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Posts Tagged ‘Obama’


There’s a lot of talk these days about the big choices this election holds for all of us. It’s true–the stakes in this election could hardly be higher. Like everyone else, I’ve watched as spin became lies, was exposed as such, and somehow still remained a part of our political conversation. The cumulative effect has been, I suspect, a sort of national case of disassociation–we have been asked to believe twelve impossible things before breakfast, and, rather than calling bulls*t, we have tried. Oh, we have tried.

I can’t speak for you, but for myself, I have to say that the result hasn’t been pretty. There’s the perennial, “Hey, wait…” reaction when I hear one of the tired old canards trotted out and whipped round the track for the bazillionth time. There’s the anger that we never seem to move beyond this. There’s the frustration at the thought that millions of Americans are apparently being taken in by a group who has openly disavowed any ties to reality. And most of all, there’s the sneaking fear that I’m going crazy.

This political campaign defies logic. A candidate who has flipped and flopped and flailed around and openly taken to political whoring in pursuit of the Oval Office should have been laughed out of the race by now. But he hasn’t. And I think the reason is really very simple. I think the reason why Mitt Romney is still in the race is because while those of us in the dwindling middle class all want pretty much the same things–we want social and financial stability, a secure old age, college education for ourselves and our children, and the hope that when we leave we’ll have enough to leave a little behind–on a deeper level we really only want one thing–we want to be safe.

The question is, how do we achieve that? I am reminded of my medieval English lit class. Medieval English literature reflects the two prevalent cultures in Britain at the time: Anglo-Saxon culture, which had its roots in North Central Europe, where winters were savage, life was harsh, and wolves were fierce; and Celtic culture, which had its roots in the softer, milder climates of southern Europe. Anglo-Saxon literature’s most famous poem is Beowulf. Celtic poetry is less well-known, but much of it is short, lyric poems about the beauties of nature, myth, and tradition.

Beowulf happens in a dark, gloomy, savage, cold, and dangerous world where monsters prowl. Safety is to be found by shutting out everyone and every thing except for one’s sworn brothers and fellow knights.. The horror of the poem comes when Grendel, the monster from the mire, actually invades the hall, Heorot.

The world of the Celtic poems is very different. Many seem to have been written by hermit monks, who lived largely solitary in small huts out in nature. The poems speak of the joy of sunny days, the beauty of birds singing in bushes, the pleasure to be found in watching one’s house cat hunt for a mouse. They tell snippets of legends, fragments of stories. These poems speak of a world in which safety is found not by walling out the world, but by making one’s self a part of it, becoming a piece of the whole, forming bonds of love, friendship, and support with the animals, plants, and people that make up the world.

Which brings me to this campaign. Mr. Romney’s worldview is in many respects akin to the Anglo-Saxon view. He has spent most of his life in a world preserved by exclusion. He has built his safety behind walls of wealth, religion, and society. He sees financial success as something one achieves on one’s own, or with the help of one’s parents. One builds a wall, and then builds one’s success behind it, locked away from the rest of the world. One succeeds or fails on one’s own (or with the help of the folks). Professionally he has operated in a world famed for secrecy–call it “confidentiality,” if you will. One of the ongoing stories of this campaign has been his refusal to disclose details of his professional dealings–or even the customary number of tax returns. (He demanded the returns of his VP pick, but never mind.) When he speaks of international relations he speaks less of alliances than of a “strong military.” He doesn’t offer many details, but then again, I suspect they aren’t really important to him. What is important is the wall. Some members of the GOP are actually pushing for the erection of a literal wall along our southern border. Stripping all this down to fundamentals, what we are left with is that for Mr. Romney, safety lies in Heorot–America huddled around a warm fire behind tall, thick walls, hoping and praying that Grendel never gets in.

