Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Media silly season didn't end in August

This one paragraph might be a good summary of much that is wrong with our media these days.
The summer is essentially over, and the Obama White House probably couldn’t be happier after dealing with one crisis after another. Ukraine. ISIS. The VA. Ferguson. But the chief result of this tough summer -- which has sent President Obama’s approval ratings to the low 40s (and maybe even lower) -- is a White House that’s second-guessing itself. It’s divided over using military force in Syria to combat ISIS. It’s conflicted over whether to announce executive action on immigration before or after the midterms (Obama last week seemed to signal that he would be punting). And it’s unsure where and how to campaign in the fall midterms. This kind of second-guessing always happens when the goings get tough. But it’s never helpful when all this is happening 63 days -- or 9 weeks -- before a big Election Day. Obama seems to be keeping his own counsel more than ever. That is frustrating a lot of longtime aides who worry he is more in a bubble. And the nervousness among the outside advisers is contributing to the uncertainty inside the West Wing.
And thus NBC News (no, its not Fox) would have you believe that the Obama administration is lacking in confidence as we head into the 2014 midterms. Clearly they didn't watch the same speech the rest of us did from President Obama in Milwaukee yesterday.

But lets also deconstruct the attempt they made at an argument for their case (notice that they provide no quotes or links to substantiate their claims other than that vague reference to "outside advisors" at the end). 
  • Apparently the Associated Press thinks the White House knows EXACTLY where its going to campaign over the next few weeks. 
  • The fact that the President's advisors might not agree about what to do in Syria is nothing new...been going on since the civil war there started three years ago. 
  • And you KNOW this same media would have been howling about how President Obama doesn't work with House/Senate Democrats if he hadn't at least been willing to listen to their arguments about putting off action on immigration until after the midterms. 
But they saved the whopper till the end. Can someone please explain to NBC News that "being in a bubble" is the exact opposite of listening to conflicting opinions? I mean really...is that nuts or what!? Its like someone said, "Let's make up a meme about the Obama administration second-guessing itself." And then proceed to throw the kitchen sink at it in hopes no one will notice that its all a bunch of BS.
 
Geez!!!!!

An Open Letter to Independents

Dear Independents,

As you are probably aware, we have an election coming up in a couple of months. I sure hope you are planning to vote. Turnout is generally low in midterm elections. But if you're one of those people who is sick and tired of the games being played in Washington - now is your chance to speak up about that. Don't let this opportunity pass.

As you listen to candidates ask for your vote, my suggestion is that you focus on issues and not let all the nonsense about personalities get in the way. I think that when you do that, you'll see a pattern emerge. For example, lets take a look at the three big things that are under discussion right now.

Health Care 

The Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare). If you already had insurance through your employer, you probably haven't seen a lot of change. But so far ACA has meant that the rate of uninsured Americans has dropped over 13% and the rise in health care costs is finally slowing down.

Republicans want to repeal the ACA. But its unclear what they would do to insure more people and/or control health care costs.

Immigration Reform 

Last year Democrats and Republicans in the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill. It provided for more border security and a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers currently in this country.

Republicans in the House refused to bring that bill up for a vote. They support the border security provisions but not the pathway to citizenship. It remains unclear what they would do with the 11 million undocumented people.

Economy 

Democrats want to raise the minimum wage, spend money on infrastructure to create jobs, and pass immigration reform - which would grow the economy by an additional 4.8% over 20 years.

Here the Republicans do have a plan. But there's still a lot that is left unsaid. They want to cut government spending - although they don't provide any details about what will be cut. They want more tax cuts - but don't provide much about the details of who's taxes will be reduced. And they want to eliminate government regulations that protect us from the kinds of Wall Street abuse that led to the Great Recession as well as those that protect out environment.

If you care about the issues, its clear that Democrats have a plan. I'd also suggest that its clear Republicans either don't, or won't say what their plan is. You might want to take that into consideration when you make your decision about who to vote for in November.

