Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy in Capitalist Democracyland

Oh, the irony

I spoke to a (the?) reader of yesterday's blog on Ted Kennedy, President Obama and the fate of progressive change. She, the reader, said the post would have been easier to read if I'd been less present in the piece. Her point, I inferred, was that there were too many points in the piece and the further allusions to my current struggles to write diminished the authority with which I spoke about politics and policy.

Ah, well and yes. There were too many points.

First, there was this: if Kennedy had been healthy and functioning in the Senate since Obama's election, we would have passed health care legislation and labor law reform. If that were actually the case, the Republican opposition would still be struggling to regroup and progressives would still feel part of a viable political coalition capable of tackling other, even tougher, challenges, like orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan and the occupation of Palestine by a theocratic Israeli state. Of course, if pigs could fly, we would all keep one at home and use them for quick trips to the grocery store.

Second, there was implicitly this: The idea that a single individual could make so much difference undermines the basic theory of complex, modern democracy. This should not come as a surprise. Ever since humans gathered in tribes, charismatic leaders have made enormous differences, even making a pivotal difference in the survival of cultures and civilizations. Designing a democracy so that it creates as much basic political equality as possible and accommodates the full range of who humans are individually and in groups is a thoroughly incomplete project. Obviously, the attempt has been made before. We ought to try it again.

In my lifetime, Americans have elected 11 presidents--Truman, Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama. Gerald Ford was the one unelected president during the period, but in 1974 the U.S. didn't feel particularly less democratic, though Ford did make use of his powers to pardon the paranoid and politically corrupt former president, Richard Nixon. And, as Nixon's own story exemplifies, powerful leaders, of democracies or otherwise, sometimes make profoundly undemocratic choices.

The impact of those choices are also multiplied when the leaders are very charismatic figures, too, as Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan were. The terrible state of U.S. relations with Cuba originated with JFK's Machiavellian encounters with Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. Though Kennedy was only briefly a president (1,000 days, or so), he managed to set the foundation for 50 years or reactionary policy toward Cuba. Kennedy also opened the door to Johnson, the war in Vietnam and the Great Society, a dubious legacy.

Johnson's war in Vietnam eventually became Nixon's war with its destroy-the-village-in-order-to-save-it (from the Communists) approach, as well as saturation bombings and the secret war in Cambodia. Johnson's most liberal achievement was the attempt to modernize the New Deal and build the Great Society, but his list of very progressive reforms could not survive both an unwillingness to tax in order to pay for war and social programs and his inclination to threaten Congressional Democrats hesitant to support his agenda.

It would be ahistorical to outright assert that Ronald Reagan was elected president primarily because of the frequently undemocratic failings of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, if only because Reagan himself was the first president to be a celebrity before he was a politician (or a general), was also a supremely charismatic figure campaigning against the uncharismatic Jimmy Carter, and was the beneficiary of a sustained Iran hostage crisis that Carter was unable to resolve.

Reagan pursued arguably the most undemocratic foreign policies during my lifetime. Magically, the Iran hostage crisis, seemingly so untractable during Carter's presidency, was resolved. The Reagan administration supported Latin American military dictatorships with enthusiasm and initiated (despite fervent Congressional and public opposition) a proxy war against Nicaragua's Marxist leadership. The Reagan team also supported Iran in a long, damaging war against Iraq and sold arms to Iran as a way to funnel support to Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries and evade a Congressional ban against using U.S. funds for that purpose.

Given these brief histories of charismatic leaders subverting democracy, what could possibly be the rap against Ted Kennedy?

Though we have not gotten to the "irony of it all," nor to "Ted Kennedy in Capitalist Land, we must needs bring today's post to a conclusion, if only to avoid a possible fate as tomorrow's post. Therefore maƱana.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Kennedy, Obama ...

... and a little more about me

Blogging has been, in bursts and dormancy, a bit of a metaphor for my life. At the best of times, it feels like a gift, an inspiration, a duty, an engagement. But it has also slipped away, eeled out of my grasp, a task quite beyond me. Lately, it has been more the second than the first. I wonder at how unable I have been to make myself do it.

