Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Myth of Majority Rule


We in America are learning a truth that Israelis have known for decades:  a well-organized, right-wing group, however small, can literally hold an entire Democratic nation hostage.  

            In Israel, the norm is that neither of the two largest political parties is dominant enough to form a Government by itself, for no one party commands a majority of seats in the Parliament.  As a result, these parties strike deals with one or more of the smaller parties.  Traditionally, this involves joining forces with representatives from the well-organized Orthodox-Jewish community.  In return for voting with one of the two largest secular parties, the Orthodox receive extraordinary powers. 

For example, Orthodox rabbis have been able to decide for the entire Israeli-Jewish community what marriages are valid and what conversions are valid.   Orthodox Jews have routinely attained exemptions from military service, even though such service was compulsory for all other Jews.  (How does that sound for chivalry: Orthodox men can skip the military, but non-Orthodox women must join!)  The government has directly funded Orthodox interests in maintaining places of worship, religious cemeteries and other holy places.   And for a long time, the government has even included a “Ministry of Religious Affairs” that was routinely dominated by the Orthodox rabbinate.   

When you put all of this together, you can see why so many Palestinians have trouble understanding that the idea of a “Jewish state” doesn’t mean a theocracy.   Progressive and secular Jews can cry all we want that Zionism advocates a state for the Jewish “people” and not for the practice of the Jewish “religion,” but this is belied by the power that the Orthodox have wielded.   The truth is that, just as the Israeli people are not primarily Orthodox, the country itself is NOT a theocracy.  It is a vibrant democracy composed primarily of secular voters.  The problem is that Israel has been coping with the inherent weaknesses of the parliamentary system, in which the so-called “balance of power” can be seized by minority interests whenever the country lacks a single majority party.    

            Things were supposed to be different here in America.  We, after all, have a two-party system, and the majority party – the one receiving the most votes in the recent elections – is supposed to wield the most power. 

            In theory, President Obama and his Democratic Party should be in a great position to do just that.  In the recent elections, they earned the most votes for President, Senate and the House of Representatives.  No, they don’t control the House, but that was only because Republican Governors effectively gerrymandered their states’ districts so that Republicans could acquire more House seats even though the Democratic House candidates obtained more total votes.  Clearly, most Americans spent November 6th voicing their support for the Democratic agenda.  Obama won by millions of votes and by over a hundred points in the Electoral College.  If ever there was a President with a mandate, this is the guy.   Or so you’d think.

            In truth, Obama’s victory simply means that the Democrats will get to meet the Republicans halfway – rather than caving all the way.  Consider, for example, the flagship issue of the election: tax policy.   Obama campaigned in 2008 on the platform that the tax rates for those who earn over $250,000 per year would go back to their pre-Bush tax cut levels.  Then, with the economy in trouble, Obama agreed to put off that goal for the short term.  But in the 2012 campaign, Obama was back to his 2008 position: if he is re-elected, incomes over $250,000 will be taxed as they were under Clinton.   There were no ifs, ands or buts about it. 

            Here we are, however, one month later, and Obama is already proposing to allow folks who earn between $250,000 and $400,000 to keep their tax cuts … and more concessions can be expected on that front before a deal is ultimately reached.  The Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, proposed to set the threshold at $1,000,000 and his caucus told him where to stick that threshold.  My guess is that when negotiations ultimately resume on a long-term deal, the final result will be somewhere between that figure and a half a million.   Clearly, the President wants a deal in the worst way, and he apparently has decided that the Republicans won’t come crawling for one on his terms, notwithstanding the results of the election.   Personally, I hate the way he negotiates – concede, concede, concede … did I say concede? – yet I can’t argue with one of his basic premises: the Republicans truly have no interest in accepting a deal on his terms, and they are willing to risk economic havoc in order to avoid one.  No, I can’t be certain of that point because Obama has always caved first.  But I do believe they are prepared to wreak havoc if necessary.  That follows from the nature of the group they represent – a minority that is extremely well organized, ruled by ideology, and undaunted by the fact that they are out of the mainstream.  In those respects, they are just like the Orthodox community in Israel.

