Sunday, November 29, 2015

Maybe We're Not Better Than This

I keep hearing over and over that we're better than this. We're better than the Republican candidates who have sunk to all-time lows to incite a base that was already loaded for bear in the first place. We're better than the mindless shootings that take place week in and week out. We're better than all the accounts of police officers killing African Americans for no reason. We're better than the vile anti-Gay attacks by so-called Christians. And we're better than the wave of anti-Muslim and anti Mexican rhetoric being spewed by white supremacist groups and, yes, by Donald Trump.

I beg to differ. Frankly, I don't think we're better than this. I think what we're witnessing in this country is the culmination of decades of voter apathy, political corruption, corporate manipulation and a nativist element that, to be honest, has always existed in one form or another. Contrary to what the founders envisioned, this is hardly an enlightened electorate. It's lazy and, for the most part, lost in its own private Idaho. Oh, it gets upset from time to time, but then, when the dust settles, things go back to the way they've always been. Barack Obama is wrong when he says, "This is not normal." Sorry, Mr. President, but this IS normal. The new normal. This is the United States of I Don't Give A Shit.

Believe me, I wish it weren't so, but as a well-known police show detective said repeatedly, "Just the facts." And the facts are not only undeniable, they're damning. We have a crumbling infrastructure, an education system that is in decline, a shrinking middle class, millions of blacks incarcerated unjustly, with millions more potentially barred from voting due to voter suppression laws, and what are we worried about? That a few thousand Syrian refugees, most of whom are women and children, might destroy our way of life. Funny, for a people who supposedly believe in the Constitution, it's astonishing how little faith we truly have in it.

We have allowed the country to be turned into a shooting gallery. Yet any effort to bring up the need for sensible gun regulation is instantly met by the typical "what we need are more guns" nonsense. Seriously, putting more guns in circulation makes about as much sense as confronting an alcoholic for his drinking by making sure everyone around him is just as drunk.

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook this question: Has President Obama caused more racism or has his election exposed underlying racism? While I was relieved that the majority responded by saying exposed, frankly, I think that's the wrong question. The real question should be, When will the majority of Americans wake up and take back their country? Because from what I've observed, the answer is never.

Oh I'm sure that they want to. And after events like the ones in Colorado Springs, or Chicago, or Staten Island, or Newtown, or Tucson, there are stirrings within the population that indicate a willingness to proceed. But the followthrough just isn't there. To put it in Biblical terms, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

This is a society that has become so self-absorbed and numb, I doubt anything can shake it from its lethargy.  Think about it. We seldom talk to each other anymore. Thanks to social media, we don't even have to look at one another. Recently I saw a rather amusing posting on Facebook about a coffee shop that didn't have wifi. A sign read, "Talk to each other. Pretend it's 1995." I dare Starbucks to do that today. Their stores would turn into ghost towns.

A look at some of the top TV shows reveals a troubling trend. We as a nation are addicted to reality shows. Just yesterday I was watching an episode of Law and Order on the WE Network. Would you like to know the lineup for this network? I can assure you, Law and Order was the exception to the rule. Go up and down the cable dial and it's just as bad. These reality shows get huge ratings as do shows about people moving to exotic places. A decade ago they were virtually nonexistent. What people won't do to escape.

And the films we watch aren't much better. Movies like The Avengers and Man of Steel are ostensibly about super heroes who rescue the human race from alien invaders. Amazing! We're slowly cooking the planet, but don't worry, Tony Stark and Clark Kent will arrive in the nick of time to save the day.

And while we flock to the theaters in record numbers, many of us don't even bother to vote. Only 54 percent of eligible voters bothered to go to the polls in 2012. The numbers for 2014 were even worse. Only 36 percent of eligible voters turned out, the lowest since World War II. Shameful!

And even when we do vote, nothing much changes. It's really hard to feel sorry for an electorate that gives Congress only an 11 percent approval rating, yet votes for the incumbent 96 percent of the time.  Face it, we have the government we deserve. To paraphrase Cassius, "The fault lies not in our leaders, but in our voters."

It's time to admit a painful truth. There is something seriously wrong with American society. We complain a lot about the way things are, but lack the resolve to change them. We decry the violence on our streets and the money in our politics, yet don't hold our elected officials accountable when they fail to deal with them. We are gullible and indifferent, a dangerous combination if ever there was one.

