Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Democracy in America

While we are supporting democratic movements for change in North Africa, we might want to pay some attention to the state of our democracy here at home. In California, for example, talks between Governor Brown and Republican legislators broke down yesterday, over the Republicans' refusal to allow the people to vote on a package of tax measures, that the Governor and the legislative majority support as part of a plan to balance the state's budget. Why does the minority have this power? Because we have a 2/3 requirement for raising taxes in the state legislature. The minority take full advantage of their political power to demand additional concessions in return for going along even with the possibility that a referendum of the electorate will support a tax increase. In this case, their demands, at least for the moment, are too much for the majority. It is hard for me to see this intransigent position as anything other than a slap in the face to the principle of democracy. What reason can the minority of the legislature have for refusing even to let the people vote? That they, the minority, must know better what the people want than both the legislative majority and the people themselves?

In Congress, Republicans control a solid majority of the House of Representatives, but are still a minority in the Senate (even before considering that most Senate business now seems to demand a super-majority). This majority in one chamber knows it cannot work its will on the other chamber, or obtain the president's signature on any legislation it wants to pass, but nevertheless is threatening to shut down the entire government if they cannot have their way on spending cuts.

It's not my point to debate the merits of whether we need more spending cuts or tax increases or a bit of both (though for the record I actually enjoy debating those issues). This is not primarily a policy blog. This is more of a process blog. And what I would like to see as a matter of process is more respect for the process of democracy, even if that means that one side doesn't always get its way.

This tendency to disrespect democracy is not confined to the right. Elements on the left are disgusted with the Obama administration because they did not close Guantanamo, or did not enact a single payer health care plan, or a number of other grievances. These elements are so enamored of their own policy preferences that they completely ignore the democratic process. They evidently think the administration could still just close Guantanamo even though Congress has expressly forbidden that any funds be spent to house these prisoners anywhere else. They think the President could have gotten Senators like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln to go along with a more liberal health care bill by what, . . . torture perhaps?

It also has to be acknowledged that the recent uprisings in Wisconsin, in which the Democratic minority fled the state to prevent a vote, and protesters swarmed the Capitol to attempt to intimidate the state legislature from restricting union collective bargaining rights, could be seen as anti-democratic. In that situation, however, at least the protesters were attempting to bring popular opinion to their side, and it does appear that the majority of voters (contrary to their expressed preferences in the election several months previously), support the protesters' position, and may have the chance to impose their will in upcoming recall elections.

When we observe factions in other countries fighting over the future shape of their governments, as for example when the fledgling democracy in Iraq took months to form a government, it is easy for us to see that these factions need to form coalitions that reflect the will of the people, and that no faction should have its way in its entirety. We ought to think about applying these same principles at home.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why are we in Libya?

The President's address last night explaining why we had a responsibility to act in Libya.



It seems clear that our actions have already prevented large scale massacres.  That seems a good enough justification for military action.  Now, of course people have a right to worry about the cost and scale of this mission from the American point of view.  We have reason to be concerned about the scope of our future involvement.  But we also can't expect to know all the answers in advance, and we are just going to have to live with some uncertainty.  For the moment, I just have to admire the courage and hope for the success of a ragtag rebel force using pick-up trucks to attack the tanks of the dictator's army. The president's speech also reminds us that the problems in Libya and in the region cannot be solved solely by military means, and cannot be solved by the United States alone.

Monday, March 28, 2011

More Birth Certificate Questions!

The controversy over pretend Presidential candidate Donald Trump's eligibility for the office only heated up today with the release of his supposed "birth certificate." First of all, Trump released this document only to Newsmax.  Was he unable to find the offices of the New York Times, or any other reputable news organization? Second of all, the document states right on its face that it was issued by The Jamaica Hospital.  Jamaica, as is well known, is not part of the United States.  It is an independent nation in the Caribbean. Actually it has only been independent since 1962, so at the time of Donald Trump's supposed birth, it was still a British colony.  Now, I'm sure that Trump is going to say that he was born in Jamaica, Queens, not the island of Jamaica.  So, um, where does it say that on the birth certificate? Answer: it doesn't. (The Obama birth certificate, by the way, clearly states that it was issued by the State of Hawaii, USA, not some other Hawaii.)

