Saturday, October 30, 2010

A SYMBOLIC ENDING TO THE PAST TWO YEARS

So, here we are, nearly two years since the election of Barack Obama. I won’t soon forget going to the office on the day after that election and seeing people on the streets of D.C. beaming from ear to ear, as if a monkey had been lifted off of their backs. Finally, our nation had matured to the point where we could look past the color of a person’s skin. And the vehicle that allowed us to do this was a tremendously appealing man. Charismatic, supremely intelligent, reflective, calm, dignified, friendly … what’s not to like?

The day after Barack’s election, one of my colleagues and I walked to the Newseum, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the National Gallery of Art. There, displayed in the front of the building, were front pages from all over the world. And with the exception of the Australian paper – which, characteristically, displayed a sporting event – every newspaper highlighted the historic election in America. Like Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King, Barack Obama had become more than just another man. He came to symbolize a movement … and a moment in history, one that virtually all Americans, including most of those who opposed his candidacy, could celebrate. Above all else, Barack Obama represented equality of opportunity and freedom for all Americans. But not far under the surface, he represented unity as well. At a time when our nation had become racially and ideologically divided, he promised to bridge the gaps, and thereby enable us to once again take on great projects with buy-in from both Red and Blue states… just like when we used to fight great wars together during the first half of the previous century.

Inauguration Day was almost as magical as Election Day. Barack presided over the greatest party DC has ever had, and the symbolism was flowing once again. Ironically, perhaps the most powerful visual of the day was the image of Dick Cheney in a wheelchair, looking even more Strangelovian than George C. Scott. Ol’ Dick Cheney, snarl and all, was being wheeled into his car and out of our lives. And in his place would be the vitality of Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia. The calendar said it was winter, but the mood said it was spring. America was poised to reclaim her spot as an inspiration to the world, a beacon of progressive ideas.

Unfortunately, the reality hasn’t quite matched the symbolism. Or perhaps it is most accurate to say that every Superman has his kryptonite. And in the case of Barack Obama, that kryptonite wasn’t difficult to find. Barack’s first job was to turn around our moribund economy at a time when Americans are not accustomed to making sacrifices. And his solution, not surprisingly, was to rapidly increase Government spending without enacting a comparable increase in taxes. At first, the GOP went along with him on his spending spree – they had no choice if they wanted to stabilize the economy. But once the economy, and Wall Street in particular, was stabilized, the GOP leadership felt no compunctions about unleashing the kryptonite. It came with a mantra: The National Debt Must Go.

Those four words were taken to heart by every conservative in this land. And the power of those words took on almost Biblical proportions. Conservatives impressed their fiscal conservatism upon their children and recited their mantra when they stayed at home and when they were away, when they lay down and when they rose up. And while I have not yet seen symbols of fiscal conservatism bound as a sign upon anyone’s hands, or inscribed upon the doorposts of anyone’s homes or on their gates, perhaps that is just a matter of time. Clearly, the GOP has realized that as soon as our commitment to fiscal conservatism becomes the new Schema, the holiest of creeds, the ability of Barack Obama to implement transformative progressive reforms will die on the vine.

It was 100 percent pure kryptonite. Poor Barack Obama didn’t know what hit him.

So here we are now, almost two years after history was made, and we’re supposedly about to witness a devastating rebuke to Obama, his Party and his agenda. Some are predicting that the Democrats will sustain a net loss of up to 70 seats in the House, and virtually everyone is predicting that Nancy Pelosi’s speakership will come to an end. The result will be divided government and gridlock – for the GOP will be intent on depriving the President of accomplishments that he could run on in 2012. Gridlock might be just fine in times of prosperity; right now, however, it figures to be tragic, particularly for those who remain locked out of the job market. But no matter, say the elephants who are about to take power, you’ve got to crack a few million eggs to make an omelet.

