Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wayne LaPierre and intelligence

go together like ____________ (fill-in blank)

Actually, I don't mean to be making an ad hominem attack on NRA Executive Vice-President Wayne Lapierre here. I only mean to be hinting at one. Unfortunately, mere hinting probably takes me across a line I ought to be refusing to cross.

Never mind.

The NRA released a statement by LaPierre yesterday as a prelude to his testimony in front of some congressional committee today. After refusing, on behalf of law-abiding gun owners and toters everywhere, to "accept blame for the acts of violent and deranged criminals," the statement outlines the NRA's implicit position that government ought to keep out of the business of governing:

“Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families,” [LaPierre] added.

(For all readers willing to risk right-wing cooties, here is the website from which I got the preceding quotes.)

Anyway, I'm wondering who else it is that Mr. LaPierre thinks should be determining "what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families." Because here's the thing, Wayne, if we mean to be "lawful," we need an entity that makes and enforces "laws." For the time being, at least, here in the United States, the entity that makes and enforces law is called "government."

So, either you're kidding about what you believe, or you don't actually intend to abide by the law, or the statement just doesn't make any sense. Or, maybe, all three.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The American Left should come in out of the electoral cold

Time to change U.S. politics

Almost 127 million people voted in the last election. Just under 66 million voted for Barack Obama. Young people and minorities, who seemed to be losing heart and/or interest early in the presidential election cycle, showed up in earnest and matched or exceeded their 2008 support for Obama.

The election result apparently came as a big surprise to Republicans, perhaps because their polling was confined to small samples of, say, NASCAR owners or equestrians. But by election eve, Democrats buoyed by broad grassroots enthusiasm for consigning Mitt Romney to the dust bin of history, had grown confident. The Obama ground game, the best organized GOTV operation ever, knew as well as Nate Silver that the president would get his second term.

The demographically broad support for Obama and the organizational advantage he enjoyed are likely to continue for Democrats at least through the 2016 election. At some point, perhaps, Republicans will build a competitive campaign apparatus of their own, but they will face an electoral map that becomes ever more challenging as the country moves toward majority-minority status.

Assuming the Obama administration struggles effectively with the Republicans' intransigent House majority--winning a few fights and drawing a few more--and the economy continues to improve, 2016 should see the election of another Democratic president (odds that it will be Hillary Clinton seem pretty good at the moment).

The big questions for progressives ought to be what strategy would work most effectively to strengthen Obama, pick up a few more House seats in 2014 and help to move a Clinton administration further to the Left than most of us might anticipate. Unfortunately, the Left seems much more likely to see Democratic politicians, including Obama and Clinton, as part of a long electoral history of compromise and, even, betrayal, than as leaders in a push for economic and social justice (examples here and here). So, a sort of preliminary question sounds like this: Why should nonvoting Lefties vote?

It wouldn't hurt to start by considering just how many voters on the Left don't bother to show up for elections. To begin with, about 25 million registered voters who didn't bother to vote in 2012. And there are another 50-60 million eligible to vote who aren't registered.

That makes the GDP (gross domestic pool) of nonvoters around 75 million people whose beliefs (based on a Suffolk University poll) tend to lean more Democratic than the average voter. Their impressions of Obama were more than two to one favorable, and more than two to one unfavorable toward Romney.

Further, about 62 percent of Americans favor a national health care system,  54 percent support access to abortion with few or no restrictions and another 35 percent believe that abortion should be legal under some circumstances, and 70 percent or more think that the rich should be taxed at higher rates, defense spending should be cut further than safety net programs, and oil company taxes should be dramatically increased.

All of this suggests that there is a minimum of, say, 30-40 million potential voters in the United States who would support politicians who favor more liberal policies than those that dominate the country today. I would argue that a good number of those liberal or Left nonvoters are people who voted when they were younger, people with a good bit of community organizing experience of their own, and/or people who fall on the there's-no-difference-between-them side of the political spectrum.

It's difficult to predict exactly where millions of these nonvoters might live, but disappointed and disaffected McCarthy and McGovern voters from the '60s and '70s, anti-poverty and voting rights organizers from the same era and later, and environmentalists and back-to-the-land pioneers living in small towns and rural communities around the country, should have been able to swing a few state and local elections that they sat out over the years, and even a few Congressional elections. And, if they would abandon the demoralizing and demoralized cursing of both parties in favor of the more nuanced perception that there is, indeed, a difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, they might bring other nonvoters along.

Most Congressional districts have more than 700,000 residents, maybe 400,000+ potential voters, but more like 200,000 voters casting a ballot in an election for the U.S. House of Representatives. It's true that most members of the House represent uncompetitive districts and frequently reelect incumbents by landslide margins. But, again, demographic change increasingly favors Democratic candidates and a few hundred fresh political activists and a few thousand new voters participating in two or three consecutive Congressional elections could very much change local election landscapes.