Third, there are serious questions about the wording of this document. The birth certificate that was released by the Obama campaign about three years ago has been questioned because it does not actually use the words "birth certificate."  Instead it says "certification of live birth," not "birth certificate."  So it must be important that the word "birth" comes before certificate.  If the word "birth" comes AFTER the word "certificate," then there must be some question about the genuineness of the document. By this standard, the document released by Trump is obviously a phony. It too doesn't say "birth certificate." It says "certificate of birth."

Obviously, Trump is only calling in to TV shows and such, telling lies about Obama's birth certificate to distract attention from the startling revelation that Trump himself may have been born in a British colony!

Who is this guy trying to fool? Perhaps immigration authorities should be notified. We need to look deeper into Donald Trump's status.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Taxing and Spending

I came across an irate letter in the LA Times this morning complaining about the burden of being asked to pay sales tax on online purchases.  It turns out, though, that paying sales taxes for online purchases is not really this guy's beef, and I don't have anything to say about that issue either. What really steamed the letter writer was that he is already paying $4979 in state income taxes, and all he gets in return is "a broken government that refuses to make hard choices."

Is that really all he gets in return? In the very next paragraph we find out that this guy has two kids in school, so it turns out that what is REALLY getting him steamed is that his kids are going to have to put up with more crowded classrooms because we can't afford to hire more teachers. And he is certainly right to be unhappy about this.  But he seems to be missing a connection here. Somehow this guy does not see that that one reason he might be dissatisfied with the level of services his kids are getting, is that he is only paying $4979 in state income taxes (even granting that he also has to pay property taxes and sales taxes), and that all these taxes have to cover not only educating his two kids, but also courts, prisons, roads, parks, fire and police protection, and every other service that state and local governments provide.

I wonder whether someone in this person's situation, complaining that taxes are too high and services are too low, is aware that it actually costs the state about $7500 per student annually to educate each child (so the cost of his kids' education even at this inadequate level is more than triple what this letter writer's family is paying in state income tax).  Is he aware that California is now 47th in the nation in per pupil expenditures? When I see a statistic like that, it makes me think that anyone who suggests that our state government should be spending even less on education is acting in a highly irresponsible way. Parents unhappy about the condition of the schools should realize that they might still be a gigantic bargain compared to what most people pay in taxes, and that one reason schools are so shoddy is that taxes are too low. Maybe they ought to wonder whether their kids' education is being subsidized to an extent by other taxpayers. Now I don't have a problem with subsidizing other peoples' education, because we all benefit from an educated workforce. What I do have a problem understanding is the kind of thinking shown even by somebody with two kids in school: the common attitude that taxes are too high, government spending is all going to some wasteful projects that don't benefit me, and the level of services I am getting from government is too low.

We ought instead to consider the possibility that in fact, taxes are too low, government spending is also too low, and that if we tax and spend more, we might actually be more satisfied with the level of services we are getting. We need to get beyond the stale debate that just sees all taxes and all government spending as bad. We need to re-frame the debate, as the Obama administration seems to be attempting, into one over the kinds of investments in our future we need to make, whether that is education or infrastructure or anything else we think is important. Once we recognize that we need to invest in things like good teachers and less crowded schools, then we need to be grown up enough to realize we have to pay for them.

(LA Times photo of Fairfax High School, Los Angeles)

Don't forget the Ivory Coast.

With so much attention being paid to dramatic military action in Libya, the President took some time to address the people of the Cote d'Ivoire, reminding them that we still support efforts to induce the guy who lost the election to abide by the election results.


For those who express confusion about what the President stands for, I would suggest that perhaps the message is so simple that many are missing it. It's all in this video. We are for democracy, and against violence. We are for freedom, and against tyranny. We are for inclusiveness, and against divisiveness. We are for hope, and against fear. We are for membership in the community of nations, and we want to bring other nations out of isolation. Although simple, it is a powerful message, and it is being heard all across Africa.

