Thursday, January 30, 2014

#RockEnroll Flashmob in Central Park

Four years ago, Al Giordano had some advice for the "protest movement" (yeah, I'm looking at you OWS).
Add a coherent political message, banners, leaflets, a dance tune that resonates with the message, and such to a dancing musical flash mob like these and you have the seeds of a new, more effective, kind of protest than the tired old marching around in circles of the last century that has ceased to win any cause for anyone.
Yesterday the young people of Generation Progress took it to Central Park with Donte Stallworth to encourage young people to "Get Covered."

That's how its done, folks.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger: "A creature of stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism"

I can think of no better way to honor the passing of legendary Pete Seeger than by reposting the video of Bruce Springsteen talking about him at his 90th birthday party.
Despite Pete's somewhat benign grandfatherly appearance, he's a creature of stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won't let him take a step back from the things he believes in. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger to the heart of our country's illusions about itself...He reminds us of our immense failures as well as shinning a light towards our better angels on the horizon where the country we've imagined and hold dear we hope awaits us.
Rest in peace, Pete. Your stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism made us believe...we shall overcome.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

President Obama is preparing us for a multipolar world

David Remnick has published some additional quotes from his interviews with President Obama. Here is one that I found particularly interesting.
I do think that part of effective diplomacy, part of America maintaining its influence in a world in which we remain the one indispensable power, but in which you’ve got a much more multipolar environment, is for other people to know that we understand their stories as well, and that we can see how they have come to certain conclusions or understandings about their history, their economies, the conflicts they’ve suffered. Because, if they think we understand their frame of reference, then they’re more likely to listen to us and to work with us.
What struck me was his reference to a more multipolar environment in the world. I first heard that word back when the neocon's dream of US dominance on the world stage was taking a beating because of the inept way Bush/Cheney had handled the invasion/occupation of Iraq. I found the discussion of multipolarity going on around the globe to be a fascinating alternative to either the bi-polar nature of the cold war or the unipolar dreams of the neocons for US domination.
It is a game of every power for itself, in which each regional power center cooperates with others when it shares common interests with them and opposes them when interests conflict. The result is the absence of a single paradigm of world order or even of a coherent pattern of alliances. In their place are coalitions of convenience that -- taken together -- have no consistent direction.
Notice how that language mirrors David Simon's prediction about the end of hegemony in domestic affairs after the 2012 election.
America will soon belong to the men and women — white and black and Latino and Asian, Christian and Jew and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight — who can walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that they are in a world of certain difference, that there are no real majorities, only pluralities and coalitions.
President Obama wisely uses the word multipolar in a way that indicates his recognition that a balancing of power is inevitable, and that the US is going to have to do a better job of empathizing with the perspectives of people in other parts of the world in order to be effective diplomatically. It all reminds me of what he said a little more than 6 years ago in Cairo.
For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace. For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes -- and, yes, religions -- subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.
One gets the feeling that perhaps we are in the midst of finally recognizing our "inescapable network of mutuality" - the garment of destiny MLK referred to over 50 years ago. And that President Obama is preparing us for that reality.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Not Ready to Make Nice

Like many women of my generation, I grew up being scared of anger. I remember the first time (in my mid-20's) when I let a good friend know that she'd done something that made me angry. She apologized and asked what she could do to make it right. I said, "I'm not sure there's anything you can do. I just think I'm going to be angry for awhile."

Yeah, that was a totally honest response.

The Obama administration's stealth campaign on climate change

Back in 2010 when the Republicans were exploiting fears about the economy by suggesting that President Obama's policies were a failure and liberals we busy complaining about how the American Recovery Act was too small, one reporter dug in to really take a look at the largest stimulus package in U.S. history and told us a story no one else had noticed. His name is Michael Grunwald and he eventually published a book that changed the conversation about the ARA titled: The New New Deal. Here's something he wrote about all that for TIME magazine:
For starters, the Recovery Act is the most ambitious energy legislation in history, converting the Energy Department into the world's largest venture-capital fund. It's pouring $90 billion into clean energy, including unprecedented investments in a smart grid; energy efficiency; electric cars; renewable power from the sun, wind and earth; cleaner coal; advanced biofuels; and factories to manufacture green stuff in the U.S. The act will also triple the number of smart electric meters in our homes, quadruple the number of hybrids in the federal auto fleet and finance far-out energy research through a new government incubator modeled after the Pentagon agency that fathered the Internet.
Thus began what some might call the Obama administration's stealth campaign on combating climate change. I've chronicled before that a big part of that stealth campaign has been the ongoing efforts of the Department of Defense to go green. As the largest energy consumer in the world, those efforts go beyond being beneficial to the military and have huge implications in the private sector.
Military investment in renewable energy and related technologies, in many cases, holds the potential to bridge the “valley of death” that lies between research & development and full commercialization of these technologies. As such, the myriad of DOD initiatives focused on fostering cleantech is anticipated to have a substantial impact on the development and growth of the industry as a whole.
We've also seen how President Obama has infused his second term administration with people who are committed to addressing climate change. We knew that Dennis McDonough, his chief of staff, has a history on this issue as well as his new Secretary of State John Kerry. But recently, Kerry has publicly made this a central focus of his work.
...while the public’s attention has been on his diplomacy in the Middle East, behind the scenes at the State Department Mr. Kerry has initiated a systematic, top-down push to create an agencywide focus on global warming.