Only an incurable optimist could find the silver lining in this cloud. And I'm hardly that. At the risk of sounding pessimistic, I don't see anyway out of this paper bag we've crawled into, not unless we're willing to make some fundamental changes in the way we live our lives. And I just don't see that happening. Not with our priorities this screwed up.

There's an old slogan that goes like this: "If nothing changes, nothing changes." For America, that slogan might well turn out to be our epitaph.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Trump's Rationalization is Yet Another GOP False Equivalence

You know you're full of shit when your best defense over an attack that clearly crossed a line is to dredge up another supposedly similar attack from your arch nemesis. And it's even lamer when the comparison you're citing is vague at best and totally nonexistent at worst.

There's no doubt that Donald Trump was mocking New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski's disability during a campaign stop. Any reasonably intelligent person who looked at the video would conclude the same. But rather than apologize for the incident, which seems to be anathema for Trump, his campaign has instead decided to deflect attention away from his malfeasance towards an ad that Barack Obama ran against John McCain in '08.

The Obama ad did indeed poke fun at the GOP nominee, but it went after what many people felt was McCain's inability to keep up with current things from computers to the economy. Obama was trying to draw a distinction between someone who was in touch with the latest trends and someone who clearly wasn't. I've watched the ad several times and I cannot see any evidence that it crossed a line by making fun of McCain's disability. In deed, a google search revealed two striking things: 1. the only objections to the ad came from conservative sites; and 2. there is nothing from McCain himself indicating he found the ad offensive. Ironically, it was Joe Biden who came to McCain's defense, I suspect because the ad's overall theme was that older people weren't as capable as younger ones and Biden was closer to McCain's age than Obama's.

At any rate, the two are not even remotely equivalent. On the one hand, you have Trump on a stage doing a mock interpretation of a man with a disability right down to the hand gesture; one the other, you have a campaign ad that was clearly drawing a distinction between a young, viral man who represented today's generation and an older, more feeble, out of touch man who represented the past. Was it a nice ad? No, but then most attack ads aren't. That's why they're called attack ads. But the ad did NOT go after McCain's disability and there is no evidence that has been presented by "credible" sources that proves otherwise.

Once more another false equivalence argument has been made by the GOP in an attempt to distract people away from the real truth. Since he announced he was running for president, Donald Trump has made numerous obnoxious and disgusting comments about Mexicans, women, Muslims, and now, the disabled. To add insult to injury, Trump has demanded an apology from The New York Times, I suppose for having the temerity for condemning his remarks. In case you haven't been following closely, he tends to do that a lot with any newspaper that calls him out. There seems no limit to how low he will go to garner support from a base that is racist, myopic and nativist. That the Republican Party would not condemn his outlandish conduct and instead dredge up a seven year-old ad is pitiful and, sadly, indicative of the state it now finds itself in.

Think about it, Donald Trump might well become the Republican nominee for president. If that should happen, you will see the entire party apparatus go to bat to defend a man who represents the very worst in our country. And that fact should scare the living shit out of you.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Difference Between Proper Vigilance and Xenophobia

In the weeks and months after 9/11, the nation's resolve was tested again and again. There was a strong temptation to lash out at Muslims in the country and make them pay for what had happened to us. I remember my wife and I went into Manhattan about a month after the attacks to visit the Trade Center site. Later on that day we ate a nice dinner in Little Italy.

While we were at Penn Station waiting for the train to take us home, a drunk was yelling at an Indian man standing on the platform. He obviously had mistaken him for a Muslim. After a couple of minutes of listening to his verbal diarrhea, I interrupted the asshole. "You do know that his people had absolutely nothing to do with the attacks," I said. "In fact, his people have been at war with the people who attacked us for centuries."

I didn't know which bothered me more: the fact that some ignoramus couldn't tell the difference between a Hindu and a Muslim or that he, like so many of my fellow countrymen, were once more sinking into the abyss of xenophobia that has gripped this nation so many times over its long history.

We saw it clearly after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Japanese Americans were interred in camps for no other reason than the fact that they were Japanese. During the Eisenhower Administration, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were forcibly removed from this country in a wave of anti-immigration and nativism. Some of those Mexicans were killed in what was disgustingly referred to as Operation Wetback.

Sadly, every ethnic minority has had to endure discriminatory treatment at the hands of the majority. The Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, the Pols, the Germans and the Jews have all been persecuted at one time or another. For the better part of a century, almost one quarter of the nation's population was enslaved; while the only true indigenous people were forcibly removed from their homelands and placed on reservations. Many of them became the victims of genocide.

