Saturday, April 27, 2013


            So, I have a question, and it is purely rhetorical.   Which political party is looking out for the poor?  

            The answer, quite obviously, is neither one.   And now that our society is moving into the “new normal” of governmental austerity and stagnating wealth/income for the majority of Americans, this lack of a progressive party is becoming an increasingly tragic problem.

            For those of you who answered “the Democrats” to the question above, you might want to re-consider based on the events this week on Capitol Hill.   Here’s the background -- our representatives have been presented with the challenge of dealing with the budget crisis commonly known as “sequestration.”  Unless they can figure out a solution, one government program after another will be significantly weakened.   And this can go on for a while.   Given how much the poor depend on the government, you can only imagine the kind of devastating impact that sequestration might have on those communities.

            Prior to this week, though, it appeared that the poor and their advocates had a trump card.  They could count on the fact that the federal government does not only benefit them.  All of us depend on the government, even the affluent.  The feds employ the airport personnel that rich people need to make their business travel efficient.  And the feds employ the meat inspectors on which the wealthy depend to evaluate their filet mignon.  So, if there were a progressive political party around, it could “go on strike” by saying that the rich people can’t have their business flights or filet mignon unless we take care of after-school centers and Head Start programs.

            That sounds like a plan, right?   The Democrats control the Senate, the Democrats are the party of progressives, and all good progressives know that historically, strikes have proven crucial in protecting the rights of the masses.  Besides, in this case, you don’t even need to call what I’m talking about a “strike.”  All the Democrats had to do is tell the folks on the other side of the aisle that if you scratch the back of our special interests (the needy), we’ll scratch the back of business travelers and meat packers.

But who am I kidding?   Once the fat-cat lobbyists got into their act, Congress was primed to differentiate between government programs in terms of which ones we need and which ones we don’t.  Ironically, the programs for the so-called “needy” were the ones we decided we didn’t need after all.   Convenient flights for business travelers?  Check.   Steak for business lunches?   Check.   Teachers for low-income preschoolers?   Well … maybe we can live without them, don’t you think?   Those teachers are bearing the brunt of the budget cuts.

So what are we left with?  Questions, questions, questions.  

            Where were the Democratic Senators in all this?   Where was the outrage?   Where was the threat of a filibuster?  Or is that threat only available for Republicans?

And what about the “liberal media”?  Are they shocked by all this?  Or are they just shell-shocked (by the apparent death of liberalism in a nation with a two-term Democratic President)?

   Who is speaking up for the folks who can’t afford to fly, but can afford even less for their preschool children to go without a public education?   

And finally, in the immortal words of Pink Floyd, “Is there anybody out there?”   

            Come to think of it, that last one is the only question I keep asking.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Heroes, Criminals and Cowards


            We’ve seen it all this week, haven’t we?  The good, the bad and the ugly.  

            I think we can all agree on the “good.”  I’m referring to the first responders up in Boston who put their own lives on the line so that our collective national nightmare could finally come to rest.  

Do you remember that classic Seinfeld episode, “The Fire,” when George Costanza noticed a fire breaking out during a children’s birthday party, and proceeded to sprint out of the house, pushing aside children, seniors, and even the clown in the process?   Our first responders are the anti-Costanzas.  They will gladly put their own lives on the line to protect everyone else’s – and they’ll do it for little pay and no fanfare.  Hardworking, risk-taking, selfless and anonymous – those are our society’s greatest heroes. 

            Twelve years ago in 9/11, we all saw exactly what can happen when things go horribly wrong for our first responders.   This week, thankfully, they fared better.  But we still must not forget the heroism of M.I.T. policeman Sean Collier, who died in the line of duty, or his friend, transit officer Richard Donohue, who was seriously injured.  These men should become reminders of how fortunate we are that so many people are still willing to serve as police officers, fire fighters, soldiers, or security guards.  We don’t particularly celebrate them, remunerate them, or even pay much attention to them.   Instead, we take them for granted.   But my guess is that they wouldn’t mind being taken for granted.  They want us to go about our lives without having to worry about the constant threats that reside beneath the surface.  They know full well all of the dangers that lurk around the bend, but they want us to feel secure nonetheless.  They’re more than happy to tackle those threats themselves.   And why?   Because they are heroes.  This week, their behavior doesn’t need any fuller explanation than that.

            Men like Collier and Donohue are profiles in courage.  So, too, are men like the Tsarnaev Brothers.   I have no trouble calling them courageous.  Of course, I also have no trouble calling them evil sociopaths, whose spirit has less value to me than that of an ant.   

