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Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

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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In a perfect world, our president would be  judged on incremental achievements as well as on bold visions. We the people would understand and accept that the president must be schooled in both the art of compromise and the messiness of politics. Of course, Washington would be more about pride of accomplishment and less about the turgid pace of the legislative politics; more about responsibility and less about power.

We don’t live in a perfect world, but rather one in which our perceptions are managed, massaged, and manipulated to a large degree by a diffuse but ever-present media. We know what we’re told and we know what we feel. We are, of necessity, forming opinions out of impressions. And our impressions, whether loyal supporter or rabid foe, are likely to be that this young presidency has some serious problems.

The White House seems to have lost control of its message, as Ken Auletta so aptly pointed out in a recent New Yorker article. Much of the problem is with present-day news delivery; the professionaObama3ls are overwhelmed, the serious would-be professionals are fighting for space and the amateurs/inmates sometimes seem to have overtaken the blogosphere. In a medium that favors speed over accuracy and hyperbole over reflection, it’s harder than ever to use the media in making a point, let alone press an agenda. 

And Obama’s crew has been overwhelmed with a host of issues, from security to the war to the economy to the dangerously overwrought plans for health care reform. Some of these issues have been managed relatively successfully, although you might not know it from the attention paid to the missteps. This Administration has to deal withits own party which, as usual, seems incapable of holding fast to its own ideals, let alone its message. Or maybe the party really is a lily-livered, wimpy, 90-pound weakling when it comes to the nasty sport of politics (bring back James Carville!) The Republicans have managed to pass legislation with a majority. The Democrats begin to tremble at the thought of a filibuster. One wonders if they could manage to stick to an agenda with 100 seats in the Senate.

Back to the message, or rather, the impression we’re left with as to what the message should be, because that’s apparently what elects Republicans in Massachusetts. Indiana Democrat Senator Evan Bayh noted about disillusionment with the Democratic Party: “I don’t think the American people last year voted for higher taxes, higher deficits and a more intrusive government. But there’s a perception that that is what they are getting.”

Actually American people voted for change and, if they’d been paying attention, for change that involved an activist government acting responsibly and stepping in (in some cases, temporarily) to right wrongs, manage programs, and oversee private sector industries that were floundering or otherwise out of control. To do this, they – we – elected a cool, erudite Harvard graduate with a background in community organizing and pragmatic politics, Chicago-style, someone who was never likely to say “I feel your pain.”

Damn, if that isn’t what we want, and that’s also part of the problem. We want change, although not too much change. But what we want even more is someone to visibly and vocally feel our outrage, our anger, our hysteria and then reassure us in the most personal manner possible that everything will be okay.

I still think the cerebral guy from Harvard could make the changes he holds dear to his heart, even without a filibuster-prObama5oof Senate. But he’s going to have to put more heart into it. He’s going to have to get tough (or appear to get tough); and he’s going to  have to develop a much more personal and persuasive message, one that can change the impression too many Americans have that he’s not paying attention to how much they’re hurting.

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“I am not opposed to all wars; I’m opposed to dumb wars.”
then-candidate Barack Obama, March 26, 2008
ObamaAfghanistan is a war which we didn’t start but which we will end. We have twenty months (more or less) to do so. Before we end it, we will provide a surge to counter the insurgency. This will be done in full view of absolutely everybody. This is not done lightly but with the security of the United States in mind. We will secure key areas (not deeply rural areas because we can’t; no one can) against the Taliban as we  train and grow the Afghan Army. Yes, we are forced to count on support from a deeply corrupt government, but we will hold that government accountable. We will not send them money directly but instead will fund local leaders, build up local miltia and convert former insurgents. We cannot send troops uninvited into Pakistan, where we know Al Qaeda is most active and where the nuclear arsenal is less than secure, but we will be close by. We will try to cut off any nascent partnership between the Taliban and Al Qaeda and prevent new alliances from growing. Most importantly, we will convince ordinary Afghans that we are there to help them take their country back and then move it forward. This is at the heart of any lasting success.
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War is hell. It’s also either strategic, unavoidable, inevitable, unwinnable, manageable, practical, essential — or dumb. What have we here?

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I liked what I read about Obama’s Cairo speech and I pretty much liked the speech itself. At the risk of sounding fatuous, I would have given a similar presentation had I been in his position – with a couple of additions. I would have been more direct about the necessity of giving more than lip service to democracy. I would have reminded the Arab countries a little more forcefully (as he had indicated he would do) that they haven’t exactly stepped up to the plate when it comes to investing in the future of Palestine although some nations have been happy to arm the militant factions. He might have been a bit more careful when discussing the Holocaust as if it were equivalent to the Palestinian plight; from a tactical standpoint, that wasn’t going to sit too well with an Israel already stunned by the idea that an American President would tell them to stop building settlements. But by and large and given the setting, I think it worked. It brilliantly undermined Osama Bin Laden’s bid for attention and made it seem almost churlish to dislike an America that was trying hard to balance competing interests. 

