A State of the Union Address Filled with Common Sense

My first college course in anthropology instilled in me a profound appreciation for best practices. It’s been a personal mission to uncover the best ideas and chart how they work, identifying their structures and functions. One discovery has been that even bad ideas can work well. It sounds strange, but the success of an idea often has nothing to do with its truth or level of insight. Its power and influence has more to do with its context and how it functions with other assumptions and tasks.

We would all prefer strong ideas that work well. Alaska’s Iditarod grips my imagination most winters, more than the State of the Union. The long distance grit of lead dogs Andy, Larry, and Granite guiding teams through 50-50-50s—winds 50 miles an hour, temperatures 50 degrees below, with visibility less than 50 feet—across wilderness and glaciers is a test of endurance rarely seen in politics. And the Iditarod offers equal opportunity. Susan Butcher won three in a row and four out of five between 1986 and 1990, and once had two dogs killed mid-race by a pregnant moose.

Last night’s State of the Union had Speaker Boehner making pregnant moose faces; his uncomfortableness with the President’s proposals was obvious—but was it a bad idea that served, from Boehner’s view, a good intent? Did it function to keep the GOP brand alive, apart from the pockets of craziness where they are winning elections, winning not really based on their platform of budgets (most states have laws that require balanced budgets), but more on hot button issues like immigration and race, or winning in one-party states out west?

The President, often criticized as a poor team player, continued to prove he is an effective leader (Susan Butcher’s dog Granite suffered from the same criticism!) with good ideas.  He has also proven he can outrun the lumbering herds of opponents who have not adapted to the new environment and are using outmoded best practices.

The silent test of last night’s State of the Union was to outflank Ronald Reagan. Even President Obama has described Reagan as someone who reset the arc in America’s politics. Yet we forget the circumstances of that reset. Reagan created the meme that all of the problems of society were created by government excess. But what were the problems?

Women pushing for access to opportunity and self-determination, blacks refusing to be exploited, physically intimidated or discriminated against; massive resistance to corporate interests; food purchased from the bins of co-ops rather than on sale in plastic packages and cans stocked by chains. Reagan realized that the government protected those actions and had played a major part in expanding these rights. He coined the idea that government “created” these problems and caused the disturbing sight of school kids being bused and women deciding about pregnancy, and colleges graduating more critical thinkers who challenged the system and the status quo. The government didn’t reflect the will of the people, the people reflected the will of the now all-powerful government. But without the help of government, the gains of the people probably couldn’t be sustained.

In Reagan’s view, stop government, stop the advance of the people. He couldn’t sell an attack against the people—couldn’t demagogue blacks, women, youth as the problem (which for conservatives, they were!)—so he brilliantly assigned blame to government and used exaggerated stereotypes to knock it down. The welfare queen and other non-existent stories were repeated until the bad idea of government’s bad ideas became the Republican best practice for winning elections. Even Reagan’s ideology of cutting taxes to provide greater wealth to the rich didn’t happen during his administration, but the idea survived and is the basis of Republican policy today.

Despite widespread thinking that liberalism (again a code word for blacks, women and youth, packaged as “growing government”) was dead, Barack Obama somehow made it through and revived it in his first term. No matter; the new GOP plan was to blame his success and go after the old groups with a vengeance. If the stimulus succeeded, blame Obama for its size. If the economy recovered, blame entitlements, loudly arguing it could be even better without them. Turn obstruction into patriotism. Sprinkle the discussion with a little of the sour sickness of race—always heretofore cured by blaming the victim. Continue reading A State of the Union Address Filled with Common Sense

A Dialogue of Givers and Takers

Barack Obama, at his inauguration, spoke memorable words: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” He called for the unity of the country, especially its national legislators in the House and Senate.

House Budget Chair, Paul Ryan, who ran for Vice President against the winning Democratic ticket, later said these words in a television interview:

All of the statements and all of the comments lead me to believe that he’s [Obama is]thinking more of a political conquest than a political compromise…”

We must choose our battles carefully, and stay united in them to succeed. We can’t get rattled. We won’t play the villain in his [Obama's] morality plays. We have to show that — if given the chance — we can govern. We have better ideas.

No doubt, among those better ideas is Speaker of the House John Boehner’s main priority — a national priority of the “will of the people,” he says — to “help make abortion a relic of the past… Let that be one of our most fundamental goals this year.”

Neither the House Budget Chair or the Speaker of the House mentioned jobs or made jobs a top priority. Ryan seemed to forget about all those millions out of work that he mentioned at every stop during the campaign. For him, did they just go way, having served their usefulness?

The President did not mention jobs directly in his speech, but he expressed three fundamental national principles, endorsed by polls that show his focus on jobs to be “the will of the people.” The first: Continue reading A Dialogue of Givers and Takers

Digging Deeper: Somebody Tell Republicans to Hook Up the Jumper Cables

Earl Butz probably began the movement toward political correctness, but his comments were said in jest. Indiana-born, Purdue-trained, Butz was Agricultural Secretary under Gerald Ford and told a racial joke that got him fired (rather, he resigned; nobody gets fired for racial jokes!).