In primaries where even fewer voters show up, successful insurrections from the Left might make a few Republican candidates more competitive, but such challenges are just as likely to turn moderate Democrats into liberals and make liberals even more progressive. And Leftists who stay involved in general elections, even if they lose a primary challenge, are likely to find themselves more influential in deciding what comes next.

The overall proposition here is this: If Leftists in the United States would come in out of the cold, we could win elections, influence people and move American politics far enough to the Left to enter a new era of economic justice and peace and begin mitigating the effects of the 21st century's biggest problem: climate change.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Midwestern Road Trip

soothes the soul...

I've been on the road for the last week. Left DC for Ann Arbor on the 19th.

Did a poetry reading at Jay Platt's West Side Book Shop on the 20th. That was a wonderful time.

Julie was there, of course (I stayed at her house). And my sister Teri came up from Chicago. Old political friends and old co-rec softball friends and old Student-Book-Service-University Cellar friends and even a young man taking a poetry class at the University of Michigan showed up. And all of them attentive and kind. A sweet, extended moment.

Then, after another day, on to Chicago, where I spent a night at sister Dale's and another night at brother Mark's house. I got a chance to talk to John Bachtell at the community center at 33rd St. and S. Wallace. John enthusiastically agreed to a public reading sometime in the next month or two. The next day, I talked to Mike James at Heartland Cafe about doing the same thing. Michael was just as agreeable as John. So it looks like I will get an opportunity to read at venues on both the North and South Sides at a March or April time to be announced.

On Thursday afternoon I headed down to Urbana where Nate and his partner Nikki live. Nephew Abraham (Mark's son) showed up in Urbana, too--on Friday night. Abe makes an occasional appearance on In and Out, in the comments section (here and here, for example). He's a tough audience, always challenging me to substantiate my opinions.

Abe just got a new-media type job with the Chicago Tribune after working for several years in the news division side of Google. His perspective on similarities and differences between the news room at the Trib and work life at Google, recounted in "From Google News to the Chicago Tribune, Observations after a month in the newsroom" are fascinating.

I love being on the road, seeing my kids and sibs and old friends, but I'll be glad to be heading back to D.C. tonight. For one thing, I sort of miss my writing routine. And for another, I want to blog more often, a change that seems too difficult to make when traveling.

Marrianne has also suggested that I begin using Facebook and Twitter to help promote whatever I post. Given how exciting it is when the audience for these pages grows by even a couple new readers, I'm looking forward to following her advice.

... and bookends Hilary Clinton's congressional testimony 

In the meantime, I have been a far less diligent consumer of the news in any form, this past week. But at a McDonald's stop a few days ago, on a TV actually tuned to CNN, I did manage to catch some of Hillary Clinton's testimony before Congress. I was briefly riveted by what I was seeing. Clinton seemed so formidable, almost intimidating the members of Congress who tried to confront her. She's no stone face, either, and displayed a wider range of apparently authentic emotion than that generally displayed by others (mostly men) who testify before Congress.

It struck me then that Clinton might well be the Republicans' worst nightmare. Right now, among all possible candidates for president in 2016, she probably has the highest name recognition and favorability rating. She almost certainly has the most demographically diverse group of potential supporters among registered voters, and first claim on the most talented and experienced election strategists in the country.

Sure, there are reasons why she might not run, and reasons why she might lose, but it seems to me that the stronger arguments are on the side of a Clinton run and a Clinton victory. If that turns out to be the case, eight years of Obama would be only the first act of a Democratic resurgence capable of wiping out much of the damage inflicted by Republican administrations dating back to Richard Nixon. (Here's a piece by Robert Reich that discusses some of that undoing).

Of course, that would just be remedial action. There is still the very large problem of climate change, which must be addressed in the most progressive possible ways, no matter how late in the game it might be. That, as I've argued before in "The Climatological Cliff Looms Largest" and "Calamity Jeff Speaks," must be a first priority if human beings are to avoid a dystopian future.

Such continuing progressive action, if it is to come, will require a center-left political coalition that has not previously manifested itself in the United States. It will take leftists, who sit out most elections (or participate half-heartedly), deciding that they are all in; deciding that the political compromises that characterize democratic governance at its best are not so compromising as they have always seemed. Arguably, if leftists are willing to back off from an ideological rejection of electoral politics, it might be possible to put to together a center-left electoral majority big enough to convincingly defeat the forces of reaction that dominate the Republican party today and make the world's oldest democracy more democratic, and governable once more.

