Sunday, January 30, 2011

No Easy Answers

Here is Secretary of State Clinton, trying to give a nuanced, careful explanation of United States support for a process of dialogue and self-determination for the Egyptian people.  Candy Crowley, however, like many in the media, wants to get the Secretary to take sides.  Are we for Mubarak, or for the people in the street?  Can Mubarak survive even if gives in to some of the protesters' demands?  Surely the administration is right to resist media and other attempts to over-simplify a problem and support one side or the other in another country's internal struggles.  Instead, the United States needs to support a process that will lead Egypt to a system that better recognizes the rights and aspirations of the Egyptian people. That means the United States does not support a particular faction or leader, but instead supports human rights, including the right to peaceful protest, and the right to make change through elections, and also the rights to religious freedom and to due process of law.  You'd better believe that means that Egypt needs to make some changes to protect those rights, but it should not matter to the United States whether the existing government is able to make those changes, or whether that government needs to be replaced.  It should only matter whether this protest movement is able to achieve a more just society.

So Candy and others in the media, stop asking divisive questions.  It's entirely fair to ask what our understanding is of what is going on, and what the United States is doing to assist with this situation.  It's not helpful to turn a volatile situation in Egypt into a sporting event in which Americans need to decide which side to root for.  That can only polarize debate in this country, as well as create new problems in Egypt for any particular faction that the United States might decide to support.

Improving Political Debates

I found myself judging a high school debate competition yesterday, always a fun experience.  One timely subject chosen for one of the impromptu debates was "Americans should support incivility in political discussion," a topic a lot of people have been thinking about, and which I have also written about recently.   It might seem difficult to come up with many good reasons for supporting rude behavior and hate speech, in light of recent violent events in this country. On the other hand, watching events in Egypt this week might give some support to the idea that there is an important place for raucous, uncivil, marching in the streets kinds of protest.

The teams I judged took a slightly different approach.  The prop side advocated stricter controls on violent actions, and new laws against inciting violence against members of Congress, thus, they argued, providing more safety for plain old uncivil speech that does not incite violence.  The opp side wanted to ban all kinds of uncivil speech, such as political attack ads, thus biting off a lot more than they needed to chew.  I was amazed to see just how quickly both teams were ready to address this problem by proposing new laws outlawing something we don't like.  This is especially troubling when I saw how readily these kids cut back First Amendment freedoms, one of the cornerstones of our whole political system.

The students' solutions echo proposals we see advanced every day in Congress to remedy one problem or another, by simply banning it.  The right is unhappy about the health care reform act and liberal abortion laws.  So they are pushing through Congress even more draconian provisions forbidding insurance companies from covering abortions.  They are not coming up with alternative ways to provide better health care for more people.  They are not making much effort to prevent unwanted pregnancies or care for abandoned babies.  The left is unhappy about liberal gun laws.  So they are talking about bans on ammunition clips or automatic weapons, or stricter regulation of gun sales.  They are not making much effort to provide training in gun safety for all of the millions of gun owners out there.

A lot of problems can be addressed without jumping to the conclusion that we have to outlaw whatever it is we don't like.  Incivility in political discussion is only one of them.  It would be a nice change to see people think first about positive changes we could make to deal with whatever social problem is irking them, rather than immediately jump to the conclusion that whenever we see something going on that we don't like, we have to make it illegal.

(Still from the film Rocket Science)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Moving the Center

Here is Rachel Maddow, who seems recently to have become much more appreciative of the President, explaining the difference between the tactics of Clinton and Obama in dealing with a resurgent Republican movement.  As the right has moved further and further to the right over the years, Clinton responded by co-opting Republican positions on issues like crime and welfare and balanced budgets and limited government, which made Democrats sound more like Republicans, and which encouraged the Republicans to keep moving away from him, in order to differentiate themselves, and therefore caused the center to move further to the right.

Obama, by contrast, is trying to move the center to the left, or at least keep it where it is, so that the country's political spectrum will not continue to drift further to the right, and might even return to a more Eisenhower-era normalcy.  That will give his administration room to institute more liberal reforms. To do that, he used the State of the Union address to drive home the point that we need government to re-build our infrastructure and improve education, so as to keep the country more competitive, a theme that almost everyone can agree with.  He also does this with his "togetherness" theme, which tries to encourage Republicans to move toward the Democrats instead of away from them.  Does this theory make sense to anyone?  It does to me.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hope and Change in Egypt

First Tunisia, now Egypt.  People swarming into the streets in these countries are suddenly conscious of their own power, and less afraid of government repression.  They have already toppled one dictator, and now they are causing anxiety for Egypt's leadership.  According to this report in the New York Times, the charge in Egypt is not being led by any of the organized opposition parties, which seem surprised by the sudden uprisings, but instead by young people using new forms of communication and new organizing strategies. 