His goal is to become the lead broker of a global climate treaty in 2015 that will commit the United States and other nations to historic reductions in fossil fuel pollution.
Given Republican opposition, political observers have pretty much abandoned the possibility that Congress will engage on addressing climate change. And so it is clear that any additional movement on the domestic side of things will have to come from executive action. Right on cue for that one comes the appointment of John Podesta as the new White House counselor.
The deal-sealer for Podesta, who has vowed to stay for only a year, was Obama’s assurance that he would be given broad oversight of the administration’s climate change agenda...And here is where the template for Podesta in action might first become apparent: With chances of major legislation on climate change all but dead given congressional opposition, Podesta will push for aggressive executive action, in addition to backstopping new Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy on controversial new emissions guidelines for power plants.
While many liberals are focusing on the Keystone Pipeline and/or the negotiations underway on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the real battles on environmental policy in the coming year are going to be the EPA rules governing carbon emissions from power plants. This month they released the rules for new power plants which will set the stage for the coming rules on existing plants.
Next, the EPA must draw up standards for the thousands of existing power plants — some 6,500 — which to date have been completely free to pollute the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Those power plants are responsible for about 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. The rule on new power plants sets the legal foundation for this much bigger move.
When you hear Republicans accusing the Obama administration of waging a "war on coal," this is what they are reacting to. It is assumed that eventually these new rules will be challenged in court - which is one of the reasons why ending the filibuster on judicial nominees became so urgent, especially on the DC circuit.

Taken as a whole, this stealth campaign on combatting climate change is likely to be one of the most enduring legacies of the Obama administration.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Understanding President Obama

I've spent a lot of time over the last six years observing President Obama and trying to understand him. From a personal standpoint, that's because I find him to be a fascinating human being. But from a political standpoint, I also think that he is a unique figure in our history. We have the benefit of living that history in the present moment rather than reading about it in books. It has been my passion to take it all in and try to understand what is happening.

Many people have commented that Barack Obama became a blank screen onto which people projected their own desires and fears. In watching the coverage of his presidency, I find that to be true. It has been frustrating to watch people simply put him into a pre-fabricated box of their own making rather than listen to what he says and watch what he does. On the extreme right, he has become the socialist demon and on the extreme left the corporate tool. That's what they expected and that's what they see. Every word uttered and every action taken is twisted in order to fit the mold. But those caricatures rarely bear any resemblance to the actual man who is our President. And so, whether you agree with him or not, disabusing ourselves of those projections and being open to who he actually is allows us to see the reality at play in this historical moment.

On a couple of occasions, journalists have attempted to approach President Obama with that kind of openness and given us a glimpse into the man they see. Such was the case when Michael Lewis was given extraordinary access and produced the article titled Obama's Way. Recently, David Remnick (author of The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama - which I recommend that everyone read) gave us another look. I'd like to take a few minutes to cull what I see as significant insights from that article.

First up, President Obama talks about race - both in the context of himself as well as its role in politics. On so many issues, we see the President make a both/and (rather than either/or) argument. But never more so than when it comes to this topic.
“There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President,” Obama said. “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”
To my recollection, that is the first time I've heard President Obama acknowledge that race is a factor for some of his critics...a BFD! But notice that he immediately balances that with the idea that race also plays a role for some of his admirers. I imagine that this tendency of his to do the both/and is maddening to those who feel the very real anger of racism. But this is quintessential Obama, isn't it? He has been so steeped in the value of empathy that he rarely comes down on one side of an argument in righteous rage. His natural instinct seems to be to immediately place himself in the opposition's shoes in order to understand their perspective. Like it or not, if you're going to understand President Obama, this is one of the most important things to notice. Its the very thing that made his speech on race during the 2008 primaries so unique...he wanted white people to understand what racism looked like from the perspective of African Americans. But he also wanted African Americans to understand what it looked like from a white working class perspective.

