When Priorities Attack

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, speaks at the Univision, Washington Post Democratic presidential debate at Miami-Dade College, Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in Miami, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

(Image by Associated Press)

Viewers had a hard time deciding if the Democrat was wearing brown or blue.

– CBSNewYork

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our national political discourse…

I know the debates are getting a bit redundant at this point. There were some exchanges that were taken almost verbatim from the Flint, Michigan debate last Sunday.

But seriously…

This?

Suit

#WhatTheHell?

Has the Trump Effect become so pervasive that we actually can’t focus on actual things anymore? Is the man’s Twitter obsession contagious, rendering all other tweets vapid and clownish?

I mean, I’m no fan of Twitter, but surely we can do more with it than this?

Is it brown? Is it blue?

Is you kidding me?!?

 

Four More Years (of the Same Damn Thing)

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Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

– Thomas Gradgrind

I’m not gonna lie: I’m a little disappointed with Tuesday’s primary results.

The problem with the American electorate is that it suffers from a remarkable lack of imagination. And it has, once again, scared itself off just short of greatness.

Why are we, in this country, so afraid of big ideas? The Cold War ended 25 years ago; let the bogeyman go, people! In any case, no one is suggesting we go around calling each other “Comrade” and painting things red. And let’s be clear: Joseph Stalin was not a socialist, he was a dictator who used socialist rhetoric to consolidate and validate his rule. Not unlike certain other dictators (like Museveni in Uganda or al-Assad in Syria) who hide behind the rhetoric of democracy. Or xenophobic narcissists who build their movements on a platform of patriotic nationalism. Not that there are any of those around lately.

“Socialism,” as the younger generation of voters has responded to it over the last few months, is not (as has been condescendingly suggested by talking eggheads on news networks) just about “free college.” That’s part of it, but not remotely all of it…or even most of it.

The “New Socialism” is in many ways a restatement of Rawlsian “justice as fairness.” At its most basic, it’s about sharing. This is not a novel idea; most of us were taught to share as children. We just forget as we grow older. We’re not talking proletarian gray, here, either: no one’s calling for a complete leveling, just a little long overdue balancing in an effort to bring social divisions a bit closer to true.

It is not enough simply to preach faith in the American dream because the unpleasant truth is that not everyone is “created equal.” Donald Trump, for instance, did not earn his fortune. There were no bootstraps involved in his ascent; his is not an Alger-esque tale. Being born black is not the social equivalent of being born white; being born female is not the social equivalent of being born male; being born gay is not the social equivalent of being born straight. Not in practice. Doesn’t matter what the eyes of the law see; the eyes of prejudice are blindfolded.

What I advocate is not the abolition of success; it is the democratization of opportunity. Too many of our so-called entitlement programs are step-stools to nowhere. Even if all the unemployed were employed, the pay for “unskilled” labor will never amount to a living (never mind that our daily lives depend on this “unskilled” labor in almost every way). Why? Not because employers cannot afford to pay a living wage, but because doing so would cut into their profit margin. There is no will, so there is no way.

The only way to get past the “unskilled” jobs is to go to college, and increasingly, undertake some form of post-graduate study. But who can afford that? Working one’s way through college isn’t a feasible option anymore. So there’s the student loan. Which defeats its own purpose. These days, it’s a double whammy: not only will a college degree not net you a good job, but your unemployment will be complicated by debt payments people with jobs struggle to make.

This is the socialism of the Bernie Sanders supporter: Make America Fair Again. It’s not about free enterprise; it’s about freedom of movement. Freedom of access. Above all else, recognition of one another as interconnected. “Free college” is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. It creates a ladder out of disadvantage to a career, and a living; it creates an educated electorate that knows the difference between a brain and a hairpiece; and it raises the bar for all of us by raising the level of public discourse in our communities.

The rationale behind reining in the banks and drafting the support of the über-rich is simple: wealth hoarded, in the vicinity of so much disadvantage, is immoral. It is also unsustainable. The idea that affluence is the ultimate expression of the American dream is ludicrous, especially if my dream fuels another man’s nightmare. When we have what we need, we don’t need any more; however, the capitalist impulse creates the impression that we can never have enough. Which makes us blind to all our fellow human beings who actually don’t.

We need leaders who both acknowledge these imbalances, and who are willing to try and rectify them. Even if by way of baby steps. I support Sanders the democratic socialist because at the end of the day, a small step is still a step in the right direction. And if that’s as far as he managed to go, at least the next guy or gal will have one less rung to climb.