Those who are looking for the causes of Barack’s downfall during these past two years should obviously start with a focus on the kryptonite. Our national debt was out of hand even before Barack took power. Once the GOP focused their laser beams on that issue, the moderate swing voters were forced to take notice. Only the most ideological Keynesian could deny that the debt needed to be reduced, not expanded. But there were other causes of Barack’s political woes, and these cannot be ignored either. The Supreme Court still belongs to George W. Bush, and it was Bush’s Court who changed the campaign contribution laws to give a HUGE advantage to the traditional Party of big business, the GOP. Plus, as indicated above, Barack did campaign as a transformational candidate, and when he couldn’t deliver transformational change, this sucked all the air out of the Democratic balloon. To be sure, dyed-in-the-wool Democrats can be counted on to vote for their Party. But have they campaigned for their Party? Have they donated to their Party? As the weeks have passed leading up to this election, all the enthusiasm, it seems, has been on the side of the Republicans.

Or so I had thought. Today, however, I realize that somehow, not all hope has died. The passion of the winter of 2008-2009 can indeed be re-kindled. That will become manifest today on the National Mall at noon, when the most popular progressive in the United States takes the stage on the grounds just to the west of the Capitol.

Barack Obama the statesman has had his day, and he may again have other days in the future. But right now, progressive Washington belongs not to a statesman but to an entertainer. Not since the inauguration have I seen any interest on the part of young people to March on Washington, but I’m seeing it today. Every kid wants to be there to pay their respects to their new hero – a man who speaks truth to power, much like Barack did two years ago, before he came to symbolize official Washington, and the gridlock and divisiveness that goes with it. Sure enough, we are hosting friends from Indiana who flew in to attend the rally because – you guessed it – their teenager wanted to be there so badly.

Jon Stewart does not have to worry about all of Barack Obama’s constraints. He can afford to say and do whatever he wants. And if one of his gags falls flat, he then can channel Johnny Carson and make fun of himself for being unfunny. (That was always when Carson was at his funniest, remember?) It’s a perfect vehicle for taking on serious issues – a foolproof vehicle, really. Stewart knows this as well as anyone. “People, relax,” he likes to say. “I’m just an entertainer, just a comedian.” And that entitles him to ridicule anyone and anything that deserves to be torn a new one – all the while having a great time in the process. It’s Jon Stewart’s world, and you’re living in it.

Young people aren’t stupid. They have more time on their hands than we adults and a hell of a lot more energy. They see very clearly whenever a Superman comes along. They saw it in Obama and made all the difference in his fight for the Democratic Nomination. But they could also tell when Barack’s enemies were able to identify and deploy the kryptonite. And now young Americans require a new hero. They still like Barack, but “like” is not enough. They need someone to love. They need Jon Stewart.

So what exactly does Stewart symbolize most? Competence? Intelligence? Impishness? Iconoclasm? Maybe all of the above. But I think he says it best when he points out that he is the kid in the back of the bus firing spitballs, only in his case, the recipients of the spitballs aren’t lovable nerds but the world’s biggest jerks. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing pompous asses brought down a few pegs? Adults like it, kids love it. And well they should. At a time when the country and the world seems to be hopelessly dysfunctional, the spitball seems like the ultimate weapon. At a time when most have given up on our ability to change the world, at least we can rejoice in our freedom to ridicule it.

I like to joke that there is always at least one man that my wife would dump me for in a heartbeat. It used to be Harrison Ford. But today it is Jon Stewart. And all this Jon Stewart affection reminds me of that old Seinfeld episode called The Gymnast, when Seinfeld was dating such an athlete. After frequently pointing out how gymnasts can contort their bodies, he finally tells his friend: “I couldn't believe it. Uh, I mean I thought I was entering a ‘magical world’ of sensual delights, but it was just so ordinary. I mean, there was nothing gymnastic about it.”

Apparently, the feeling was mutual. For at the end of the episode, the gymnast told Seinfeld directly exactly how ordinary he was: “In my country, they speak of a man so virile, so potent, that to spend a night with such a man is to enter a world of such sensual delights most women dare not dream of. This man is known as the "Comedian". You may tell jokes, Mr. Jerry Seinfeld, but you are no Comedian.”