Since the attacks in Paris, a new wave of xenophobia is sweeping America and it is directed, ironically enough, not at the terrorists, but at those who are fleeing the terrorists. The Syrian and Iraqi refugees that have overwhelmed much of Europe over the last few months, have now come under intense scrutiny, as it was revealed that one of the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks - the ring leader - might have been a refugee.

If that is true - and ABC News is confirming he was a Belgian citizen - it is certainly something to be concerned about. But it is worth noting that according to a piece in The Economist, of the almost 750,000 refugees that have settled in the United States since 9/11,  "only two Iraqis in Kentucky have been arrested on terrorist charges, for aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq." Two out of three quarters of a million people. Hardly an epidemic. Also noteworthy is the fact that not one of the September 11th hijackers was a refugee. All of them came into the country legally with visas.

None of that of course makes any difference.  The people have been whipped into a frenzy by both reckless and irresponsible politicians and a weak-kneed media that long ago gave up any semblance of journalistic integrity. It's hard to know who's wagging whom these days. It is one thing to properly identify those who mean to do us harm, as I and others like Sam Harris, Thomas Friedman and Bill Maher have done; it is quite another to come completely unwound and succumb to nativist hysteria.

The refugees that are fleeing Syria and Iraq en mass are not our enemies. To treat them as such, as the recent House bill does, not only distracts us from what should be our true mission - that of combatting and defeating Islamic extremism, it has the unintended consequence of acting as a recruitment tool to lure yet more gullible souls into the grips of ISIS and al-Qaeda. In short, the more we clamp down on the influx of refugees, the more susceptible we become to being attacked again.

Our best weapon against ISIS is the very thing they despise most of all: our laws and our values. It is imperative that we hold onto to them at all costs. We cannot take the bait that they have dangled in front of us. We must resist the urge to overreact to these tragedies when they happen. The only thing worse than being attacked by your enemies is to become like them. The day that happens is the day they truly win.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Take Aways From the Second Democratic Debate

Two debates down, four to go. I don't count the MSNBC and debates. Sorry, this is the major leagues, not the sandlots. So what were the take aways from the second debate? Glad you asked.

1. Hillary Clinton was the winner, again. Except for a very awkward moment when she invoked 9/11 to help explain the contributions she gets from Wall Street - please, Hillary, even Bill wouldn't have gone there - the night belonged to her. She looked, yes, I'll say it again, presidential. She was even better than she had been in her first debate. She went on the offensive more, while being careful not to seem dismissive of her opponents.

Let's admit it, she's had far more experience doing this and it showed. She was cool-hand Luke up there. Hell, she survived eleven grueling hours in front of a Congressional committee; two hours on a debate stage was practically a cakewalk. Her strongest moment came when she defended her plan for how she'll handle the banks and Wall Street by citing a piece by Paul Krugman in The New York Times in which Krugman ostensibly agrees with her. And while she's far more hawkish than either of her two rivals, in a general election that should only benefit her.

2. Martin O'Malley didn't look half bad. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from him, but he comported himself fairly well. While I don't think he'll get much traction from his performance, I think he definitely made the case for a possible VP nod, as evidenced by the fact that when he did go on the attack, he spread the graft around evenly between Clinton and Sanders. Smart move, Martin. No sense burning any bridges, especially when you're polling around 4 points.

3. Bernie Sanders had a bad night. For someone who needed a breakout performance to close the gap between himself and Hillary, Sanders was anything but sharp. Worse, he looked awkward, off was how I put it. I don't know if it was the format, but he just didn't seem comfortable up there. He was clearly out of his element on foreign policy, at times looking clueless. The base may not care much about foreign policy but the rest of the country does. Also, Sanders screwed up big time when he failed to show where Hillary had been influenced by Wall Street. You can't base your entire campaign on the distinction between your small donors and her soft money, then fumble the ball on the one-yard line like that. A terrible moment for him; one that will come back to haunt him. And not to nitpick, but he never properly defined his "Medicare for all" plan, one of the pillars of his campaign, which allowed Hillary to define it for him. As I said, not a good night.

4. All of the Democratic candidates were head over heels better than their Republican counterparts. Let's face it, the GOP debates have looked more like dress rehearsals for the movie Animal House than actual debates. Even the Fox Business debate, which everyone agrees was the best of a terrible lot, was little more than a series of infomercials for a group of people who still haven't explained how they plan on paying for $2 to $3 trillion in tax cuts, most of which will go to the top 1 percent of the country.