Should President Obama get some credit for ushering in a new wave of democratic protests in the Middle East?  His speech in Cairo in 2009 may have kindled an interest in reform in Egypt and elsewhere.  But I'd prefer to think that instead of one man changing the world, it is a worldwide movement of mostly young people that brought change to America in 2008, that shook Iran in 2009, that is bringing democracy to Sudan, that toppled a dictator in Tunisia in 2011, and that is now trying to bring change to Egypt.

The administration may even have been taken by surprise by how fast events are moving in Egypt.  There must be concern about the stability of a key U.S. ally in the region, and the possibility that radical Islamists could take advantage of the situation.  Despite those concerns, reports today indicate that the U.S. has already shifted its tone to keep up with what is going on.  Secretary of State Clinton said today (in Jordan), in contrast to a more cautious statement yesterday: "We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."  Will President Mubarak seize that opportunity, which presents the risk that he will lose control anyway, or will he revert to traditional methods of repression to put down these protests?   

And just for fun, here's some further commentary from the Bangles:

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Winning the Future

It seemed right for the President to focus on global competitiveness in his State of the Union message tonight.  The metaphorical difficulty with calling this a "Sputnik moment," however, is that it is harder now to point to a single Sputnik that threatens us in the way that we were shocked by the sight of the actual Sputnik.  The threat to the American economy's competitive position is much more amorphous these days.  Nevertheless, the need to invest in education, infrastructure and clean energy should still be clear, because without those things we will have no economy.

The president's focus on those issues also seems like a clever way to force those who think that the main thing we should be worried about right now is government spending to give some content to their ideas.   They should have the burden of showing that cutting spending would not be like removing the engine from the plane while it is in the air.  And while it also seemed necessary for the president to talk about making government more efficient, his heart seemed to be more in telling stories of innovative and successful American entrepreneurs.  The anti-government crowd should be cheered by that focus also.  After all, there is only so much you can do to improve the delivery of government services, which is a pretty dull topic in any event.  What should stir their imagination is helping the next generation of American business leaders.

The speech seemed to go over pretty well.  A CBS poll found that a whopping 82% of a sample who listened to the speech, approved of the president's plans.  On the other hand, Fox managed to turn out a focus group that seemed almost uniformly hostile.  Going forward, I don't envy the Republicans who are going to be forced over the next couple of years to advocate taking benefits away from people, and whining about the deficit, while the President and his party will continue to push for a lot of good things that people want.

Nazi rhetoric

I happened to be flipping channels past Fox News last night and caught a couple of minutes of Sean Hannity's program, in which he and his guests were raking Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen from Tennessee over the coals for having the audacity to call the Republicans' continued repetition of the phrase "government takeover of health care" a "big lie," as in the kind of big lie that Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels liked to repeat.  How dare these Democrats compare Republicans to Nazis!  How outrageous!  "But it is a big lie," I started yelling at the TV. "And the Congressman wasn't calling Republicans Nazis; he was only saying they were using propaganda techniques similar to those used by the Nazis."  I could see that none of Hannity's guests were ever going to deal with the substance of the Congressman's criticism, however, only his reference to Goebbels; so I changed channels in an effort to keep my blood pressure down.

Maybe Hannity & Co. have a point, though.  We should probably just acknowledge that Nazi comparisons are inherently inflammatory.  Maybe it's best never to compare anything anyone does to anything the Nazis ever did.  Nobody listens to you when you do that, so the only thing you accomplish is to rile up your supporters, and give your opponents grounds to ignore the merits of your criticism, and focus on the unfairness of the Nazi comparison.  One would therefore expect that Fox News personalities would never make such comparisons, especially since they were so quick to express outrage at Congressman Cohen's remarks. 

Leave it to Jon Stewart to compile the evidence of Fox's hypocrisy for all to see.  Luckily his staff watches Fox News so the rest of us don't have to:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
24 Hour Nazi Party People
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>The Daily Show on Facebook

I wonder if Megyn Kelly realizes that she looks ridiculous.   I'm also happy to see that Jon Stewart doesn't mind looking ridiculous himself.

SOTU Behind the Scenes

From the White House, some historical perspective, and a peek behind the scenes, at the State of the Union Address.  Even thought the requirement for delivering a State of the Union message is in the Constitution, are people generally aware that it was Woodrow Wilson who started the modern practice of actually delivering the State of the Union message in person?  Before that, the President used to just send the text over to Congress.  It also seems like a nice touch that the Speaker of the House actually sends a letter over to the White House inviting the President to give a State of the Union address.  Let's hope that this tradition is not replaced by e-mail and You Tube anytime soon.

Monday, January 24, 2011

What Mandate?

