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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

I’m into philanthropy. Not big-time, mind you; I’m not in a position to exercise noblesse oblige. But I’m at the age when budgeting for annual charitable

All rights reserved by hpebley3 via flickr.com

contributions, however modest, feels somehow mature. If I’d been a member of a faith-based organization, I might have started this process much earlier, but better late than never.

I’m hit up by the usual suspects: charities who purchased my address from the charity I gave to five years earlier; organizations who got my name through the $25 donation I made to my neighbors’ kids’ car wash to raise money for childhood cancer. I receive heart-rending letters from at least four charities focused on women in third-world countries (not including the one to which I donate). I’m often invited, courtesy of my connected friends, to fancy fundraisers that begin at $750 a plate for the privilege of sitting at a table in the back with people I don’t know and watching the tiny speck that is the famous featured speaker or performer. At least the local versions, which usually come in at a quarter of the cost, remind me that I’m part of a community.

I’m generally careful with my research, although I once gave $40 in cash to a young woman who came door to door, clipboard in hand, with a tale about raising money for blind kids in Africa. I never saw a receipt, or the young woman again; but I learned my lesson. No donations on the fly, in the subway or at my door.

At some point during the G.W. Bush years, I began to donate small sums to political action committees (PACS) and I do mean small. I was never shooting for a night in the Lincoln Room but I did want to throw my two cents into the effort to turn over both Congress and the White House. It was fun hearing from Emily’s List and getting thank you notes from the DNC Chairman. I felt as if I were making a difference.

In this coming election year, the stakes are at least as high as they were in 2008, if you’re inclined to vote (I am) and if you consider yourself far more likely to vote for one party candidate than the other (I do). Nevertheless, I’m unlikely to respond to any solicitations that involve politics because when it comes to promotion, my team is poised to play as dirty as the other.

 This year, gleeful Democrats are thrilled to be able to point to GOP front-runner Mitt Romney’s shifts in position in order to accommodate, one assumes, his primary voters. Payback for the attacks on John Kerry!  But as FactCheck.org has pointed out (the site should be required reading for anyone planning to vote), the latest DNC extended video “strains the truth to build a case against Romney by including some dubious claims” which it then goes on to list.

FactCheck’s home page demonstrates that Republicans produce far more questionable media pieces than do the Democrats. Grand Old Party operatives have perfected the art of burying a tiny truth within a mountain of innuendos, inferences, torquing contexts and twisting particulars.  Conclusions are supported by a lopsided mix of semi-legitimate observations and an overwhelming number of outright lies. All a party faithful has to do is point to the legitimate sliver of the message and say, “You can’t argue with that.” Hell, our candidates are happy to argue it isn’t absolutely essential, when making a larger point, to stick to the facts.

Meanwhile, political strategists assume we’re simultaneously biased (we already know what we like and don’t like) and inattentive and/or overwhelmed, which is why the credo “keep it simple, stupid” (KISS) is so popular. The problem when playing KISS and tell is that truth often has to leave the room.

Truth-twisting may be necessary to campaigning; it may even be inevitable—I hope not.  But I don’t have to pay for it. When Women for Women International tells me my money is going to sponsor women in war-torn countries, I believe it. When the DNC insists my donation will be used to get the truth out to the American people, I don’t.

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Aren’t we just full of opinions? As a friend of mine wrote in her book: “[While} having  so  many  ways  to  bring  our  opinions  into  public discussion has been, on the whole, a terrific development… not all ideas are equal―equally valid, equally worthy, equally verifiable.” In a related article, she noted:the opportunity to comment doesn’t mean we’re required to put in our two cents, notwithstanding our collective compulsion to do so.” However, she also recognized that the horse is out of the barn (or maybe the train has left the station; you get the drift) when it comes to opinionating—many of us are likely to grab any and every opportunity to opine–the least we can do is make every attempt to make an expressed opinion as informed as possible.

My name is Nikki Stern and I approve this message. Okay, I wrote this message, in my book Because I Say So and in an article called “IMHO I bring this up because I’ve found myself this fall throwing opinions all over the place: on my blog, on Facebook, on the website I publish (Does This Make Sense) and, most recently, in the New York Times.

Opining on the Times website isn’t like opining on AOL. By and large, the commenters are smart, well-read and restrained in their responses (of course the Times screens the comments before publishing them, so perhaps I’m just not seeing the “!%$&@)%(*^*” versions that come into the editors’ inboxes. What this means is that if I have an impulse to comment, I know I’d better make sense. In part, it’s my ego at work: I don’t want appear to be a complete idiot. On the other hand, who’s going to remember commenter #49 on the recent Charles Blow or Frank Bruni op-ed? Exactly: no one. Still, I feel a certain responsibility to sound intelligent—to be intelligent.