Catching up with Newt

For some reason, I just find Newt Gingrich a fascinating character.  I've already done about five blog posts on the guy (check the index in the right column), pointing out his contradictions and inanities. Newt's antics this month have already been well covered elsewhere, but I can't resist chiming in.

For anyone who missed it, here are Gingrich's comments at the beginning of the month, chastising the Obama administration for not acting more quickly to get rid of Qadaffi:



And here he is more recently, attacking the Obama administration for doing pretty much what he had said a few weeks before, that they should do.


Gingrich then tried to explain these apparent inconsistencies, but only created even more confusion about what he was advocating. 

Why trip all over yourself, Newt, trying to set forth a coherent position? People will only accuse you of flip-flopping.   What they don't get is that you're not flip-flopping at all. The real explanation is simple, and a lot of people probably find it entirely acceptable (and of course I'm not the only one to point this out): whatever Obama does, Newt is just going to be against it. If Obama says the sun is shining, Newt will tell you it is cloudy. If Obama gets up on the right side of his bed, Gingrich will say that he should have got up on the left. Even if President Obama does something that Gingrich was for a couple of weeks ago, Newt Gingrich must now be against it, for the simple reason that Obama is for it. He doesn't have to be coherent; he doesn't have to be consistent with his own positions; he just has to oppose everything the president does. Listening to Newt makes as much sense as sitting next to any rabid sports fan. Whatever the opposing team does, his job is just to boo. Will people get tired of this? Will they find it unnecessary even to listen to Newt Gingrich any more? I don't know. I think Americans generally like the logic of sports.

That means it's just pointless to try to embarrass Newt Gingrich with videos of him acting all nice and friendly with Nancy Pelosi.

Because once again, there is no inconsistency here. If he was for taking action on climate change back in 2008 when George W. Bush was still president, well that was 2008 when George W. Bush was still president. Now that the Obama administration wants to take action against climate change, and Newt Gingrich wants to run for president, you'd better believe that Newt Gingrich must think it's a terrible idea to do anything about climate change. Right, Newt?

Newt Gingrich obviously learned his political philosophy from Marx. This Marx:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dennis Kucinich should shut up.

Dennis Kucinich is not a stupid man.  So he must know that calls for the president's impeachment over the military action in Libya are not going to go anywhere. It seems questionable anyway to claim, especially at this very early stage of military action, that the President has done anything exceeding his Constitutional authority.  In addition to obtaining a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force, and briefing heads of appropriate Congressional committees, the President did immediately inform Congress in writing of these activities, pursuant to the War Powers Act.  In any event, the US is not invading Libya, only attempting to stop the government there from slaughtering its own civilian population.  And the US is only leading this mission for a few days, so it appears to be exactly the kind of military action that the President is permitted to commence without a formal vote of authorization from Congress. At most, some Congressmen might feel miffed that they were not provided with more detailed consultations, or given a chance to vote.  Calling for the president's impeachment can only make them sound ridiculous.  Surely Kucinich can't be so childish that he would just grandstand about this issue to draw attention to himself. He can't just think it's fun to bring up the impeachment issue no matter who is President.

No, he must have a higher purpose in mind.  Perhaps he thinks that if people perceived as fringe Democrats, aligned with fringe Republicans such as Ron Paul, are calling for the President's impeachment over military action in Libya, that can only solidify the President's base of support among the all-important moderates and independents, who will ultimately determine the President's fate in the 2012 election. Maybe the President's supporters should thank Dennis Kucinich for being willing to appear foolish to help the President out in his re-election bid. On second thought, it would probably be better if Congressman Kucinich would just chill out and wait at least a few more days to see how this is playing out.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

John Bolton should shut up.