In reflecting on the office of the presidency, Obama talked about his reaction to watching the movie Lincoln:
“The real politics resonated with me, because I have yet to see something that we’ve done, or any President has done, that was really important and good, that did not involve some mess and some strong-arming and some shading of how it was initially talked about to a particular member of the legislature who you needed a vote from. Because, if you’re doing big, hard things, then there is going to be some hair on it—there’s going to be some aspects of it that aren’t clean and neat and immediately elicit applause from everybody. And so the nature of not only politics but, I think, social change of any sort is that it doesn’t move in a straight line, and that those who are most successful typically are tacking like a sailor toward a particular direction but have to take into account winds and currents and occasionally the lack of any wind, so that you’re just sitting there for a while, and sometimes you’re being blown all over the place.”
That reminded me of how President Obama talked about his North Star early on in his presidency.
So, my job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there, what is helping people live out their lives; what is giving them more opportunity; what is growing the economy; what is making us more competitive. At any given juncture there are going to be times that my preferred option, what I am absolutely, positively sure is right, I can’t get done. And so then, my question is, does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way or that way because I am keeping my eye on the long-term and the long fight. Not my day-to-day news cycle, but where am I going over the long-term.
As an example of how he keeps his focus on that North Star, Reminck relates this episode:
Last summer, he received a letter from a single mother struggling to support herself and her daughter on a minimal income. She was drowning: “I need help. I can’t imagine being out in the streets with my daughter and if I don’t get some type of relief soon, I’m afraid that’s what may happen.” “Copy to Senior Advisers,” Obama wrote at the bottom of the letter. “This is the person we are working for.”
Oh my! So much for the corporate tool argument. One can make the claim that President Obama's policies might not do enough to help this mother - that he's tacking too much - but he has consistently held to this priority. And in the end,  he says that this is how he wants his presidency to be judged.
“I think we are fortunate at the moment that we do not face a crisis of the scale and scope that Lincoln or F.D.R. faced. So I think it’s unrealistic to suggest that I can narrow my focus the way those two Presidents did. But I can tell you that I will measure myself at the end of my Presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society.”
There is a lot of discussion in Remnick's article about foreign policy - specifically in the Middle east. On the topic of terrorism, he asks the President about the fact that Al Qaeda now appears to be in control of Falluja. Obama uses the opportunity to talk about how we need to alter the way we view terrorism post 9/11.
“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”
This kind of nuanced thinking about the complexities involved in our response to terrorism is totally missed by those who claim that this administration is continuing the fear-mongering we were subjected to by Bush/Cheney. That distinction and nuance is carried on as the President talks about the use of drones.
“I think any President should be troubled by any war or any kinetic action that leads to death,” Obama told me when I brought up Yousafzai’s remarks. “The way I’ve thought about this issue is, I have a solemn duty and responsibility to keep the American people safe. That’s my most important obligation as President and Commander-in-Chief. And there are individuals and groups out there that are intent on killing Americans—killing American civilians, killing American children, blowing up American planes. That’s not speculation. It’s their explicit agenda.”

Obama said that, if terrorists can be captured and prosecuted, “that’s always my preference. If we can’t, I cannot stand by and do nothing. They operate in places where oftentimes we cannot reach them, or the countries are either unwilling or unable to capture them in partnership with us. And that then narrows my options: we can simply be on defense and try to harden our defense. But in this day and age that’s of limited—well, that’s insufficient. We can say to those countries, as my predecessor did, if you are harboring terrorists, we will hold you accountable—in which case, we could be fighting a lot of wars around the world. And, statistically, it is indisputable that the costs in terms of not only our men and women in uniform but also innocent civilians would be much higher. Or, where possible, we can take targeted strikes, understanding that anytime you take a military strike there are risks involved. What I’ve tried to do is to tighten the process so much and limit the risks of civilian casualties so much that we have the least fallout from those actions. But it’s not perfect.”
I find the statement I bolded most fascinating. It is often ignored when the President's critics accuse him of being just like (or worse than) Bush. President Obama acknowledges that his actions aren't perfect. But he wants us to think about the alternatives. Rather than invading whole countries because they harbor terrorists, he has chosen a different path. This is obviously something he has struggled with. And later on in this article, he sounds positively Niebuhrian in how he talks about it.
“I have strengths and I have weaknesses, like every President, like every person,” Obama said. “I do think one of my strengths is temperament. I am comfortable with complexity, and I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am a product of original sin. And every morning and every night I’m taking measure of my actions against the options and possibilities available to me, understanding that there are going to be mistakes that I make and my team makes and that America makes; understanding that there are going to be limits to the good we can do and the bad that we can prevent, and that there’s going to be tragedy out there and, by occupying this office, I am part of that tragedy occasionally, but that if I am doing my very best and basing my decisions on the core values and ideals that I was brought up with and that I think are pretty consistent with those of most Americans, that at the end of the day things will be better rather than worse.”
President Obama knows that even the leader of the free world has to keep his place in the scheme of things in perspective.
“One of the things that I’ve learned to appreciate more as President is you are essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history,” he later told me. “You don’t start with a clean slate, and the things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable. But you can move things forward. And sometimes the things that start small may turn out to be fairly significant...