Then she walked off the stage and was never heard from again. But I can guarantee you one thing. At noon today on the National Mall, she’ll be there to celebrate a true comedian – one who actually matters. And my wife and daughters will be right there with her.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

THE HITS JUST KEEP ON COMING

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk on Jewish-Islamic dialogue at a national conference sponsored by the Eastern Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Just before finishing, I asked the people in the audience to close their eyes for a few seconds. Quickly, I reached into a bag and pulled out a football jersey, which I then pulled over my shirt. When the audience’s eyes were opened, they were treated to a short but impassioned plea NOT to approach peacemaking the same way they’d approach a football game -- as a partisan who empathizes with one combatant but not the other.

To make peace, I contended, we must not become cheerleaders for any one side. We must learn and respect the narratives of all who wage war, at least to the extent those narratives are grounded in fact and not in myth or bigotry. With respect in particular to the struggle over the Holy Land, peacemakers can’t be identified as being “pro-Palestinian” or “pro-Israeli” but must be steeped in love for both peoples and devoted to a long-term two-state solution. Holy activities like peacemaking require spiritual attitudes, and there is nothing less spiritual than sitting in front of a TV on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon yelling like Banshees -- after a turnover, a touchdown, or a blown call.

But my point was not to knock football. Far from it. I stressed that though human beings are known as “rational animals,” it is important to keep in mind that the adjective is “rational” and the noun is “animal.” However much we’d like to forget our animal nature, we can hardly eliminate it altogether. And that means that even for us peacemakers, there are times in our lives for allowing our more beastly sides to take over, and one of those times is when our favorite team is playing football. That’s when we can afford to put aside some of our even-handedness – indeed, that is when we can put aside some of our “Empathic Rationalism” -- and just bleed Black and Silver, Burgundy and Gold, or whatever colors our uniform happens to be. In my case, on the morning of my talk, I was bleeding Purple and White. My uniform was a 2006 Antoine Winfield Vikings jersey.

Why Winfield? Because pound-for-pound, he might be the hardest hitter in the NFL. The guy is only 5’9” 180 pounds, but he almost never misses a tackle and packs quite a punch in the process. Like every other Vikings fan, I enjoy watching him smack down running backs who outweigh him by 40 or 50 pounds but have no answer when Winfield throws his body into their legs. At that point, gravity takes over.

Winfield is known as a pure tackler rather than as an intimidator, but I have never been averse to appreciating bigger, more vicious hitters. I always considered that appreciation to be part and parcel of being a football fan. After all, lots of sports showcase finesse and athleticism, but what makes football unique among ball games is the violence of the collisions. Two grown men, and I do mean GROWN, run at full speed, sometimes with their eyes on each other and other times with their eyes elsewhere, like towards the ball as it flies through the air. When they collide and one or both crumble instantly to the ground, announcers go wild. “Man, did you see that hit. That was awesome!” As a kid or even a young adult, I thought nothing of such a collision; the more violent, the more “cool.” That’s the word I might have used under my breath to revel in the thrill of the moment.

Then one day, I realized something rather ugly about myself. I was watching a game between two teams I cared little about, when the quarterback for one the teams left the pocket and ran swiftly up the field. Rather than sliding (in which case he would be proclaimed down on impact with the ground), he headed for the sidelines, while continuing to gain more and more yardage. Just before he reached the sidelines, he was met squarely by a massive, yet speedy linebacker, Greg Lloyd of the Pittsburgh Steelers. And even though I’m no Steelers fan, I got a rush of joy at watching Lloyd simply pulverize the quarterback. My rationale was that the quarterback had been asking for it – he hadn’t slid to evade the tackle but was trying to get every yard he could as if he were a running back. But as the quarterback remained on the ground after the tackle, it dawned on me just how sick I was that I would so viscerally thirst for a violent collision just because a quarterback was too greedy for yardage to know when to evade the hit.