About three weeks ago (two weeks, maybe), I had a plan to write about Ted Kennedy and how his illness had changed political and policy outcomes. I'd spoken to a lobbyist I know who had been quite clear that if Kennedy had not been dying--had been present and functioning in the Senate--we would already have passed a health care bill, and passed a watered-down version of the Employee Free Choice Act, too. She was emphatic.

I was somewhat surprised to hear her say it, and even more surprised to note that I had seen stuff written about Kennedy and his legacy, but not a peep about how dramatically his absence had affected Congress and the country. The director of a progressive think tank echoed some of what the lobbyist had to say. "I don't know about health care, but I've seen him get things done in the Senate that others couldn't manage." Despite Kennedy's reputation as a liberal, he has generally been more effective working with conservative Republicans than his more moderate colleagues have been, the source observed.

But of all the people who should rue Sen. Kennedy's illness (and, as of today, his death), Barack Obama and David Axelrod must have felt the pain of his absence most, or nearly so. Here's Barack, trotting about, trying to get the country back on his side and in full support of his version of health care reform when, barring a single cancer, he might still be enjoying his earlier-in-the-term popularity and posing with Kennedy at the signing of a health care bill.

Such thoughts incline me, briefly, to a more charitable attitude toward what's happening politically. Obama is in the midst of a difficult communication battle, his spin on health care reform has not been persuasive to a big part of the public, and his political agenda has been stymied, if not also revealed as patchwork and shallow. We have always known, or should have, that Obama is no progressive, but the momentum should have remained with the Democrats longer than it has, and we should have been enjoying the continuing belief that change we could believe in remained ahead.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I thought I should be the first on my block to blog about Kennedy. I could have even thrown in some references to Tom Daschle, who was supposed to be Obama's point person on reform, but who ended up unable to serve formally (and immediately) in that leadership role because of unpaid taxes. Kennedy's death is sad, of course, but his inability to play a role unique to him, and Daschle's unavailability, may have moved us into an alternative political universe in which the fruits of Obama's election victory turn out to be dramatically less progressive than anticipated.

But I didn't write about it--because I've hardly been writing, at all, these last few weeks--and now Sen. Kennedy is dead. The point ought not to be that I am more frustrated by my unproductivity than I am by the loss of an opportunity that almost certainly died with Kennedy, but clearly, I have been on my own mind quite alot recently. Still, I'm actually blogging here, today (the day after my 62nd birthday), and I ought to try and maintain my focus.

So, here's the deal: Kennedy and Daschle aside, the collapse of the economy and the huge loss of asset wealth had already made the political landscape gloomier and less fertile. Kennedy's loss alone should not have doomed health care, but it's easy to imagine that he would have made a huge difference had he been healthy. But it's over now and Obama is in for some hugely difficult politics over the next year to eighteen months. Moderates, except as peace keepers in an incredibly polarized political debate, aren't going to make much difference politically, even if the media and a good portion of the public wish them all the best.

Obama is a moderate, himself, but he's not going to gain any points trying to referee. He needs an agenda to guide him, but the one he had is in a shambles. Neither he nor Congressional Democrats are going to get much support from progressives, either.

They don't have a peace agenda for Afghanistan. They have no clear sympathy for the plight of Palestinians and no effective ways to deal with a pro-Israel lobby that continues to frame the debate about the Middle East. They are badly mishandling Latin America, siding with the engineers of coup in Central America and making friends with the same, old right-wingers.

And if the economy has not turned dramatically positive by spring, the summer of 2010 will be the hottest summer in the inner cities since the 1960s. The moment for change we can believe in seems to be passing us by. Worse, it may already have happened.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Rocket Science

It was the different leaves
of a different tree
rustling in the wind
a millennium ago.

Or a millennium ahead, as if
now and then mattered.
I was the first woman
to say no, or not, as if

refusing to be property
set some kind of record.
This is my story of yes,
of laying myself down,

on my cushion of gathered moss.
Of laying myself
between earth and sky,
while a swell of crickets

kissed the breeze around us.
Our hearts fluttered with the rise
of a second swell and soared
with the music of different birds

in the different bushes nearby.
To this man I did say yes,
yes, as his breath feathered my thighs.
Hunting by scent, arriving at the crack

of my dawning,
of his awakening
into a different time
of manhood and glory.