In the midterm election campaign, a new wave of conservative candidates scored a lot of victories by promising to take the government back.  They claim they have a mandate to cut spending, repeal health care reform and shrink the federal government.  Recent polls suggest, however, that the new Republican House majority should be a little cautious in claiming that they know what the people want.  The latest New York Times/CBS poll found, for example, that only 40% of respondents favored repeal of the Affordable Care Act, with 48% opposed to repeal, and 12% undecided.  Even more interesting, however, were the more detailed responses of those who favored repeal.  Of that 40%, 14% did not know what parts they wanted to repeal, 11% want to repeal the insurance mandate, 8% want to repeal the whole thing, and hardly anybody wanted to repeal any other specific portion of the law.  (These findings are also summarized in Greg Sargent's Washington Post column.)  Despite the lack of strong public support for repeal, and despite their criticisms last year of Democrats for supposedly shoving health insurance reform down their throats by use of their Congressional majorities in both houses, House Republicans plowed ahead with little debate and a nearly party-line repeal vote.

Also interesting in the Times/CBS poll were responses to questions about fixing Medicare and Social Security.  When asked what should be done about Medicare to help reduce the federal budget deficit, 24% suggested cutting benefits, and a whopping 64% said we should raise taxes.  Similarly, when asked how to fix Social Security, only 25% said we should reduce benefits, while 63% said we should raise taxes.  Even more dramatic results were reported in a poll done for Daily Kos (ok, I know to my conservative friends that would make the poll suspect--so take your own poll).  That poll asked whether people would prefer to raise the income cap for Social Security taxes, or cut benefits and raise the retirement age.  An overwhelming majority of 77% favored raising taxes in that scenario.  Even of people who identified themselves as Tea Partiers, a whopping 67% favored raising taxes over cutting benefits.  Even of the people whose taxes would be raised (those making over $100,000 per year), 72% favored raising their own taxes over cutting benefits and raising the retirement age.  Despite these massive majorities opposed to cutting benefits and preferring to raise taxes, Republicans in Congress are discussing only benefit cuts, not revenue increases.

Given these kinds of findings, it is not surprising that the White House came out strongly opposed to raising the eligibility age for Social Security or cutting benefits.  It's also not surprising that the president, in the same CBS/New York Times poll, now has a 49% favorable rating (39% unfavorable), while the Republican Party has only a 40% favorable rating.  When President Obama speaks to Congress tomorrow, Congressional Republicans should be thinking about whether he or they are more in tune with what the American people want.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Good-bye Keith

Maybe the news is all in how you look at it.  Take the news of Keith Olbermann's sudden (or maybe not so sudden) departure from MSNBC.  If you are an outspoken  progressive distrustful of the government and even more so of giant corporations, you might connect the dots between the Justice Department's approval of the NBC-Comcast merger and the almost immediate termination of Keith Olbermann's contract thereafter, and conclude that the government and these giant corporations have teamed up to silence a strong progressive champion.  If you're a bit more cynical and less inclined to view the world in ideological terms, you might decide this was just a business decision by both parties, the talent deciding to walk and take a big payoff because his salary demands were not being met, while the producer decided the talent was too troublesome and perhaps past his prime ratings-wise.  If you're a moralist or an old-fashioned journalistic purist, you might think Keith Olbermann deserved a comeuppance for his flouting of journalistic ethics. and his biased and opinionated presentation of the news.

As for me, I think there might be a bit of truth in all these theories, but I'll admit I was never that big of a Keith Olbermann fan, so I'm not really sorry to see him go.  I don't care for his smirky, snarky tone of voice, and I doubt he was very effective at persuading anyone who did not already agree with him, of anything.  I'm not a journalist either, but I like to delude myself into thinking that what I'm doing here in my very humble way is the opposite of what polarizing figures like Keith Olbermann are doing.  I support a similar progressive agenda, but I'm also trying to promote respectful dialogue, stay positive, tone down the rhetoric, and keep things in historical perspective.  And I hear Keith Olbermann may soon be moving to the internet to join me, since he is off the air for a while.  Good night and good luck, Keith.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

American Exceptionalism

What does "American exceptionalism" mean, and why have we been hearing so much about the idea from conservative leaders since the election of Barack Obama as president?   The historian Ian Tyrrell says the idea refers to "the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty." There is also a good summary of the debate about this idea in this recent Washington Post article.  The idea of exceptionalism could be thought to arise from the new and unique character of the American government at the time of its founding.  Some, like Newt Gingrich, think that the United States was divinely ordained to be exceptional, sort of like the special covenant of the Jewish people with God.

President Obama has been criticized for not believing in American exceptionalism (based largely on one remark seeming to equate Americans' belief in their exceptionalism with the beliefs of people in other nations in their own exceptionalism).  But President Obama has also frequently recognized the special character and history of this country.  As quoted in the Washington Post article cited above, President Obama has said that "we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional." That's about as ringing an endorsement of American exceptionalism as anybody has a right to expect from someone who also has to appreciate that the American ideals of liberty and equality were denied to so many in this country for so long.

