupt, but I see no alternative to it for certain undertakings.

I don’t know where the country is heading just now. I was surprised by Trump’s election. I’m shocked by his rhetoric. I hope we will have a voter backlash that will purge not only Trump but the right-wing ideologues led by men like Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz. I am far from sanguine that will happen, however. We’ll just have to see. Right now I’m glad to be living in California in a politically progressive era for the state (which has had its not so progressive decades, not that long ago). I plan to hang on to what I stand for, to speak out for it, and to hope that others are listening and agree. 

From a Machiavellian standpoint, it would be nice if we Democrats would stop fighting among ourselves over who has the best ideas, and candidate, to advance a progressive agenda. I read a piece in The New York Times Magazine this morning saying that the term “liberal” is now reviled on both the right (for obvious reasons) and left (as not leftist, meaning socialist, enough). Please, people. Could we get together here and fight the common enemy, the ones who want to strip millions of poor of their food stamps and healthcare, who want to undermine decent public education, who want to rape the environment and de-regulate the oligarchy? Sure, Clinton Democrats and Sanders Democrats have their differences, but they are nothing compared to the differences each have with the direction Trump, Ryan and McConnell would take us.

Let’s stop brawling in the street outside the bar while the bartender counts his money.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Old Jalopy

The president may get some of his brutal domestic spending cuts approved, but we can recover from that if the electorate decides it has had enough. He undoubtedly will set back our global relationships with our most important allies, but we can recover from that too. It is possible he will swagger into a shooting match with North Korea; that would be bad, possibly very bad. Recovering from a nuclear exchange of any kind would be difficult.

Still, I’m hopeful. Partly it’s just my nature to be optimistic. “Someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to.” The three keys to happiness. It’s hard to have number three—something to look forward to—if you're not optimistic.

It’s hard to imagine the apocalypse, so I don’t.

But I will say this: I am alarmed by the way so many of us in America, the land of freedom and opportunity, the beacon of democracy, exercise our right to be part of setting the direction of the country. I know some people are bitter that globalization has left them behind. I know some people are disdainful, and afraid, of the cultural changes they see creeping up on them like slowly rising flood waters. I know many men still think a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Some women too.

But the great thing about our country has always been the promise of freedom of choice. Chose your religion; the government won’t interfere. Chose your partner. Chose whether and when to have a child. Well, I thought we had put that one to bed, but we haven’t. All I have to say on that subject is that if you believe abortion is immoral, as many do, you must also believe that those children you insist be born should have every possible guarantee of food, health care and education.

I grew up in the Deep South. I’ve seen the fire-and-brimstone pulpit from up close. I’ve seen the burning crosses. Even though I grew up with all that, it was like poison ivy in the woods: as long as I didn’t get too close, it didn’t blister and itch.

Now, somehow, the poison ivy seems to have come for me. Its spores are airborne. There is no avoiding it. They are blown across the land by the hot wind of the very institution we treasure most: democracy.

It’s hard to know what people are thinking when they vote. I suspect that like most judgements we make, it’s complicated. I’m willing to acknowledge and indulge that complexity. It’s part of the deal if we really mean to have a society in which everyone gets an equal vote. It used to be just land-owning men who had that power. Now it’s everyone.

The land-owning men of voting rights past used their franchise to protect their interests. Now that we all can vote, we should be doing the same thing, that is voting for policies and men and women we think will do what’s best for us. We shouldn’t use the right to vote, which so much blood has been shed to preserve, as a means of popping off. It’s not a place to register frustration. It’s not a place for snark. It’s not a wise-ass remark at a cocktail party or a barbecue.

If we want to protect our great democracy, we have to respect it. We have to go to some trouble for it. We have to think about what we are voting for and why. I’m not saying this just because I’m not partial to the latest election results. I’m willing to listen. But the more I read about why some people voted the way they did, and their shock that, for instance, they are now in danger of losing their health care and safety net supports, the more I wonder if they were being thoughtful when they voted, or just blowing off steam. 