            In theory, none of that should matter.  If you combine the Democrats with the moderate Republicans, you have a clear majority, and they should be able to enact the legislative agenda that would make most Americans happy.  There’s no need here to “buy off” a third party in order to control the executive or legislative branches – the hard-right in the GOP can be marginalized, and the remainder of the government can function in a way the majority wants, right?   Wrong.  The problem is that the hard-right doesn’t just control a portion of the GOP; it controls the majority of the GOP.  And it remains to be seen that the moderates in that party are willing to take on that majority and do deals with Democrats – at least not until they watch Obama make concessions on more and more critical issues.   

            That’s how, even in a two-party system, a well-organized minority can control the day.

            In the above discussion, I have been focusing on the fiscal negotiations.   But perhaps an even more interesting dynamic is at play when it comes to the emerging battle on gun laws.  Once again, we have a well-organized and extremely ideological minority that is about to be pitted against the majority of the American people … and the President of the United States.  Surely, given the unspeakable tragedy of Newtown, the President will prevail in this struggle, right?   Surely, the American public will demand that we ban assault weapons and large magazines; we can’t be crazy enough to ignore those menaces any more, can we?

            To borrow a phrase from the President:  Yes We Can!  My friends, if political battles were decided by logic, this matter would have been resolved long ago.  Only sick people and law enforcement officers need the kind of guns and ammo that are at issue here.  Seriously – the problem isn’t that we need to get that stuff out of the hands of the mentally ill; it’s that only the mentally ill WANT to get their hands on that stuff.   (When is the last time you fired 100 rounds?)   Still, sick or not, the gun fanatics will keep enough of their toys that their children will be able to commit mass murder, if they so choose.  That’s my prediction.

Consider that the gun fanatics are organized, motivated, and politically savvy.  By contrast, their opponents tend to be rather casual when it comes to fighting for causes.    Limousine liberals, for example, love to talk about politics, but they’re “all hat and no cattle.”   You don’t effectuate social change by watching MSNBC or pontificating at Starbucks. 

Most likely, we will see some kind of gun/ammo law emerge from Newtown.  But my guess is that it will be a modest one.  It will give a sound bite that will make the (casual) liberals happy, but not the kind of meaningful reform that we need.   We need to ban large magazines and assault weapons the same way we ban heroin – root and branch.  This isn’t a time for half measures.  But half-measures are the best we can expect to get.  There just isn’t the political will among progressives in this country to fight for anything these days – other than to finance an election and to get out the vote every 2-4 years.

Don’t believe me?  Consider that we are still in Afghanistan after a full decade with more war to come, and yet we hear radio silence about the issue from the progressive community.  With the passage of time, we can expect to hear less and less about guns as well.  You’ll see.

So expect assault weapons and large magazines to be around a while, as insane as that is.  And expect more caving from Obama on taxes, with little protests from his base.  The real protests these days only come from the hard-right.  That’s why, despite their shrinking minority status, they’re still such a powerful part of America.

Sorry for such a bleak message during a time that should be festive.  But “Empathic Rationalism” requires calling it as we see it.  This truly is a time to enjoy life despite all of its imperfections.  And I will be trying to do just that – in LA-LA Land (culminating in attending the Rose Bowl game).  

I’ll talk to you guys in 2013.   Have a great holiday season and a happy New Year!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

When Will We Wake Up


Will Newtown be our wake-up call?  

Let me rephrase that: will Superstorm Sandy be our wake-up call? 

OK, one more try: will Lehman Brothers be our wake-up call?
Sorry.  Last time: will 9/11 be our wake-up call?

Yes!  But only to the last question.

When it comes to fighting international terrorism, we get it.   We’re ready to fight back overseas with rockets, tanks and soldiers.  Here, domestically, we’re ready to tackle the al-Qaeda operatives and their fellow travelers by hiring more armed guards, purchasing more metal detectors, and letting those bad guys know that we’re going to kick their butts if they try anything, ANYTHING, to disturb the peace.   Yep, we have indeed learned something from 9/11.  And that’s a good thing.