Anyway, Hillary Clinton might very well be the candidate most likely to mobilize that center-left coalition. Sure, she's no leftist. And Bill Clinton's history as a driving force in pushing the Democratic party rightward, and his role in welfare reform, also compromise Hillary in some fundamental way, at least insofar as many leftists are concerned. Nevertheless, she is admired for her political courage, for her competence as Secretary of State, and for her leadership in the first effort to achieve national health care reform, however disastrous the attempt turned out to be. Add leftist electoral engagement to Clinton's obvious political strengths and to the feminist enthusiasm that is likely to boost her campaign, and the possibilities for a major Democratic victory in 2016 go up.

Maybe nobody else sees it that way, but I'm betting that there's a few Republican strategists who have their fingers crossed for anybody-but-Hillary.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Cruelty and American exceptionalism

The things we do on purpose

Two days ago, I posted "War makes us stupid--and violent." Its central point was that our violent culture, our "exceptional" America, has been shaped by a root cause that runs considerably deeper than first-person shooter video games, deeper than our highest per capita gun ownership rates. The post focused on our country's unique history of war making, on our history of continuous mobilization and war fighting, more than a century of continuous warfare, to this point (with a couple years off during the Great Depression).

Of course, there has to be more than one root cause, more than one factor that makes the United States easily the most violent among industrialized nations. There is the racism of our past and present, our racism against Native-, African-, Asian- and Latino-Americans, and immigrants of all description. There is the legacy of slavery. There is the history of the violence wreaked on indigenous peoples and cultures; our colonizing ancestors, unlike most invaders who occupied conquered territories, did not assimilate. By and large, we obliterated those who had been here before us. We fought a civil war bloodier than any other in the history of industrialized democracies. There are plenty of other root causes to propose and argue.

For now, I'm going to try and stay focused on the continuous-war thing. But any assertion that the influences which have shaped a uniquely cruel and violent country need to be articulated, understood and addressed requires some sort of further argument that the country in question is in fact so unfortunately exceptional. That argument cannot rest exclusively on the twin facts of highest per capita gun ownership and highest homicide rate.

A column by Harold Meyerson, in yesterday's Washington Post, seems an excellent source for more evidence that the United States is exceptional as much for its cruelty as for its generosity.
In "America flunks its checkup," Meyerson sifts through a recent report on longevity and health care comparing the U.S. to 16 other developed countries. "...the United States placed dead last in life expectancy, even though we lead the planet in the amount we spend on health care," he wrote.

"Americans die young. The death rate for Americans younger than almost off the comparative charts," he continued. "A range of exceptionally American factors--car usage and lack of exercise, junk food diets, violent death from guns, high numbers of uninsured...the high rate of poverty--all contribute to this grim distinction."

Meyerson makes such points on the way to the further observation that once Americans reach 65, if they are lucky enough to do so, longevity rates suddenly and dramatically improve. That, he wrote, is because at that age Americans enter a national health care system comparable to that which had been available at all ages to citizens in the other 16 countries assessed in the study.

It's a good column and I certainly have no problem with a smart argument in favor of a birth-to-death national health care system in the U.S. But I'm more concerned with how much of Meyerson's discussion of these unique aspects of American life fits into the thesis that the U.S. is unusually cruel in its social policies and that it's worth figuring out why.

Most of the data shared in Meyerson's piece--higher death rates for younger people, high obesity rates, more uninsured people, higher auto usage and more--are the direct outcomes of long established social policy. And the fact that they are the outcomes of long established policy, and that the relationship of those outcomes to those policies has been understood for a generation, if not more, means that those outcomes and those policies are deliberate choices.

In other words, it has been the policy of the United States for many years that health care will be rationed in favor of the wealthy, that jobs and homes will be located at a distance from each other and that they will not be linked by public transportation, and that food deserts that encourage bad nutrition will be characteristic of places where poor people and minorities live. For going on at least 50 years, Americans have been voting for the politicians who approve and support such policies.

There is more, of course, a public education system that was once the best in the world in terms of universality and accessibility has been defunded and allowed to collapse for more than a generation. Wage stagnation has been worse and gone on longest in the U.S., while the lion's share of benefits from productivity increases since the 1970s has gone to the wealthy. All these outcomes are the result of economic policies that have created and maintained private profit opportunities in regard to basic needs, policies that other developed nations provide as direct benefits to their citizens or that those same countries regulate far more carefully than the U.S. does.

So if we know what we're doing, and we know what will happen when we do it, and we know that our  fellow citizens will be injured by the doing, and we still do it, don't we intend the damage that we cause? And haven't we been doing that damage, in some cases, for quite a long time? And if we are going to learn to control ourselves, and stop doing such damage,  don't we need to understand why we have been and are so cruel in the first place?