What I don’t know is whether his comments will help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seems at this point to be intractable.  As I wrote in a similarly named post here in January:  

“Israelis see themselves as always and evermore in danger of being targeted for extinction. Nearly everything they do seems to derive from their understanding of and belief in the constant threat of annihilation… Palestinians see themselves as always and evermore in danger of remaining as refugees, without rights, without opportunities and without a homeland, pushed around by a small country with a large and powerful friend. Many have been raised to believe it is uniquely Israel that stands in the way of their liberation and so Israel must be destroyed, which, of course, confirms Israel’s worst fears.”

We’ve lived through other two-party conflicts: the Cold War was all about a nuclear standoff between two superpowers with weapons of mass destruction aimed at each other’s cities. Capitalism seems to have been a major player in the end of that faceoff; that and internal dissention pursuaded the USSR to have a go at the free market way of life. There was also the impracticality of surviving in a post-nuclear world, something I wish I felt the current nuclear powers were considering more carefully.

What’s going on between Israel and Palestine ought to be able to be resolved along similarly pragmatic lines: yes to the two-state solution and to Israel’s right to exist, with the proviso that punishment for any violators will come from the Muslim world. Not a chance, I hear some of my readers say. Well then, let’s get right to the heart of the matter. While grievances and fears and biases and hatreds exist, they can be overcome by proof that common ground might yield a better life for everyone. Resolution is always potentially possible, especially when it becomes obvious it makes more sense to do so. So who wants the Israel-Palestinian issue to be resolved, and more importantly, who doesn’t – and why not?

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Can empathy be taught? I asked myself this question when I read about a new program instituted in certain suburban high schools to combat bullying and harassment among young people, both of which are apparently on the rise. Instead of merely being shunned by the mean girls or humiliated by the bad boys – bad enough when you’re in puberty – you can have your mind messed with, your reputation utterly ruined and your family stalked and also humiliated via text, Twitter and on any number of social networking sites.  There have been reactions that have made the news (high school shooters and MySpace suicides) and many more that haven’t.

We accept that some people are more empathetic than others, that women are generally (although not always) more empathetic than men, that the whole concept of relating to one’s fellow person simply comes more easily to some than to others. Michelle Obama is scoring high points for being so genuinely interested in the people she meets. Her husband’s empathy quotient is harder to read even by those who support his agenda but he is connecting on some level. Dogs are supposed to be highly empathetic creatures although they are also into their version of self-preservation. I adore my dog but I’m not sure she cares whether I’m having a bad day if she wants to be fed right at that moment.

When I first heard Bill Clinton exclaim: “I feel your pain” I was a little taken aback. What pain was he able to feel, I wondered. The shock of a young man diagnosed with a fast-acting terminal disease? The anxiety of a family on a downward economic slide? The fear of woman on the run for her life in the middle of the latest ethnic warfare? What kind of pain were we talking about here?

I sense what Clinton was saying: I can empathize. Whether and how this affected his style of governance is something I’ll set aside for now. But he somehow engaged in the task of putting himself in someone else’s shoes of trying to sense how they might feel.

Of course he couldn’t have literally known what it might be like to fully experience living someone else’s life unless he were living it. We can’t know what its like to be living in Gaza or in a refugee camp in Darfur or even as a high-schooler with a lisp or a limp or an odd way of relating to people unless we’re in the moment. Even then, people react differently depending on their emotional makeup. We’re all unique that way, which makes this whole business of relating somehow trickier.  I can’t tell you how many people said after my husband was killed on 9/11, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Some of my angrier friends who had lost loved ones used to retort, “No, you can’t.” I’d only say, “You don’t have to.”

The fact is: you don’t have to imagine the specifics of a horrible or difficult situation or the origins of the anger, fear another person is experiencing because, frankly, what purpose would it serve? Instead, you might recognize the sorts of feelings and impulses a person in such a situation might have; somewhere along the line, we’ve all had similar feelings. You base or adjust your actions and words to take those feelings into consideration, so that you do no harm. There’s compassion involved and also a willful putting aside of your own interests and desires, even if you can never truly understand what it might be like to feel like an outcast or feel threatened or feel terror. Then there’s the whole idea that you might be able to modify your behavior in a more sympathetic manner. It seems like a lot of work, more like empathy isn’t “just” a feeling but also a way of thinking. Which means, yeah, it could be taught and we’re all probably due for a refresher course.

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Okay, I’ve had a rotten couple of weeks; who hasn’t? Yes, I’ve been tempted to access my inner Lewis Black. But except for some venti-sized venting to trusted family and friends (you know who you are and I’m really sorry), I’ve tried to keep my crabbiness to myself or at least not extend it outward towards others. Sure I’m ticked off about the state of affairs, but unlike apparently many, many others, I’m trying to avoid trash talking.

