Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Guest Post by Ben Soule

What are we doing?  Our country is perfecting the response to mass shootings.  We have moments of silence.  We lower flags.  We send thoughts and prayers.  We give blood.  We have candlelight vigils.  We praise the bravery of the first responders, the medical teams, and the civilians who worked together to save lives.  We heap scorn upon the latest sick individual and damn their soul to hell with ever-increasing eloquence.  Our first responders develop ever better practices to respond more quickly to the next shooter.  We search for the shooter’s motives so that we can be sure that he is different from us.

mass-shooting-vegas-What are we not doing?  We are not figuring out how to separate the thousands of unstable individuals that exist within a nation of 325 million people from the sea of high-powered military weapons available in this nation.

So we have another largest mass shooting in our nation’s history, the most people killed by gunfire in one hour in the USA since 1865.  We wring our hands, we mouth platitudes, we shrug our shoulders and we stand like sheep waiting for the next slaughter.

What is wrong with us?


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My father-in-law, Dick Soule, was a colorful character.  He had many sayings – some of them made more sense than others – all interesting, some timely.  And maybe none were more timely than the one I’m using as title for this post.  Lots of people have talked about the President’s fondness for ‘alternate facts,’ a behavior embodied by his press secretary and top aides.  For those who rely on digital media for their news, and tend toward information coming in fast bursts that don’t involve reading (let alone reading print publications “Of Record,”), it’s becoming tricky to know whether to believe what you hear and see.

And so the messages continue to be cranked out – about Putin, about the ‘crooked media,’ about lack of coverage of terrorist threats – even the “Bowling Green Massacre,”  which – it turns out – is one of those ‘alternate’ pieces of information ginned up by a Trump aide.

Which brings me to another of my father-in-law’s sayings.  He – and my husband as well – loved to distract our kids by pointing in a direction over their shoulder (particularly if there was, for instance, a brownie sitting on a plate in front of a child) and saying, “Look!  A Linotype!”  Linotypes, of course, haven’t been used for years…and hardly any kid (and few adults) would know what they are!  But the idea of pointing in one direction to grab the cookie off your plate, or throw you off your game (just like the old Quarterback Sneak) – now that is alive and being used with verve right now.

Because, of course, it turns out that the Administration — the one that we are supposed to respect and admire — would far rather have the media get distracted on ‘proving’ that they really HAVE covered stories of terrorist threats – and covered them enough (what the heck is enough???) to exempt themselves from the criticism of the White House.  At what point will the reputable media – the ‘failing’ New York Times, for instance; the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the like – respond to this kind of criticism by not responding and being distracted?

PT Barnum, famous showman, was well known for staging stunts.  He talked proudly about hiring a child in a town where his circus was, to carefully place six bricks outside of the tent where his show was.  People would gather, watching the child and the bricks and then, curious, they’d go inside to be entertained by acrobats, dancers, Gen Tom Thumb, and others.  They’d leave, feeling that they had experienced a great show, and spread the word to their friends.  Evidently – even though Ringling Brothers has announced the close of their circus – we haven’t learned the lessons Barnum wanted to teach us, more than 100 years ago:  we can be duped.  Over and over again, just like (as my husband likes to say) “shooting fish in a barrel.”  It’s easy, and it’s working. And more than that:  we know what this game is, yet still, we play it, over and over again.  “Never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump,” said WC Fields, who seemed to embody the spirit of Barnum years after the showman had passed.  Evidently we’re the chumps, not smart enough to know that our ears are wet – and no, it’s not the rain coming down on our heads.

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The elections are finally over.  I am joined by millions of people who are grateful to now be bombarded with incessant holiday advertising, replacing incessant political advertising that got nastier and more poisonous as the elections approached.  The spin doctors have been out on both sides trumpeting victory, and, near as I can tell, “all are punish’d”, as Shakespeare wrote.

It was the French politican/philosopher Alexis deToqueville who proclaimed that we get the government we deserve.  The observation suggests to me that our biggest disconnect with deToqueville’s thesis comes in the puffed-up statements, made by politicians and other chest-thumpers, that America is the greatest country on earth.  Really?  Is that why we run attack advertising, to sling mud on the opposition while proclaiming ourselves to be great and noble?  And is that why we — great nation that we say we are — choose to get our news from the what’s passed along on the web, without scrutiny for the source, and from pundits like (ABC, shame on you) Andrew Breitbart?  For that matter, is it a problem for our government that even congressional candidates don’t know what the Bill of Rights is about?  That, according to a poll conducted a couple of years ago, twenty percent of elected officials thought that the electoral college was established to supervise the first televised presidential debate?