President Obama, on the other hand, sees safety less in walls than in alliances. His life has been lived as a global citizen in some respects–he spent his childhood, in part, in Indonesia, and in multi-cultural Hawaii. He was a member of a non-traditional family. When he left school he became a community organizer, helping poor and middle-class people form alliances. When he speaks of international policy he speaks of building global alliances, of acting in concert with other nations for our mutual good. When he speaks of domestic policy he speaks of our commonality, of the growing separation between rich and poor that’s killing us socially and economically, of the need for all of us to have a certain level of safety, if any of us are to be truly safe.

I don’t see this as an election about right-and-left politics. Mr. Romney has, if anything, shown himself to be a man who governs in response to the deepest pockets and loudest voices. He has played the idealogue this campaign, but I suspect he cares less about ideology than he does about the bottom line. He’s a money guy, and he wants to be sure that all the guys in his “in” group are taken care of. This isn’t politics. It’s closer to nepotism. By the same token, President Obama has been more centrist than progressive in his policy. How much of that centrism is due to GOP obstructionism we will probably never know, but the fact remains that when we set aside the talk and look at what has been done the result has been centrist, mildly progressive policy domestically–and quite hawkish action militarily, at least in some respects.

Here’s the thing about medieval English poetry–the stormy, savage world of Beowulf and the warm, sunny, placid world of the Celtic lyric verses were both talking about the same part of the world–the British Isles. The difference in the world each poet sees reflects not what lies around him, but what he sees in himself. That’s this election. Both men claim to be offering us what we want most–safety, but if we can extrapolate from their past lives and their prevailing spoken remarks (I’m purposely excluding campaign stuff, because I really don’t see how we can evaluate Mr. Romney in a meaningful way if we include it–his spoken remarks have been inconsistent, nonsensical, and mutually exclusive in many cases) we can see that the men believe that safety is best achieved in opposite ways.

Mr. Romney believes that we are safest behind strong walls, excluding everyone we have decided is not like us, caring only for those who are inside the walls with us. He sees our national life as an exercise in wall-building–making the walls bigger and stronger, and taller, and if doing that means that we take supplies from those who are not within our walls, well, that’s just the way it is. Likewise, when time, money, and resources must be spent everything goes to building the wall. The idea of investing for the coming winter, of seeing to it that those who serve the “in” group have enough to eat and warm clothes to wear, comes a distant second. What matters is the “in” group, and the wall.

President Obama believes that we are more than our walls–that while a good wall is necessary, true safety can only be achieved by recognizing that we are part of a larger community–by forming alliances, by learning to appreciate the diversity and beauty that lies around us, but understanding that we are safest when our social safety net is wide-flung, strong, and inclusive. He believes we are safest when we have good, strong walls–and can navigate the world both inside and out. After all, Beowulf only manages to deal with Grendel and his mother when he leaves Heorot. Even for Beowulf, walls ultimately failed him. And I fear that Mr. Romney’s walls will fail us, too. Grendel has learned how to find his way inside our walls. And he has some pretty scary bombs out there in the mire.

The last four years have been hard ones. I tried–and failed–to get my house re-financed. I was threatened with foreclosure. My credit card interest rates drove my balances so high that ultimately I was left with no choice but bankruptcy. I’ve been sick–I was recently diagnosed with a life-threatening (but fortunately very treatable) condition. I still don’t have health insurance. There have been times when I couldn’t buy my kid shoes. These years have been hard. And I watched as many of the measures that were supposed to help were watered down and subverted by men more concerned with making sure that all the gold stayed in Heorot.

But here’s the thing. These years have also taught me that I am surrounded by a townful of caring, loving people. They are my safety net, and I am part of theirs. We are not rich. But we understand how to care for each other. And we understand that we are better together. At some point, we have all faced the question of how we will be safe, and we have all recognized that safety lies less in bank balances than it does in relationships. We have all made peace with the idea that we are our brothers’, sisters’, and world’s keepers. And that’s why I’m voting for President Obama again–not because I agree with everything he’s done, but because I believe that we share a vision–we believe that we can best keep each of us safe by keeping all of us safe, inside our walls, and out.