Here’s the thing about Hillary Clinton: she could easily run as a moderate Republican. Bernie, on the other hand, represents the true progressives among us. True progressives are, by definition, ahead of the curve; they make change by tugging the narrative forward, not by pushing it from behind. Not that Clinton will do either. If her tack holds, she could win, take a four-year nap, and still deliver as promised.

It’s not enough just to get four more years. We need someone who will actually do something with them.

Dollars and Nonsense

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High hopes were once formed of democracy; but democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.

– Oscar Wilde

There are thoughtful voters on all sides of the political aisle: Democrat, Republican, conservative, liberal, and independent. The problem is that those thoughtful folks are trapped between two (much louder) extremes:

On the one hand are the corporations. You know, those people. Money talks. Loudly. And, when money is up for grabs, your average politician’s its mouthpiece.

On the other hand are the clueless. Let me be clear: I ascribe this label to no particular ideological category. They stand both to the left and the right of center. These are the people whose vote is decided before candidates even begin their campaigns, before they even know who will be running. Who say things like “Voting for a ___ is unthinkable.”

This kind of cocksure attitude speaks at a dull roar. In my experience, anyone who says something is “unthinkable” really hasn’t thought about it at all. In this scenario, a vote isn’t a decision; it’s a reflex. And blind certainty is the birthplace of volume. Generally speaking, the more someone yells, the more he thinks he knows, and the more a person thinks he knows, the less he really does.

So, we’re stuck between dollars and nonsense, and like John Kasich and Martin O’Malley, we find it hard to get a word in. The deck of democracy is stacked against us.

It’s hard not to feel that, in the midst of so much sound and fury, we really do signify nothing…

 

The Kids Are Alright

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(Image from TheAtlantic.com)

Kick down the barricades
Listen what the kids say
From time to time people change their minds
But the music is here to stay 

– Bryan Adams

What I wouldn’t give to be a college student again!

Say what you will about the “damn millennials,” they’re more than just lazy punks with a poor work ethic. Much, much more. They are, like it or not, the future.

My undergraduate presidential election was Bush v. Gore, in 2000, which of course bled over into 2001 as Bush v. Gore. At the time, I was a junior at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., studying to be a Baptist minister. So, you can imagine where I came down on things: I was a Christian, and Christians voted for the guy on the right. Very little thought, backed by all the blind conviction I could muster.

Sixteen years later, I realize the myopia of my ways. It is, then, with profound respect and admiration that I watch the undergrads and young adults of this election cycle readily and competently engaging the political realities around them. Not just as it affects them personally, but as it impacts the larger world to which they understand themselves to belong.

There is, sad as I am to admit it, more social awareness and concern in their little fingers than I possessed in my whole being at their age. Perhaps the Internet has yielded a few positive dividends, after all. I wonder if, given access to social outlets like Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere, my friends and I might have been a bit more conscious of our surroundings in our early 20s.

Then again, there are existential differences that carry weight, as well. My parents handed me a well-endowed college fund that got me through all but the very last semester of my undergraduate career. Unlike many students today (and then, for that matter), I didn’t have to work while going to school, and even had I had to work, I could have feasibly made it through without having to take out a loan. I finished well before the market crashed in 2008 and took out other college funds as well-endowed as mine while their owners stood helplessly by. College was a cakewalk for me, comparatively speaking.

In retrospect, having married into my wife’s undergrad debt, I’ve gained more perspective on the issue, and the injustice of the system fires me up, too. But I didn’t live it like these guys do; I didn’t have to sink in order to swim; I didn’t have to choose between education and future solvency. This is their issue in a way it can never be mine; they’re paying through the nose, and it’s coming out bloody. And they’re coming out swinging.

They also don’t carry the same historical baggage as my generation. The Cold War is in my past, but it is in their prehistory. The only Mutually Assured Destruction they fear is the possibility of Trump in the White House. And, as one interviewee remarked in an article on TheAtlantic.com, “socialism shouldn’t be a dirty word.”

I almost cheered when I read that, sitting here at my work desk: this is a major, monumental step forward. We have a generation of emerging citizens capable of envisioning socialism as something other than the USSR, as a cooperative ethic rather than as a clash of civilizations. Why? Because, quite simply, they are not us. Socialism is, to them, a new idea, not an old bugbear or cautionary tale used to stave off the liberal mind. They are throwbacks to the dawn of the concept, when it was about knocking down the fences that cut people off from the land, before it became about authority and still stood for community and solidarity.

If anyone can make this work, these are the ones to do it: they are not afraid to try new things, and they have one mother of a stake in the game. If Bernie Sanders falls short of the Oval, at the very least he is a hero for flipping the switch in young people’s minds, and showing them what fellow feeling is and can do if everyone works together in the interests of everybody else.