Of course I’d like to attract a little attention on behalf of whatever I’m promoting (a book, a blog) before my comment scrolls by and disappears into the ethos. This can be achieved by obtaining “recommendations” which are garnered when the reader hits a little button at the end of the comment and which means said comment may be highlighted on the site. Gad, everything’s a competition these days!

The situation causes me to hesitate before I comment (a good thing), and then, if I decide to post my thoughts, I will write out and carefully proof them before I hit “send” (an even better thing). Sometimes, thanks to the unpredictability of the keyboard and the undeniable fact that my brain works faster than my fingers, I may end up with a typo. But my thoughts are nearly always clear.

I also read other comments on the post where I’ve left my comment but also on other pieces I find provocative (or pieces I don’t understand). If Paul Krugman tells me why the Euro is a terrible idea, I want to read what more knowledgeable people have to say on the subject. Granted, Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist and some of the commenters don’t know the difference between a derivative and a derivation but I’m frequently surprised about the level of thought and intelligence that goes into the replies. At the very least, I get more background and more history.

I also read letters to the editor for my favorite magazines. Sometimes I try to read comments and letters in magazines I don’t care for,  like Reason Magazine (I don’t really dislike the magazine, but some of the articles in Reason–which purports to be a libertarian magazine–are pompous in the extreme); or letters in magazines I don’t care about. I love reading the letters section in New York Magazine because they aren’t simply letters but blog postings, tweets, passing comments—all reactions to the often provocative stories within. Like Vanity Fair and The Atlantic, the magazine makes a big deal out of noticing and promoting and replying to and arguing with the people who are noticing and replying to and arguing about something they read (which means they’re promoting it, of course).

Everyone has an opinion; no doubt about it. And everyone wants their opinions to count. One way to do that is to use your opinion as a way to start a conversation or encourage a response; to learn something from other opinionators; to practice writing clearly and concisely; to get better at framing an argument; to think, to review your own feelings about a topic, to get in the game. We might not all end up as recommended picks or one step closer to our own op-ed column, but we’ll be smarter commentators. And that means we’ll be smarter citizens.

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There’s something about those boys from New Jersey, right?

A little bit naughty, a little bit wild, and a whole lot of that special something that makes you want to stay close, even though you suspect he’s nothing but trouble. Even when you see where this is all going, even when you recognize how wrong he is and how foolish you are, you can’t let go.

I’m not talking about Bruce or Bon Jovi or even Frank: these are our icons. As for the swaggering beach bums, hot-shot lawyers and wanna-be Manhattan power-brokers, a smart Jersey girl knows what is what.  But then along comes one or two of these fellas, promising the moon–and you believe it. Or at least I did.

I guess that’s how these guys get elected.

Governor McGreevey–Jim–was a real charmer, with his ebullient manner and boyish grin. He’s just gotten married to a striking but reserved woman; had a baby daughter, and then,there he was: the young new governor of New Jersey. I was an emotionally roiled widow trying to keep busy. Jim offered me the opportunity by making me the Governor’s liaison to the 9/11 families.

Jim and I were once close

Sure, the pay was low, the hours were long and the clientele was demanding. But the perks turned my head: breakfast at the governor’s mansion, calls from his private cell phone, rides in the state limousine—once I was driven from a meeting in Manhattan to one in central New Jersey by state troopers slashing through rush-hour traffic at 100 mph, lights flashing and siren wailing. Turns out our state troopers liked to put the pedal to the metal.

I suspected Jim had a secret life, but I didn’t think it involved massively poor judgment until I learned that it did: he’d hired his male lover at an impressive salary to serve as director of security although the man had little experience save one mandatory stint in the Israeli Army. I watched the press conference, in which he announced he was a “gay American” and ignored the question of public salaries for unqualified friends, with sadness. I wanted him to call. Not long after his press conference, he separated from his wife, Dina. They wrote books, hers and his mortifyingly entitled The Confessionhe moved in with a new friend and studied to be an Episcopalian priest.

He never called again…and that hurt most of all.

Then there was the Senator who would be governor. Jon radiated quiet stability and good intentions.When he decided to run for governor, I was there, squirming at the obscene amounts of money going into the election (could several poor nations be sustained for that kind of cash?), but ever faithful. I was also there for his inaugural, and for  the fancy dress ball, during which time I got another big hug and a whispered admonition to “call and schedule a meeting,” and at his straightforward State of the State address, where he was applauded for his honesty.