In a speech to the California Republican Party, John Bolton slammed the Obama administration for "dithering" on Libya.  Had he been president, Bolton said, he would have unilaterally declared a no-fly zone right away, which might have tipped the balance, and "the whole thing might be over."  Of course, that is easy to say in hindsight, and it's easy to say when you have the luxury of not having to accept the consequences of your decisions.  But there are some problems with your suggestion, John.  For one thing, the Libyan rebels were not asking for that kind of assistance at that time, particularly unilateral American assistance, which could have fed into Qaddafi's narrative that the rebels were some kind of foreign-backed force bent on attacking the sovereignty of Libya. Apart from being potentially counter-productive, what would have been the legal basis for American unilateral action? Do we have the right to attack other countries whenever we feel like it? When we had a large scale rebellion in our country in 1861, would we have appreciated it if a stronger power had decided it had the right to bring down our elected government? In this case, the gross human rights violations engaged in by Qadaffi's government, by attacking peaceful civilian protests, do warrant international action, but it has to be done within a proper legal framework.  And it has to be done with consideration of the reaction of other nations, such as Russia and China. As much as we want to help the Libyan people, we also don't want to start World War III over Libya.

One would expect, given John Bolton's readiness to send the Marines to Tripoli once again, that when he was in power, he would have advocated the kind of strong action he is criticizing the Obama administration for not adopting.  Lo and behold, however, at the time John Bolton was serving as US Ambassador to the United Nations, in 2006, we were doing precisely the opposite.  That was the time when the US decided to normalize relations with Libya, removing Libya from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and expanding trade.  Did we hear John Bolton back then criticizing the Bush administration's decision to make nice with Libya?  We did not.  By the way, I'm not suggesting that it was wrong for us to seek rapprochement with Libya a few years ago.  The only thing I am suggesting is in the title of this post.

From the report of Bolton's speech last night, it does appear that he made one intelligent comment.  Bolton said that "The inadequacy of our debate on national security issues is going to come back to haunt us."  The 2012 Republican nominee "has to be prepared on some evening in October to debate President Obama on national security issues and they better be ready for it."  From the looks of things, neither Bolton or any other prospective Republican nominee is ready for prime time on foreign policy issues.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Acting Together on Libya

Here is the President's statement today on Libya:



Those who are criticizing the President for not taking stronger military action sooner against the government of Libya (I hesitate even to dignify by mentioning the idiotic criticism that President Obama is somehow distracted by paying too much attention to the NCAA basketball tournament) should recognize what an achievement it is to get a resolution for military action against Libya passed by the UN Security Council, as well as to obtain the participation of other Arab nations.  They should also recognize how counter-productive, not to mention illegal, United States unilateral action would probably have turned out.  That might only strengthen Qaddafi's hand.

It is far better for the entire international community to be standing up for the rights of the people of Libya, rather than for the United States to be seen as declaring war on a much weaker country. It might also be helpful to remember that even George W. Bush took the trouble to at least ask and inform the UN Security Council and our NATO allies of planned military action against Afghanistan and Iraq, and to obtain partners in those actions. And he took plenty of time to do it. (while also spending plenty of time clearing brush on his ranch)  Bush took his time, and got help from other countries, even though, we were told, the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan represented threats to the security of the United States.  The government of Libya, on the other hand, is only threatening its own people. So Newt Gingrich, you should just shut up, stay out of the way, and leave these decisions to the grown-ups who know what they are doing.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Voting against climate change

Who says you can't fool Mother Nature?  All 31 Republicans on the House Energy Committee declined to vote in favor of a series of amendments acknowledging the consensus in the scientific community that climate change is real. (30 voted against, and 1 abstained.)  Every Democrat on the committee supported these amendments.  That ought to show the weather who is boss.  Congressional Republicans have boldly asserted their power to stop the seas from rising, and the thermometer from climbing.  Despite their philosophical skepticism about the power to government to do anything right, in this case they have taken action to demonstrate that Congress is more powerful than God and/or the collective actions of 6 billion humans.  By this vote, they can no doubt turn the tide on global warming, and keep the temperature from climbing.  They have also conclusively demonstrated that Congressmen know more about climate science than mere scientists.  Have scientists ever asserted the power simply to declare that climate change is not happening?  No, but politicians can do that!