“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he said. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.” The long view again. “But I think our decisions matter,” he went on. “And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
Some people are suggesting that this represents a kind of resignation from President Obama that is in contrast to where he started six years ago. But I am reminded of how his wife Michelle described his foray into politics way back in 2005.
Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.
President Obama's response upon hearing that description was to see it as a compliment. Certainly he's learned a thing or two about "the viability of politics to make change" in the last six years. But I'm also reminded of what he said exactly one year ago today.
We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
This is a President who has always believed in the long game. Anyone who wants to understand him needs to at least get that one.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The big picture on surveillance

There was one moment in President Obama's speech on surveillance that stood out to me.
...after an extended review of our use of drones in the fight against terrorist networks, I believed a fresh examination of our surveillance programs was a necessary next step in our effort to get off the open-ended war footing that we’ve maintained since 9/11.
In other words, his overriding goal in all this is "to get off the open-ended war footing that we've maintained since 9/11." Just as with this administration's position on the use of drones, what too many of the people who are concerned with civil liberties often miss is the impact our "open-ended war footing" has on these policies - both psychologically on the American public as well as legally.

The President devoted much of his speech last May on counterterrorism to a discussion of how we might come to view these policies once we are prepared to end this indefinite war.
Now, make no mistake, our nation is still threatened by terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth. But we have to recognize that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11. With a decade of experience now to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions -- about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them.
Those are the questions he is asking us to grapple with now.  In this fascinating article by David Remnick, President Obama talks about his openness to that conversation.
And those who have questioned our drone policy are doing exactly what should be done in a democracy—asking some tough questions. The only time I get frustrated is when folks act like it’s not complicated and there aren’t some real tough decisions, and are sanctimonious, as if somehow these aren’t complicated questions.
What remains to be seen is whether or not we're prepared to have an adult conversation to tackle those tough questions.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Sorry for the absence

I haven't been posting lately because life has been crazy busy and right in the middle of it all my computer broke. I'm taking it to the Dr. tomorrow so hope for the best :-)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Dr. King's populist message: We are tied together in the single garment of destiny

Lately columnist Noam Scheiber has taken on the mantle of making a case for Senator Elizabeth Warren's brand of populism. It has become conventional wisdom these days to link Warren with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio as the "new new left." But Scheiber writes about the differences between the two.
De Blasio’s rhetoric sounds more leftist, implying a relentless competition between underclass and overclass. But the substance of Warren’s agenda is far more radical. She wants to upend a fundamentally corrupt system, one in which big banks and other interests have coopted the apparatus of government. By contrast, de Blasio implicitly accepts “the system”—which in New York means an economy built around the financial sector and the real estate industry—and wants to mitigate its least desirable effects.

Or, put differently, de Blasio accepts that today’s rich and powerful will continue to be rich and powerful; he just thinks they should do more to help the rest of us. Warren questions the very legitimacy of their wealth and power.
Whether or not Scheiber has given us an accurate description of these two politicians I'll leave to others to examine. I found the distinction helpful in understanding where I tend to part ways with many progressives on the left who have been sounding like this depiction of Senator Warren ever since the Great Recession of 2008. Those folks were livid that when President Obama came into office, he didn't use the opportunity to break up the banks and basically destroy the financial sector. Of course his failure to do so was seen by them as proof that he was merely a tool of the 1%.

But right in the middle of Scheiber making his case for Sen. Warren's position, he points this out about Mayor de Blasio's.
New York City would fall into a deep depression if the financial sector shrunk substantially.
That was always my position when Congress was discussing financial reform. What the progressives who argued for "taking down the banks" never grappled with was what that would do to the poor and middle class in this country...those who depend on either a wealthy tax base for our social safety net programs or the pensions invested on Wall Street. Regardless of how angry we feel about the greed and corruption that led to the Great Recession, our economy reflects a central truth articulated by Dr. Martin Luther King.
We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
That might sound like language too lofty to apply to the mundane world of the economy. But its true. We cannot take down whole industries (be it the financial sector or health care) without the ripple effects falling most heavily on "the least among us." That is something liberals MUST grapple with...and not let our anger at the abusers overtake our empathy for their victims.