By all means, let us regulate gun ownership more effectively, and let us continue to reform the health care system in our collective interest. But let's look at how we got to be more warlike than any other developed nation. And let's take a long look at what being that way has cost our country and ourselves.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

War makes us stupid—and violent

What if it is our collective violence that murders our children and teaches them to murder?

As Americans come to grips with Sandy Hook through various political and social debates about firearms and violence, we seem to have engaged every related subject except the one that might well be the biggest elephant in the room: continuous war and its effect on our culture.

After all, we have been at war in Afghanistan since 2001. This has not been the longest war in U.S. history; the Vietnam War deserves that honor, featuring as it did a decade of covert war making that preceded the significant troop deployments, which began in 1961 and lasted through 1975. Still, by other measures, and before the war in Afghanistan finally concludes, it may very likely turn out to be the longest sustained firefight to this point in American history and, combined with the second war against Iraq, which ran concurrently, the most expensive military action ever.

Yes, the cost and morality of these wars has been argued in detail, but their cultural impact has been examined only rarely. Gun control advocates tell us that two separate instances of American exceptionalism, gun ownership and murder rate, are linked. This seems a very defensible position, and a decent argument for more restrictions on gun ownership, but perhaps a more distinct instance of American uniqueness would be our history of aggressive military action and continuous war.

There may be other examples in history of warlike nations, but none whose wars, troop deployments and police actions have also received regular, sometimes hour-by-hour, media coverage.  Arguably, with the exception of a couple of years in the 1930s, when even feeding troops was a budgetary challenge, the U.S.military has been continuously deployed for aggressive action for more than a century. But Google “cultural impact of war” and you will find very little discussion of how war, war making, and preparation for war might predispose individuals in a society so occupied to engage in violence themselves.

Yet, we have been warned in a variety of ways to beware of continuous war. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four is the story of a society where language, politics and social life have been entirely debased by the theatrical propagandizing of war and what appears to be victimless virtual war.

And plenty of other books come to mind about actual war, both fiction and non-fiction, that have helped to clarify the ways in which war traumatizes the people who fight it, the people who are victimized by it, the people who survive it, the people who report it, the people who prepare for it, the people who witness it up close or at a distance, and the people who arrange for others to fight it. All Quiet on the Western Front, Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five, The Things They Carried and lots more are included in a more extensive list of anti-war literature that can be found on Wikipedia.

But the range of writing investigating the traumatic effects of continuous war on countries and cultures is much narrower. Still, an essay written by Simone Weil, The Iliad or The Poem of Force, written as Europe plunged into World War II, is helpful.

“Thus violence obliterates anybody who feels its touch. It comes to seem just as external to its employer as to its victim. And from this springs the idea of a destiny before which executioner and victim stand equally innocent, before which conquered and conqueror are brothers in the same distress,” she wrote.

“A moderate use of force, which alone would enable man to escape being enmeshed in its machinery, would require superhuman virtue, which is as rare as dignity in weakness,” she continued. “Moreover, moderation itself is not without its perils, since prestige, from which force derives at least three quarters of its strength, rests principally on that marvelous indifference that the strong feel toward the weak, an indifference so contagious that it infects the very people who are the objects of it.”

Weil is a difficult and demanding writer, asking the reader to follow chains of reasoning that are both complicated and precise. In her essay, Weil largely confines analysis of The Iliad to assessments of the effect of war on combatants, but any reasonable extension of her ideas suggests that some of the changes in feeling and behavior that war causes for warriors ripple through the society from which they come and to which they return as survivors of war.

American fighters returning home may suffer deeply from the traumas of war and of reintegration and inadequacy of services and opportunities at home, but we also celebrate them as heroes at football half-time shows and at patriotic celebrations and at political rallies and state of the union speeches. They have used force, to the extreme, in pursuit of policy goals and military objectives; they possess the “prestige” to which Weil refers.

By and large, the most celebrated athletes in our culture, like home run hitters and middle linebackers share a similar prestige based on the havoc they create. Football coaches are celebrated in the same manner as generals, at least until we realize that prestige is a garment that falls off as easily as it goes on, as has been the case with, say, a David Petraeus or a Joe Paterno. The same celebrity is conferred on high school jocks and, sometimes, neighborhood bullies, who often only lose prestige when they suffer defeat. Certainly many of us have memories of the indifference of the powerful towards the weak, memories from childhood, perhaps, or outside the experience of military service.

But imagine in a country where war making has been the rule, never the exception, for more than a century; consider the number of heroes and ghosts of heroes and suffering veterans who live amongst us. Ten million? Twenty million? How many children growing up with no fathers or, increasingly, no mothers? How many lost or damaged lovers? How many neighborhoods shared with one or a half-dozen disabled or severely traumatized veterans? How many of the millions of homeless on our streets are returned veterans or their brothers or their sons? And through our families and our communities and our emergency personnel and our treatment professionals we share the trauma.