Coming together at a bonfire
of young memory,
the fluid crescendo of
our rocket works,

forgetting she who I alone will deliver
though she will one day launch
poems to the stars,
We sang to each other.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Maya Angelou's Book

Continuums On Which We Live

I'm reading Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I'm certain that I should have read it earlier in life, but at least I'm reading it now. In the book, as James Baldwin said, Angelou "confronts her own life with ... luminous dignity." Baldwin's gracious endorsement seems an appropriate assessment of Angelou's accomplishment and though I haven't finished the book, there's a few thoughts on the way to finishing that I'd like to get down here.

In one particularly vivid portion, Angelou, who seems to have been a generally dour child (with good reason), describes the excitement of her graduation from elementary school in Stampps, Arkansas. After what seems to have been weeks of VIP treatment from Stampps' black residents, Angelou and her classmates suffer through the appearance of a white man as guest speaker whose comments remind everyone in attendance that they are second-class citizens with little hope of controlling the course of their own lives. The joyful optimism and gratitude with which Angelou started the day was dashed by a speaker whose "... dead words fell like bricks around the auditorium." The speech served to remind the audience only that they were "... maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher that we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous."

The enormous hatred inspired in Angelou as she sat listening--"I wished that Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner had killed all the whitefolks in their beds..."--quickly envelops everything and everyone. "We should all be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of the other."

It is a dark moment, with no apparent hope of resurrected feeling. After the white man, who has no wish to mingle, leaves, it is time for the class valedictorian, Henry Reed, to speak. Angelou sits and listens, marveling that Reed would even bother to give his address, "To Be or Not To Be." She is unmoved. "I had been listening and silently rebutting each sentence with my eyes closed." Suddenly Reed begins singing, "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

The audience begins singing with him. Soon everyone has joined in.

"Stong the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope, unborn, had died.
Yet with a steady beat
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?"

Angelou describes the moment as the first time she had really heard the words of the song.

"We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered."

It is a transcendent moment for Angelou and everyone else in the crowd. Somehow the song, James Weldon Johnson's poetry has restored them all. "I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940," Angelou writes, "I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race."

"If we were a people much given to revealing secrets," she continues, "we might raise monuments and sacrifice to the memories of our poets, but slavery cured us of that weakness. It may be enough, however, to have it said that we survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets (include preachers, musicians and blues singers)."

It is enough. But Angelou's book has more and I am not done with it. But it has also stimulated this thought for me: Perhaps we don't name the continuums with which we measure ourselves correctly. We are all of us, black and white, rich and poor, ambitious and resigned, complicated people. But we don't really know how to think about ourselves or the people around us with any real subtlety. The challenge ought to be defining some real life standards by which we should be measured. Angelou has me thinking about this one:

At one end of a continuum is a question asked by Angelou's brother Bailey when he was, say, 13 or 14. "Uncle Willie, why do [white men] hate us so much?" At the other end of that continuum is the persistent determination with which Angelou pursued a job as conductor on a San Francisco street car. Getting the job would make Angelou, who at the time was not yet out of high school, "the first Negro [hired] on the San Francisco street cars." She did, indeed, become that person.

"During this period of strain Mother and I began our first steps on the long path toward mutual adult admiration ... She comprehended the perversity of life, that in struggle lies the joy."

So, where do I place myself on that continuum. I am certainly not much like the 13-year-old Bailey who asked his uncle a question that Willie didn't want to answer and probably didn't know how to answer. I have answers to Bailey's question. But how far along that path have I gotten?. How thoroughly have I comprehended that astonishing perversity that Angelou outlines: How much have I struggled and, in the process, how much joy have I wrested from this life?

At the end of her street car chapter Angelou says this:
"To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflicts than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity."