Now that the House Republicans have proven their power to stop climate change, they should be able to prevent it from raining on days when the country needs to hold important outdoor events.  Next they should pass a bill outlawing hurricanes and earthquakes and floods.  That ought to keep nature in its place!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The NPR Emergency

No one can accuse the new House Republican majority of failing to take swift action to deal with the nation's budget crisis. Today they have scheduled an emergency meeting of the Rules Committee to attempt to eliminate all federal funding for National Public Radio. Clearly, the approximately $90 million that NPR receives from the federal government--amounting to nearly 30 cents for every American--is a major factor in keeping the federal budget from being balanced. After all, this wasteful spending on NPR is responsible for practically 0.00009% of the projected federal budget deficit this year!

Supposedly this action is being taken because an NPR fundraiser was caught in a private meeting expressing the opinion (or possibly repeating someone else's opinion) that Tea Party members are racists. This cannot be the real reason. Republicans have more respect for people's First Amendment rights than that. They are not so thin-skinned that they get all up in arms when somebody calls somebody else a racist. After all, when Glenn Beck called President Obama a racist (on television, no less), you didn't hear Republicans calling for Congressional hearings about that. No, it must be that Republicans are intent on making the tough decisions that will have a real impact on the federal budget. And if those decisions make it harder for Americans to find news and opinion on the radio, well, that is just the price we might have to pay.

Too bad we don't have Fred Rogers around to make the case for public broadcasting, as he did so eloquently in 1969.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Net Neutrality

Senator Al Franken got an enthusiastic reception from all the techies at South by Southwest Interactive, talking about what he calls the First Amendment issue of our time, net neutrality. He framed the issue for this group as a way of avoiding having to sell out, just as he tried to avoid selling out in his early years as a comedian. In other words, net neutrality allows start-up companies, as well as independent filmmakers and musicians, the possibility of competing on a level playing field, with product sponsored by major corporations. Otherwise, these artists and entrepreneurs are going to have to surrender an unfair share of their future worth to distributors.

Franken was here to ask the help of the entrepreneurs in the audience, who may not realize the political power they possess by virtue of being job creators. This power is needed to combat the power of Comcast and other corporate lobbyists, who receive an unfair share of attention on Capitol Hill. They operate by using what Franken described as an old rhetorical device, called "making stuff up." For example, the effort to preserve net neutrality is portrayed as a government takeover of the internet, just as the effort to reform health insurance was falsely portrayed as a government takeover. Franken mentioned that a Congressman on the floor actually asked why we need net neutrality.  Why shouldn't we leave the net the way it is? But of course net neutrality is already the way it is, and that has allowed the internet to become the powerful force it is today. It is the effort to slow down or speed up the flow of information, based on how much content providers are willing to pay, that would represent a dangerous change.

Since the Senator asked the help of those in the audience to get the word out on this important issue, and we all said yes, I am obligated to post this to respond to his call.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Future of News

"What does blogging about the interactive conference have to do with your Obama blog?" my son asked me this morning. "It all has to do with hope and change," I responded, thinking that is a broad enough theme to cover just about anything I feel like writing about. Besides I'm sure I can work in some Obama references in these posts.  For example, this morning I asked Susan Crawford, who was giving a talk about the dangers of Comcast acquiring a monopoly in broadband service, whether the Obama administration is sufficiently alarmed about this prospect. She seemed to think they are on top of the issue, although we have a lot of reason to worry about whether Congress will do enough to assure universal access to a service that should be viewed as a public utility.

Anyway, here in Austin this weekend, where it feels as though all forms of media are converging, it does all seem to be about hope and change. A panel I attended today called "Hacking the News," dealt with the convergence between hackers and journalists, or how computer software designers are helping journalists process and present the news in different ways, while journalists are learning to think more like computer geeks. One example: designing new formats that allow stories to be continually updated and  expanded. Another is expanding the use of links to original sources, as well as to social media, which allows readers to become participants as well as consumers.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Blogging SXSW

I've attended the South by Southwest film festival a few times. This year, I decided to concentrate on the interactive portion, which seems to be taking over the festival, as well as the world. It is interesting to be surrounded by so many people who seem to be a step ahead of the rest of us in designing the next phase of the virtual world.