Who wants to say that Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, was not a child of our many traumas, even of our wars?

Sometimes, especially for warriors, war is almost a delightful game, Weil tells us. “But with the majority of the combatants this state of mind does not persist. Soon there comes a day when fear, or defeat, or the death of beloved comrades touch the warrior’s spirit, and it crumbles in the hand of necessity. At that moment war is no more a game or a dream…And this reality, which he perceives, is hard, much too hard to be borne, for it enfolds death.”

Of course, the death of which Weil speaks can be consciously ignored, it can be fought off, it can be sublimated. But eventually death is all around and present, perhaps with varied and sometimes subtle effects on those who must confront it, embrace it, or pretend it is not there. Ultimately it is not there only for those who kill, or watch their comrades die. It is there for all of us, for those who attend military funerals, or comfort the survivors, or see them at a distance.

Nothing changes that reality, even for those who do not live near military bases or do not see the homeless vets around us. Advanced technologies do not change it; they only raise the price and, in many cases, increase the profits some of us make from war. Drone strikes don’t change it; do not wash President Obama’s hands of the blood of victims, innocent or otherwise. After all, violence makes even the victors equal with the victims, Weil tells us. And, as today’s Washington Post tells us, “More U.S. troops lost to suicide than combat in 2012.”

Ultimately, we may wish to exclude ourselves from Weil’s sweeping conclusions about warriors, but we do not live beyond the sweep of official violence and death. Our taxes pay for war and for our country’s war making capacity, and we pledge ourselves to our country and sing its anthems.

We know that “in war, truth is the first casualty.” Nevertheless, we most often tolerate the lies about weapons of mass destruction or Kuwaiti babies dumped from incubators. And, we even pray to protect our warriors at the expense of those on the other side. As Mark Twain put it more bluntly in The War Prayer,

“Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it…”

This was an American prayer long before Sandy Hook and still is. It is not our video games that are the first cause of our violence towards others and ourselves. More likely, it is our wars.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Left is still a no-show in American politics

The time for sitting it out is over

Harold Meyerson has a nice piece in the Washington Post today, "A loser of a tax deal" about the declining share of GDP that goes to wages and salaries. "The earned income share of GDP peaked in 1969 at 53.5 percent," Meyerson writes. "In 2012, it was 43.5 percent."

"Where did those 10 percentage points of GDP--currently about $1.5 trillion every year--go instead of to U.S. workers?" he asks. Simply put: corporate profits, a huge transfer of wealth to the owning class.

When those profits are distributed to shareholders, the lion's share goes to the very wealthy, whose income from dividends and capital gains, Meyerson points out, are taxed at a much lower rate than income from wages and salaries. Into the bargain, retained profits are frequently invested by corporations in overseas production rather than domestically. This, of course, reinforces foreign low-wage competition with American workers.

All of this, Meyerson tells us, is redistributionist--a charge frequently lobbed at liberals, but which more accurately describes the right-wing agenda. "Far from mitigating the consequences of this shift [in income from working people to the wealthy], the U.S. tax code reinforces the redistribution from wages to profits," Meyerson writes.

"None of this upsets Republicans, but it would be nice if Democrats realized these tax breaks undermine everything they stand for," he concludes.

Meyerson's column is a helpful, fact-based assessment of the recent fiscal-cliff deal. It is only a minor quibble to observe that Democrats likely do realize that the current tax code, with its favorable treatment of unearned income and overall generosity toward corporations and the wealthy, does undermine what they stand for.

And it's certainly worth pointing out that President Obama might have gotten more in negotiations, if he had been rougher on Republicans. But the deal, unpalatable as it might have been for the Left, nevertheless represented a significant reversal of Bush-era tax cuts in the face of powerful irrational resistance from the Right. The tax on dividend income, for instance, went up 33 percent. That would have been a more meaningful step, if the payroll tax hadn't gone up even more.

In the long run, the fight for economic justice is going to take something more than an aggrieved awareness of how far we are from that happy state. It will take a level of Democratic electoral vigor that isn't possible with a Left that is eternally divided about the wisdom of participating in "bourgeois" politics.

Right now unions and minorities, organizationally and individually, are the only participants in the electoral process who organize and vote based on the interests of working people. A scattering of environmental and feminist organizations and other nonprofits are involved, as well. But there may very well be as many as ten million or more leftists, with organizing, communication and policy experience, who could be running, working and voting in local, state and federal elections; and doing so in a way that would reestablish a liberal agenda as a thing to be reckoned with here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Jennifer Rubin's confusion has consequences

Conflating opposition to Israeli policy with anti-Semitism is a very big error

Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, hired to fill a gap in the paper's outreach to young, "hip" conservatives, never gets much more than a 300 word space on the Post's print edition op-ed page. This is a virtue, since that limit appears to be congruent with the limit of her ability to sustain a written rationale for her opinions. Rubin's little bits also provide a certain amount of insight into whatever issue might be exercising young conservatives these days. Overall, it's not much of anything that might be helpful to the Republic.