So the kids are taking control, which is as it should be. It’s their future, their world to make or break. I’m approaching 40, and while I’m not even close to being out of the game yet, with each passing year my role in all this becomes less about me and more about them. Which is also as it should be. It’s the long game I’m looking at here: I’m halfway to the finish line, but my nieces and nephew have their whole lives ahead of them. And I’m voting with the kids for my kids.

Thank goodness for the “damn millennials.” The future is theirs, and as such, it’s in good hands.

Two Wrongs Make a Right Mess

U.S. Senator Cruz speaks to members of the Texas Federation of Republican Women in San Antonio, Texas

(Image: Reuters/Joe Mitchell)

It is enhanced interrogation, it is vigorous interrogation, but it does not meet the generally recognized definition of torture….I would use whatever enhanced interrogation methods we could to keep this country safe. 

– Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz believes torture is wrong. So it’s a good thing waterboarding doesn’t “meet the generally recognized definition” of torture. Otherwise, how could he excuse using it to torture people?

Incidentally, we don’t know who he means when he says “generally recognized.” More than likely, it’s anyone who agrees with him that waterboarding isn’t torture. Or, anyone who knows it is but wants a loophole that allows them to do it anyway.

We also don’t know, because he didn’t say (nor did anyone ask him), where he got his claim that the legal definition of torture specifies “excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing organs and systems.” The UN definition references “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” and which is undertaken “at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

I dunno. Sounds like waterboarding to me…

Of course, Cruz at least tried to maintain a foothold on the moral high ground. Then there’s Trump, who in characteristic fashion hurtled the wall between good and evil and left it in the dust: “I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” The Donald may be right: Ted Cruz may not have a heart. But it’s fairly obvious that Trump has no conscience. It’s not that he’s not aware of the difference between right and wrong. He just doesn’t really care.

So, we have one guy who’s at least inferentially open to whatever form of torture is most likely to yield results, and another guy who’s redefined the concept of torture into near meaninglessness, so that he can do whatever he wants. And, heading into New Hampshire’s primary, these are the two Republican front-runners.

See, hard as David Muir tried to shed light on a murky subject (murky, at least, to those who believe ends justify means), he only granted the candidates leeway to make it even murkier. Why? Because the question he asked wasn’t the question that needs asking.

Not “Is waterboarding torture?” Because if we can argue, however transparently, that it is not, then we can remove it from the larger conversation of right versus wrong. If torture is wrong, but waterboarding isn’t torture, then waterboarding may be conceived of as value-neutral, merely a tool of truth’s trade. And so “enhanced interrogation techniques” enters the American lexicon, by way of dodging moral obligation and our own national rhetoric.

The real question is this: “Whether or not it fits Webster’s definition of torture, is waterboarding right?”

We can say, with Marco Rubio, that there is a difference between law enforcement and anti-terrorist operations–which, while true, avoids the question instead of answering it. Does the presumed urgency of a situation alter its moral nature, or our obligations within that situation? Maybe yes, maybe no–either way, we have a much richer conversation here than with either Cruz or Trump.

But even Rubio’s dodging the question: this is as much about where we’ve been as it is about where we’re going. So much of our self-image as a nation seems to rest on a fictitious moral superiority that, when the least bit of scrutiny is applied, vanishes in a puff of smoke and mirrors. And we know it. And it scares us. So we jingo all the more.

You see, we never ask the same question Muir never asked the Republican candidates last Saturday night: Is what we’re doing right? We never ask; we just assume it is because of Who We Are. We are America, Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. And our shit smells of rose petals and lavender water.

If any other nation on earth treated American prisoners the way we have treated Middle Eastern prisoners, we would go to war. (Incidentally, perhaps we’ve solved the riddle of continued radicalization around the globe.) Just like if another nation tapped our president’s phone; or anytime another country shows signs of developing nuclear capability. We can do whatever we want, and it’s in the interests of Truth, Justice and the American Way. If anyone else does it, they’re chalked up as a Bond villain at best, the devil himself at worst.

As we gear up for November, and face the real possibility of having our own raving megalomaniac at the switch (pick your poison), it pays to think these things through. Newton taught us that every action produces a reaction; the Eastern sages taught us that karma’s a bitch; and anyone who ever ran up to a moving carousel knows that what goes around comes around, and tends to knock one on one’s ass.

We cannot just assume we are right, or change the definitions whenever it suits us. What we do as a country, who we are as a people, how we behave ourselves as global citizens–these things matter. And there is more than semantics at stake here. If a given action is deemed evil when enacted by our enemy, then it is equally evil when we do it ourselves, no matter how just we judge our goals to be.

Two wrongs do not make a right. No matter how hard we insist that they do.