But what about Lehman Brothers?  Have we as a society heard our wake-up call about corporate fraud and abuse?  Are we ready to change our culture to ensure that movies like “Wall Street” will forever look dated?  And are we prepared to take on the more subtle, yet common, types of rapacious white collar conduct?    I have my doubts.  You see, our expectations when it comes to business ethics are so low that a corporate crook must practically act like a caricature in order to shock our conscience.

And what about Superstorm Sandy?  Will that wake us up to the proliferation of crazy weather patterns?  Or the consequences of global warming and climate change?   Will that cause us to stem our addiction to fossil fuels, or otherwise change our lifestyles in order to protect our environment?   It sure doesn’t look that way, now does it?   In fact, who doesn’t love a nice warm winter day?

And finally, what about the events at the Sandy Hood Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut?  Will they inspire us to strike back against gun violence?  Will they give us the resolve we need to ensure that Americans are no more likely to die from gun violence than are the citizens of other developed nations?  Because of Sandy Hood, will Americans stop being outliers when it comes to the number of guns we purchase or the number of people we shoot?    I hope I’m wrong, but color me a skeptic.  

We got the message from 9/11 precisely because it was such an easy message for our culture to swallow.  Some group of lunatics kicked our asses, so we’ve got to go kick theirs right back, and harder!   And we knew we could get the job done, because that’s what we do:  we kick ass!  We make movies like Die Hard, Rambo, and the Terminator flicks.  In these films, our heroes don’t just shoot people, they UNLOAD on people.    

For some, the guns in these movies have become almost as recognizable as the actors.  Take, for example, the James Bond movie “The Living Daylights.” In that one movie, the following firearms can be spotted:  Walter PPK, Beretta Cheetah, CZ 83, Browning BDA, Colt Detective Special, Beretta 418, Heckler & Koch P9S, Smith & Wesson Model 36, Smith & Wesson 4th Model, Star Model B, Walther WA 2000, Winchester Model 70, AK-47, AKMS, Colt Commando M733, Karabiner 98k, Mosin Nagant M91/30, M14, Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE), Nock Gun, AR-15 pistol, Crossman Ratcatcher Air Rifle, Anschutz LG275 air rifle, Berett PM12S, Heckler & Koch MP5A3, Heckler & Koch MP5K, Walther MPL, Sa.Vz. 61 Skorpion, MAT-48, Mini Uzi, MG3, Maxim MG08 Machine Gun, KPV (mocked up Browning M2HB).  And those are just the guns – I didn’t even mention the hand grenades and other deadly weapons.

That movie also gave us the immortal line:  “You’ve had your eight; I’ll have my eighty.”  And indeed, in Hollywood movies, firing 80 bullets has become commonplace.  Apparently, American film viewers get off on rounds of bullets the way they used to get off on Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe.  

Of course, our celebration of guns is only part of what caused the Newtown disaster.  The other part is our broken health care system -- in particular, the way it deals with mental illness.   Most of us know mentally sick people.  Their illnesses are tragic, but no more so than the way we as a society ignore their problems.  If you sprain an ankle, you can expect to receive compassionate care.  But if you are mentally ill, you are lucky if you receive ANY care, compassionate or otherwise.

Combine our romance with guns with our desire to ignore the scourge of mental illness, and what do you have?   Mass murders in shopping malls, colleges, high schools, and now, finally, first grade classes.  The question is: are we prepared to do anything about this?

Hopefully, yesterday’s incident in Connecticut will hit home in every house in America.  It has sure hit hard in mine.  My wife is an elementary school media specialist.  Thanks to her, even though our own children are many years removed from elementary school, we all can picture such an environment very clearly.  To fire 100 rounds there is to epitomize insanity.  My wife compared it to opening fire on a pack of puppies.  In both cases, the victims are as innocent as can be.  And yet, when you consider the lethal combo of semi-automatic weapons and mental illness, it’s a wonder this kind of mayhem doesn’t happen more often.