Liberals and conservatives ought to be able to agree that this country has a unique character, and a special set of values; that the United States can still be seen, as Lincoln saw it, as the "last best hope of earth." Or, as Lincoln described it the Gettysburg address, as a "new nation" based on liberty and equality and popular sovereignty, that still needs to be tested periodically to find out whether it can long endure.  But liberals also have a right to be squeamish about how far conservatives seem to be willing to push the idea of American exceptionalism.  It should not be used, for example, to justify imperialistic adventures abroad.  (If we are exceptional, that does not give us the right to act like a bully.  In fact, we have a special obligation to act in a more enlightened way than previous empires.)

What brought the idea of American exceptionalism to my mind today was the renewed health care debate, kicked off by the partisan passage of a repeal bill in the House of Representatives.  Those who are opposed to health care reform seem to feel no obligation to take into account the experiences of every single other industrialized country in the entire world, all of whom have found it necessary to adopt some form of universal or near-universal health care system.  Most all of them spend much less than we do, and achieve as good or better results for a greater number of people.  Opponents of reform also feel no obligation to point to one example, anywhere in the world, of a working model health care system based on free market principles, that the United States should emulate.  This disdain for having to prove one's assertions with evidence, illustrates the dangerous side of a belief in American exceptionalism.  The idea is that the American medical system is just better, because it's American, and regardless of any flaws in that system that anyone might be able to point out; the idea is that we should be suspicious of any other country's system, whether or not it can be shown to have better results, just because those systems are not American.  This is why it seems impossible to have a rational argument about health care with the more doctrinaire members of the right wing, which seems to have captured pretty much the entire Republican party, judging by the almost perfect party-line vote today.  (Every single Republican House member voted for the repeal bill, while only three Democrats voted for it.)

Is it possible to appreciate our uniquely American history and values, while at the same time acknowledging that other people's experiences elsewhere in the world, might have some relevance, or something to teach us? The ongoing health care debate might help answer those questions.

(Alex Brandon/AP photo)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

What is civility in politics?

I came across a post on The Political Carnival accusing House Speaker John Boehner of ending the short-lived "truce" between the parties by issuing a strong statement accusing the Obama administration of embarking on a "jobs destroying spending spree."  (The New York Times, however, notes that Boehner has slightly downgraded his rhetoric by using the term "job-destroying" instead of  his previously favored phrase, "job-killing.")  Ironically, the Political Carnival post was followed by comments making the most vituperative, name-calling, hate-filled remarks you can imagine against Republicans.  So who is being civil and who is being uncivil?  Let's establish some ground rules.

Following up on a previous post, in which I tried to find some helpful guidelines from prominent Los Angeles mediator Ken Cloke to address the question of HOW we should go about toning down our political rhetoric, it might be useful to explain and clarify that restoring civility does not mean that we are going to end disagreement or debate.  Nobody should expect anybody else to abandon any deeply-held political positions, or to let go of their passions.  We should not just smooth over our differences, or sweep them under the rug.  Instead, we need to find a way of talking about those differences without needless, destructive attacks.  The goal is actually to help both sides in the debate achieve more of their goals, rather than foreclosing solutions by political gridlock and destructive argument.

What we should therefore be trying to eliminate from political debate are the following:

1. Name-calling and ad hominem attacks.  You will never persuade anyone who doesn't already agree with you of anything by calling the other side names.  All you do is demonize the other side.  That can never promote a civil dialogue.  Sometimes negotiators refer to this as separating the people from the problem.

2. Questioning motives.  Until proven otherwise, we should assume that people believe in their positions in good faith.  We should try to refrain from questioning their motives, and debate their positions on the merits.

3. Hyperbole.  We should try to debate proposals on their merits, without exaggerating their impact.  If someone proposes tightening up gun registration, that doesn't necessarily mean they want to destroy gun owners' freedoms.  If someone else proposes expanding electronic surveillance, that doesn't necessarily mean we are creating a police state.  Abortion is not the same as genocide.  Requiring people to buy health insurance is not socialism.  We can talk about our fears of where various proposals might lead us without exaggerating those fears or mis-characterizing the opposition's ideas.   

4. Falsehoods.  If we want to restore a civil debate, and tone down the rhetoric, we have to stop lying.  For example, it it indisputable that most of our $14 trillion national debt existed before the Obama administration took office.  Any suggestion that Obama is responsible for the entire debt is just a lie. If somebody wants to complain about the increase in the debt, let's at least be accurate about the amount of that increase.

5. Blaming.  To solve a problem, it is not always helpful to know who caused it.  It also seems unlikely we will agree on that, so arguing about who is to blame is often pointless and just generates more ill-feeling.  And even if you can establish whose fault it is, you still haven't begun to solve the problem.  