This is downright embarrassing.  A candidate in New Hampshire for the just-concluded election ran ads suggesting that the President of the United States is a mass murderer.  Another candidate running for Congress in Massachusetts, a former policeman whose actions were decried by his former captain, gave the opposition a good run for the money, with people declaring that they didn’t really care what the man had done, they just wanted change.  Sarah Palin and her crew of “Mama Grizzlies” took some victories, and now she’s got us quaking in our boots by declaring that she “can see 2012” from her house.

Well, I’d like some change, too.  I would like an end to the economic downturn that made me one of those highly educated professionals who has been looking for her next rewarding full time position for way too long.  I’d like to know that my family, and those of other kids who are now in high school, might actually be able to support their children’s higher education without having the child, or the parents, face financial ruin.  And I’d like to know that broadcasters and reporters can be relied on to report the news, rather than to stir up or terrify the electorate, as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert tried to emphasize last weekend.  Simple things, really.

If we do not expect better of ourselves we have no right, it seems to me, to try and hold others up to a higher standard.  It starts at home.  Screwing your neighbor so that you can make out a little better won’t cut it.

I recall professor William Jones, in a lecture on how to combat racism, holding up his favorite prop, a rubber chicken.  He pointed out that the chicken had no rights – it got killed and cooked for others to eat.  And that if we want greater equity, ultimately we have to be willing to stop eating chicken so that it has some rights, too.  I remember laughing as Dr. Jones made his point, but I also got it.  And more and more, I feel like we’ve been living in the middle of a giant food fight where there are too many unruly children at the table and not enough grub to go around.  Everyone’s got their forks in the air and if your hand happens to get in the way at the wrong time — too bad.

Scarcity, not generosity, is in every breath we take, and it’s not a pretty smell.  As long as we resort to blame and shame and the mean tactics we’ve had a good helping of in the just-concluded election, I continue to fear for a country that is proving itself not great, but small and mean-spirited.

The small silver lining of this election may be that now the House is controlled by one party and the Senate by another.  It will be much harder for either party to sling mud, blaming the other group, because the truth is, they both have to step up and do their part for the country to get anywhere.

I remain skeptical.  We get what we deserve.  Can our elected leaders stop to think, for a moment, about what that really means in terms of their behavior –one to another, in terms of morals and ethics — so that the net effect is that of running the country into the ground?  Or are we so caught up in the frenzied fight that we’ll continue to stick a fork in the hand — or a knife in the back — of anyone who gets in our collective way?

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I’m groaning with the onslaught of political advertising bombarding the media, as I note with resignation that the mid-term elections are five weeks away.  The mud is flying, fast and furious, or should I say, faster and more furiously, since it’s been going on for quite a while already.  Analysts are looking at polls, incumbents are, in general, in big trouble, and upstarts – be they tea partiers or just ‘someone new’ are coming up.  The prevailing mood is one of anger and disgust.

“Throw the rascals out” is a term that arose decades ago in response to misdeeds and political abuse of power as an election approached.  In 2010, with the recession officially over but high unemployment, foreclosures, and belt-tightening still the norm, the cry rings loudly throughout America.

We have become a society that expects instant response and instant fixes.  We get our information on handheld devices, and people post updates on Twitter and Facebook, sometimes minute-by-minute.  TV channels and websites like eBayoffer home shopping opportunities that are triggered by a clock counting down.  Quick – get that bargain they’re offering and that you might or might not need, now, before time runs out!  No wonder newspapers and magazines are enduring a slow but inevitable death:  they have to be printed and mailed or delivered and before they arrive, the news is outdated.

And so it is with politics and our collective tolerance for addressing our national ills.  There are, to be sure, reasons to be angry, and there are politicians who have stayed too long at the party and need to retire.  But the impulse to boot out those who have worked to make the system better, who have come in after huge amounts of damage have been done and who now labor to fix things, slowly — no.

Take Barney Frank.  Frank, the outspoken congressman from Massachusetts, is locked in a tough re-election battle against an opponent named Sean Bielat.  Bielat, a man with no political experience who is armed with a recent degree from the Wharton School of Management, is allied with the Tea Party.  Some longtime Frank voters are headed to vote for Bielat simply because Frank has been in Congress for 29 years.  But in those 29 years, Frank has led the charge for reform of Wall Street and the banking industry.  Do we really want to throw him out to get someone new and very inexperienced in his place?  What will that do in a town like Washington, where it takes years to build relationships and connections?