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Okay, I think that we’ve officially entered the Silly Season. First we have the sad story of Mitt Romney’s pooch, who was crated, strapped on top of the car, and taken on vacation. There are a lot of ways to spin this. the ASPCA roundly condemns the practice of strapping one’s dog–however crated–to the car roof and zooming off for a fun-filled vacation. Not surprisingly, many agree. Also not surprisingly, the Romneys are holding fast to their “he liked it, and it was better than a kennel” position. I am unconvinced that the car roof was the only alternative to a kennel for the vacationing Romneys–possibly Seamus could have stayed in one of their numerous homes–but to be perfectly honest, in the absence of a weigh-in by Seamus himself I am prepared to give the Romneys a pass on the whole dog on the car roof thing.

I’m willing to concede that Seamus may indeed have “loved it”–Irish Setters are famously beautiful but dumb. Maybe Seamus did love the prospect of an eighteen-wheeler roaring toward him. Maybe he did love the endless, incessant, inescapable buffeting of the wind driving him ever back, back, back against the back wall of the crate. Maybe he did love the way the crate rocked and shook as the car raced toward Ontario. Maybe he did love bugs in his teeth. Maybe the Romneys strapped the crate on sideways. Maybe it was indeed an ill-advised turkey, rather than terror, that caused Seamus’ sudden attack of diarrhea. Who knows? So–in the absence of any sort of word from Seamus, I’m willing to file this under “things that make me go ‘huh?'” and move on.

What is bothering me more these days is the GOP’s answer to the Seamus-on-the-roof story, and that’s their “revelation” from Dreams of My Father, President Obama’s memoir about, in part, his childhood in Indonesia, that in his childhood Barry Obama ate dog meat. The implication is that but for the eagle eye of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh the First Family would be barbecuing Bo in the Rose Garden. Apparently the plan is to use the story about child Obama eating dog meat in Indonesia as some kind of answer to Seamus-on-the-roof.

It would be funny, if it didn’t reveal how very insular, smug, and dim-witted the spinmeisters at the GOP believe us to be. In the first place, equating an action taken by a grown man, married, with children, and presumably in his right mind, with the action of a child, arguably still at the “eat-what’s-set-before-you” stage of life, is ridiculous. The two things simply aren’t equivalent. No matter what one thinks of Seamus’ car trip, there’s simply no way to equate the fact that the adult Mitt chose to strap his dog to the roof of the car with the fact that a young child ate a piece of meat he was given by a caretaker. None.

What’s more troubling, though, is what the “You ate dog” response says about the insularity and bigotry that we are being asked to embrace. Let me say right here that I do not eat dog. I have no plans to try. But I recognize that this is because of a powerful cultural bias, not because dog meat is inherently inedible. Biases are powerful things, and food biases are some of the most powerful of all.

Andrew Zimmern’s show, Bizarre Foods, regularly invites viewers to confront their biases by exploring how people around the world  meet the nutritional demands of their bodies. I watch. And sometimes I wince. But the show carries a profound message–one important enough that I used it as the basis for a writing class I teach. The message is this: Humans all have certain nutritional needs, and how we meet those needs is driven by where we live, what foods are available, and yes, our cultural and religious taboos. Understanding and respecting that fact is the first step toward understanding that humanity is truly all one family–we eat what is around us, and for millions in third-world countries–like Indonesia–that has prompted the acceptance of a much wider variety of protein sources than we, who live in a far wealthier world, are accustomed to. Like privileged children who turn up their noses at bread crusts, in the context of the world population we are picky eaters. We can afford to be. We’re rich.