It’s easy to get frustrated. It’s easy to say, “Screw the bastards.” But that doesn’t get us anywhere. We have to keep our cool. If we want the old jalopy we call democracy to keep running, we have to take care of it. We have to give at least as much thought to the consequences of how we cast our votes as we do to the kind of oil we put in our cars. If we don’t, in both cases, the engine will freeze up.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The View From the Other Side of the Street

I walk a lot. I tend to take the same mindless route, because mindlessness is part of the attraction, letting my thoughts wander who-know-where. Usually they find their way to something I'm writing. Sometimes to DT. Too much DT lately, honestly. Not healthy. Bigly.

But I digress, in a wandering kind of way. What I want to say is that once in a while I walk on the other side of the street. When I do, it’s almost like taking a different route. I don’t do it if I don’t want to engage with my environment, to be taken out of mindlessness, because inevitably what happens is I begin to notice things I’ve haven't before.

The charming second-floor patio on a house on the side where I usually walk, set back too far to see from up close. The broad sweep of an oak tree that I usually am aware of primarily because it buckles the sidewalk where I walk too tightly under it to appreciate its sprawling beauty.

It makes me wonder what else I’m missing for being too close to what I’m used to seeing.

I don’t want to belabor the now clichéd point about being in a political bubble. I am. I took Fox News out of my curated news feed. Too aggravating. 

But that’s a different kind of missing. One I’m aware of. One I do on purpose. Every once in a while I visit the other side of the political spectrum, whether by reading or by having my favorite brilliant conservative friend over for dinner and light combat. I know what’s on the other side of that street. I don’t need to be reminded every day.

But this other missing, the one I am not aware of (because, as another cliché goes, we don’t know what we don’t know), is more interesting. What if I could walk not just on the other side of the street, but on the other side of the state, which, in the case of California, would be walking down the central valley. This is our breadbasket, the nation’s breadbasket. During the drought, the farmers were worried about water. They still are, but now they are also worried about who will pick their crops, since most of the field workers are undocumented immigrants.

Or what if I could walk through Kansas? Not drive through those golden wheat fields, as I have many times, but walk, stopping at homes and churches. What are they thinking there? Why are they so worried about their kids learning evolution and attending gay marriages? 

Honestly, these days I think I understand the concerns the Brits who wanted Brexit and the French who are disillusioned with Hollande better than I understand the growing fever of isolationism in America. The Middle-Eastern immigrant surge is huge and up-close and personal in Europe. Not here, though. I don’t think there are any Mexican jihadists, unless you count as terrorists the ones who participate in a-day-without-immigrants boycotts.

Why are Texans and North Carolinians so worried about voter fraud? Are they really? The people, that is, as opposed to the politicians who don’t get votes from the poor.

Do the coal miners in Kentucky really think their jobs are coming back? What if the jobs don't return? What do the people who used to do that work need to survive? How can we help them? Not sell them a fantasy, but actually help them. What do they say? Would they like us to help them pack up and move? No point in sticking around and starving, but moving money is tough to come by. And where would they like to go? Do they have family anywhere? Is there some place they’ve always thought they might like to try, some place where there are jobs. Not mining jobs, but decent ones.

What we have now is an intellectual dual between warring political classes. Bernie Sanders has his solutions. Never mind that few of them have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting through Congress, not just this hopelessly screwed up one but any since the New Deal and (almost) The Great Society.

Paul Ryan has his plans. He read them in a book. He’s a policy guy, he likes to tell us. But his economic plans are like Barry Goldwater’s suggestion that we use low-yield nuclear weapons to clear out the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

You can’t see the human cost from the air.

And you can’t keep walking down the same side of the street and expect the view to change. Or expect to learn anything new. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Petri Dish of my Life

I'm sitting on my back porch as I write this. A soft breeze carries the sweet smell of jasmine. The only sound is the chirping of a bird who is excited about something, probably spring. The rest of the world might not even exist.

Not the desolation in Syria, nor the starvation in Yemen. Not the migrants huddled against border fences. Not the refugees clinging to the remains of a boat in the Mediterranean. Not the jobless husband and wife in Appalachia wondering how they will feed their children. Not the cancer patient wondering how she will survive if she can no longer get heath insurance.

There are two worlds: Mine. The rest. 

My world is safe and privileged. Much of the rest is not. I am not rich, but I am well enough off. I was born into a family that was not rich, but it was also well enough off. I went to good schools. My kids went to good schools. My family is like an organism in a petri dish rich in nutrients.