That ridiculous blood lust still resides deep inside me, and every now and then it reappears. Another common time for it is when I’m watching a bench-clearing brawl during a baseball game and find myself sufficiently enraged at one of the combatants that I’m hoping for a good clean punch to the jaw. I’m not defending this attitude. Of course it’s uncivilized. But I also accept that it comes with the testosterone. It comes with the recognition that whereas we may hope to be rational, we cannot escape being animals.

Ah, but when we escape from the heat of the moment, when we take some time for reflection, we Empathic Rationalists can do some things to regulate our animal sides. And I’m afraid the time has come for those who oversee the game of football to get busy in this regard. Scientists no longer debate the destructive nature of this game. It destroys the feet, the knees, the ribs, and ultimately, the brain. Players don’t even realize what is happening to cause them permanent brain damage. Every shot they take that jars the helmet – and for that matter, every shot they administer to another player – destroys their brain cells. The results include headaches, nausea, dizziness, memory problems, severe depression, and just plain old permanent stupidity.

Did I say stupidity? When it comes to the NFL, that appears to be the word of the week. Last Sunday, players dropped like flies from one head-to-head collision after another. Two of those players dropped at the hands (or should I say the “head”) of Steelers defensive lineman, James Harrison. Here were Harrison’s comments after the game: “I don't want to see anyone injured," Harrison said, "but I'm not opposed to hurting anyone. There's a difference. When you're injured, you can't play. But when you're hurt, you can shake it off and come back. I try to hurt people."

The number of players carried or carted off with head injuries reached such an absurd proportion last weekend that the league felt obliged to talk tough about the problem. President of Football Operations, Ray Anderson, said that “There's strong testimonial for looking readily at evaluating discipline, especially in the areas of egregious and elevated dangerous hits. Going forward there are certain hits that occurred that will be more susceptible to suspension."

Suspensions, huh? Not this weekend. In response to Sunday’s hits, the league continued with its customary approach of fining players, but not suspending them. And we all know what a fine means to a zillionaire football player: little more than a slap on the wrist. Harrison, for example, was fined $75,000 for his two lethal hits, but he’ll be on the field tomorrow. And lest you feel sorry for the hit his wallet his taken, keep in mind that in 2009, Harrison signed a six-year $51 million contract. Trust me, when it comes to that $75,000, he won’t feel a thing. By contrast, for Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi, the two Browns receivers he knocked out, their brains will be feeling the effects of that game for the rest of their lives.

I thought Cribbs was asleep," said Harrison about one of his two victims last Sunday. "A hit like that geeks you up -- it geeks everybody up -- especially when you find out that the guy is not really hurt -- he's just sleeping. He's knocked out, but he's going to be OK. The other guy, I didn't hit that hard, to be honest with you. When you get a guy on the ground, it's a perfect tackle."
And Harrison wasn’t the only Steeler who enjoyed the opportunity to philosophize about the events of the day: "[Harrison] plays hard like that every week," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior. "Today was especially good because he took out their top dog, really. He took out the biggest weapon they had. He didn't do it intentionally, but with the intensity he plays with, it's liable to happen sooner or later."

Actually, it is liable to keep happening, over and over again, until the league does the only thing that is possibly capable of stopping this madness: suspending players for multiple games whenever they administer head-to-head tackles that hurt another team’s player. And I did say “hurt,” and not “injure.” That Harrison would differentiate between those two words when it comes to head trauma suggests that he’s probably not playing with a full deck himself. But surely the suits who run the league know better. Surely they realize that hits to the head are like puffs of tobacco. In the short run, you can survive them; in fact, you don’t even notice any damage. In the long run, however, they’ll destroy you as surely as night will follow day. And we fans, no matter how much catharsis we might enjoy from watching a good hit, simply cannot afford to support this kind of activity any more.

The irony of all this is that when I brought my jersey to the Peace Fellowship conference, I really did have the right idea. Antoine Winfield is a hitter, but the proper kind of hitter. Winfield, unlike Harrison, isn’t a head hunter. He hits in order to tackle, not to knock people out. Winfield, to be sure, has the capacity to sprain a guy’s ankle or even take out a knee. But Harrison thinks nothing of taking out a guy’s brains. And that simply must no longer be tolerated.