While all three of the Democratic candidates took turns criticizing one another, they never sank to the level of the Republicans in their debates. All three were respectful of one another and all three had cogent and defendable arguments for their positions that come next fall will resonate with the voters. In short, we had a chance to see how adults behave in public.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. These debates are the best forum for Democrats to prove to the country that they deserve to hold the White House and retake the Senate. So far, they've done a pretty damn good job showing it.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Islam Is the 800 Pound Gorilla in the Room for Progressives

The terrorist attacks that took place in Paris Friday are yet another reminder that Islamic extremists are capable of visiting enormous death and destruction upon the West. Whether it's a large-scale, localized 9/11 operation or the stream-lined and more generalized one that occurred Friday, one thing is certain: we are not even close to getting a handle on how to deal with this enemy. Neither the Bush nor the Obama Administrations have had effective solutions for combatting it and I suspect it will take out of the box thinking to begin to grapple with this issue.

But for progressives, there is another, far more disturbing issue that plagues them. An almost single-minded refusal to come to grips with a staggering reality. That Islam, as a religion, runs counter to everything they claim to uphold. It isn't just that the majority of Muslims in the Middle East are insular and hold deeply conservative views. Many Christians are also deeply conservative and just as insular. The row over the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage is an indication of just how determined the Christian Right is to resist what it views as a growing secularized world.

But there is a profound difference between the conservative wing of Christianity in the West and Islam in the Middle East. The former is not representative of the majority of Christians and, as such, does not hold much influence within the faith; the latter has a stranglehold on it. To be a moderate or liberal Muslim in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran is to have a death wish. In Pakistan, a judge was forced to flee the country after he sentenced a man who had been found guilty of murdering someone who had been critical of the Koran.

These countries are deeply oppressive in the treatment of their people, especially their women. They are raped, many times by their husbands, and subjected to genital mutilation in their youth. Journalists who speak out against the regimes of these countries or challenge the orthodoxy of the religion in any way are imprisoned or killed outright. If there are any moderate Muslims in the Middle East they are keeping a very low profile for fear of their lives.

And while all these atrocities are happening, progressives turn a deaf ear and blind eye. Astonishingly, a movement that supports gay marriage, goes to the mat to protect a woman's right to choose and fights against draconian voter restriction laws that disenfranchise millions of African Americans and Hispanics, pulls a Sgt. Schultz when it comes to the Middle East. It staggers the mind.

A while back I wrote a piece that dealt with this hypocrisy within the progressive community. In the piece, I wrote the following:
Let's cut to the chase. Progressives can't have it both ways. We can't vehemently defend the right of women to earn equal pay for equal work and to have control of their own bodies while at the same time turning a blind eye to the atrocities that are committed against them on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis in the Islamic world. It isn't just hypocritical; it's obscene. We can't defend the right of free speech yet ignore the very sad and salient point that those who criticize the prophet Muhammad are considered heretics who must be put to death. It has been more than twenty-five years since Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses and to this day the fatwa on his life remains in place.
As I mentioned in that piece, it is not Islamophobic to point out the brutality that exists within Islam. The religion, despite progressive gains in some Western nations, is hopelessly stuck in a perverse 7th century landscape that threatens the whole planet. The fight going on between extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda and countries like Saudi Arabia is not so much about ideology per se as it is about the degree of that ideology. Yes, it is reassuring that most of the Muslim world condemned the Paris attacks; it would be far more reassuring if the majority of those Muslims rose up and deposed the clerics who have openly supported the jihad against the West. Now that would be news.

But while we are waiting for that miracle to happen in the Middle East, the very least progressives can do here in this country is to stop being hypocrites. Enough with the granting of Mulligans to this religion. It's time to call a spade a spade. The Ben Afflecks can scream all they want about how mean the rest of us are. We aren't mean; we just have the courage to see the facts as they are, not as we'd like them to be. We see violence being perpetrated on innocent people and we refuse to remain silent. We see injustice and it makes our blood boil. We see it as our solemn duty to shed light on such violence and injustice so that it can be stamped out.

Last time I checked, that was called being a progressive.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Role of a Moderator In a Debate

So the RNC announced it has "suspended" its partnership with NBC. Funny, I wasn't aware that they had a partnership with anybody other than AM radio and a few Fox News' hosts. The reason for the suspension, according to a letter drafted by Reince Priebus, was to "ensure that our candidates are given a full and fair opportunity to lay out their vision for America's future." In other words, the GOP wants to make sure their candidates have a safe forum to peddle their snake oil to the country without being challenged by those pesky facts that moderators tend to bring out.

