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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

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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I can’t help but wonder if  America has become the nation of “no.” We certainly see it in Congress, where Democrats call Republicans “the party of no.” Truly, many members of the GOP appear to have decided to veto anything the Dems or the White House proposes just because they can.  While guest speaker Newt Gingrich urged a “yes” approach at the recent Southern Republican Leadership Conference, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin dismissed those concerns, suggesting “there is no shame in being the party of no,” a comment that won her the first of many standing ovations. From the insistence on scrapping the entire healthcare plan to current plans to nay-say both Wall Street reform to the nomination process for a Supreme Court justice to replace John Stephens on the Supreme Court, “just say no” seems to be the GOP’s current default position.

The culture of “no” extends well beyond Washington politics into society as a whole. Some of it―scratch that―most of it is based on fear. The list of things we don’t want in our backyards or at our front doors grows daily, from same-sex marriages to incineration plants that convert trash into energy. In New Jersey, the budgeting antidote to years of irresponsible fiscal spending (most of it under Democrats) is for the Governor’s office to say hell, no to teachers and schools and hospitals and municipalities, most of which have responded to calls for cuts and consolidation with a big uh-uh and the possibility of a property tax hike (which, in New Jersey, is kind of redundant).

“No” has its uses, particularly when it comes to overindulgence, whether our vice is food, shopping, or real estate flipping. It also works for a fair amount of parenting. Teenagers may insist they are just like adults but they continue to exhibit either unintentional or willful naivety when it comes to the power of the Internet communiques to maim or destroy the lives of their peers. No, everybody on the Internet is not fair game; no, bullying is not “okay” as long as there’s no pushing and shoving; no, you’re not safe just because you can’t see who you’re chatting with; no, you may not go out after prom, get plastered and drive with five other equally plastered seventeen-year-olds. When it comes to the kids, “no” should always remain in play.

But as adults in a country that’s supposed to embody the can-do spirit, we’re moved not one year but light years away from “yes we can.” Whether it’s cutting down on fossil fuel  or spending or calories, sharing the pain of American troops abroad, providing for them when they return, or finding a way to support the infrastructure, research, or educational improvements that might make us a global force, we just can’t muster up enough spirit to say, “go for it.” Instead, we reach for no and its variants: not likely, too hard, I doubt it, let’s not, can’t risk it, we mustn’t, you can’t, I won’t,  they shouldn’t.

While “yes” may at times be impulsive, even reckless, “no” carries with it an air of finality, like someone who picks up his marbles and goes home. Coupled with the nostalgia expressed by some Americans for the good old days that weren’t all that good, no has become more about staying-in-place and making no changes than about common sense or even caution. For that we have “slow” or even “whoa” which at least suggest that a discussion or a debate is in order. “No” is an ultimatum, the end of the line, the referee’s final whistle. It’s also beginning to feel like a big stumbling block on the road to progress and prosperity– and that’s no good.

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The wind-whipped tree limbs howl as the waters rise. The light goes dim and sleet begins its insistent tap on the windows. Is it an end-of-March weather flip-flop or something more sinister: 2012 in 2010, Hell unleashed, the Apocalypse? Bring on the locusts.

Blame today’s headlines: In Moscow, a bomber strikes another public transportation system. In Haiti, the tropical heat continues to bake the overworked volunteers and underfed survivors who vie for any kind of support or sustenance, physical or emotional. Karzai thumbs his nose at Obama and embraces Amadinejad, just as last week Netanyahu thumbed his nose at us and embraced more building. In the Congo, victims of torture most desperately need mental health services. Back here again, misconceptions about health care legislation loom while insurance companies hire lawyers to look for loopholes. Anger simmers, although articles assure us most people don’t make the step from thinking violent thoughts to doing violent deeds but then, oops, here come the Hutaree, a militia group of self-identified Christian warriors who, unable to wait any longer, have decided to stage their own end of days party.

The name, which is invented, suggests they are avid followers of sci-fi and have seen “Avatar” more than once but their mission is far from peaceful. The group, based in Michigan, is preparing to assassinate police officers, whom they see as “foot soldiers” to the federal government which, don’t you know, is working for the Antichrist to establish a New World Order. The Antichrist, according to the group’s website, might be Spanish physicist and former secretary general of NATO Javiar Solana, which gives this whole thing an international spin. Solana, a leading advocate for a European Union, does favor international cooperation; certainly the educated and soft-spoken foreign policy expert is a sophisticated choice for the role of all that is unholy. But I digress. The Hutaree philosophy blends “fear of a conspiracy to create a one-world government with a belief that a war is imminent between Christians and the Antichrist, as described in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.” The group has been training in military-style exercises and preparing to defend themselves. Defense obviously includes offensive stealth attacks in order to stir the pot and encourage an uprising.

We know why this happens – or the experts among us believe they do: insecurity, fear of the unknown, unemployment, a sense of not belonging — all these things serve as catalysts for such groups and have since the beginning of human history. And yet, it’s difficult not to imagine this is bigger, worse, more imminent, more frightening. What if one of the many conspiracy theories turns out to be true? Or what if one terrorist group or another decides to do something really big, so big that it will scythe through great swathes of civilization as we know it? Are we doomed? The short answer is: probably not, or at least our demise is not imminent. That doesn’t exempt us from vigilance or excuse us from the rigorous application of rationality. But what I know, after surviving cold wars and heated rhetoric, is that everything from the headlines to the footnotes change over time. The forecast is for sun and milder temperatures.

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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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The headlines this past week were reason enough to encourage the tearing of hair, gnashing of teeth and and scratching of heads. I know, that could happen in any week, given the headlines these days. Still, these particular headlines inspired questions on my part that I’m hoping my readers will address. Please use the comments section to throw in your two cents (or more) and whatever you do, try to maintain the faintly comic tenor of the post.