See you at the polls!
Nancy LeTourneau

Sunday, August 31, 2014

No commentary required 8/31/14

Looks like I'm not going to be writing much today, so here are some things you should read:

Pundits and right wingers are positively freaking out about their assumption that President Obama doesn't have a strategy to deal with ISIS. He does. And Secretary of State John Kerry says its something I've been talking about all along...partnership.
In a polarized region and a complicated world, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria presents a unifying threat to a broad array of countries, including the United States. What’s needed to confront its nihilistic vision and genocidal agenda is a global coalition using political, humanitarian, economic, law enforcement and intelligence tools to support military force.
The most comprehensive look at President Obama's foreign policy comes from Michael Cohen: The punditry vs the presidency: How the constant chorus of "do something" Obama foreign policy critics gets it wrong. Nope, I'm not going to provide an excerpt. You'll just have to go read the whole thing!

On the topic of great minds thinking alike, I'll just point out that last week I said this about how technology is affecting our view of the world:
We now see and hear about events both around the world and here at home with an immediacy that is unprecedented. I've often thought that when it feels like the world is going to hell these days, the truth is that its always been that way...we just didn't know it.
Friday night, President Obama said this:
The world’s always been messy ... we’re just noticing now in part because of social media.
So yeah, me and POTUS - we're like this:

;-)

Finally...the most important read of the day. As you may have heard, this week Barack Obama will be the first sitting president to visit Wales. In preparation for that historic event, Chipsticks has given us the "10 things you need to know about Wales." Foreign policy pundits will be lost this week if they don't check that one out.

For some pictorial enlightenment today, its important to remember that First Daughters are allowed to throw some shade at their Dad.


But its always good to follow it up with a little "Just kidding, Dad."


Saturday, August 30, 2014

Beyond Ferguson: Understanding the big picture

I just want to say that Carol Anderson nailed it in her column titled: Ferguson isn't about black rage against cops. It's white rage against progress.
When we look back on what happened in Ferguson, Mo., during the summer of 2014, it will be easy to think of it as yet one more episode of black rage ignited by yet another police killing of an unarmed African American male. But that has it precisely backward. What we’ve actually seen is the latest outbreak of white rage. Sure, it is cloaked in the niceties of law and order, but it is rage nonetheless.

Protests and looting naturally capture attention. But the real rage smolders in meetings where officials redraw precincts to dilute African American voting strength or seek to slash the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment. It goes virtually unnoticed, however, because white rage doesn’t have to take to the streets and face rubber bullets to be heard. Instead, white rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures and governors, who cast its efforts as noble, though they are actually driven by the most ignoble motivations.

White rage recurs in American history. It exploded after the Civil War, erupted again to undermine the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and took on its latest incarnation with Barack Obama’s ascent to the White House. For every action of African American advancement, there’s a reaction, a backlash.
That is essentially the same message we hear from Rev. William Barber when he talks about the fact that we are in the midst of a third reconstruction.


The reason its important to remember this is that it keeps the focus where it should be...on racism. But it also allows us to acknowledge the strength of our cause. Change is happening and the backlash is very real. But as I've said so many times, the dying beast is lashing out in its death throes. That's why I loved how Rev. Al Sharpton ended his remarks at Michael Brown's memorial service.
I don’t know how long the investigation will be. I don’t know how long the journey’s going ot be. But I know how this story gonna end. The first will be last. The last will be first. The lion and lamb gonna lay down together. And God will! God will! God will make a way for his children! I been to the end of the Book. Justice is gonna come!
The backlash we're experiencing now was triggered by just that kind of hope.
We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember that, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change...

For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.

It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.
P.S. Perhaps that's why I can never watch this video without shedding a few tears. And perhaps its also why Rev. Joseph Lowery chose to include these words in his prayer at the inauguration of Barack Obama as this country's 44th president:
God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who has by thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path we pray

Friday, August 29, 2014

The limits of empathy

Its clear that President Obama believes that empathy is a necessary ingredient for solving our differences. That's why in his book The Audacity of Hope, he wrote:
I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.
As we've watched him over the years, this is not the empathy of weakness or surrender. It is about recognizing your own limitations and combining that with a deep understanding of your opponent.

And yet, when I hear him talk about ISIS, I hear the limits of empathy. He's come to the conclusion that they must simply be defeated via force, not understood.

I am reminded of what he said in his Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech:
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason...