Let's apply these guidelines to John Boehner's statement that the Obama administration has embarked on a jobs-destroying spending spree.  I would judge that statement as borderline uncivil.  It contains a bit of hyperbole, some unnecessary blaming, and some unsupported assumptions.  But it doesn't preclude a civil response.  A civil response would first acknowledge that Mr. Boehner feels strongly that spending is out of control, and that he thinks government spending could harm the economy.  We need to let the Speaker know that we have heard his concerns.  Then we might ask Mr. Boehner to explain, because we have not seen the evidence, how increased government spending has destroyed jobs.  We might also ask whether he thinks there might be some kinds of spending that could increase jobs.  Then we might say that we agree that wasteful spending should be eliminated, and we would ask the Speaker to help us identify the spending that he thinks is harmful, so that we can determine if we have any common ground on that issue.  We should also tell him that we agree that we should do everything we can to increase the level of employment, and tell him that we also have some ideas for furthering that common goal.  Would he like to hear some of our ideas?  

In other words, there is no reason why we can't have a civil debate on the issues of government spending and jobs creation, especially since nearly everyone can agree that we are against wasteful spending, and we are for increased employment.  We might disagree on how to achieve those goals, but we might also find some areas of agreement.  But let's not start a new argument on who has broken the "truce."  That would not be civil.

Hope and Change in Tunisia

The eyes of the world should be on Tunisia this week, where we are seeing something that may be unprecedented in modern history in the Arab world: the toppling of autocratic ruler Ben Ali by a popular uprising.  We saw a democratic movement take to the streets in Iran last year in response to a questionable election, but that uprising was suppressed.  This one may be successful.  The success of such a movement in Tunisia could cause a ripple effect in places like Morocco and Egypt.

Who will emerge as the leaders of this popular movement?  Will they demand true democratic reforms?  Or will they unleash further conflict with competing movements based on Islamic fundamentalism?  Or will they produce nothing but chaos, backlash and a return to autocratic rule?  Here's hoping that a Lech Walesa or Vaclev Havel of Tunisia emerges and takes this movement in a positive direction.

Here is the President's statement yesterday on Tunisia:
I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people. The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard. I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.

As I have said before, each nation gives life to the principle of democracy in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people, and those countries that respect the universal rights of their people are stronger and more successful than those that do not. I have no doubt that Tunisia's future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people.
 Here is Secretary of State Clinton's:
The United States continues to closely monitor the rapidly evolving events in Tunisia, where earlier today President Ben Ali left his country following several weeks of demonstrations and popular unrest. We condemn the violence and urge restraint on all sides.

Clearly this is a moment of significant transition in Tunisia and through this period and beyond it is important that the Tunisian Government respect the right of its people to peacefully assemble and express their views. We look to the Tunisian Government to build a stronger foundation for Tunisia's future with economic, social, and political reforms, and call for free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.

On my trip to the Middle East this week, I heard people everywhere yearning for economic opportunity, political participation and the chance to build a better future. Young people especially need to have a meaningful role in the decisions that shape their lives. Addressing these concerns will be challenging, but the United States stands ready to help.

The United States has a long and historic relationship with Tunisia. We are committed to helping the people and government bring peace and stability to their country and we hope that they will work together to build a stronger, more democratic society that respects the rights of all people.
And here is the statement of John Birks Gillespie.  Enjoy:

Friday, January 14, 2011

Best Idea of the Week

Senator Mark Udall suggested that Democrats and Republicans mix up the seating arrangements at the State of the Union address next week, instead of following the tradition of having members of each party sit together on opposite sides of the chamber.  The proposal seems to be attracting favorable reaction from both Republicans and Democrats. Of course this would only be a symbolic gesture, but think how refreshing it would be to watch the State of the Union address without constantly seeing the usual spectacle of one side of the hall applauding while the other side sits on their hands.

We treat politics all too often as a sporting event, in which we root for whatever our "team," whether Democratic or Republican, decides to support, without having to think too hard about the content of each suggestion.  So it might be confusing for some members of Congress to have to search harder to find their colleagues' reactions to various parts of the president's speech before deciding whether to applaud or stay silent--they might even be forced to listen to the speech and decide for themselves what they think about it, or heaven forbid, take cues from members of the opposite party sitting near them.  It might also be confusing for the television audience if they can't immediately recognize whether the president said something that their party thinks should be cheered or booed.  And mixing up the seating might make it a little harder for all the media talking heads analyzing the speech to figure out which parts they should favor or condemn.