So write to the NFL. Let the Commissioner know where you stand on the issue of head-to-head collisions. Tell him you’re not going to any more NFL games or buying any more NFL memorabilia – no more Winfield jerseys, even – until he draws a line in the sand. Tell him you are willing to see your own team lose a key player for several games if that’s what it takes to preserve the sanity of the sport. Tell him that if the NFL has a chance to minimize head trauma and refuses to take that chance, it belongs in the category of drug dealers, another class of people who think nothing of inflicting brain damage on others … for profit.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

E PLURIBUS UNUM

The words at the top of this blogpost have been ringing in my ears ever since I took a trip to the Capitol Building a couple of days ago. It was the theme of the short film that is exhibited to those who take the tour of the Capitol. Its meaning is quite simple: “Out of Many, One.”

E Pluribus Unum is the original motto of the United States, one that appears on the nation’s official seal adorning yet another symbol, the bald eagle. The eagle signifies freedom. The motto signifies unity, fraternity. Together, these symbols comprise so much of what we Americans value about our country. We are a freedom loving people, a people of individuals, who are never afraid of marching to the beat of their own drummers. But we also recognize that by only leaving the state of nature and coming together will we maximize our freedom to pursue happiness. You see, a bald eagle might appear free from all external restraints. But true liberty is about more than just freedom from restraints. It entails the opportunity to develop fully our own unique intellectual, emotional and spiritual potentials, and this in turn requires us to bond with those of our brothers and sisters who together can help us all soar.

When our nation was formed, we were not yet the UNITED States of America. We were the United STATES of America. A person’s state was her country. And everyone reveled in the difference between that state and the other twelve. But our founding fathers recognized that their great experiment in large-scale republican government would never last without a powerful overarching unity that could link not only the states but all the citizens who resided within them. We would have to become a single people – one with a common language, a common purpose, and an increasingly common sense of history and hopes for the future. This was a time when the notion of republicanism beyond the scope of the city-state was still in its infancy, still little more than a vague aspiration that there exists some better way than the tyranny of a monarch, but not quite knowing what that something was. This was a time before the advent of political parties, attack ads, and Alien and Sedition Acts. The latter laws didn’t come about until 1798, by which time extreme partisanship had already reared its ugly head. By contrast, “E Pluribus Unum” became our official motto in 1782, and was originally proposed by the troika of Adams, Franklin and Jefferson shortly after they and a few dozen colleagues declared independence. They recognized that a new nation cannot simply declare itself opposed to a common enemy; it must bring together its citizens as friends.

Well, all that I can say is, so much for 1776. We seem to have found ourselves back in 1798 – only this time, we don’t have Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison to bail us out. Now, we’ve got Boehner and Reed. Good luck with that.

It should hardly be a newsflash that partisanship is destroying our government and appears to have already destroyed our Congress. This trend has been going on for many years. But the extent of the problem was not fully apparent to me until a couple of weeks ago when the first of my old friends identified himself as a member of the “Tea Party.” The anger he felt toward “tax and spend” liberalism was palpable, as was his disgust with the politicians who supported such an ideology. But fortunately, from my friend’s standpoint, we seem to be finding an antidote. That antidote is Sarah Palin and the movement that she, perhaps more than anyone else, epitomizes. To my friend, Sarah Palin is a breath of fresh air, a woman who speaks in plain, simple terms about the need to return power back to the private sector so that we might again live free like the bald eagle, unencumbered by that house of horrors, the IRS, which sucks up our money and seemingly flushes it down the toilet.

I had met before a number of people who love Sarah Palin. But the friend I am talking about is someone I met more than 30 years ago when we were students at Stanford. He is educated, intelligent and has always been a pretty reasonable guy. And yet, he champions the cause of a woman who seems to me to be none of the above. I have to say, it made me wonder how the two of us could feel so differently.