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another -- that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.
Frankly, this is something I struggle with. The folly of war is so immense. I remember this coming home for me in my 20's when I shared my apartment with a young woman who was visiting from Germany. We watched a war movie together and afterwards talked about the fact that if our fathers had been born just a few years earlier, they could have met on the battlefield...trying to kill each other. That was unthinkable to us.

On the other hand, one of President Obama's favorite philosophers - Reinhold Neibuhr - gave up his commitment to non-violence when he witnessed the ravages of Nazi Germany in Europe. In many ways it was a case of the lesser of two evils rather than a moral justification...an acceptance of "the world as it is rather than as we want it to be."

And so, I want to continue to struggle. That's why I appreciate the thoughtful way this President approaches this kind of decision. And its why I find Bill Kristol's "lets just bomb them for awhile and see what happens" to be morally repugnant.

I'll admit that I find no empathy in my heart for ISIS at this point. But engaging in war - while sometimes necessary - is always "an expression of human folly."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Thought for the Day: Sometimes...


Years ago a friend and I took a vacation to the Enchanted Circle of New Mexico. One day we were hiking and stopped to take a break. The view was so beautiful and calming that I wanted to be able to reflect on it when I got home and the stressors started to build. So I focused, not just on what my eyes were seeing, but also what my ears were hearing and my nose was smelling and my mouth was tasting and my skin was feeling. I wanted to record the whole package.

As we resumed our hike, the tears started to fall unexpectedly. Recording that scene had put me so "in the moment" that I'd shed all the layers of accommodation I normally carry around to protect the most vulnerable part of myself. In that one moment - I was truly and authentically me. They were tears of relief at being found, not sorrow.

Or as Norah Jones would say...
And in this place
where your arms unfold
here at last, you see your ancient face.
Now you know...
Now you know.

What Ferguson triggered

One of the things social media has highlighted lately is the fact that words/events can "trigger" the emotional reliving of trauma from a person's past. Without naming this phenomenon, Jelani Cobb suggested that Ferguson was a trigger for African Americans.
In the days after 9/11, it was common to hear people say that it was the first time Americans had really experienced terrorism on their own soil. Those sentiments were historically wrong, and willfully put aside acts that were organized on a large scale, had a political goal, and were committed with the specific intention of being nightmarishly memorable. The death cult that was lynching furnished this country with such spectacles for a half century. (The tallies vary, but, by some estimates, there were thirty-three hundred lynchings in the decades between the end of Reconstruction and the civil-rights era.) We know intuitively, not abstractly, about terrorism’s theatrical intent. The sight of Michael Brown, sprawled on Canfield Drive for four hours in the August sun, dead at the hands of an officer who was unnamed for a week, recalled that memory. It had the effect of reminding that crowd of spontaneous mourners of their own refuted humanity. A single death can be understood as a collective threat. The media didn’t whip up these concerns among the black population; history did that.
I suspect that this pretty much nails what it is that white people have a hard time understanding about the reaction of African Americans to the death of Michael Brown. We've allowed ourselves to be oblivious to the terror we never experienced and how events today trigger all that for those who did.

Perhaps we can fire up our mirror neurons of empathy if we image that, for a moment on 9/11/01, we felt the terror that African Americans felt for decades of slavery and lynchings. Many of us feel that terror triggered when we see video of that awful day in September. And we've done some pretty dumb things as a result...everything from invading the wrong country to freaking out over the building of a mosque in New York City.

The fear that terror instills can be debilitating and/or dangerous. And so I'm reminded of what HamdenRice wrote a few years ago about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.

He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south...

It wasn't that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn't sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.

You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement used to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth's.

It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.

This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people...

The question is, how did Dr. King do this—and of course, he didn't do it alone...

So what did they do?

They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.

Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.

If we do it all together, we'll be okay.
Understanding the fear and the triggers and the true legacy of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. would go a long way to helping us understand the events we're witnessing today. And it might also give us some lessons about how to deal with our own fears.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Shutting the conversation down

I always shake my head at the irony of a Fox News pundit claiming that President Obama has politicized the death of Michael Brown. This comes from the folks who - along with other rightwing media outlets - have made it their goal to politicize EVERYTHING.