            In holding that perspective, I am probably in the minority.  Many would point out that even “sick” men like the Tsarnaev Brothers are human beings, made in the “image of God”, who for that reason alone deserve to be treated with respect – and should never be compared unfavorably to a mere insect.  I won’t comment as to whether, as a legal matter, they should be granted the same “rights” that are available to other human beings.  But as a moral matter, I see these two young men not much differently than I see cancer cells.  When all is said and done, their purpose on this planet is to destroy it – life, security, happiness, you name it.  They have chosen the path of hatred, cruelty, and even murder.  So while, as an abstract matter, I can acknowledge that they are cut from the same divine cloth as the rest of us … I can say the same thing about the cancer cell, or the ant.   And personally, if we were allowed in the future to have far more ants and far fewer people like the Tsarnaev Brothers, I’d be thrilled.

As for my claim that these two brothers are courageous, I recognize that this goes against conventional wisdom.   It has become de rigueur to refer to terrorists as “cowards.”  When that started I don’t know, but I was recently listening to a tape of Bill Clinton’s post-OK City bombing press conference, and sure enough – he referred to the then-unknown bomber as a “coward.”  Similarly, that was the ubiquitous term that the media used to refer to the 9/11 perpetrators.   And it was trotted out again this week in Boston.

Are these mass murderers really cowards?  By engaging in these acts of unfathomable brutality, don’t these terrorists immediately become marked men?   Don’t they immediately risk their lives and their freedom for their cause?   And regardless of what we think of that “cause” – and I cannot possibly think less of it – doesn’t it mangle the English language to say that these people lack courage?  That, it seems, is the one classical virtue they do possess, though I should add that their stories are grim lessons in how courage, when not coupled with empathy and rationality, is actually a vice.   

            I’ve been wondering this week why our politicians and media figures persist in using the “coward” label to refer to terrorists.  Why is that word used above all others?   The answer, I believe, stems from the fact that an act of terror is an act of war.   And in a nation like America,  whose military is second to none in size and which is geographically removed from the world’s major hotspots, terrorist acts are the type of warfare that threaten us the most.  As a result, when we are hit, our immediately reaction is to lurch into macho mode.   We are “tough,” we are “strong,” we are “resolute.”  And our enemies?  They are “gutless” and “weak,” and we will “destroy” them.  

            The problem with this talk is that it skews our understanding of the situation.  It causes us to underestimate terrorists when we don’t even acknowledge that they have the courage of their convictions.  And perhaps even more importantly, it prevents us from dealing with some of the root causes of terror.  When you take a world with modern weapons technology and throw in an ample supply of seemingly never-ending international conflicts, you’re going to have terror.   So why not redouble our efforts to work for peace?   The answer is that every time a terrorist act occurs, we don’t speak with the voices of peaceniks – we don’t chastise our enemies for their lack of compassion, or talk about how we will be resolute in working for just resolutions of international disputes.  No, we call the enemies cowards, and talk about how big and tough we are.   And so, the cycle continues – more mayhem, more macho responses, and no lessons get learned.

            What do you say, for just a few minutes today, we stop reveling in our toughness.  What do you say, for just a few minutes, we start thinking about compassion.   I won’t ask that we feel that emotion for the Tsarnaev Brothers – that may be too much to ask.   But I’m thinking about all the innocent people around the world who are being victimized by violence and oppression.  Can’t we do something to help them?   In fact, isn’t it our obligation to try?   Maybe we’re not heroes, like the first responders, but even if we’re unwilling to risk our lives, can we not devote a little time to a cause that is grounded in compassion?  Think about it.

            So, I’ve spoken about the good (the heroes) and the bad (the criminals).  But what about the ugly?  We’ve seen that pop up this week as well.   And as is so often the case lately, we’ve seen it pop up in none other than Capitol Hill.

            Those who read my post last week could probably tell that I honestly expected background-check legislation to pass.  I assumed that since 90 percent of the American public supported it and since the powers-that-be were allowing it to come up for a vote, how could it fail?  

            Silly me.  I should have realized that when it comes to taking on the NRA, legislators in Washington don’t vote their conscience.  I should have realized that given the current crop of homo sapiens who populate the nation’s capital, anything the NRA will oppose is D.O.A. – unless and until the American public demonstrates during an election that they will vote out all moderates who side with the NRA. 

            The focus of my attention when it comes to the background-check vote is precisely the moderates in the Senate.  Unlike some, I don’t begrudge the hard-right Senators for their decision to oppose the bill.   I will give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they are wildly pro-gun, they are legitimately concerned that a victory for the gun-control movement on this bill would have emboldened that movement, and for that reason alone, they needed to oppose the measure.   In other words, I will grant them what I granted the Tsarnaev Brothers – that they have the courage of their convictions.  