It seems to me all that confusion would be a good thing.  The more we can actually think about the merits of the ideas we are debating, instead of reacting to them based on which side of the aisle they came from, the better the quality of the debate.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

For Christina

From the President's speech tonight in Tucson:
But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.
OK, so first of all let me offer an apology if I said anything in the last couple of posts that sounds like pointing fingers or assigning blame.   I didn't really intend to be part of that, but I will admit to using the Tucson shootings as a springboard, as others have done, for talking about reducing the violence of our political rhetoric. President Obama talked about civility in our political discourse also, but he was much more careful to make clear that he was not pointing fingers or assigning blame.  I'll have to try harder to live up to that ideal.  Even though I started this blog to talk about hope and change, post-partisanship, transforming our political culture, and all of that, I will admit to a tendency to slip into partisan argument at times. This is not the right time for that, as the President reminded us in his unifying and uplifting speech, which mainly consisted of a celebration of the lives of the victims and the heroes of Saturday's shootings.

The thing that really surprised me about the President's speech, however, and what was most moving about it, was his shift in focus away from the tragedy's intended victim, Congresswoman Giffords (even though his report that she had opened her eyes was one of the speech's most dramatic moments), to its youngest, accidental victim, Christina Taylor Green.  Here is part of what the President said about Christina Green:
Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation's future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us - we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.
It is good to be reminded that we need to try harder to live up to our children's expectations, which we shatter too often, as Christina's were utterly shattered.  It's good to remember that the whole point of politics, and life, is to create a better world for our children.  All of the president's talk about Christina Green also took me back to my own childhood.  I was Christina's age when my childhood hero, John F. Kennedy was murdered. The following year, a neighbor who knew I was a little political geek, had an extra ticket to the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, and was kind enough to take me along.  My strongest memory of that event was following Bobby Kennedy into an exhibit of JFK's presidential memorabilia that had been set up near the Convention Hall.  We got pretty close to him, and I thought I saw a tear come to Bobby's eye as he looked at his brother's empty rocking chair.  Four years later, Bobby Kennedy himself was murdered, in Los Angeles, where I currently live.  I was part of an effort that tried, but failed to preserve the Ambassador Hotel where the assassination took place.

These political killings shake us to our foundations, and never seem to fade from our memories.  I don't think we learn from these events.  I don't think they make us better people.  But perhaps the president's words tonight can help do that.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Language and Politics

(reprinted from my mediation blog)

Each time we are forced to deal with another attempted or successful political assassination or other violent act, we react in a slightly different way, depending on the political concerns of the moment.  Some past incidents have sparked calls for stricter gun controls.  Sometimes we have heard cries for more law and order.  You used to hear people blame overly permissive child-rearing practices for violent or disruptive behavior.  Sometimes violence has been explained as the result of injustice or prejudice in society.  This time, in the wake of the attempted Giffords assassination, we have heard a lot of talk identifying the high level of violent rhetoric among politicians and the media as a source of the problem.

Attempts to draw a connection between inflamed political rhetoric and this particular violent act started almost immediately.  I'll admit I was pretty quick myself to draw what seems like an obvious connection between a heated political campaign featuring Congressional districts depicted with cross-hairs, and an individual actually targeting a Congresswoman with a gun.  The County Sheriff also identified the highly charged political climate in Arizona as a source of the problem.  More chillingly, the intended victim herself gave an interview last year, after her offices were vandalized, warning of the consequences of violent political rhetoric.  Given the nastiness of the recent campaign season, it seems only natural to attach some blame to to those who have fanned the flames of hate, and seemed to encourage violence.

In response to all of this discussion about our poisonous political atmosphere, it is not surprising that a counter-reaction has already started.  Talk radio hosts and pundits from the right condemn the left for attempting to use this incident to score their own political points. Instead of owning up to right wing campaign rhetoric that seems to encourage the violent overthrow of the government, they are making the weak suggestion that it's all ok because the left sometimes does it too.  They suggest that we should focus on the shooter's own personal responsibility, rather than blaming those leaders who have fomented fear and hate, and that there may not be much we can do, other than perhaps beefing up security, to guard against the actions of a few deranged individuals who will always be present among us. 

It may be beside the point even to try to find out whether this particular suspect was driven to act out a political hate crime by political hate talk.  It may even be impossible to determine for certain what part charged political rhetoric may have played in any particular killer's motivations, just as research never seems to provide a conclusive answer to speculation  about whether violent video games, or pornography, inspire violent actions.   The suspect listed on his MySpace page among his favorite books the Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and Peter Pan.  Should we therefore blame Marx, or Hitler, or J. M. Barrie, for inspiring his alleged violent actions?  It also seems contrary to the effort of drawing useful lessons from this tragedy, to try to use it to score political points, from the left or the right.