Look, I'll admit it. The CNBC debate was a debacle. Fortunately, I didn't watch it. I was too busy watching another debacle that night: the Mets getting pummeled by the Royals. But from the reports I've seen, it wasn't John Harwood's finest moment. The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway wrote that Harwood "has no business moderating a GOP presidential debate." The operative word here being GOP. Apparently, Harwood can moderate all the Democratic debates he wants, but dibs off the Republicans.

This sort of us against them meme has deep roots within the Republican Party going all the way back to Barry Goldwater. They've never had any use for anyone outside their own private Idaho confronting them on their bullshit. Whether it's Candy Crowley fact checking Mitt Romney over the Benghazi attack in the 2012 presidential debate or Harwood challenging Donald Trump and Marco Rubio on their respective tax plans, the simple truth is that Republicans - particularly conservative Republicans - can't stand it when their "facts" are rebutted. They even had harsh words for how they were treated in the Fox News debate.

Excuse me for stating the obvious, but I thought moderators were, first and foremost, journalists and, as such, they had a moral and ethical responsibility to make sure that questions asked of a candidate were answered truthfully by that candidate and not ignored and deflected. It's a debate, not an infomercial. You're running for president, not top Ginsu knife salesman.

Perish the thought that a moderator might interrupt a candidate in mid fib and push back. Well, Heavens to Betsy, we can't have any of that. That would take too long and, besides, it would completely undo all the preparation that went into the false narrative of that candidate. Politicians, you see, have a vested interest in making people believe that two plus two equals five. If I'm not mistaken, that's the thrust of the Rubio tax plan. Slash taxes, magically grow the economy, all without adding a penny to the deficit. Frankly, I'll take the Ginsu knife. At least I can do something with it that's useful. About all I can do with Rubio's tax plan is line the bottom of my bird cage. And I don't even own a bird.

Seriously, journalists are supposed to be the gate keepers when it comes to the truth. They aren't there just to go along for the ride. Whether they take the role of moderator or not, when a false statement is made, it is their job to expose it. Failure to do so is a dereliction of duty.  It's time the lame-stream media they did its job instead of buckling under to pressure.

As far as I'm concerned, Reince Priebus and the RNC can take their ball and go home if they want. If they can't handle a few tough questions during their primary debates, just wait till they get to the general election debates. Hillary will clean their clock and laugh all the way to the finish line.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cleaning the Barn: John Boehner's Parting Gift to Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan can say this "process stinks" all he wants, but the simple truth is John Boehner, his soon to be predecessor, just did him the biggest favor of his political life. Faced with a looming debt-ceiling default, Boehner didn't just take a bullet for him, he took the whole damn firing squad.

The budget deal now being worked out by Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the White House doesn't just take the threat of debt default off the table, it takes it off through March 2017. It also provides $80 billion of sequester relief that will be split evenly between defense and domestic spending, thus ensuring that there will be no government shutdown during what will undoubtedly be a tightly contested presidential election.

The wingnuts on the Right are already screaming bloody murder - what else is new - but the deal on the whole is a good one that both parties can live with. Indeed, it's the kind of deal that used to get done all the time before Washington became ground zero for gridlock. If anyone should be squawking, it's the Democrats. They were hoping they could use the threat of both a government shutdown and debt default against Republicans in 2016. Now those issues have been taken off the table.

It's still not a given that the deal will even pass the House, even with Democratic support. Forget the Freedom Caucus, many establishment Republicans are pissed that they were bypassed by leadership. Still, if I were a betting man, I'd say between both parties there should be enough votes for it to pass. The real test will come in the Senate where McConnell will have to contend with the likes of Ted Cruz, et al.

The lesson here, if there is one, is that government CAN work when it wants to. This is good news for many who had given up hope that this town could accomplish anything significant. And make no mistake about it, passing a two-year budget deal that removes the threat of a debt default is not only significant, it's practically earth shattering. When I first heard about it, I thought someone was pulling my leg.

I'm sure a large part of why this deal got consummated was that Boehner was on his way out. There's something liberating about knowing you don't have anything more to fear from your opponents. Kind of like when an employee puts in his two-week notice. What's the worst that can happen? They can't fire you, you're already leaving. Boy, what I wouldn't give to be able to read Boehner's mind. Since taking over the House in 2011, the Tea Party has made his life a living hell.

Payback's a bitch, ain't it?