Jon could be animated

Jon’s administration, including his communications department, was as closed as Jim’s had been open.  But I still believed in him—for a time.  I still accepted the hugs and got a little tingly when he reminded me that we were going to meet to talk about my working in his administration (I never reminded him that his people were stonewalling me). But I tried not to take it to heart: I knew it was never going to happen. Not that he didn’t need help: his public persona was taking a beating. Not that he didn’t need help: his public persona was taking a beating. He was accused of being indifferent, weak, out of touch and prone to making bad decision. Meanwhile his seatbelt-free accident (another hard-driving state trooper) and his post-divorce relationship with Carla, a powerful union leader and prototype Jersey Girl, were the kinds of incidents that were getting him press.

Carla, #1 Jersey Girl 

I ran into him just before he was soundly defeated in our last election. He seemed resigned to the possibility he might lose and talked about working as an Ambassador. He wanted, he said, to stay in public service.

Speaking of resignation: Jon left public life to return to the private sector that had earned him millions, although apparently not much of a reputation as a smart leader. Last week, following a scandal about missing money at  MF Global, the firm he headed for several years, Jon resigned, forgoing the 12 million dollar golden parachute. Although he is not suspected of misappropriating any funds, he stands accused in business circles of making supremely bad decisions.  Maybe we all did.

Jim, Jon…and don’t get me started on Bob, AKA “The Torch.”  These boys make it so hard to be a Democrat in New Jersey. You know what I’m sayin’.

Maybe that’s why I had my eye on Chris. I was careful; we came from different backgrounds, after all. Still, I warmed to his outgoing nature, I admired his spunk, I was willing to cut the guy some slack and see how he applied his independent spirit and can-do attitude to governing our troubled state. I was, for a brief moment, almost proud of a Jersey boy.

Christie-2Chris  finger-pointing

Shades of Rudy Giuliani! Turns out Chris is more pig-headed than tough; a bully, in fact, who enjoys talking tough and favors a sledgehammer where a paring knife might do. Although he began as a moderate, he’s been side-stepping to the right, more than willing to pander to his national party’s fringes to gain a platform. He also likes to flirt long and hard before letting his supporters down, but by the time he nearly ran as a Presidential primary candidate, I was so over him.

This week, I’ll be interviewing my local Congressman for Does This Make Sense. Rush is smart, compassionate, loyal and progressive.  Everyone around these parts loves him. I’m approaching cuatiously nonetheless. I can’t afford more heartbreak at the hands of another Jersey Boy.

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We like to commemorate in the United States. Coming up, what I refer to as The-Anniversary-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named recalls a horrible event ten years ago when four planes, two towers, and several thousand lives were destroyed in an attack on U.S. soil. In the days that followed, we came together, focused not on hate and destruction (at least to my grief-stricken, New York-centric eyes) but on resilience and purpose.

Heartbreaking, isn’t it? Not that my husband or so many others were killed but that, ten years later, we’re farther apart than ever. Everyone has an opinion as to why that’s happened (everyone has an opinion on everything, freely spoken and easily distributed through the unfiltered megaphone that is the Internet). For me, the decade is captured (albeit in a simplified manner) in a letter I had published in the New York Times the other day in response to an article by Tom Friedman:

After my husband died on 9/11, I hoped the American public, which had come together in a spirit of resilience rather than one of anger, would resist the temptation to blame, to justify, to point fingers or to follow an “us versus them” scenario. Instead we’ve devolved into a selfish group of squabblers, ready to throw strangers under the bus and kick friends off the ladder. A small group sacrifices abroad while we dither about the endgame; here at home, we expect our neighbors to fend for themselves and our government to do its job without revenue. The list of enemies foreign and domestic grows longer; we trust no one. While I’m mindful that my husband may be more fairly called a victim than a hero, I am still saddened that his legacy and that of so many others might be tied to a period of profound civic retrenchment.

On my worst days, I’m tempted to blame everyone, including me for sitting at home and indulging in blame. I want to slap the collective citizenry across the face and yell, “Grow up! Stop fighting! Behave yourselves. No one is always right and no one is always perfect. We have to work together to get anything done. Get off your high horse and get to work!”

Honestly, I hate feeling angry as much as I hated feeling grief-stricken. That’s not who my husband was and it’s not who I am. And so I leave my friends, acquaintances and various readers with this rather hopeful thought, played out visually by a lovely dance troupe of children from Denver, CO who have channeled what we used to think of as the American spirit to produce a stunning montage. Sure, it’s sappy but deep down inside, I’m a sap.

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A survey conducted post-apocalyptic debt ceiling kerfuffle indicates 82%  of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Congress. In Canada, it appears many people think at least that many Americans are off their rockers.

I’ve just returned from eleven days on the road, traveling by car with my  sister throughout Canada’s Maritime province, Nova Scotia. It’s a place of  breathtaking scenery, moderate climate, pockets of poverty, and smaller pockets of wealth. The locals are dependent on tourists who may not show up and crops and catches that may not materialize. On the other hand, lobster is plentiful.