As my friend and I spoke about politics, economics and world peace, I was sufficiently fascinated by my friend’s political metamorphosis that I chose to say fairly little myself; I preferred instead simply to listen. Then the subject turned to Sarah Palin, and I found myself becoming more and more animated. I argued that the woman is a dangerous demagogue and even analogized her to figures in Nazi Germany, an analogy that one should rarely if ever make because it is both clich├ęd and inevitably hyperbolic. But that’s how desperate I was at making sure my friend understood the extent of my opposition to this woman’s political future. I needed him to see that while we progressives may lack passion these days, there are certain things that could actually rekindle that passion. At or near the top of that list is surely the opportunity to oppose a Sarah Palin Presidential run.

Perhaps you are thinking that I have just pulled a 180. Here I was, toasting the virtues of a time before partisanship, and now I am sounding like the yellow dog Democrat you all know I can be. But the truth is, I am speaking about something deeper than my own progressive politics. That point was brought home shortly after I saw the E Pluribus Unum film and was brought into the Capitol Rotunda. There, across from where our tour group was standing, was a bronze statue of the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. Immediately, I smiled, having taken a liking to the man despite his domestic policies. And I got a little choked up when the tour guide pointed out that the few inches separating the statute from its base was material obtained from the Berlin Wall. “Mr. Gorbachev,” I found myself mouthing the words silently, “Tear Down That Wall!” It was a statement of which all Americans should be proud, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. When we lose sight of that, we lose sight of E Pluribus Unum.

As I contemplated the bronze Reagan statue and thanked him for his role in ending the Cold War, my thoughts turned to Sarah Palin, some of her fellow Tea Party politicians, and the Fox News hacks who prop them up. I recalled in particular the remarks Palin made in Greensboro, North Carolina, literally two years ago today, when she was running for Vice President. "We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. We believe" [the audience interrupted her at this point with applause and cheers], we believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation."

Continuing on with my tour of the Capitol, the words of Sarah Palin rankled me. That was not the spirit of the founding fathers. Jefferson, the champion of agrarian virtues, fought his rival Hamilton tooth and nail, but I don’t believe he would question whether the bankers or merchants propped up by Hamilton – some of whom surely served with General Washington at Valley Forge -- were real Americans, or whether New York, Philadelphia and Boston were real America. And while I do not presume to know everything Reagan said over the years, I don’t recall him questioning the patriotism of people like me who differed with him about “voodoo economics” or environmental protection, simply because we lived in urban areas and spoke polysyllabically. But that’s exactly what Sarah Palin was doing. She was questioning the patriotism, and indeed the equal right to a voice in our nation’s destiny, of anyone who attends fancy schools, works in urban areas, and engages in professions generally embraced by progressives. This was the same Sarah Palin who mocked Barack Obama for having served between college and law school as a community organizer. Had he been an auto mechanic instead, that would have made him more of a “pro-America” kind of guy.

Palin is not alone within the Tea Party. This mentality of “us against them” seems to be a recurrent theme within that movement. Passion wins elections. And anger is a form of passion. However, it is one thing to galvanize such anger against the policies of the Democratic party and something very different, something much more dangerous and even nefarious, to galvanize such anger against large segments of the American society. I’m increasingly concerned that the Tea Party might not appreciate the distinction. Perhaps they need to take a trip to the Capitol and view a certain film. It’s only 13 minutes long.

Then, if they like the film, they can tell their local Congressmen or Senators to view the same film and incorporate its theme into the next Congress’ approach to governance. Wouldn’t it be a sight for sore eyes to witness “E Pluribus Unum” becoming Congress’ motto in practice, and not just in theory?

Saturday, October 09, 2010

RIGHT VERSUS LEFT

I remember being asked at least twice in the past twenty years to explain the difference between “left” and “right” when it comes to politics. My older daughter asked me that question. And then a bit later, I heard it from my younger daughter. They didn’t want descriptions of all the policy positions adopted by the mainstream of the Democratic and Republican parties. They just wanted a simple way to understand the difference. And what I came up was indeed a bit reductionist, but I think it captures the divide more than any single other element: the left believes in taxing the rich so that the money can be used to benefit all who need it, whereas the right believes in keeping taxes low even for the rich and ensuring that we retain our incentives to create wealth.