I like that a lot. If I could, I would try and persuade my children, Nate, Julie and Brendan, that real standards for measuring oneself are subtle. Have you surrendered to the murderous pressure of adult conformity or have you continued the fight against the superior forces of maturity? I don't wish them lives of constant struggle. But I'm pretty sure that no sort of real peace is possible without it. And I'm inclined to believe that if we do not struggle, if we give in, we could become things that we never wished to be. People whose successes bring them no comfort or people who have forgotten about their own dreams and measure themselves by the standards of others or people who don't care about the questions of troubled children.

Friday, August 7, 2009

We Were Women

for Betsy Gannon

I knew George, but not that one.
But I knew all the ones
when you talked to them they thought,
she likes me.

I was a woman and
he thought he needed me.
Imagined what I could do for him.
Date him. Rescue him. Get horizontal.

Like a mother, make the world safe.
Georges just like him told me
it's so hard, there are
30 million desirable women

out there and I haven't had
a girlfriend since 1984.
He was sad and his sorrow plucked my strings.
I dined with a man like him.

Danced with a man like him.
But his need crawled me.
It's not going to work, I said.
Later, he wanted to know more.

Would it work, if I was Catholic?
If I was tall? If I was young?
If I was old? Would what work,
I asked. Us, he said.

Please, there is no us, I told that George.
And then the other one came by our gym.
We were a group of women
he didn't know in our exercise clothes.

He shot us all. We fell like lovers,
like mothers, like dancers.
I did not know how much he hated
until he killed me.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Washington Post: High Electric Prices Worry Coal Group

And Kathleen Parker disses the South

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) has apparently persuaded at least one Washington Post reporter and his editors that their principle concern in opposing climate change legislation is worry that a "reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions ... would drive the price of electric power too high." This unchallenged assertion appears in an otherwise useful story ("Coal Group Reveals 6 More Forged Lobbying Letters") in today's Post. Readers who believe that the coal industry, which cannot at this time actually deliver "clean" coal, is more concerned with the possibility that decent climate change legislation would reduce U.S. reliance on coal are encouraged to stick to that conclusion.

That flaw aside, the article's value lies in the picture it paints of an industry lobbying effort that wants to appear grassroots is not only astroturf, it's fraudulent astroturf. In a welcome observation, reporter David Farenthold observes:
"This saga of modern Washington -- in which an "American coalition" claiming 200,000 supporters still relies on a subcontractor to gin up favorable letters -- was set off by debate in the House over the climate bill."

According to the story, ACCCE, the coalition in question, hired Hawthorn Group, a public relations firm, which hired Bonner and Associates, the firm that actually produced at least a dozen forged letters pretending to represent the opinions of constituents and local organizations allegedly opposed to the greenhouse gas legislation. The letters were sent to three members of the House before the vote on the bill.

A spokesperson for Bonner blamed a "temporary employee who worked for us for 7 days [who, like Lee Harvey Oswald] acted alone." Hawthorn blamed Bonner & Associates, while ACCCE announced that it was "outraged" by the fraud.

In "A Tip for The GOP: Look Away" conservative columnist Kathleen Parker blasts continued Republican reliance on a Southern strategy that is turning the GOP into a regional party. The column, which is likely to draw real fire from the right, ends dramatically. Republicans, Parker wrote, ought to "drive a stake through the heart of old Dixie."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Back Words

Say the endless wrangle over
the true meaning of the thing
came first.
Followed quite a bit later

by the publishing party.
And, on its heels
the actual act,
the publishing.

And the poem processed back
word by word from there
to the lingering agony
over the final form,

the last edits.
Dozens of private recitations
follow the preceding,
including a reading

just for you.
A good thorough edit
of the poem long since
committed to a final form

and time arrives for idle
How could I write such
…such a calamitous

wrinkle of words?
This despairing moment
has no power to preempt
the poem lurching backwards

to be born.
On the eve of typed,
cross-hatched, crossed out,

write overs,
good words over bad
over still worse
and all the reconsiders

that, in this world,
precede the smile
shining down on the
virginal version,

printed, luminous, transformed,
dignified, formal,
quickly comes the serious look
at the thing in pencil, fresh

from what comes next,
the first blush
of a creative moment
not yet spoiled.