There’s a whole lot of anger streaming through my inbox, passed along from friends to the left and right of me. Some of it is amusing; lots of it is just rank. Unless my friends have been injected with a mean virus, they’re probably expressing their mass anxiety by spewing venom in the form of very personalized jokes about people in the news. Okay, kids: stop it. It may feel good but it solves nothing.

I’ve obviously joined the ranks of the insane when I expect or at least hope my Representatives will stop pontificating and “serious” journalists will stick to serious reporting and analyzing instead of high drama and not-so-subtle low blows. I grant you a little snarkiness can be fun, especially when it rises to the level of clever satire (which, as we all know, it rarely does). But doomsday business reporting laced with panic or political grandstanding masquerading as faux populism by our Congresspeople is poisoning our collective spirit, especially in concert with the ever-present talk radio bloviators, whose sole mission in life seems to be to get everyone worked up. Finger-pointing is not a form of exercise, except as an exercise in futility.

In the manner of another favorite humorist of mine, John Cleese, I am going to issue a proclamation. I expect you few loyal minions who visit my blog regularly to pass the word throughout the land: a moratorium on trash talk for a period of one week on the following subjects:  Bank of America, Citibank, any bank, GM, GE, Wall Street, Wall Street-types, anyone who works in finance, people who give out mortgages, people who can’t pay their mortgages, socialists, economists, Democrats, Republicans, including but not limited to: Barak Obama, Michell Obama, Michelle Obama’s arms, George Bush (either one), Rush Limbaugh, Michael Steele, Karl Rove, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Bobby Jindal, Alan Keyes (I know – who?), Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, evangelicals, Jim Cramer or any other business news anchor (it’s jsut for a week), members of old media, new media or amateur media, global warming, Octo-mom, Chris Brown, Rhianna, Oprah, Britney, Siegfried and Roy, gay people, anti-gay people, A-Rod, Jews, Christians, Muslims, spiritual not religious, atheists, secularists, and anyone living in California, as if they don’t have enough trouble already. I realize I’ve left out a few topics and I welcome your input, dear readers. Please note I’m giving a pass to reality TV-bashing because I’ve had it up to here with reality TV but no trash talking about individual contestants or judges. I’m exempting all comedians – they’re paid to trash talk. Finally, I didn’t include Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, or Madonna because, unfairly or not, these people are going to have to put up with trash talk for the rest of their lives, through good economies and bad and even if we suddenly become more civilized, an unlikely occurrence.

For further enlightenment on the subject of incivility, please read: “Uncivil Society”  and don’t forget: add your verboten subjects in the comments section. Sky’s the limit; we can dream, can’t we?

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While we recover from the fallout of New York’s Senate appointment, while we try to change channels faster than Illinois Governor Ron Blagojevich can appear on them, while we wait for the President’s new cabinet appointees (and the Senator from Minnesota) to be confirmed and seated, while we curse the snow and sleet, the higher property taxes, the cuts in service and mid-winter misery in general, let us now stop to sing the praises of science.

I wasn’t a science kid. I didn’t watch Mr. Wizard on Saturday mornings or beg my folks for a home chemistry set. I preferred language and music to theorems and equations. A generally good student, my only truly bad grade was in freshman college earth science. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I began to realize just how much I value the process by which science and scientists seek to learn what is true.

“The scientific method is something all of us use all of the time. In fact, engaging in the basic activities that make up the scientific method — being curious, asking questions, seeking answers — is a natural part of being human.” So says the author of an article on the subject on a wonderful site called “How Stuff Works.”  Put in such accessible terms, it makes sense. Yet in the last decade, science has been regarded in certain circles as an authoritarian, unyielding,  unfeeling practice that stubbornly asserts it has incontrovertible answers to everything. One reason may be related to a widespread misunderstanding about the word “theory”.  As Wikipedia  points out,  “In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation… In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time.”  By mixing up the two meanings and by ignoring the process by which scientific theories are developed, it’s easy to decide science is guesswork dressed up to look like fact.

The fact is , good science – like good thinking – is open-minded. Sure, we might say we know something for certain, based on provable and testable information; for example, we’re pretty sure the world is round at this point. But the value of science isn’t in its insistence it has every answer, only that it has a method for looking and a willingness to reconsider earlier positions. As Dennis Overbye pointed out in the Science section of yesterday’s New York Times,“Science is not a monument of received Truth but something people do to look for truth.” Overbye went on to point out the parallels between science and democracy, both of them “willing to embrace debate and respect one another…”

How cool is that?

I doubt I’ll ever memorize the periodic tables or the geological ages of the earth but I have taken to reading more articles about earth science, life sciences and physical sciences. I’m interested in whether science finds a cure for cancer or arthritis or whether certain foods can positively alter brain chemistry, especially in the dead of winter. Mostly, though, I say hooray for President Obama’s promise to restore science to its rightful place. I certainly want to support debate, discussion, and inquiry – in short, any process that celebrates the pursuit of answers rather than the certainty anyone has them all.

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