Now, Rubin has put us on notice that Chuck Hagel, President Obama's nominee for Secretary of Defense, is an anti-Semite. This, Rubin tells us in "The Hagel litmus test," is because Hagel uses phrases like "the Jewish lobby," and has declared "that he is not 'the senator from Israel.'" Such statements by Hagel, Rubin adds, amount to the "embrace [of] the world's oldest hatred."

Actually, I agree with one likely implication of Rubin's comments: that Hagel shouldn't have used the phrase "Jewish lobby" when he was referring to those who lobby on behalf of Israel. To call them the Israel lobby is no less descriptive than "Jewish lobby," and it has the added advantage of being focused on policy.

I have a one-time friend, Henry Herskovitz, born and raised Jewish, who spends most of his waking hours making whatever argument he can on behalf of self-determination for Palestinians to whatever audience is available to him. In the past I have counseled him against referring to the "Jewish lobby." But he has been, and is, adamant that the phrase captures the truth: it is American Jews who are the bulwark against any shift in U.S. policy that would include an acknowledgement of the continuing injustices suffered by Palestinians during and after the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel.

I don't disagree with that point. But my argument is that it is not enough to be right. It is just as important to be heard and to take a position that does not drop the nuances. And there are plenty of those.

Israel is by far the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, historically. Current aid, over $3 billion annually, is mostly military aid (go here, to read a discussion of then larger cost to the U.S. of more than a half-century of support for Israel). And, unlike other recipients of military aid, who must use the whole amount to buy weapons systems and other war materials from American military contractors, Israel has the right to use a portion of that aid to buy from its own weapons manufacturers, a gift that has allowed Israel to build a military export industry of its own.

Such American generosity to Israel is a constant, and could be delayed or withheld to force Israel to stop building settlements on Palestinian territory and, even, dismantle some of the settlements that have become "facts on the ground" and are, themselves, huge obstacles to peace negotiations. Despite the obvious nature of the leverage the U.S. could apply to change Israeli policy, a little research could turn up plenty of editorials arguing that the U.S. has no ability to force the Netanyahu administration to bargain.

American aid to Israel also comes under less political fire than did, say, foreign aid to the now-deposed Mubarak regime in Egypt or to the current regime, headed by the Islamic Brotherhood; these governments, the argument goes, are undemocratic and/or fundamentalist, and not worthy of American aid. But the truth is that Israel, too, is a theological state, albeit a Jewish one, and provides far more privileges, both de jure and de facto, to its Jewish citizens than to its Arab citizens.

Indeed, it is AIPAC (American-Israel Political Action Committee) and other Jewish organizations that seem to wield the most clout in support of such an unbalanced policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. At least in that respect, Herskovitz's position on the Jewish lobby makes sense. Further, he has argued, it is the use of the Holocaust by Jews to justify the creation of Israel and to shield Israel from criticism that has silenced non-Jews in the U.S. who might otherwise oppose Israeli policy.

But this position ignores two very important factors. One is that apocalyptic Christians in this country, and there are far more of them than there are Jews, are themselves quite keen on the return of the Jews to Palestine. That, after all, is a necessary prerequisite to the return of the Messiah. These Christians may not care what actually happens to Israel and the Jews in the final reckoning, but it is important to them that some Jews be where they are now, in their biblical homeland, regardless of what their presence might mean to Palestinians. Some such Christians are elected members of Congress. The exclusive focus on the activity of Jewish lobbyists is a strategic error--it allows others who support the Jewish state to completely evade responsibility for policies they wholeheartedly support.

The second factor is that a large number of American Jews, perhaps a majority, do not support Israeli policy without regard to the consequences. Many Jews, this one, for example, even recognize that the creation of the state of Israel, in absolute violation of international law, is the original sin that poisons Palestinian-Israeli relations.

But when the Chuck Hagel's of this world use "Jewish lobby" instead of blander, but equally precise, language, the Jennifer Rubin's of this world get to shift the discussion from Israel's aggressions against Palestine to contemplation of anti-Semitism. That's when justice for Palestinians gets gaveled off the agenda.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Michael Gerson's mama wears combat boots

Another letter the Post didn't publish


Michael Gerson tells us that there are "only two responses [to the Medicare crisis]. The conservative approach...would involve focusing public benefits on the poor while requiring the wealthy and middle class to accept a greater share of their health costs ("Placating the middle class," Jan. 4)."