1. One Out of Seven Former Detainees Returns to Terrorist Activities: If six out of seven detainees did NOT return to terrorist activities, how many detainees did we NOT need to detain in the first place? 

2. Loaded Guns Allowed in National Parks Under Credit Card Bill:  Will this bill, if passed, allow us to use loaded guns on credit card company CEOs in national parks?   

3. Human Rights Activist Suu Kyi Arrested in Myranmar: If an American man swimming across a lake provides a reason to detain someone already under house arrest, what would happen if two Russians approached by canoe? A Frenchwoman on rollerblades?

4. Steele Threatens to Quit if RNC Undermines Funding Authority: Is this news? Is this even interesting? 

5. Kris Allen Beats Adam Lambert on Star-Packed “American Idol” Finale: Is this about eyeliner? The questionable costume choices? Or perhaps the questionable musical tastes of the average “American Idol” viewer? 

6. Fears of Swine Flu Close Three More Schools: Is swine flu less of a problem if the young folk hang out sharing one another’s soda, snot and eyeliner in parks and at the mall instead of at school? 

7. Any and all headlines with the word “Cheney” (or “Dick Cheney” or “former Vice-President) in the title: Is he writing a book? Rewriting history? Planning to run for President in 2012? Does he believe he already IS President?

Thanks for trying to wrap your brains around these pressing questions. Meanwhile, enjoy the weekend, remember the people who serve our nation and I’ll see you next week. 

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On the airplane home from a college reunion, I watched “He’s Just Not That Into You” while reading about Elizabeth Edward’s forthcoming book, “Resilience” and her appearance on Oprah with her philandering husband. I don’t know which one made me more squeamish.

The movie is based on the best-selling book, which served as an upside-the-head smack for obsessed women everywhere. If he doesn’t call, if he always has excuses, if you suspect he’s not being straight with you then – hello? – he’s trying to tell you something without coming out and saying it: basically, he’s not all that interested although the sex might be fun. It’s taken years of bad date and mate experiences, plus one wonderful abeit criminally short marriage to understand that pursuing someone who isn’t that into you will invariably result in humiliation. By the way, guys, we know that and our best friends know that and hundreds of advice columns tell us that and don’t ask me why we continue to try and make you change anyway. Maybe if you came right out and told us directly we might accept your lack of interest – but I can’t be sure

Since we tend to assume marriage is the ultimate commitment, betrayal becomes more difficult. There’s history, there’s attachment, there may be children and there may even be love.  There’s also disbelief at the highest levels: how could he? Acceptance is long in coming. Women whose husbands deceive and leave aren’t left with much choice except to hold their heads high and get a good divorce attorney. Women whose husbands stray and stay seem to be from another planet, qualifying, we might suppose, for sainthood or at least martyrdom. 

The ultimate stakes seem to involve public figures, men whose egos and appetites blind them to the possibilities they will be outed. What do their women do? In olden days, they might suffer in silence, perhaps. No more.

HilBilI can understand that the humiliation of standing or sitting by your man  as he admits to his transgression at a press conference or on some TV talk show would be  enough to compel you to inflict maximum discomfort. Watching your husband take up with a woman young enough to be his daughter (or a man, for that matter) just because he can is hard enough. Having to suffer silently while it becomes tabloid and talk-show fodder has to be excruciating.Spitzer

So while good works and public service might do for some, a number of public figure spouses have responded with tell-all (or tell-some) books or articles these days, not to mention visits to Oprah, Ellen, “The Today Show,” and even perhaps a well-placed YouTube video. That makes it hard to think about  Elizabeth Edwards, her forthcoming book and appearance on Oprah.

Edwards follows in the footsteps of an infuriated Dina McGreevey, whose book about her husband Jim’s gay infidelity, about which she hadn’t, according to her book, a clue. mcGreevyThe ex-governor responded with his own tell-all book, the two books competing as the divorcing couple engaged in a fierce custody battle. Dina was obviously embarrassed and it’s entirely possible she needed the money; New Jersey governors don’t make all that much.

But Elizabeth Edwards is a lawyer and public health advocate, a mother of three who survived the loss of her first-born and is battling hard to survive a diagnosis of terminal cancer. She’s so  so respected she’s almost been canonized. She sits on several important boards and committees and is a leading advocate for healthcare reform. Why the tell-all book, which, by all accounts, lays far more of the blame on the other woman than on her husband?

The advanced buzz is that Edwards wanted to help other women by telling her story but there are ways to provide counseling, outreach and support without headlines. Money might explain part of it but I don’t think that’s it.  Of course, as we writers know, once we’ve gone through the painful yet cathartic process of writing it all down, we are understandably anxious to   get it our there. More than a few wronged women might be into perpetrating the drama, which also extends the attention.You could argue that Edwards has exacted the ultimate revenge: her husband is to appear with her on “Oprah.”

Mostly, though, I think I suspect Edwards is afflicted with our distinctly female need to explain – explain in print, explain again to Oprah or Ellen or Meredith or whichever sympathetic yeah-I’ve-been-there woman is gently interviewing you or to your best friend or the woman who does your nails or someone you’re sitting next to on the subway, explain yet again on the book tour or on YouTube or at your book club or your Pilates class, explain over and over and over again as many times as you need to – in the preposterous hope that explaining it will help make sense of it and may, in some distant time and place or possibly a parallel universe – allow you to get through to the cheating other who may – if the stars align and the earth moves under our feet  –  come up with an acceptable explanation and maybe even come home to stay.

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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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