I attended a panel this morning, led by a couple of New York Times reporters (Jennifer Preston and Brian Stelter), which took as a given that social media has been instrumental to the organizers of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. This is hard to deny. As an example, someone mentioned that people in Tunis were Tweeting the locations of snipers in the city, to help others avoid dangerous areas. Yet some of the panelists also acknowledged that organizing can sometimes be accomplished just as effectively without social media. Mubarak at one point turned off access to the Internet, which may have had the effect of forcing many organizers--who could no longer spend their time communicating with one another, and with the outside world--out into the street to lead actual demonstrations. In addition, some dictatorial regimes have been learning to use these tools themselves, both to entrap rebels, as well as to spread misinformation. The journalists I heard this morning also recognized the need to "curate" or fact-check, rumors spread by social media, before helping to disseminate them further.

I also heard an interesting talk today by journalism professor Jay Rosen on the continuing conflicts between journalists and bloggers. Although everyone agrees that we should have gotten past this conflict, it seems to persist, Rosen thinks, because of some deep-seated neuroses on the part of both traditional journalists and of bloggers, each of which in some ways hates and yet aspires to be the other. Rosen assembled some very funny quotes illustrating these neuroses, some of which he posted on his blog prior to his talk. My favorite was from a Tribune blogger who said that a traditional newspaper reporter complaining about bloggers sounds like an old grouch yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn. I agree with Rosen that it is time to bury this conflict.  For myself, however, I don't feel competitive or envious of traditional journalists because for some reason I don't consider what I am doing to be journalism. Maybe I should, but I don't.

As for this kid (Seth Priebatsch) who gave a keynote address about how the next ten years is going to be the time that the "game layer" will be built--just as the "social layer" was built over the past ten years--well, I'm just not sure I'm ready for that.

(photo from jaunted.com)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Price of Freedom

Gas prices are creeping back up to $4/gallon again, and everyone is going to be looking for someone to blame for interfering with Americans' God-given right to cheap gas. This time people should not have to look much beyond the biggest headlines in the morning paper to notice that there is a large-scale rebellion going on in one of the world's biggest oil-producing nations, which of course has everyone nervous about supplies. When that happens, prices tend to go up.

My modest suggestion would be to try not to panic at the prospect of higher gas prices.  Think about how prices are still much lower here than in Europe or many other places, where gas is taxed at high rates. Think about how higher gas prices might be seen as an opportunity to drive less and conserve more, which is what we should all be doing anyway. And most of all, think about how graceless it sounds to complain too loudly about the inconvenience of paying a few more dollars to fill up our gas tanks, at a time when people are dying in Libya to attempt to obtain their freedom. We can take this disruption in stride.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

It's the economy . . .

In case anybody can't read the fine print, it says more private sector jobs were created in the year 2010 alone than in George W. Bush's entire 8 years in office.



(House Democratic leader's photostream)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Bike City

March 1, 2011 might someday be seen as the turning point.  That was the day the Los Angeles City Council approved a plan that could lead to the designation of 1680 miles of bicycle lanes and paths in this most car-centric of cities. This would mark an historic change, if it means that we have finally said, enough! Enough giving over of precious urban resources to automobiles, which only make cities less liveable. Enough of the incessant street-widening and freeway building, which only seems to cause more traffic congestion. Now is the time to take back some of those streets and make them available for cleaner and healthier transit.