I was reminded of how that happens when I read this article in PowerLine about the politicization of history. But we have plenty of evidence about how the right has politicized everything from science (evolution and climate change) to math (unscewing polls). The success of these attempts can be seen by the fact that where we shop is political, how we acknowledge holidays is political, and cultural icons are political.

Fox News and other right wing media play on all this to set up one side as righteous and the other as out to destroy America as we know it. So if you are a truly patriotic American, you agree with our side and any other position is to be excluded as the enemy. It is this attempt to politicize everything that Julian Sanchez calls epistemic closure.
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile...If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation.
In order to halt any real conversation, one of the tools often used by right wing media is to cast every issue as an either/or. Media Matters has been doing a pretty good job lately of showing how Fox News edited the remarks of President Obama and AG Eric Holder about the situation in Ferguson by eliminating the balance in their statements. They aired only the side of these remarks that was sure to inflame their audience and eliminated the side conservatives might have agreed with.

There are two reasons why its important to understand this pattern. One is so that we can recognize what the right wing media is doing. But perhaps even more important - so that we can check ourselves and make sure we're not doing the same damn thing.

An astute commenter here pointed out how Michael Eric Dyson did the exact same thing (in reverse) to statements made my President Obama about the situation in Ferguson. Dyson basically wrote a script for what he thinks the President should have said:
And I'm saying to you that if he could inform American society that, look, yes, we must keep them law, yes we must keep the peace, people must calm their passion, but let me explain to you why people might be hurt, why they might be angry and why they might be upset. That is his responsibility to tell that truth regardless of what those political fallouts will be.
Now here's what President Obama actually said:
As Americans, we've got to use this moment to seek out our shared humanity that's been laid bare by this moment -- the potential of a young man and the sorrows of parents, the frustrations of a community, the ideals that we hold as one united American family.

...I’ve said this before -- in too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement. In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear.
To give Dyson the benefit of the doubt, I'm going to suggest that he heard what the President said that made him angry...and not much else. Brittany Cooper did exactly the same thing when she critiqued Rev. Al Sharpton's remarks at the Michael Brown Memorial.

So while our walls of epistemic closure might not be as high or as impenetrable as those on the right, we fool ourselves if we don't admit that they exist. Because anger is such a strong trigger, we go there and shut the conversation down - never getting to the possibilities of where we might agree.

I actually think that Rev. Sharpton spoke eloquently to exactly what is going on - and sounded an awful lot like Bernice Johnson Reagon in the process.
Sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves won't solve our problems. Sitting around having ghetto pity parties rather than organizing and strategizing and putting our differences aside. Yes, we got young and old. Yes, we got things that we don't like about each other, but it's bigger than our egos. It's bigger than everybody. We need everybody because I'm gonna tell you, I don't care how much money you got, I don't care what position you hold. I don't care how much education you got. If we can't protect a child walking down the street in Ferguson, and protect him, and bring justice, all you got don't matter to nobody but you!

Monday, August 25, 2014

"We must substitute courage for caution"

Today, as Michael Brown's parents and family said goodbye to him, I was reminded of the words Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at a funeral for four little girls in Birmingham 51 years ago. His wisdom is as much of a challenge to us today as it was to those in attendance back then.
And so this afternoon in a real sense they [the four little girls] have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream...

And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.
Talk like that is why Ta-Nehisi Coates said Dr. King had a "shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity." Was he right to harbor that faith? Can white people "learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality?" Believing its possible and working towards that goal is what courage is all about.

Photo of the Day: Until justice rolls down like waters...

For Michael:


Are Americans in a permanent funk?

That's from Gallup on August 15, 2014. They note the following:
The last time a majority of Americans were satisfied with the direction of the country was more than a decade ago, a 55% reading in January 2004. Further, satisfaction has not topped 40% since July 2005, amid a struggling economy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and declining confidence in government.
I'll just add a caveat that I've written about before: it is people of color who are the optimists among us these days.  Even so, we might ask ourselves what has put so many of us in such a funk. I'm going to take a stab at outlining three things that are contributing to it.

Changing technology

Robert Fisk has written an interesting article about how ISIS is exploiting social media. Its just another example of how technology has made our world smaller. We now see and hear about events both around the world and here at home with an immediacy that is unprecedented. I've often thought that when it feels like the world is going to hell these days, the truth is that its always been that way...we just didn't know it. We face the choice of either ignoring what's going on or developing a serious case of compassion fatigue.