In both cases, the issue comes across as a basic matter of fairness. To the left, it’s only fair that wealth is somewhat evenly distributed. This is known by “progressives” as equity, and the alternative is seen as injustice. To the right, it’s only fair that people are permitted to retain what they are able to earn. This is known by “conservatives” as respect for property, and the alternative is seen as theft. Indeed, those on the right like to point out that, to Marx, private property itself was viewed as theft, whereas in fact, the tax-loving liberals who have so little respect for property that they would tax it to the hilt are the ones who would engage in theft.

Both the left and the right can cite to the wording of perhaps the most famous sentence in American history to support their point of view. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s those final few words that split our so-called liberals from our conservatives. The liberals believe that the right to pursue happiness is key, and that as long as we live in a market economy and do not heavily tax the rich, the poor will be stripped of their dignity and effectively prevented from pursuing their happiness. Liberals who hold this vision seem to be afraid that, if we don’t watch out, America will become Dickensian England – with the underclass becoming almost sub-human. By contrast, the conservatives believe that liberty is key, and that in a free society, you not only have the right to free speech and freedom of religion but also freedom to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Conservatives who hold this vision seem to be afraid that if we don’t watch out, America will become a totalitarian nightmare, like an Orwellian dystopia – with big-government somehow sucking all the lifeblood out of the people who are actually equipped to create wealth for the entire society.

There you have it -- two antithetical visions. Yet both are thoroughly American. This could explain why, in my country, no political party or ideology ever stays dominant for very long.

Generally, I have no problem aligning myself solidly on the left. But there are moments in which I appreciate the other side of the aisle. There’s nothing quite like waiting in line at a Department of Motor Vehicles, a city Parking Agency, or a U.S. passport office to remind us that whenever we put a government monopolist in charge of providing goods and services, we’ll soon learn in a hurry the value of private competition. Then there’s the role of the left in the so-called “peace” movement. When it comes to the Israelis and Palestinians, leftists have become so imbalanced on the side of the Palestinians (the so-called “have nots”) that they can’t bring themselves to advocate the compromises necessary to make peace. That is why the would-be peace makers are really just frustrated justice advocates who are actually standing in the way of peace – they are as uncompromising as the Israeli settlers they love to mock.

Yet the most annoying problem with the left, vis a vis the right, is the lack of candor among its spokespeople in politics. Perhaps this is a uniquely American problem. If the conservatives are correct that America is fundamentally a “center-right country,” the politicians on the left may need to obfuscate about their true visions, lest the electorate realize that these politicians are too liberal to adequately represent their own “center-right” visions. Perhaps. But I’m not buying it. To me, both of the perspectives stated above are roughly of equal power, meaning that a liberal should be able to express her beliefs with candor every bit as much as a conservative. Somehow, though, this tends not to happen. And so “progressives” like Obama and Clinton have to pretend that they oppose the right of gay people (another group of “have nots”) to get married and dare not propose raising the marginal tax rate back for the wealthiest Americans to where it was under Republicans like Eisenhower and Nixon. Somehow, it has become accepted that if you wish to govern as a liberal, you have to mute yourself and your positions, whereas a conservative statesperson can let ‘er rip. I’m still looking for a Democratic Reagan who will stand up for progressive reforms whether they are popular or not with the majority of the electorate.

So, yes, there are times when I find myself annoyed with the progressives and appreciative of the conservatives. This just doesn’t happen to be one of them. At the moment, I find myself annoyed with the unequal distribution of wealth and lack of equality generally, and I’m as alienated as ever by the leaders of the GOP, who seem as unconcerned about the environment as they are about the poor.