That doesn't mean that we don't hold the abusers accountable. It just means that we do so by keeping in mind the consequences our actions will have on what President Obama has called his North Star - those in the middle class and those striving to get there.

BooMan recently weighed in on all this and comes down in support of the message Scheiber assigns to Sen. Warren because it mobilizes the anger people feel about the government working on behalf of the wealthy.
Where Warren is on the right track is that she is focused on changing the reality and the perception that the government doesn't work for middle class folks, rather than coming up with programs that will redistribute wealth down to the underclass. The reason that this path is preferable to de Blasio's is because we can't garner support for big government programs until we change the people's perception that Washington is not representing their interests.
What that argument fails to address is that the method Republicans have used for the last 40 years to convince people that the government doesn't work for them can be summed up in the Southern Strategy. In other words, racism. White working and middle class Americans have consistently been told (sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly) that government programs are a hand-out to be used and abused by "those people," ie, black and brown folks. That doesn't pose a problem for Mayor De Blasio in New York City, but its the core of the battle being waged in what Sarah Palin calls "the real America."

To me, BooMan comes a little too close to acquiescing to the libertarian position that government is bad. His argument sends us on a path of needing to assuage white working/middle class concerns by suggesting that if we simply use government as a way to punish the wealthy, they will eventually join us in taking care of the poor and middle class. Sorry, but that ain't gonna happen.

I agree that as liberals we need to promote a populist message. Here is the one I would suggest. It was delivered exactly six years ago this Monday by the man who is now our President.
“Unity is the great need of the hour.” That’s what Dr. King said. It is the great need of this hour as well, not because it sounds pleasant, not because it makes us feel good, but because it's the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exits in this country.

I’m not talking about the budget deficit. I’m not talking about the trade deficit. I'm talking about the moral deficit in this country. I’m talking about an empathy deficit, the inability to recognize ourselves in one another, to understand that we are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper, that in the words of Dr. King, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”
A little different take on that same message played pretty well back in 2004.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sometimes I wonder what keeps him going...

...now I know.



Calling out the sexism

Recently I wrote about the fact that Fox New's obsession with the "wussification" of American not only degrades the feminine, it reinforces the equally patriarchal idea that boys/men need to prove their masculinity. And now along comes this commercial attempting to make the same point with a dash of humor.
Cute, huh? Gawd forbid that a manly man use a product that is designed for women! And if he does so by mistake...he's got a lot to prove. Some idiot at the Federalist felt the need to weigh in.
...we know, deep in our lizard brains, that men and women are different. We know that we are designed to complement one another. Women nurture, men conquer.
Woe be to the men who nurture and the women who conquer. Our "lizard brains" say that's all wrong. Perhaps its time for some evolution - for folks who believe in that kind of thing.

Last weekend, Brit Hume joined the bandwagon by suggesting that Gov. Chris Christie's bullying was merely him being a "guy's guy" and the negative reaction to it is all about the feminization of our culture.

We can all point and rage at this when it comes from Fox News and advertisers. But as I keep trying to point out, there is no daylight between this kind of thing and the obsession of some on the left who constantly say that President Obama needs to "man up" (most notable among them are people like Michael Moore, Bill Maher and Maureen Dowd).

I say its time for both men and women who embrace feminism to call this shit out no matter who is peddling it.

Monday, January 13, 2014

"Let's play hardball"

As you know, my title is how Chris Matthews opens his show on MSNBC. But the truth is that neither Matthews nor any other pundit spend much time examining the really ugly underbelly of the political game. Sure...they love to wallow in the hysteria that the gotcha game of hardball produces. But what they almost never do is critically examine their role in how it all works or call out the worst offenders.

I was reminded of all that this weekend when Karl Rove suggested that Chris Christie has displayed the kind of leadership the Republicans want in a president. As BooMan points out, the whole bridge scandal comes right out of the Rove playbook. He demonstrates this by recalling the experience Ron Suskind had when he went to interview Rove in 2003.
Eventually, I met with Rove. I arrived at his office a few minutes early, just in time to witness the Rove Treatment, which, like LBJ’s famous browbeating style, is becoming legend but is seldom reported. Rove’s assistant, Susan Ralston, said he’d be just a minute. She’s very nice, witty and polite. Over her shoulder was a small back room where a few young men were toiling away. I squeezed into a chair near the open door to Rove’s modest chamber, my back against his doorframe.