I would not call myself a bike nut, though I do like to ride sometimes, but I'm a strong supporter of almost all measures that would reduce the amount of acreage given over to cars, especially in urban areas, where way too much prime real estate is just handed over to drivers who are not paying for that space, and who are making life a lot less pleasant for the rest of us.  So in addition to bike lanes, I favor more street parking, tolls for the use of central city streets, wider sidewalks, narrower streets, bus lanes, any kind of rail, demolition of many urban expressways, and improved mass transit. I also think we should tax gasoline at about the same rate we tax cigarettes. All of these measures would help reduce the number of cars on the road, which would solve so many problems all at once: reducing pollution, noise and traffic; promoting energy independence; and generally improving the quality of life in cities.

If Los Angeles, a place where most people cannot imagine life without their cars, can take a step in that direction, there is hope for cities everywhere.

(photo of 2010 Ciclavia event from Bicycle Fixation)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Age of Protests

What do the tea party rallies of 2009-10, massive demonstrations in  France last fall, revolutionary protest movements now spreading across the Arab world, and an ongoing sit-in in Wisconsin's capital all have in common?  They seem to signal the arrival of a new wave of popular protest movements around the globe.  I don't know if a tally of worldwide demonstrations over the last few decades would bear this theory out, but it certainly seems (with the exception of the revolutions that swept Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1980's) that we have been seeing people take to the streets the last couple of years in a way that has not been this common since the 1960's and 1970's, when the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, student strikes, the feminist movement, and the environmental movement all manifested themselves in gigantic public rallies.  There is a legitimacy and universality to today's demonstrations that seems different from those earlier days.  Both left and right have felt the need to march in the streets, and neither seems all that alarmed or outraged at the other side's methods. (their messages, yes, but not so much their methods) That was definitely not the case in the 1960's, when anti-war and civil rights protesters created fear that the social order was coming unraveled, and sparked a counter-movement for law and order. Today, people seem just as passionate and polarized as they were in the 1960's, but they seem more accepting of their opponents' right to march.

I would not have predicted that the Obama era would turn into such a gigantic rally-fest. (Nor would I claim that one man was solely responsible for fomenting new protest movements; more likely he rode to power on top of one such protest wave.)  Perhaps Obama's background as a community organizer suggests, however, that he would encourage popular uprisings. We also know that the president is sympathetic to the rights of people everywhere to assemble and peacefully express their grievances. But his personal history also demonstrated a movement away from organizing community protests, to serving in the more traditional role as a politician where he thought he could get more accomplished. I also understood the main theme of his presidential campaign as an effort to usher in an era of cooperation, not confrontation; of striving to find common ground rather than pulling in opposite directions; of unity rather than divisiveness. To me, it would have represented a real revolution to get people to sit around the table with their adversaries and work out solutions that benefit as many points of view as possible. To a large extent, the Obama administration tried that approach, and arguably was quite successful at it, but it didn't make anybody terribly happy. People seem happier engaging in a struggle for power, chanting slogans, trying to prevail over their opponents, and refusing to give ground in their principles.

There are times for marching in the streets, and maybe this is one of those times.  Protest movements are tools of those out of power, and when they succeed in drawing attention to their cause and gaining adherents, or in exposing the corruption and injustice of those in power, they can be amazingly effective.  The tea party movement succeeded in electing a whole slew of radical Republicans to Congress and state legislatures.  The protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt succeeded in driving dictators out of power.  And the demonstrations in Wisconsin may be having some success in turning popular opinion in favor of the protesters, and forcing the governor and the majority in the state legislature to compromise.  On the other hand, we may see some limits to the effectiveness of these tactics, if they turn violent, if they spark backlash, or if they are crushed by police crackdowns, as happened in Iran, and as may happen in Libya or Wisconsin.  For the most part, however, the new era of protest movements has been peaceful and surprisingly successful.

I don't credit Twitter or facebook with this new wave of uprisings. These kinds of demonstrations weren't that much more difficult to organize before the rise of new social media. Instead I think we are just seeing a lot of ordinary people deciding, as people periodically do, that they have the power to demand change. And that can be a good thing, as long as our energies stay channeled in a positive direction. But I'd still like to see us reach the truly revolutionary stage of sitting down and talking to one another instead of doing so much shouting.