In discerning the motives of Negroes (as they were then called), Butz suggested there were three top priorities. One, loose shoes. (Many blacks of that generation, especially farmers and country folk, had severe foot abnormalities and pain.) Dare I mention the other two? Tight pussy. (The outrage—and outrageousness—was as much in the use of the term; this slang was prohibited in polite or public conversation and it was startling to make any reference to the sexual proclivities of blacks, who were widely thought to constantly engage in hot monkey sex like rabbits. The use of the slang to refer to a vagina was seen neither as outrageous or funny, but dreadful; sex and women had not entered comedy.) The third? A warm place to shit. (Which dismally failed in its humor. For a generation who had grown up using outhouses on winter mornings, there was nothing funny about recalling the bone-jarring cold or the walk in the wet dew.) Yep. Got ol’ Earl fired. Hoisted pathetically on his own petard. And two-thirds of it was more true than funny.

Today the scatological comments about a black President are neither funny or obscene—or true; no line of public or private sensibility exists, no boundary of behavior is off-limits. Lost is any connection to reality, to any semblance of actual experience or cultural memory; missing are any ties to the hidden contradictions that elevate life beyond being a mere record of good and bad. Humor is no longer a guide post, a way of embracing the true-hearted. Why did political humor die?

My earliest recognition of political humor was in the slave tales. I was astonished that tales of laughter told by people denied freedom were filled with a subtle, complex, thoughtful humanity that soared above the conditions that bound their lives. More so, the punch lines were pure revolution. They told of how situations can be best met—humor was used to change the odds, to open windows, to build community, and often, really, outrageously, just for laughs. This simple minimalism was dangerous. How dare those enslaved find time and means for the joy of simple laughter, to replace paralyzing fear and the intrusion of control on every aspect of their lives, with a free moment whose joy even slavery could not kill.

Today, does anyone remember that slaves told jokes? Rather than feeling slighted by ‘ol Earl, they would have taken him under wing and taught him better technique. Prayer was an important part of that technique and the enslaved frequently prayed for freedom. Often they found a particular tree near the edge of the fields and in the afternoons fervently asked God for freedom. One day, a voice answered an especially prayerful member of the enslaved community and promised the money to purchase his freedom if he passed the trials of faith. Each day the voice said, ten dollars would be found at the base of the tree. Each day, the faithful slave found what seemed to be this divine gift. Fifty dollars was the amount needed to purchase his freedom and soon the total reached forty dollars.

But that day, the voice placed before him the test. Bring the entire forty dollars tomorrow and leave it. Come the next day and you shall have your fifty. The slave thanked the voice profusely, but he finally picked the money up and replied he’d get the other ten on his own.

Make no mistake that this lesson on self-reliance has any resemblance to Rush Limbaugh’s vicious putdowns. He attempts to disguise attacks as irony, parody, sarcasm, or surreal engagement. But they are none of these. His conclusions are false, his purpose is to intimidate. He uses words as stones and calls it funny.  But his words are simple confessions of hate and fear and proffers of threats.

One woman who applied as a CIA agent early in the days of women applicants exhibited no fear during a training exercise. To test her commitment to completing any assigned task, she was given a gun (which unknown to her, had been disabled) and was told her husband was tied to a chair in room behind a closed door. To prove her loyalty, she must go in and shoot him. She took the gun and entered the room. Violent noises drifted out. Finally, she emerged, out of breath, flushed, and handed back the gun. “The gun didn’t work,” she said. “I had to beat him to death with a chair leg.” Continue reading Digging Deeper: Somebody Tell Republicans to Hook Up the Jumper Cables

Huntsman – Too Sane and Too Informed for a Tea Party Crazed GOP?

When you decide you want to try to offer a new product or service whether in a new or existing business, you try to determine if there is a market for it. Is there a need for the new product or service, or through marketing can you create a desire for it? If you are introducing a new product to compete with existing products, how is your product different from the other products and is that difference something that people will find appealing?

Candidates can work in a similar way. From his campaign rollout speech, it is clear that Mr. Huntsman is trying to position himself as the one reasonable candidate who respects his Republican rivals for the nomination and ALSO respects President Obama. On Obama, Huntsman said that while he respects him, he just has a different vision for the country. Huntsman is also a smart guy who taught himself Mandarin Chinese, was the US Ambassador to China and Governor of Utah, knows American history and can speak knowledgeably about foreign policy issues.

For all that, there is a major problem with Candidate Huntsman. He is a product whose features have no market among the Republican electorate.

Republicans have no interest in a candidate who actually knows something. They seem to find willful ignorance irrelevant or even charming in a candidate. For instance, Sarah Palin’s butchering and ignorance of history and current events is legend. Not only does she make up history as she goes along, when her error was pointed out, she insisted her version of Paul Revere’s famous ride (he rode out to warn the British not to try to take our guns) was correct even though we are in the internet age when it is easy to look up such things and find out the truth. One of the last living really intelligent ultra-conservatives, Margaret Thatcher, refused to meet with Palin when Palin traveled to the UK to see Thatcher. As much as I disagree with many or most of Ms. Thatcher’s decisions as Prime Minister, I can only opine from a distance that Thatcher didn’t want her legacy and brand of conservatism tarnished by meeting with someone who views being informed as an unnecessary inconvenience.

Michele Bachmann hasn’t been on the national stage as long as Palin, but she is working hard to catch up in ignorant quotes. Bachmann has produced gems like, “Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful. But there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows carbon dioxide is a harmful gas.” Bachmann may want to read this. If she still is unconvinced, maybe she will agree to be hooked up to a tank of the stuff to breathe for a while. I think Bachmann got her idea for this quote from Ann Coulter, who claimed that radiation is good for you. If Ann really feels that way, I don’t understand why she isn’t at Fukushima offering to clean the whole thing up with her bare hands. TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) would almost certainly offer her many times her regular speaking rate to do it. Continue reading Huntsman – Too Sane and Too Informed for a Tea Party Crazed GOP?