Inside, Rove was talking to an aide about some political stratagem in some state that had gone awry and a political operative who had displeased him. I paid it no mind and reviewed a jotted list of questions I hoped to ask. But after a moment, it was like ignoring a tornado flinging parked cars. "We will f*ck him. Do you hear me? We will f*ck him. We will ruin him. Like no one has ever f*cked him!" As a reporter, you get around—curse words, anger, passionate intensity are not notable events—but the ferocity, the bellicosity, the violent imputations were, well, shocking. This went on without a break for a minute or two. Then the aide slipped out looking a bit ashen, and Rove, his face ruddy from the exertions of the past few moments, looked at me and smiled a gentle, Clarence-the-Angel smile. "Come on in." And I did. And we had the most amiable chat for a half hour.
Following the trajectory backwards, it is important to note that Karl Rove was a protege of Lee Atwater. Interestingly enough, just this weekend I watched the fascinating documentary Boogieman: The Lee Atwater Story. If you haven't seen it already, I highly recommend it.

What we learn early in this film is that for this group of people, the policies that are discussed and the people affected by them are unimportant. The game is all about power and using any means to get it. That's the real hardball.

We need to be aware of this - not because it allows us to demonize those who play hardball (that plays right into the game) - but to recognize how we get played by them. It is their use of innuendo leading to emotional hysteria that divides us and keeps us distracted from dealing with the real issues of the day. Every time we play into that - we feed their power game.

All this brings to mind one of my favorite moments from the 2008 primaries when Obama reacted to the hardball tactics being used by Hillary Clinton.

That was pure brilliance. He didn't ignore the attacks (the mistake Dukakis made with Atwater). He dismissed them by making fun of it all and in doing so, diminished those who would traffic in the nonsense.

On the other hand, Obama has been no shrinking violet when it comes to taking on his opponent - and having some fun doing so. But he does it by going after them on the issues. Here's another favorite moment of mine that came in the waning days of the 2012 election when the President diagnosed Romnesia.

This is the moment I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he'd won this one. Hardball? Some might call it that. But its very different than the kind played by Atwater, Rove and Christie, isn't it? We all need to learn to distinguish between the two and make sure we don't get played.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Questions the Gates revelations raise about Hillary Clinton

It has become conventional wisdom that any liberal challenge to a potential run for president by Hillary Clinton in 2016 will come from the populism championed by people like Senator Elizabeth Warren and NY Mayor Bill di Blasio on the issue of income inequality. But I would suggest that there is an equally (if not more) troubling set of concerns that are raised by excerpts from the book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Before getting to those, its important to remember that then-Senator Hillary Clinton voted in favor of giving Bush/Cheney the green light on going to war with Iraq. Less discussed is her 2007 vote on a bill sponsored by Joe Lieberman that most believe would have allowed Bush/Cheney to invade Iran.

And now come the Gates revelations. We know by know that, while Gates claims to agree with the final decisions made by President Obama, he was seriously disturbed that Obama was suspicious of military leaders and questioned their motivations. Gates interprets that kind of civilian oversight as "controlling." And he says that Hillary Clinton joined him in that concern.
I never confronted Obama directly over what I (as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta and others) saw as his determination that the White House tightly control every aspect of national security policy and even operations.
Gates even goes on to suggest that Secretary Clinton was "offended" by this as much as he was. What we know from this and other sources is that during the whole discussion about Afghanistan, Secretary Clinton always came down on the side of military leaders over their disagreements with President Obama and VP Biden.
Whatever Petraeus did in the early weeks of 2011 to raise the ire of Obama in regard to the withdrawal [from Afghanistan] issue, it was against the backdrop of repeated indications that Petraeus was hoping to use both his alliances with Gates and Clinton and pressures from the Republicans in Congress to push back the previously agreed date for beginning withdrawal and handoff of responsibility to the Afghan government.
Finally, we know that in the fall of 2012 at the height of the presidential campaign, Secretary Clinton once again teamed up with Petraeus to pressure President Obama to arm the Syrian rebels (Sen. McCain's bright idea as well).

Given free reign, all of this could have resulted not only in the useless war we waged in Iraq, but never-ending involvement in Afghanistan as well as potential war in Iran and Syria. The question becomes: will Hillary Clinton ever say "no" to the hawks?

During her last run for president, Hillary Clinton made much of her stature as the one who was most capable of answering that 3:00 am phone call about an anonymous crisis somewhere in the world. Five years later, we are beginning to have a glimpse into what her response might be. I'm not so sure it paints a pretty picture. At minimum, it raises a lot of questions about what kind of foreign policy president she would be.

"I'm not that different from Roger"


Back in July, when a jury acquitted George Zimmerman of murdering Trayvon Martin, President Obama responded by saying "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago." In other words, our President knows that - but for the grace of God - he could have been that young black man in the wrong place at the wrong time and wound up dead through no fault of his own.