Changing world 

While its true that the world has always had a certain amount of chaos, most Americans who are alive today have had simple frames of good/evil with which to understand those events. During World War II the enemy was fascism and during the Cold War it was communism. In search of a way to frame what is going on now, some conservatives have tried to rally us around a new ideological frame of reference by seeing the enemy as Islam or terrorism. But much of that breaks down when we can't locate who the "good guys" are in tensions between Assad's Syria and ISIS - as just one example.

But the world is changing at home too. We just elected our first African American President...twice. And in about 20 years, white people will no longer be a majority in the country. In states like California and Texas - that has already happened. Folks can see the change coming. And the dying beast is lashing out - even as it knows its days are numbered.

Changing media

In the past, most Americans got their news from the same sources. We knew what was going on in the world because Walter Cronkite told us.

Now people get their news from whatever source tends to reinforce their world view. People have been pointing this out for a while now. But I think its important to add that partisan reporting is based on an assumption that the "other side" is out to destroy the country. This happens on both the left and the right.

While you might think that one side of that equation is correct, its important to notice the corrosive effect this has on all of us. We are constantly being told that this is the fight of a lifetime and if our side doesn't win, it is the end of America as we know it. To make that point, we are barraged with news about all the horrible things the other side is doing/saying. As much as I love Media Matters, I have to take them in small doses or I get in a pretty ugly funk myself.

Some people are even suggesting that President Obama might be in a bit of a funk lately. That's amusing because before he went on vacation a couple of weeks ago, the news was all about how "the bear is loose." But if he does ever get discouraged (which I'm sure happens), I suspect that ISIS and Ferguson are not what lingers. It probably has more to do with our ongoing struggle to accomplish this:
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will.
Continuing to work at that requires optimism (i.e., hope) that says its possible to achieve. That kind of optimism becomes contagious when we look at what we've accomplished so far - against some pretty big odds. When the bear gets loose again, I'm sure he'll go right back to where he was before he (sorta) went on vacation.
I do not believe in a cynical America; I believe in an optimistic America that is making progress. And I believe despite unyielding opposition, there are workers right now who have jobs who didn’t have them before because of what we've done; and folks who got health care who didn’t have it because of the work that we've done; and students who are going to college who couldn’t afford it before; and troops who’ve come home after tour after tour of duty because of what we've done.

You don't have time to be cynical. Hope is a better choice.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

On patriotism and dissent

Today I ran across a speech that candidate Barack Obama gave in June 2008 on the topic of patriotism. We'll just leave alone the irony of the fact that he gave that speech in Missouri. But one of the things he talked about is that patriotism is often defined by dissent to our government/leaders.
Of course, precisely because America isn't perfect, precisely because our ideals constantly demand more from us, patriotism can never be defined as loyalty to any particular leader or government or policy. As Mark Twain, that greatest of American satirists and proud son of Missouri, once wrote, "Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it." We may hope that our leaders and our government stand up for our ideals, and there are many times in our history when that's occurred. But when our laws, our leaders or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism.
We can look at that from a couple of different angles. First of all, President Obama has continually supported the right of protesters in Ferguson to assemble and speak their minds about the shooting of Michael Brown and the response of local government officials.

In addition, some people have chosen to speak out against President Obama's response to the events in Ferguson. I'd suggest that he would find their dissent patriotic. But for me the, question arises as to whether or not that kind of dissent is effective.

Not too long ago, the President told young people at his My Brother's Keeper town hall meeting what kinds of critiques he takes to heart. He mentioned three questions he poses:
  1. Does it advance a common goal?
  2. Is it a criticism of what you do rather than who you are?
  3. Does it include a suggestion for how to improve?
We can apply those questions to the critiques we've heard lately. Some of them actually meet these criteria. But when it comes to patriotism, candidate Obama talked about something else he includes:
Beyond a loyalty to America's ideals, beyond a willingness to dissent on behalf of those ideals, I also believe that patriotism must, if it is to mean anything, involve the willingness to sacrifice - to give up something we value on behalf of a larger cause.
 That reminded me of this moment last November.