Perhaps I am naive, but that assertion comes as something of a surprise. If it is accurate, then I can't help noting that there just aren't many of those "conservatives" in Congress. In point of fact, I can't think of a single Republican in the House who has recently expressed a policy preference for the poor.

"The liberal approach," Gerson continues, "is to increase the percentage of the economy taken in taxes to well above historical norms to support the commitments of an essentially unreformed entitlement system."

I consider myself a liberal (maybe worse, but let's not go there), but that's not a description I recognize. Nevertheless, please, raise taxes "above the historical norm" to put people back to work. Once they are working and business is expanding production more rapidly, the GNP will go up faster than tax revenues, which Gerson ought to find gratifying.

And, by all means, reform Medicare to permit the government to achieve substantial savings through competitive bidding for medical equipment and a wide range of medical services, and allow for public funding of drug research in order to reduce the exorbitant profits that result from corporate control of drug patents.

And, to make Gerson conservatives happy, introduce a graduated means test that will reduce health benefits collected by upper-income individuals. Use such policies to reduce per capita health care costs to levels comparable to other industrial democracies and the Medicare crisis will go away. Into the bargain, the economy will benefit and even more jobs will be created.

Think of the subsequent growth in the GNP! Think of the reduction "in the percentage of the economy taken in taxes!" See the deficit shrink! Find the conservatives in Congress! There's work to be done!

Jeff Epton

Reader P.S. If you want to get a look at a letter of mine the Post did publish, check out "A tanker contract that shouldn't fly." It was almost five years ago, but I still like the letter.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

What if Barack Obama planned all this?

Wouldn't that be something?

What if Barack Obama has played the country like a drum?

For a certainty nobody thinks Obama won as much as he could have during the recent stumble over the fiscal molehill. Hell, he didn't even seem to be asking for enough to begin with. Doesn't the guy know how to negotiate?

But what if Barack deliberately decided not to ask for as much as he could have, deliberately decided that he wasn't going to try to win all that was possible to win? What if that was a purposeful strategy?

To be sure, there's hardly anyone outside of the Republican caucus willing to say that Obama asked for too much and forced the caucus to give more than they should have given. Nope, people don't think that Obama asked for too much and they don't think he bludgeoned the Republicans. They think he governed.

If that's true, imagine the possibilities.

And it might be true. I mean, look at how much ground Obama has recaptured since the 2010 election:

No one is asking to see his birth certificate anymore. And if they are, the media is not reporting it--well, Fox, maybe, but I mean the other media. And the Obama's-a-Muslim thing, is gone, too.

More important, the Tea Party is contracting. That passion looks spent. And Democrats actually gained seats in the House this election. And the Republican caucus in the House is in disarray.

This may be a man, this president, who always had his mind set on the long game. Maybe he saw a branch of the future that looks like a path to a president who doesn't lose on the debt ceiling.

Just saying.

Kyrsten Sinema has issues

And we should be glad she does.

There's a stranger in the House from out west and it looks like she might shake things up a bit.

Newly elected to Congress, Kyrsten Sinema is the subject of a lengthy story, "Neither pioneer nor poster child," on the front page of today's Washington Post Style section. Sinema, once homeless as a child, later a graduate of Brigham Young University, then a social worker in an impoverished Phoenix neighborhood, next a member of the Arizona state legislature, and finally an elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is a walking quote machine, flamboyant political performer and maybe, with her focus on poverty and the economy and what sounds very much like a social justice agenda, a real life agent for change.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course, and it might well be that the House of Representatives, dominated by conservatives, will grind down the loose-lipped and openly bisexual Democrat, but maybe not. As described by reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia, Sinema comes across as tough enough to endure whatever Republicans heave at her and challenging enough to ensure that they will be looking around for stuff to throw.

Sinema is also a runner and shared a reflection on Republican pinup Paul Ryan, "who claimed a suspiciously fast marathon time," Roig-Franzia wrote. "'I will tell you this, I'm not fast, but I'm honest about it,' [Sinema says]. 'You don't need to lie. I guarantee you he knows exactly what his time is.'"

Sinema says her sexuality isn't an issue worth discussing, but she will be joining "six openly gay and lesbian members in the most demographically diverse Congress in U.S. history." Roig-Franza adds Sinema's disarmingly simple elaboration on her sexual partners. '"For me it just doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter if that other person is a man or a woman.'"

Okay, then. I'm thinking it doesn't matter to me, either, whether Sinema is a man or a woman. I'm just looking forward to what she does next.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Post Editorial Way Wrong on Israel

Clueless in the Capitol

Today's Washington Post editorial: "Rash Rhetoric (as it is titled in the print edition)" pretends to balance in blaming both Israelis and Palestinians for creating significant obstacles to peace negotiations. The subtitle for the print version of the editorial cites "harmful words from all sides on proposed Israeli settlements" for the current stalemate.