            My issue is with those folks who truly supported the bill but dared not vote against it, lest the NRA target them during primary season.   According to conservative Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, there were 15 Senators who would have voted for the bill had the NRA not “scored” it.   That’s a polite way of saying that 1/3 of the Senators who blocked the bill are, in fact, cowards.  They – and not the gun-zealots who joined them – are the true villains of the vote.  They are the ones who have decided to put their own re-election above not only the views of their constituents but their own consciences.   

            So, who are these fifteen men and women?  I honestly don’t know.  And perhaps I don’t want to know, because if I did, I’d probably throw money against them in the next election, and most likely, they’d win anyway.  So it is with incumbents in Congress who are consumed above all else with self-preservation.   But let’s not forget what these “statesmen” accomplished this week.  They pulled a Costanza.  They saw a potential fire (the NRA taking them on), got the hell out of harm’s way, and in the process, made sure that children, seniors, and maybe even a clown or two, will get shot and killed in the future because criminals will continue to be able to buy guns without a background check.   

            When Costanza did it, it was funny.  When Senators do it, it is just plain ugly.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Spring Fever


            Yes, I realize that as a fan of Tiger Woods, the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Lakers, I should have been in a foul mood this morning.  The Nationals blew a lead last night against the rival Braves with yet another shoddy relief pitching performance; no fan likes to see the Achilles heel of an otherwise wonderful team continue to flare up.  And speaking of Achilles heels, the only thing more depressing that the torn Achilles suffered by Kobe Bryant was the fact that it was presumably preventable – the Lakers simpleton coach kept playing his veteran guard 45+ minutes night after night after night.  That’s what I call a season-ending injury waiting to happen, though in Kobe’s case it might turn out to end not just his season but also his career as we know it.  You never like to see that happen to any superstar.  As for an athlete who is even a greater star than Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods looked like he was set to win another Masters when his wedge on the 15th hole took a fluky hop off the flagstick, rolled into the water, and, two penalty strokes later, a birdy four turned into a triple-bogey eight.  He’s still not out of the tournament, but now he’s going to have to do what’s he has never done at a major and that is come from behind on the last day.  Not likely.

            This morning, I received condolence calls from friends about the “Freaky Friday” in sports.  But for some reason, it didn’t get me down as much as I might have thought.   I was buoyed by the recent developments to hit my city.  First, we finally are seeing nice, warm weather, not to mention cherry blossoms.  And second, we finally are seeing Senators reach across the aisle and craft bi-partisan bills – bills that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-led House.   Talk about retro.

            I know what the cynics are saying about the recent developments on Capitol Hill.  Immigration reform is a joke, they say, for the Republicans are only supporting it out of necessity, given recent demographic trends.   As for the gun control legislation that is being debated, it is easy to criticize the bill as a half-measure that does nothing to stop the most obvious problem revealed by the Newtown tragedy – the scourge of assault weapons and large magazines, which as long as they are legal will inevitably get into the hands of mentally ill people.   Further, the cynics will remind us that we still don’t have any signs of progress on budgetary issues, and more and more federal employees and contractors are bound to lose their jobs altogether or at least lose pay in the form of furloughs.   In fact, it is a popular statement in my town these days to suggest that sooner or later, Obama will cave into the demands of the anti-government crowd, and the Republicans will have the post-election victory after all, just a few months late.

            Sometimes, my friends, I have no trouble joining the cynics.   Especially when it comes to Washington, there is often plenty to be cynical about.  But now that spring has sprung after a long and cold winter, can we not take a moment to rejoice in what we are seeing for the first time in eons:  genuine bi-partisanship?  Republicans and Democrats are actually working together in opposition to the NRA.  Yes, the bill at issue (which would require background checks for gun show and Internet purchases) is supported by nearly every American who lives above ground, but it is NOT supported by the NRA, and for that reason alone, bi-partisan efforts on behalf of the bill are not to be sneezed at.  Nor should we scoff at the progress that is being made on the immigration front.   As with the gay marriage issue, our politicians were clearly leading from behind on this issue, but they are finally seeing the light.  And given the importance of this issue, let’s at least celebrate that fact.

            My hope is that we are seeing the beginning of an effort on the part of moderate Senators and Representatives to become relevant again.   In recent years, their workplace has purely been a venue for stonewalling and polarization.  Now that we are witnessing multiple opportunities for legitimate deal-making in support of positive, moderate legislation, I can’t help but believe that this will become contagious.

            Think about it – whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, if you were elected to serve in Washington, wouldn’t you want to say “Yes” every now and then instead of always saying “Hell No!”   My guess is that the spring that we are experiencing in the Tidal Basin, and in the realms of gun control and immigration legislation, will provide a nice source of temptations to all but the most nefarious politicians.  Instead of taking a walk in the park, they might want to consider taking a walk across the aisle.  Who knows what small piece of sanity they might find there?