I know what you’re thinking: the Midterm Elections are about to be upon us, and I’m already putting on my war fatigues in support of my beloved Democratic Party. Right? Hardly. The Democrats have done precious little to earn my support. I’ll vote for them, but not as enthusiastically as usual. That enthusiasm has in fact been replaced with disillusionment, and the mere fact that the Democrats remain the more progressive of the two parties doesn’t mean I can muster up much energy to fight for them. (In that sense, people like me are responsible for why the Republicans can expect to win this election – but you’ve got to remember that some of us spent a fortune and devoted a ton of time to get the Donkeys elected in’08, and it became incumbent on our leaders to reward our devotion, which they did not. If there is blame to be placed for the anticipated GOP landslide, it must be assigned (a) to the cyclical nature of the economy, which is obviously not doing well at the moment, and (b) to the Democratic leaders who campaigned as progressives but have lacked the stones to fight as such once in power.)

What is reminding me of the importance of economic equity – and equity generally – is not the domain of politics but rather that of spectator sports. If I have time on my hands – meaning if I need to relax – I’ll watch about any sport. Football’s my favorite, but I also love baseball and basketball. And I can also be passionate about hockey, tennis, golf, and soccer too. There’s only one thing I ask for: honest competition. I want to know that the battle is taking place on a level playing field. That’s why I stopped watching boxing; it wasn’t the blood, it was the corruption. And that’s also why I find the baseball playoffs so maddening. One team in particular makes a ton more revenue than everyone else, spends a ton more money on players than everyone else, and starts every season with a free pass to the playoffs and a likely spot in the World Series. I feel about that much the same way that Dickens felt about old England.

Today, my beloved Minnesota Twins are preparing to play the New York Yankees in the playoffs for the fourth time since 2003. The Yankees have now won 11 out of the teams’ previous 13 playoff games. This includes a string of eight in a row, and the first two games of the current best-of-five series. Yesterday, someone told me that rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for the house in blackjack. But the problem with that analogy is that in blackjack, there’s a good chance that the house will lose, whereas when the Yankees play the Twins, the outcome seems like a foregone conclusion.

It’s at times like this when I return to my progressive roots and remind myself of the obscenity of economic inequity. If the Yankee fans love baseball so much, let them see if their team can compete without an unfair infusion of cash. Let’s see if their General Manager has a better eye for talent, if their Manager has better judgment about game-day decisions, or if their players are more disciplined or motivated. As my conservative friends would say, let’s “incentivize” the Yankees to work as diligently and intelligently as possible in a truly fair competition. That is, after all, the way our economy is supposed to work, right? That’s the way Adam Smith described it in The Wealth of Nations.

While I find some capitalistic principles distasteful, there are others I love – and none more than the notion of fair competition. The fact that it’s lacking in baseball frustrates me. But when I don’t see it in the economy, it depresses me. It is depressing to imagine countries dominated by government monopolists. And it is depressing to think that so many Americans are growing up without a chance to compete on a level playing field because our society refuses to provide them adequate health care or a decent education. Just as Major League Baseball is well equipped to introduce a salary cap or the kind of luxury tax needed to bring the Yankees in line with their so-called competitors, I have trouble believing that the economy with the world’s largest GNP lacks the means to fight the kind of war on poverty that Democratic politicians seem unwilling to wage, but that we sorely need if we are to become a land characterized by fair competition.

Oh wait. There was a politician in the recent past that claimed to be willing to care about poverty and economic equity – John Edwards. You remember, the guy who built for himself a 28,000-square-foot mansion all the while he was talking about the “two Americas.” See what I mean about progressive politicians? Those who talk about progressive ideas don’t really believe in them. And those who seem to believe in them, don’t have the guts to talk about them – lest they run the risk of, perish the thought, losing an election. So for now, we have the status quo -- a land that is largely racially segregated (regardless of civil rights laws), where school test scores in our suburbs dwarf those in our inner-cities (regardless of teacher quality), and where the New York Yankees can field a team every year that could compete in an All-Star game (regardless of the talent level of their management). If anyone says “it’s not about the money,” don’t believe it.