If I had been born in Syria as it is today, what would I have been like? Or paid a coyote to smuggle me across a border? Or climbed into a boat to strike out for safety? Some from those harsh conditions do well; we all know those stories, those triumphs against staggering odds. Most do not.

Success is an accident of birth. I see that now. I didn’t want to believe it. Who does? If you prosper, it implies that you are not as talented as you thought; if you do not, it suggests you never had, or will have, a chance.

So we cling to the myth of individual self-reliance. Mainly, I also see now, it is merely an excuse to look away from the hardships of others. To turn our backs on them.

Most of us would not step over a man bleeding in the street and walk on. Most of us would not ignore a crying child sitting alone on a street corner. We have hearts. We have empathy. But when the suffering is not right before us, we have worked out with our consciences a rationalization that permits us to ignore it. 

The poor should use the money that they spend on cell phones for health care instead. They shouldn’t be buying potato chips with food stamps. If they really wanted to work they could find  jobs; they’re just lazy. These are the kinds of things we, even the best of us, sometimes tell ourselves.

That’s not the way it is, though. That’s not the truth. And deep down, we know it.

I’m drinking tea with cookies and cutting roses for the dinner table because of where and to whom I was born. I have no moral superiority. I have no claim to greater virtue. I was just lucky.

Does that confer upon me, and all those in government and industry who like me were born into nutrient-rich environments, an obligation to help those who were less fortunate? For instance, by making sure that at least in our rich country no one is denied decent health care? 

The question, when asked honestly, answers itself.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Bring on Your Wrecking Ball

Bruce Springsteen predicted Trump would be president four years before it happened. Listen to Bruce’s 2012 grammy winning album “Wrecking Ball” and see if you don't agree. I’m a big Springsteen fan, but somehow I missed “Wrecking Ball” when it came out. The title song popped up on an Apple Music radio stream recently, and I was hooked.

The album is about the ruin wrought by, among others, the fat-cats of the financial crisis. The lives they ruined. The people out of work, desperate but proud. There are gospel influences. We shall overcome. But what grabbed me amidst all that desperation was this voice, rising loud and strong:

“Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you've got, bring on your wrecking ball.”

We’re not pitiful. We’re not long-suffering We’re not waiting for our reward in some promised land. We’re pissed off.

“Hold tight to your anger, and don't fall to your fears.”

That was the mood in the heartland in 2012. Bruce knew it. Why didn’t we?

Slave spirituals, Woody Guthrie’s hard-times songs of the Depression, Pete Seeger’s anthems of the working man. Music that comes from the ground up tells us what people are feeling. We only need listen to know.

In 2012 people were hurting, and they were mad as hell. Bruce told us.

What did we do? And by we, I mean Democrats and progressives. Well, we tried to give them the security of health care. We did okay on that, considering the Republican opposition, but now that’s about to be undone. Why? Because the people we were trying to help weren’t the ones who were so angry. 

We tried to help the poor, the sick and the aged. This is what Democrats do. We’re regular bleeding hearts. I don’t say that derisively. We mean well. And certainly those people needed help with health care. It was a noble cause.

But it did not speak to the anger that Bruce sang to us. The fat cats were getting richer, and people had no jobs. That anger.

So along comes Trump and tells the angry folks what they want to hear: You've been screwed by the elite who have sent your jobs to China. You have every right to be pissed. They didn’t put you first. They put themselves first. I’ll bring back your jobs. I’ll put you first.

Pause here for the irony. He’s not putting anyone but himself first. He’s not bringing back any jobs. All he’s going to do is undo the one good thing that anyone has done for them in years: given health care to the needy.

“Hold tight to your anger, and don’t fall to your fears.”

That was his anthem. His voters marched to it. Honestly, when was the last time a policy white-paper stirred your blood? Trump gave them simple answers to complex questions. He honored their anger. He lit their torches. He said the monster lives there, burn down her house.

And they did.

Listen to Bruce, people. Stop overthinking this. Get down on the level of that despair and that anger and confront it. Deal with it head on.

And then, in the 2018 mid-terms, make the refrain our own. Show what we’ve got. We’re committed to making our home better for all of us. We aren't afraid of nihilists. We aren't afraid of those who would tear down civil society. We aren’t going to give in to our fear of bigotry, xenophobia and ignorance.

“Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you've got, bring on your wrecking ball.”