Apparently in order to make it clear that the Post plays no favorites, the piece kicks off with a shot at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his tactics in the current Israeli election campaign; he has pursued "a familiar tactic: a flurry of announcements of new construction in Jewish settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank." Criticism of Israel and Netanyahu for announcing further construction plans is "appropriate," the Post grudgingly admits, "but the reaction is also counterproductive because it reinforces two mistaken but widely held notions: that the settlements are the principle obstacle to the deal and that further construction will make a Palestinian state impossible."

And how do we know that the two "widely held notions" are wrong? Because, the Post says so. "...the Jerusalem neighborhoods where new construction was announced last month were conceded to Israel by Palestinian negotiators in 2008." Never mind that the negotiations were stillborn, the deed is done. The editorial also notes that the vast majority of Israelis living in settlements established on Palestinian territory could be added to the current state of Israel with the additional transfer of "just more than 4 percent of the West Bank."

The paper apparently sees 4 percent of the West Bank as a mere quibble and is ultimately untroubled by the notion that Netanyahu's announcement is a campaign ploy. The rhetoric that really bugs the Post is U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's despairing observation that further expansion of Israeli settlements may doom peace talks. British Foreign Secretary William Hague's quite similar comments are equally offensive to the Post.

"If [U.N.] Security Council members are really interested in progress toward Palestinian statehood, they will press [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas to stop using settlements as an excuse for intransigence--and cool their own overheated rhetoric," the editorial concludes.

The problem here is that the Post's pretensions of journalistic objectivity, which allow them to call for cooler rhetoric on both sides, actually require nothing from Israelis and everything from Palestinians. After all, the establishment of the settlements on occupied Palestinian territory are and have been unequivocally a violation of international law. And, though continuing expansion of the settlements may not "make a Palestinian state impossible," as a continuing provocation they do come dangerously close to making negotiations impossible.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Climatological Cliff Looms Largest

The fiscal cliff looks like a molehill from here

While President Obama appears to be meeting the lowest possible expectations in the assault on the fiscal cliff, I find myself more preoccupied by the climatological, environmental and ecological cliff we are stumbling towards. And out of my reverie has materialized the number one quadrillion.

That's 1,000 trillion.

In dollars, that's almost 700 times the U.S. GNP. That's more than 10 times the total assets--dollars, property and equipment--held by U.S. businesses, corporations and households. In other words, it has taken all of us, for however long we've been here in the United States, to work for however long it took (at a tremendous cost to many of us and to many of those who came before us) to create together about $100 trillion worth of wealth (however unequally it might be distributed).

These numbers are not my invention, I borrowed them (and perhaps fudged them a bit) from a website that goes by the name of "U.S. National Debt Clock-Real Time." The question is not whether or not the statistics I am parading by here are damn lies or otherwise, the question is from what swamp bubbled the one quadrillion that so mesmerizes me. And, yes, I am calling that one quadrillion "dollars."

The starting point of my fugue: How much damage done by Hurricane Sandy?

About $50 billion, or so, the number plucked from a Forbes magazine article. Okay. The U.S. economy can cover that loss easily. And, as the Forbes story makes clear, the labor and materials invested in the recovery should boost the economy; never mind that the cost of the emotional damage suffered by Americans who lost somebody or something isn't reckoned with in the article.

The Forbes story also reviews the cost of other damaging hurricanes. The total from a  daycare school's worth of hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Andrew, Irene and others between 1992 and now is probably north of a half-trillion dollars. But if these hurricanes came more powerfully or more often than they might have without all the environmental damage that preceded them, what is the true cost of all the damage that created and had to precede those stronger and more frequent storms?

What is that cost when it is added to all the other damage from droughts and forest fires and oil spills and air pollution and oceanic dead zones that we have caused, created or amplified? What is the cost in suffering and illness and death and contaminated and compromised food supply and poisoned water and air? How does the damage from every little storm and every wounded life add to that total?

Because whatever that total is, that's probably about what it is going to cost to fix the damage. So if the number one quadrillion dollars is the total (and it is very likely an order of magnitude or two higher) than that means it will cost us everything we own and all the work that we do for the next 40 or so years to fix the damage we have done. That's if the number is one quadrillion and not two or eight or higher. And while we are trying to fix the damage, the situation will be getting worse.

The only bright spot here is that if we start the work now some of us will one day contemplate a brighter future. But a perspective to add as we plunge into the swamp at the base of the fiscal cliff is this: The notion of the national debt, which appears to be the root cause of Republican angst, is such a tiny part of our portion of the true global (environmental) debt (damage), such a small hill, that President Obama and both his allies and his adversaries ought to be able to clear it in a single bound.

And so ends my reverie, on a day when the cliff that concerns me is climatological.