But I still think that we should be concerned about excessively inflammatory political speech, regardless of whether or not this particular incident was inspired by violent political speech.  In fact, I would suggest broadening that concern.  It's not just whether politicians or talk radio hosts sometimes use violent metaphors to describe political conflict.  The real problem is that we constantly view the whole political system as a fight or a sport, and we tend to demonize our political opponents, instead of trying to understand their concerns.  The main reason I started a political blog a couple of years ago was to address the issue of whether the Obama campaign represented a genuine opportunity to transform our political culture.  And one reason I have been developing a mediation practice is to further my interest in transforming our adversarial legal culture into a more facilitative, interest-based system.  So I have no hesitation in jumping on this particular bandwagon.

It's some consolation to see that it is suddenly fashionable this week to talk about toning down overheated political rhetoric. The more difficult question is how to do it.  Those who have studied the issue can tell us that changing the nature of our political discourse is a more involved process than just removing overt references to weapons and fights from our speech.  Ken Cloke is a California mediator who has been thinking about these issues longer than I have.  In his book Conflict Revolution, he includes a section on mediating political speech.  Here is how Cloke defines the problem:
The fundamental orientation of politics to power and rights, as opposed to interests, automatically reinforces the assumption that there is a single truth or correct outcome and, more bizarrely, that it is morally acceptable to lie in pursuit of it.  This leads directly to verbal chicanery, character assassination, prejudicial statements, demagoguery, and a pursuit of victory at any price.
I might add that our focus on power and rights, as opposed to interests; our belief that our side is in sole possession of the truth; and our tendency to demonize the opposition, can also lead to violence in language or action.

Cloke proceeds to give many specific examples of questions that can be raised among people of differing political viewpoints to drive political disputes away from unproductive debate to a genuine attempt to find common ground and satisfy divergent interests.  For example, Cloke suggests that we might try asking whether people believe that their communications have been effective in improving understanding in the other side, and what they might do to improve communication.  Or ask people what they have learned from, or appreciate about the other side.  Or how the parties' relationship could be improved.   Then we need to transform political debates into dialogues, in which people are asked to identify what causes them to feel so passionately about particular issues, to search for values and interests they may have in common with the other side, to explore whether any part of the other side's ideas could be incorporated into their ideas, and a whole list of other topics.

As Cloke explains:
The purpose of these questions is not to eliminate or discourage disagreements, but to place them in a context of common humanity and allow genuine disagreements to surface and be discussed in depth.  These questions reveal that political conversations need not be pointlessly adversarial, but can be transformed into authentic engagements by allowing opposing sides to come to grips with difficult, complex, divisive issues without being hostile or abusive. 
(Cloke, Conflict Revolution, pp. 103-08)  Can we learn to transform our political dialogues in this manner?

(Reuters photo)

Saturday, January 8, 2011


American history is full of incidents where citizens, deranged or not, have resorted to violence to solve personal and political problems. This started in Washington's administration, or even earlier.  On the other hand, we can be grateful that most politicians, reprehensible as some might be for encouraging violence, at least generally accept the consequences of elections and accede to the peaceful transfers of power that elections require. That tradition started in Washington's administration also. At least we can be grateful that our system has not broken down to the extent as in the Ivory Coast, where the president who lost the election a couple of months ago, still refuses to leave office, and the duly elected new president is holed up in a hotel protected by UN peacekeeping forces.

So for those who are in despair about the state of our nation, in the wake of the Giffords shooting today, these pictures, most from the swearing in of new members of Congress last week, might make people feel a little better.  I am not suggesting letting anyone off the hook for the kinds of incendiary statements that could have encouraged today's incident (especially including the infamous Palin map), but at least we can take some small comfort in the fact that there are no national leaders who are suggesting in the wake of this tragedy, that taking elected officials out by any means other than the ballot box could ever be justifiable.

The Culture of Violence

Here is Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords giving an interview last spring, after her office was vandalized, apparently in response to her vote in favor of health care reform, in which she warned that there are consequences to violent rhetoric:
"They really need to realize that the rhetoric and firing people up, and, you know, even things for example, we're on Sarah Palin's targeted list, but the thing is, that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. When people do that, you gotta realize there's consequences to that action."

It is easy to denounce horrific acts of violence after they have occurred. What is needed is to tone down all the incitement before it encourages more violence.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chicago Style

There is nothing that says "I'm the boss" like hiring William Daley to be your chief of staff.  His father was the boss of Chicago for about a hundred years.  After a brief interregnum, his brother has been the boss of Chicago for about the past hundred years.  Daley will be filling the shoes of another Chicago tough guy, Rahm Emanuel, who hopes to become Chicago's next mayor.  Daley's got plenty of experience in Washington, having served both Clinton and Gore, and he knows the banking world also, coming from JP Morgan Chase.  Some of the usual suspects on the left might whine about having a fat cat banker running the White House.  I would tell them to quit whining.