And then there’s the matter of the Senate race in Delaware, which is just plain weird.  Christine O’Donnell, who has few credentials (including academic) to offer other than her appearances on Bill Maher’s show, has proclaimed that God is keeping her in the Senate race.  I suspect it’s a little more than that, and now, although questions have also been raised about O’Donnell’s difficulties paying taxes on her mortgage and an allegation that she used campaign funds to pay for personal expenses in a previous election, she’s got more than $2 million in her warchest. Oh, and let’s not forget her comment about dabbling in witchcraft.  That is a talent that will probably serve her well in Washington.

And this week, Carl Paladino, the tea partier running for Governor of New York, was caught on tape verbally attacking a reporter and suggesting that the reporter check out opponent Andrew Cuomo’s history of marital infidelity.

I know that people are impatient.  We want the damned recession to be over again so that we can go back to spending on credit, but of course, we also want jobs, mortgages, and a release from what seems like an endless time of economic depression and oppression.  Me too.  On the other hand, we didn’t get into this mess overnight (something too many people seem to forget).  The prior White House occupant did plenty to cause the messy bed that we are now lying in, and he had eight long years to get us there.  So we are now mad as hell and impatient because that upstart mixed-race tall skinny guy with the odd name who we elected on a wave of hope, has not yet been able to fix everything.  And now we’re ready to march in and — since we can’t throw Obama out during the mid-terms — throw out everyone else, in a baby with the bathwater move.

Not so smart.  And please, America, not so fast.  Yes, I share the frustration and the wish for better times.  I also recognize that Obama and many members of Congress, and governors, too, are doing everything they can to ease the recession and bring us into smoother economic waters.  They did not say it would happen quickly, and it isn’t.  And that is frustrating for all of us who want it all to be over, now.

Let us remember, however, that we are a people who live in a country that was built out of the sweat and toil and debates of many years.  The first and second meetings of the Continental Congress, which led to the Declaration of Independence, took years.  The problems being faced by our country now — which influence and are influenced by the economies and politics of the rest of the world — will take as long, or longer, to address.  We need patience, fortitude, and commitment to remain in the struggle, while we resist the impulse to stamp our collective feet and go try another brand that offers untested promises.

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I have felt growing dismay over the news coming from a Pew survey released in early August which shows that a growing number of Americans(18%)  believe Barack Obama to be Muslim, and (separate question and response) an increasing number also believe that Obama is not Christian.  Over 40% of those surveyed do not know what Obama’s faith tradition is, despite the fact that he regularly attended a United Church of Christ congregation prior to being elected president.

And a recent CNN survey revealed that more than 25% of those surveyed believed that Obama was either definitely or probably not born in this country (the so-called “birther” movement).  Meanwhile Sarah Palin, pundit and perhaps-candidate, has urged various political conservatives and talk show hosts to “lock and reload.”  When pressed, she’ll insist she’s just telling people to not back down, but the violent language sends a shiver down my spine.

Words are powerful.  In an information age where we’re all authorities, those who have mastered the media can promote their point of view and pass that perspective off as fact.  But it’s also true that people don’t generally invent the things they believe from whole cloth.  Those beliefs come from someone, from somewhere, and the question of where we get our news from, and what we accept on face value — rather than check out before making an informed decision — has everything to do with what we deem fact and what remains fiction.

But these recent statistics and news stories are deeply troubling to me.  In an age when we were proclaimed, with Obama’s election, to have moved past racism and segregation and discrimination, the ugly truth reveals that we have so far to go.  In a time when we like to give lip service to being “one country,” we are attacking Muslims who want to build a community center in New York, and Sikhs who wear turbans are verbally and sometimes physically harrassed, threatened, and subject to firing without cause.

Years ago, the Rogers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” song, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” offered us a scene in which Lieutenant Cable sings,

“You’ve got to be taught
to be afraid
Of people whose eyes
are oddly made
And people whose skin
is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught
before it’s too late
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8
To hate all the people
your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

“South Pacific” was produced in 1949, based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” and debuted in a United States recovering from World War II and approaching the dawn of McCarthyism.  Rogers and Hammerstein were attacked for putting this song in their show, but they steadfastly insisted that it remain.  Good thing, but how discouraging is it to find that, more than sixty years later, we haven’t changed all that much?   This country managed to elect an African American President of the United States less than two years ago, but the smears, the campaign of misinformation, the cheap shots and lies, have all remained and, I believe, grown.