The Nova Scotians–Acadians, Fundians and residents of the Eastern and Southern shores–are friendly and forthcoming, with little of the anxiety that permeates our current culture. Perhaps they’ve become more adjusted to an unpredictable life, along with the unpredictable weather that produced an unprecedented amount of rain this summer. They seem to like Americans on an individual basis, at least the far fewer number they’ve apparently seen this summer. Blame our economy or our aforementioned anxiety or maybe the lousy weather—or maybe the fact that ferry service from Portland, Maine to Halifax was suspended two years ago—but we state-siders are on the endangered list this year.

My sister, who habitually rises with the dawn, went searching for coffee every morning at Tim Horton’s, Canada’s ubiquitous version of Dunkin’ Donuts, where she sat amongst and eavesdropped on the local fishermen, loggers, long haulers and itinerant workers. I was frequently chatted up by shop clerks and desk clerks eager for conversation during the slow summer. The most common topic, aside from the weather was politics: not politics as practiced in Halifax or Toronto, but further south, in Washington, DC.

There’s plenty to talk about at home, mind you. Toronto, Canada’s largest and presumably most liberal city, just last year overwhelmingly elected a mayor who in both girth and taste for  political bullying has it all over our own Chris Christie. Rob Ford is a member of the Progressive Conservative party (is there really such a thing?) and is virulently anti-tax and anti-waste.  Among the wasteful programs he’s targeted are anything having to do with the environment or mass transit. He voted to close several prominent bike lanes, calling cyclists “a pain in the ass to motorists” and claims he respects the environment because he turns out the lights.

Nova Scotia has experienced its own political scandals. The province where bribes have for years been a way of life has seen a number of its legislators indicted over the past year. Furthermore, the province has, according to a recent economic report, lost 4,000 jobs over the past year.

Up in Cape Breton, I saw much in the way of single issue signage in support of the unborn and little in the way of diversity—ethnic, political or religious. More than 80% of the residents trace their origins wholly or partly to Great Britain (including Scotland and Ireland), with ancestral ties to France accounting for another 18% of the population. A fair number in this tourist-heavy community take seasonal unemployment in stride by drinking, sleeping and “jumping on the dole” during the winter, according to my Chéticamp guide.

Why are these people so interested in U.S politics, eh?

What struck me about our northern brethren’s questions and observations was that they came with an undercurrent of concern–about the bitterness and pessimism that seems to define our national mood these days. “Does anyone in your country feel hopeful about anything?” one woman queried after asking me to rate Obama’s job performance. “I used to think of Americans as optimistic types,” ventured a traveler from British Columbia, “but no more.”

It’s not surprising to realize we still matter to people outside our country. In fact, those candidates who aren’t suggesting we pull up the moat will insist that America must regain its “super-power status” without, of course, suggesting a viable plan for making that happen.

I don’t know that most of the citizens of the world expect us (or want us) to flex our military, economic or even philanthropic muscles as we once did. They know we’re on the same austerity diet they are. But what I’ve noticed, and others have as well, is that the US is suffering from a character deficit. The mix of optimism, courage, generosity and determination that used to define America has deserted us. True, we have often overstated the argument pertaining to American exceptionalism. On the other hand, the uniquely open-minded, open-hearted, questing American spirit is exceptional. It’s the one resource we can’t afford to lose.

It’s been a long time since we were number one—in education, affordable health care; in several other measures pertaining to well-being and quality of life. We should be focused on making gains in those areas, even as we get used to our slipped position in terms of economic clout. Whether we need to maintain some semblance of superiority in matters of warfare is something we have to reassess. But we shouldn’t, we needn’t surrender our spirit. That’s something Americans have always been able to count on. It turns out to be something the rest of the world counts on as well.

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Last year I wrote a piece entitled, “Is Stupid the New Black?” which attracted quite a bit of attention, due in part to its provocative title. Unfortunately,some missed the fashion reference (“Grey is the new black”) and thought I was engaged in racial stereotyping (whoa). Most readers shared my concern about the deliberate promotion of “stupid”, i.e. regressive, reactionary or irrational ideas, especially in times of unease.

Now I’m wondering: Is it time for “Is Stupid the New Black, Part II”?

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It’s impossible not to talk about the shooting of Representative Gabriel Giffords of Arizona if for no other reason than because it’s the BIG news story. As is the way with big stories, instant reporting is followed by instant analysis. Every imaginable media outlet, blog, Twitter feed and web site is engaged not only in relaying the facts as they become available but in providing context.

I’m trying not to blame but I can’t help feeling angry.

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