To build a political “smear” on a simple fact of life–Barry Obama was living in a part of the world where the consumption of dog meat was acceptable, and one of his caregivers gave him some–says more about those who have crafted the smear than it says about President Obama, who no longer lives in Indonesia, who can make his own protein choices now, and who, judging by Bo’s continued happy existence, does not appear to number dog meat among those choices. It says that the crafters of that particular bit of propaganda live smug, safe, sheltered lives, lives in which they can afford to pick and choose what they will eat, rather than eating what they must, the way that much of the world does. It says that they can see no difference between the biases that govern all of our food choices and morality–possibly even religion. It says that they are willing to convict someone for being different, for having a broader, more inclusive cultural experience. At worst, it says that they are willing to condemn those who live in other parts of the world, who use other proteins, fruits, vegetables, and starches to fill out their food pyramid to either ostracism or malnutrition. Mostly, it says that they simply have no concept of or respect for the exigencies under which most of the world lives. It makes me wonder how much they understand about how the less privileged in America live, and the dietary choices being made in smaller, humbler homes just down the street.

That smear reeks of snobbism, self-congratulation, narrow-mindedness, and insularity. It is beneath us. And if you doubt me, reflect for a moment on the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans partake of beef in myriad forms, while half a world away there is a nation that holds cattle sacred–and that is probably as appalled by our addiction to McDonald’s as we are by the idea of eating dog meat.

At its root, this smear comes back to the same tired meme that stained so much of the last election. It is an appeal to the lowest human instincts, to racism and xenophobia. The smear is designed to remind us all that President Obama is different, other, and quite possibly dangerous. It is a return to the canard that “he is not like us.”

So here’s the question: Who is “us?” If the measure of “us-ness” is buying into this bit of ugliness, I hope to all gods that he is not “like us.” And I hope I’m not like “us,” either.

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All this week, two things have been pretty much dominating our days: the ongoing drama (I heard one commentator calling it “Kabuki theater”) of the debt ceiling debate, and football camp.

Even though I have largely sworn off watching political coverage, the specter of a possible national default was enough to persuade me to start checking in with the news again. The irony of the public horror at the thought of declaring bankruptcy when I myself just had to go through it did not escape me. Indeed, when I first heard a news anchor waxing passionate on the subject I have to admit I rolled my eyes and said, “This would probably bother me a lot more had I not just had to do it myself.”

Then I did a little research and realized that there was a lot more involved, that as with most of what we see happening politically these days the real debate was over things that really don’t hold up well under scrutiny, and that raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with allowing us to incur more expenses, but everything to do with honoring debts we have already incurred.

I came to the conclusion that the debt ceiling should be raised, no matter how distasteful the idea may be. I even agree that we should get spending under control, and that some of the loopholes that allow those who bear much of the responsibility for the global crash to evade paying their fair share should be closed.

The hitch, of course, is that Taxes have become a religion to many in the Republican party, and as with any religion, you have your liberals, who might concede to closing tax loopholes, and your conservatives, who might consent under duress but who suspect the liberals are probably going to Hell. And then you have your lunatic fringe, the wild-eyed tax fundamentalists who insist that what was good enough for George Washington tax-wise should be good enough for us.

And if that isn’t enough, you’ve also got your basic Mean Girl thing going on in the GOP, which has decided that Good Policy is making President Obama’s life so miserable he finally gives up and goes away and lets them have the best office again. I could talk about how veiled and therefore more virulent racism seems to fuel a lot of that, but what would be the point? Somebody somewhere would be sure to utter the words, “Job-killing taxes,” and there we would be, in the middle of an argument we cannot hope to settle because the real things we’re arguing about aren’t the things many of us claim to be arguing about. And because for some of us, our position has become an article of faith, something in which we believe, even though we can’t really provide a good explanation for it. In fact, merely asking for fact-based, logical reasons for our beliefs is like expecting us to produce God in a test tube.

So there’s the news. But in our town there’s also football camp. Every year, the middle school and high school coaches send out word that for two weeks in July they will teach any kid in town old enough to walk and potty train reliably how to play football. (Actually I think kids have to be in elementary school, but you get my point. They cast their nets wide, because there aren’t enough big fish around here for us to be snobbish about hauling in a few minnows.)