Although it was much less noticed, this week he did it again.
Growing up, Roger spent some time in the foster care system before going to live with his mom, who was working two jobs to make ends meet. When Roger was in 6th grade, his mom entered his name in the Promise Academy Charter School lottery and prayed. And Roger won a spot.

Now, the way I hear it, Roger, you were still having some problems sometimes. He was the class clown and acting out, and almost got himself expelled. But the teachers and the staff did not give up on him. They saw something in him. They kept pushing him. And then one summer when Roger was home visiting his foster family, he looked around the room and he realized nobody in that room had gone to college, and nobody in that room had a job. And at that moment, something clicked. And Roger decided he wanted something better for himself -- and for his mom and for his two sisters that looked up to him.

So Roger buckled down. He went from failing his classes to passing his classes. He became a member of the first graduating class at the Promise Academy. And today Roger is a sophomore at Hunter College in New York, one of the best colleges in the country -- the first person in his family to get that far. And now he wants to go to medical school and become a neurologist.

If you want to know why I care about this stuff so much, it's because I'm not that different from Roger. There was a period of time in my life where I was goofing off. I was raised by a single mom. I didn’t know my dad. The only difference between me and Roger was my environment was more forgiving than his. That’s the only difference. If I screwed up, the consequences weren't quite as great.

So if Roger can make it, and if I can make it, if Kiara can make it, every kid in this country can make it. But we've got to believe in that. We can't just give lip service to it. And it can't just get caught up in a bunch of political arguments.
I have to admit that when I watched this portion of the President's speech, I cried. What we're witnessing for the first time in this country's history is a President who knows these struggles - just like we now have a Supreme Court Justice who embraces the fact that she grew up poor and Latina in the Bronx and an Attorney General who speaks openly about what it means to have "the talk" with his own teenage son following the shooting of Trayvon. The world looks different when viewed through the lens of those who have lived these experiences. I suspect that means an awful lot to young people like Roger. I know it means a lot to me.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

History is much more nuanced than the partisan reaction to Gates

One of the things that often frustrates me is the way our partisanship tries to make everything so black and white while reality is much more nuanced. That has been my reaction to much of the reporting I've seen about Robert Gates' recent book. History is too often distorted by the need to either raise Gates up as a hero or make him the villain. In the end, I don't care much about how people view Robert Gates. What I do care about is that we get history right. So let me give you a couple of examples that I think are important to set the record straight.

From the right, we're hearing charges that Gates is suggesting that President Obama never supported his own policy in Afghanistan - and therefore put our troops in harms way for a surge he never believed in. That is both a distortion of history and what Gates actually said. We all know that when Obama ran for president in 2008, he made it clear that we needed to get out of the war in Iraq and focus our attention on Afghanistan. Whether you agreed or disagreed with this position, he never hid his intentions to deploy more troops there. What Gates revealed was that at some point, President Obama recognized that the strategy wasn't working.
Gates says what happened here really was the president approved a strategy in 2009, added troops in Afghanistan, thought and hoped it would work but became skeptical later on.
A historically-based critique might be that he should have known better in the first place. I don't see that this country has ever figured out an effective counter-insurgency military strategy. And then we could discuss what President Obama's alternatives were at the time. That's the hard one. But trying to use what Gates said to suggest that the President didn't believe in his own strategy from the beginning is simply an attempt to distort history in order to score partisan political points.

From the left we're hearing that Gates was just a holdover from the Bush/Cheney era and that President Obama should have known better than to keep him on the team. Gates' book is testament to the fact that there is an element of truth to this one. But history is a bit more nuanced than it is often portrayed.

What we know about George W. Bush's second term is that at some point, George HW Bush's "realists" decided to take on the Cheney/Rumsfeld faction in the administration. On Nov. 8, 2006 Rumsfeld resigned and Gates was appointed as his replacement. At this point, we don't know much about what when on behind the scenes on this shake-up, but here's a tidbit:
A source told NBC News’ military analyst Bill Arkin that prior to the [2006 midterm] election, Vice President Dick Cheney argued with other politicians over whether Rumsfeld should stay. White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and others said Rumsfeld should be removed, the source said. Both sides agreed the decision would be made after the election, when Bush would make the final call based on how Republicans did.