Yes, I'm for hope and change, bi-partisanship, kumbaya, and all of the liberal legislation that Daley apparently opposed, but for chief of staff you want someone who is going to run the White House like a business, and you also want to let everyone on Capitol Hill know that you mean business.  Especially now that the House is controlled by the opposition, the White House just might have to throw its weight around a bit.  The name Daley should be enough to strike a little fear into the hearts of all the new legislators down the street.  They need to know, if they didn't know it already, that the president is not going to be so easy to push around.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Congressional Circus

Congress will be back in session this week, and the new Republican House majority is promising swift action to repeal health care reform.  Many have also promised to vote against increasing the debt ceiling. Both these actions will get lots of attention in the weeks ahead. Both are substantively meaningless, and the Republicans know it. House Republicans might be able to repeal health care reform, but that repeal bill will most likely die in the Senate, and even if it passed the Senate, would be promptly vetoed. So the only purpose of the movement to repeal health care reform is to appease the new Republican representatives' constituents, and set up the issue for 2012, if they think it will have any traction at that time. As for voting against the debt ceiling, Republicans have made a sport out of this threat for decades (whenever they don't control the White House), but they always vote to increase the debt ceiling in the end. They have to, or they would cause financial chaos. Causing a big political showdown over the debt ceiling is just a way of avoiding facing the hard decisions about spending cuts and tax increases, which are what is what you would be talking about if you were actually serious about wanting to reduce the national debt. Which Congress is not, or else Congress would not last month have racked up the biggest bi-partisan majority of the year in favor of adding hundreds of billions more to the deficit in the form of tax breaks and unemployment benefits.

The last two years in Congress were years of great substantive accomplishment. The process was often ugly, but a lot got done. If the early talk is any indication, the next two years promise to be years of political grandstanding and theatre--all show and no substance. It will be surprising if this Congress creates any lasting legacies on the order of TARP, the stimulus, financial regulation, and health care reform. The funny thing is that the public, both the left and right, will probably like this Congress better than the last one. Liberals will not have to face their disappointment at the compromises necessary to pass reform legislation, and can direct their anger at the obstructionist opposition that will prevent pretty much anything from getting done. And conservatives will be happy that no big government programs will be launched, and will likewise be able to direct their anger at the Democrats (and some Republicans) who will prevent any radical Tea Party reforms from making any headway.

Maybe it's a good time to tone down the anger and outrage.  To my Democratic friends, I would say, it's not necessary to make fun of John Boehner's name or impute dastardly plots to the House Republicans.  They are just going to be doing what they believe they were elected to do.  And maybe you can be a little more forgiving of the administration and Democratic Congressional leadership, because now the limits of their power should be more readily apparent to anyone.  To my Republican friends, I would say, spare me your outrage at the Senate where many good House bills go to die.  You've been killing Democratic House bills in the Senate for years.  The best thing for everyone right now is probably to grab some popcorn, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Welcome Back, Jerry!

I pretty much hate all campaign commercials, but in honor of Jerry Brown's inauguration for his second stint as California's governor, I have to re-play this one, which I loved:

I guess it's back to the future in both New York, where I lived in the 1980's when there was also a Cuomo in the governor's mansion; and California, where I live now, during the second coming of Jerry Brown. Would I call that hope and change? Sure I would.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Confirming Judges

Chief Justice Roberts should be commended for making a point of urging the next Senate to speed up the process of confirming federal court judges.  There are currently more than 90 vacancies in the federal district and appellate courts, and more than 40 nominees awaiting confirmation.  The Senate's delays in confirming judges is causing substantial problems in a number of busy districts.  It means litigants wait many months for decisions.  It means justice is denied. Politics always plays a role in this process, of course, and it was fair for Roberts to point out:
Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes.
I well remember the outcry from conservatives, such as my friend Hugh Hewitt, when Democrats blocked some of George W. Bush's nominees.  Republicans in those years loudly demanded an "up or down vote" on nominations that were held up by Democrats in the Senate.  Funny that you do not hear any politicians or pundits on the right now crying out for an up or down vote on the many Obama appointees who have been blocked in the last two years.  So again, kudos to a Republican Chief Justice for calling for faster confirmations.

In this area, the Obama administration has lagged far beyond its predecessors in number of judicial appointments confirmed during the first two years, as this chart from Think Progress shows:

We could argue about whether this president has been slower to submit names to the Senate--he has been a bit slower-- or whether Republicans have been worse in obstructing nominees than the Senate Democrats were during the Bush administration--they have been worse--but those kinds of arguments don't get us anywhere.    The Senate simply needs to make it a priority to start filling an enormous number of vacancies on the federal bench.  There is no excuse for delaying the vast majority of these appointments any longer.

(Ron Edmonds AP photo, showing a previous occasion on which Justice Roberts extended a hand to President Obama.)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

For some reason I think 2011 will be a fun year politically. Not that I am exactly thrilled with the prospect of divided government and gridlock in Washington, but I have some confidence that the president will make the most of the situation.