That is a picture of the President and First Lady visiting the people involved in Fast 4 Families. At the time this happened, I noted that it was likely the first time a sitting president showed that kind of support for an activist movement. They got the attention of our "Community Organizer-in-Chief" specifically because they were engaging in the very definition of patriotic dissent. 

Finally, Al Giordano wrote something in response to the speech from Obama that I think is at the heart of the difference between effective and ineffective dissent. 
My duty to the causes I care about is not to cry that we've been victimized, or that "the sky is falling," or to play armchair quarterback shouting from the bleachers at the captain on the field that he must make his next play a run or a pass. Nor is it to yell, "I'm taking my money and support and game board and going home." It is, rather, to inform and organize greater public opinion to grow to see the issue as I see it, so that whenever he may take office, he will have to deal with the reality that we have created with or without him.

People that care deeply and legitimately about misunderstood or unpopular issues like abolition of the death penalty for anyone (even for child rapists), or that Israel has to end its terrible treatment of Palestinians, or that there should be no immunity for telecommunications companies that spy on behalf of the government on Americans that communicate abroad, or fill-in-your-pet-issue-here, have to first educate and organize the citizenry to demonstrably agree with them before they can realistically insist that any political candidate stick his neck onto their pet chopping block.
I've commented before that the great civil rights leaders of our past didn't spend their time calling out politicians for their failures. On everything from bus boycotts to lunch counter sit-ins to breakfasts for pre-schoolers, they spent their time organizing the community...until the politicians had to listen.

Those who think that dissent is all about critiquing what President Obama does/doesn't do forget something every community organizer knows in their bones...

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A pragmatist's musings on ending racism

Racism is a highly-charged emotional issue in this country. Rightly so. But I find it helpful to step back from the emotions every now and then to take a rational pragmatic look at where we are and what our goals should be going forward.

In order to do that, its important to recognize the two broad categories of racism: personal and systemic. Personal racism includes both the covert messages we've all internalized as a result of living in a white supremacist culture as well as overtly racist words/actions. Personal racism is basically a white-people's problem as my friend Robinswing articulated a while ago when she said "We Can't Fix Ya!" Ending personal racism is an individual journey.

I can't speak for anyone else, but that journey for me was initiated and has been maintained by some very patient people of color in my life. I have tried my best on this blog platform to pass those lessons on to the few people who read here. White people are "my people," and its important to me that we eventually get it.

But the truth is, people of color can walk away from personal racism. Unless they care individually or collectively about our opinions, they can chose to ignore us. Even the racist rantings of a Sterling or Bundy or Robertson (Duck Dynasty) are meaningless unless we give them weight.

Ultimately it is systemic racism that impacts people of color directly. It happens when racism becomes embedded, both overtly and covertly, in institutional patterns and practices. Both the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement were successful in ending different forms of systemic racism: slavery and legal segregation. But those patterns and practices have been embedded in our systems of education, health care, housing, employment, immigration and criminal justice.

While personal and systemic racism are certainly intertwined, I believe that the former is a slow process of personal transformation. No one can control when/if another person is open to that process. We can only seize the moments that are presented to us.

But if, as Rev. William Barber has articulated, we are in the midst of a Third Reconstruction, I think it behooves us to focus on further eradication of systemic racism. Others may disagree, but I think the most pressing areas today are in our education, immigration and criminal justice systems.

When viewed in this light, our "talk" about racism should be focused on gaining allies to do the work of dismantling systemic racism (you can see that on display with Rev. Barber's Moral Mondays Movement). This is where the current work of criminal justice reform presents a fascinating opportunity. Conservatives have joined the fight - not to rid the system of racism - but to reduce government spending. There are similar alliances developing with big business on the issues of education and immigration.

Now...if you've been paying attention, you might have seen how President Obama is providing leadership on these issues. His administration is busy advocating for universal pre-K, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, opening up the opportunity for a college education to more young people, passing comprehensive immigration reform, cracking down on police brutality, initiating a clemency initiative, and being Smart on Crime.

When the President's critics - like Michael Eric Dyson - say he needs to step up, use the bully pulpit and provide leadership, what they mean is that he should talk about racism. That is aimed at tackling the personal. For better or worse, this President has decided to focus on the systemic.