Every evening for the last two weeks, the practice field between the high school and the middle school has filled up with boys ranging in height from Patrick, who is six four now, down to a very small child whose head didn’t reach a number of the boys’ waists. I think his big brother wanted to come to football camp, but he had to babysit. And so he brought his little brother along. And because this is our town, and coaches make allowances to get as many kids onto the field as possible, they made the little guy a part of the program. All this week he has run plays with boys bigger and older than he is. He had an unfortunate meeting with a big boy foot during stretches a couple nights ago and developed a nice shiner, but he ran on, undaunted.

He’s the smallest boy, but he’s far from the only little one. Because we’re small potatoes here, football camp welcomes all shapes and sizes. The coaches divide the boys by size and ability for running drills, but the whole group stretches together, and from time to time throughout the evening the head coach blows his whistle and brings all the boys together for footraces, pushing contests, and various games designed to build speed, stamina, and spirit. Patrick says he also talks to them about what it means to be a team–that you become family, encourage the weaker and slower among you, and celebrate all victories together. I saw it play out in the exercises and races, where faster, more agile boys would sometimes double back to run with and encourage a slower boy, and where everybody cheered for a boy who succeeded in doing something right for the first time.

For the last two weeks, I have sat on the grass with my back propped against a power pole and watched a few of the men in my town teach the boys and young men coming after them about the joys of doing something well, of working as a team, and of stretching one’s self beyond one’s limits.

But as I watched I realized that those boys are learning something else as well. They are learning how to be careful of each other. There are probably almost a hundred boys out on that field. They range in height from 6’4″ down to the little guy, who is maybe three feet tall. For much of the time they are engaged in vigorous, close-range activity. There have been few accidents, none serious. I look at the big boys, and watch how they temper their responses to teach the young ones rather than dominate them. I watched the littlest kid’s big brother keep track of him. I watched the coaches watch out for him, shaping his participation to both teach him and protect him. I watched the coaches help the boys to discover each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and then work together for a common goal.

I watched all that, and I realized that while our national life is very much reverting to the law of tooth and claw and might is all, in our town, at least, the boys in football camp are learning about a different law–a law that says that everyone who wants to be involved is welcome, that everyone needs to try their best, that there is no room for egos and power trips on the field, and that if you’re bigger and stronger you have a responsibility to do more than just outplay everyone else. You are responsible for seeing to it that your actions don’t injure the smaller and weaker among you. And you are responsible for showing them what it means to participate with joy, with passion, with excellence, with respect for others, and with honor and sportsmanship. Football camp is about teaching football, but the way it happens here it’s about teaching honor as well.

Perhaps President Obama needs to hold a football camp. I’m happyt to ask our coaches if they’re available.

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This blog is all about words, how to use them, why they matter, and what they say about us. I don’t get very political here very often, but today is a day to do it. A moderate politican, Arizona Representative  Gabrielle Giffords, was shot when she was meeting her constituents on Saturday. So were six other people, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl.

The shooting of Representative Giffords started a long time ago–back in 2008, when Sarah Palin stood in front of a crowd and used lies and innuendo to fan the flames of racism, fear and rage in her audience. They loved her for it, and the Republican Party discovered that they had a powerful new tool–populist anger that fed on xenophobia, class warfare, ignorance, and hate. Emotions like that make facts irrelevant. And the Republican party found itself, in the words of Dan Balz in the Washington Post, “riding the tiger.”

The problem with riding a tiger is that you pretty much have to go where the tiger wants to go. The GOP understood this, and a new kind of crazy was born. Bizarre claims about President Obama’s heritage, citizenship, religious affiliations, and goals were born, disproved–with legal documents, no less–and reborn again. Compromise became a dirty word. Leaders who should have been above such things became purveyors of the most scurrilous gossip–and lent it credibility by repeating it. The idea of Democrats and Republicans working together for the good of the nation disappeared.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could openly say that his party’s primary goal was not advancing a more conservative agenda, or working to advance the interests of their constituents, but winning at all costs by ensuring that President Obama was a one-term president.