Prior to Newtown, I was going to write about NFL football.  And I don’t mean the game itself.  I was going to write about recent incidents involving: (a) one NFL player who shot himself and the mother of his child, (b) another player who drove drunk and killed his teammate, (c) the laissez-faire attitude about the NFL players’ union when it comes to performance enhancing drugs (which are increasingly leading to suicide and other manifestations of brain damage), and (d) the former commissioner who ruled that players shouldn’t be held responsible for putting a bounty on other players’ health so long as their coach encouraged them to do it.

But hey, I guess there’s no reason to talk about the culture of permissiveness that is destroying American football -- not when we have young Americans on both coasts in the same week unloading their magazines at a shopping mall and an elementary school, respectively.

Do you remember when it was that a “magazine” was something you used to read and not something you used to fire?  It was a different America then.  Let’s see if we can summon the will to get it back.   Oh, and by the way: Mr. President – it’s time for some leadership on the issue.  I know that you’re a parent, and that you feel the pain of scores of parents, and that you don’t want to politicize this event on day one.  I’m fine with that.  But today is day two.  And you have been sitting on the sidelines on this issue for more than 1000 days.   I say that’s enough time to show empathy.  I say it’s now time to show some resolve. 

Sunday, December 09, 2012

One Tiresome Story


There is plenty happening these days around the world.  Just in the Middle East, which is a particular obsession of mine, you can find enough legitimately fascinating stories involving the Syrians, Egyptians, Israelis and Palestinians to fill up cable news shows for weeks.  But we all know that Americans tend to be a tad insular, and our cable news coverage reflects that – in fact, it helps to cement it.  So, instead of focusing in depth on some riveting overseas developments,  the mavens of cable news are giving us the big domestic news story night after night after night ….   That’s right, boys and girls: it’s all “fiscal cliff” talk, all the time.

Is it just me, or is this story about as interesting as watching paint dry?   

It’s not that I don’t care if we go off the friggen “cliff.”  It would be great, in my opinion, if the folks at Congress put together a serious package that would address our growing national debt issue.   I would love to see the wealthy taxed at a more equitable rate (meaning MORE, not less), the elimination of numerous tax deductions, cuts to the bloated defense budget, and a serious attempt to control Medicare costs and other types of profligate non-defense spending.  But that still doesn’t mean I want to sit around, night after night, listening to the talking heads interview Senators and Congresspeople about jumping off the cliff.  I’d rather watch them interview Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis about what it was like to film the cliff scene in Thelma and Louise.  

First of all, watching any story about our national Congress is like reading an action book where there is no action and no heroes.  I’m not criticizing all 535 members, some of whom are excellent public servants, but when you look at this institution as a whole, how can anyone possibly take it seriously these days?  One day they are authorizing us to invade a country without any legitimate justification.  The next day they are back to their favorite pastime of stuffing themselves on pork.  Then, they are threatening to destroy the country’s credit rating.  And all the while, the Republicans and Democrats on the Hill act like they are allergic to each other.  

Do you really want to watch a show in which these guys are the stars?

Secondly, the fiscal cliff issue involves a December 31st deadline.  Maybe.  You know and I know that they can easily buy some more time by putting off that deadline.  So why has this story been the obsession du jour almost as soon as the early-November election ended?  Can’t we just tell them “Sorry, talk to the hand, not to the face.  If you want air time, show up on December 28th and let us know if you need more time or are ready to say something.  In the meantime, we’ll be interviewing Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.”

Thirdly, even when the Congress is finally ready to reach an agreement, does anyone seriously think that it will be one we can be proud of?  Neither party has distinguished itself for political courage, and it will surely take some guts to stand up to the special interests who have been dominating our tax system and much of our domestic spending.  So why we should be invigorated by a story in which the ultimate ending is going to be such a letdown?

There you have it.  The media is trying to interest us in a nightly drama to take the place of the election coverage.  But whereas a Presidential election can truly be a captivating story, this “cliff” mishegas is tiresome as hell.  It involves a bunch of people who haven’t impressed us in a LONG time, bloviating about a decision that they have to make well into the future, and ultimately letting us down.

Wake me up when we jump, OK?