How is it that so many in our country can continue to believe that the President is not an American citizen, despite clear evidence to the contrary?  And why would people repeatedly maintain that Obama, despite his multiple statements to the contrary, is a Muslim rather than the Christian he says he is?  “Don’t bother me with the facts, Son, I’ve already made up my mind,” was a saying coined by a cartoon character decades ago.  It seems that in the digital age where rumor now passes freely as fact, the saying remains true.  Words have power and authority, and more and more — in a time when fewer people read newspapers and more get their “news” from television or the web — the things people say can be taken for fact.

I troll social media regularly, reading Twitter feeds, posting sometimes, checking out newspaper headlines and conventional wisdom on social networking sites.  But I try hard to check out the facts before repeating them.  Otherwise I’d be subject to doing what we did as kids so long ago:  playing a game of ‘telephone’ where we stand in a line, repeat things, one to another, and then wonder how it is that the original message got so darned convoluted at the end of the line. Surely, as individuals and as a nation, we owe ourselves, and others, more consideration.

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The news cycles have been filled with debates about feminism in recent days.  What is a feminist?  Does Sarah Palin qualify?  How about Carly Fiorina?  Is there a glass ceiling any more?  What are women fighting for?  On and on go the discussions.

At the risk of putting myself into a niche, let me say that I came of age after “The Feminine Mystique” had been published, and was always led to believe that I could pretty much be anything I wanted to be.  On the other hand, I had the misfortune of finding that, during my first  job with the Hartford Stage Company, I was groped by a jerk who I had stopped to ask directions from, and dismissed by an arrogant middle-aged managing director who was overheard to say, “I don’t want any stupid little girls working for me.”  So much for entry-level positions and on the job learning experiences.

I have worked hard to achieve goals throughout my career and have been rewarded by awards and promotions.  I have never felt the need to join the chorus of women who are angry at men for the perceived advantages they have in the job market or the world — I found that the doors I wanted to walk through were open to me.  And since becoming a mother, I’ve tried to instill in my daughters the belief that the world is similarly open to them and that, if they work hard, stay focused, and are motivated, anything is possible.

So over the last eighteen months I’ve been somewhat mystified as I watch Sarah Palin and the many reactions she stirs up.  On the one hand, Palin’s politics and conservatism apall me.  Sometimes I can not believe what comes out of her mouth, nor can I believe how stupid her handlers and communication consultants have been in preparing her for public remarks or photo shots (who can forget the interview in front of the turkey slaughtering operation just before Thanksgiving?)  On the other hand, she and her operatives have been very smart in picking political races and locations for her to show up for.  She’s been speaking before crowds who are excited to see her, and like ’em or not, she’s endorsed some winners.  I have to believe that her appearances and endorsements are going to help provide the basis for another political run in the near future.

Palin sure isn’t my kind of feminist, but I wouldn’t ever exclude her from wearing that label.  She’s worked hard to develop her career while parenting her children, and like her or not, she’s certainly helped elevate the visibility of women in politics.  Then there’s the politicians in California.  Meg Whitman, who will run for Governor against the ubiquitous Jerry Brown, has reportedly sunk more than $60 million of her own fortune into the campaign — earnings that came from her founding and development of the online auction site eBay.  While there have been complaints about how much money Whitman has spent (I gasp to think of how many people could have received health care for that money, or how much economic subsidy could have gone to unemployed fishermen and women on the Gulf Coast, for instance) the fact is, she worked hard to earn it, and it’s her right to spend it as she chooses.  And more power to her.

I have more trouble with Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who will face off against Barbara Boxer for Senator from California, who lately looks like a catty doofus.  Ms. Fiorina, who dropped $8 million or so in her primary battle, joins the “please send the communication consultants over” club, for having sat there prior to a TV interview while she offered opinions on Boxer’s hair and other big topics through an open mic.  Please, could you do a little better than this as you move through your campaign appearances, Ms. Fiorina?

Nevertheless, it seems to me that Palin and Whitman, and even Fiorina, get to wear the feminist label, even if we don’t like their politics.  Feminism does not require a liberal political position — it’s about making change in political, economic, and social arenas that establish greater rights and protections for women.  And while it’s true that some of these candidates hold social positions that are counter to women’s legal and social rights (the fact that they are opposed to reproductive choice, most notably) they are out there and, by their commitment to advancing the status of women, I believe they share something with feminists of many ages, including Hillary Clinton, Alice Walker,  Abigail Adams, Emma Goldman, Sojourner Truth, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

I’m not saying I like what I’m seeing.  These women don’t offer up the social values that I want my daughters to see and embrace.  But I do want my daughters – and yours – to know that they can run for high office if they want, or start a company that transforms our understanding of how things are bought and sold online, or run a major international corporation.  Just don’t spend time talking about your opponent’s hair or tweeting about Mama Grizzlies and pit bulls with lipstick.

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