It’s a position that makes the failure of a nation desirable, and recovery something to sabotage, and the GOP did its best to make both things happen. They demanded counter-productive amendments designed to suit vested interests, then refused to vote for the bills. They filibustered everything. They organized the disruption of town hall meetings. They demonized organizations that encouraged minority voting.

Intolerance, pig-headedness, dirty tricks, falsehoods, and cynical power-grabs have become the order of the day, and they have been justified and perpetuated with the language of violence. The GOP has justified their runaway campaign to reduce government to a cypher on the grounds that the Democratic party is trying to “destroy” America.

The rhetoric has paid off, not only in a political body that has all but ground to a halt, but in increased threats against that political body. Howard Fineman’s article in HuffingtonPost details how access to our elected representatives is being lost because of those threats.

What has made all of the rhetoric of violence particularly deadly is that we are one nation, under stress. We are suffering the worst depression we’ve seen since the Great Depression. We are fighting a war that looks increasingly like a no-win proposition. We are facing weather and manmade disasters that threaten to destroy precious resources. We face terrorist threats from without and within. Millions have lost their homes. Millions more have lost their jobs. The corporations that have created much of the havoc report record earnings. The measures that were instituted to help beleaguered homeowners have been subverted. There is much to be anxious about.

Under such conditions, the rhetoric of violence becomes more than just distasteful: It becomes something very like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. And it’s only a matter of time before the stampede starts.

“I don’t see the connection” between the fundraisers featuring weapons and Saturday’s shooting, said John Ellinwood, [Jesse] Kelly’s spokesman. “I don’t know this person, we cannot find any records that he was associated with the campaign in any way. I just don’t see the connection.”

Mr. Ellinwood, here is the connection. You and your political allies rode the tiger. You fed it red meat. You spoke the language of violence, hate, and fear. You spoke of “second amendment remedies.” You painted crosshairs on your political opponents’ districts. You and your allies spoke of an election as if it were a battle. You told your followers, “Don’t retreat–reload.” Your candidate, Mr. Kelly, used a picture of himself in combat gear and holding a gun on his campaign website. He courted donations and votes by offering people the opportunity to shoot a loaded M-16 with him. Can you really be so naive as to not expect someone–perhaps some sad, deluded, young man–to take you at your word? Can you really believe that just because you “don’t know this person,” that your violent language, and the war-mongering imagery you and your allies use, has no effect on him?

The worst part of all this is that the hate and violence being ginned up in the name of the people is destroying the very fabric that binds our nation. The Tea Party was born because of the disconnect between those who govern, and those who are governed. The Republican party’s concerted obstructionism illustrates that disconnect perfectly; while millions lost their homes and their jobs, the GOP held the country’s unemployment benefits hostage until they had extorted tax breaks for the wealthiest–who in many cases had directly contributed to the economic disaster.

If there is already a disconnect–and there is–attacks like the one on Representative Giffords today will only exacerbate it. The Tea Party and the GOP have, together, crippled the few avenues that remained for the governed to speak with those governing. Town halls have been crippled. This tragedy has threatened yet another avenue. Fineman traces the increasingly stringent security measures at the Capitol; where the public was welcome in its halls not so very long ago, that is no longer always the case.

The ever-widening gap between those who govern and those who are governed, coupled with the language of violence, makes it all but inevitable that Gabrielle Giffords will not be the last member of Congress to be attacked. Is this what we really want? Do we really see our neighbors as enemies? Do we really want to make violence our method of selecting our leaders? Do we want to become nothing more than armed camps, warring against each other, or do we still believe that we can be “one nation, indivisible”? How far are we willing to ride the tiger?

Words matter. Facts matter. Working together for the common good is a worthy goal. Open, clear communication between Washington and the rest of us is something to treasure and nurture. We are better than this. Let’s get off  the tiger and put it back into its cage, before anybody else gets hurt.

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