According to the source, Bush agreed Rumsfeld should be removed after seeing election results favoring Democrats. Cheney then lost another argument, protesting Gates’ nomination as Rumsfeld’s replacement.
Here's just a peek at how Gates referred to all that in his new book:
By early 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney was the hawkish outlier on the team, with Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and me in broad agreement.
Up until he was chosen to be Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates had served on the Iraq Study Group - a bipartisan commission formed by Congress in March 2006 to assess the situation in Iraq and make recommendations.
Among [the recommendations] were the beginning of a phased withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq and direct US dialogue with Syria and Iran over Iraq and the Middle East...The group further described the situation in Afghanistan as so disastrous that they may need to divert troops from Iraq in order to help stabilize the country.
Hmmmm....does that remind you of anyone else's recommendations? It pretty much mirrors the platform on which Barack Obama ran for president.

Its true that President Obama has always wanted to emulate Lincoln's "team of rivals." And that likely influenced his decision to keep Gates on as Secretary of Defense. But its also clear that Gates was brought into the Bush administration to basically implement the same strategy Obama had embraced on these two wars. I'm sure that continuity of that strategy played a large role in his decision. That doesn't do much to feed the partisan battles that dominate our discourse. But its history nonetheless.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Water is Wide

If your soul is tired or stressed, just close your eyes, breath and listen. This world can't be all bad if it produces beauty like this.

Christie with access to NSA? YIKES!!!

Someone finally made the argument I was expecting to hear as soon as this Chris Christie scandal broke.
...consider such an apparatus [NSA] under a President Chris Christie. If Christie's thugs will shut down a bridge to punish a Democratic mayor for not supporting Christie's re-election, imagine what they would do with access to NSA spying data on Democratic members of Congress. That's the bigger lesson here.

The Chris Christie scandal is important on multiple levels. And one of those levels is what it tells us about the danger of the NSA's vacuum spying.
Yeah, the thought crossed my mind. It scares the bejeesus out of me. But lets break it down a bit more, shall we?

What we know is that NSA stores metadata on every phone call made in the U.S. - including those of members of Congress. In order to get access to the content of those phone calls, NSA must demonstrate that they meet search criteria that adhere to the guidelines set by the FISA Court. So if a potential future President Christie were to attempt to get access to the content of phone calls made by members of Congress, that would be illegal.

We have to acknowledge that previous presidents have done things that are illegal. Of course Nixon comes to mind. He eventually resigned rather than face a Senate decision to remove him from office for doing so. And for most of us, the Bush/Cheney administration's use of torture was clearly illegal according to both national and international law.

What we learn from this is that laws don't always stop presidents from doing illegal things. In the coming months there will be an investigation into whether or not Christie has already crossed the line of doing something illegal in order to punish his political opponents. If it comes to that, not only will he forfeit any chance of being elected president, he's likely to lose his governorship.

But beyond all that the real question this raises is the extremely fuzzy one about the role of trust in electing politicians. Sure, we can do more to craft laws and policies that will reduce the possibility that a future president will misuse the NSA. But we're fooling ourselves if we think that would stop a vindictive sociopath from crossing the line...been there, done that. The only thing we have to guard against it not happening again is to not elect the bastards in the first place.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Obama administration isn't sitting still on the school-to-prison pipeline

One way to sit still while the machinery of racism rolls on is to ignore what is happening to black and brown children in our public schools. The truth is that as we approach the 60th anniversary of Brown vs Board of Education, we don't have a problem with public education in this country. What we have is a failure to adequately educate our black and brown children.

Former President George W. Bush found a way to sit still on this problem. After over 30 years of collecting data on racial disparities in our public schools, his administration chose to simply discontinue the practice. There wasn't much push-back to that. It was simply a matter of "what we don't see doesn't exist."

Early on in the Obama administration, that changed. The Civil Rights Office in the Department of Education began collecting the data again. And the picture wasn't pretty.
  • 55% of high schools with low black and Hispanic populations offer calculus while only 29% of schools with high minority populations do so.
  • Black and Hispanic students made up 44 percent of the students in the survey, but were only 26 percent of the students in gifted and talented programs.
  • On average, teachers in high-minority schools were paid $2,251 less per year than their colleagues elsewhere.
But the really alarming data was that black and brown students are significantly more likely to be suspended, expelled or referred to law enforcement for behavior problems in school. That's what many people have begun to call the school-to-prison pipeline for students of color.

Armed with this information, the Departments of Education and Justice set out to do something about it. For example, DoE's Civil Rights Division began investigating school districts with significant disparities in their school discipline practices. And DoJ filed suit against the school district in Meridian, MS for some of the most egregious practices in the country - leading to a consent decree. 

This week we learned that the Departments of Education and Justice released guidelines to school districts to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Attorney General Holder summed up the problem this way:
"Ordinary troublemaking can sometimes provoke responses that are overly severe, including out of school suspensions, expulsions and even referral to law enforcement and then you end up with kids that end up in police precincts instead of the principal's office," Holder said in a statement.
In no way do these guidelines suggest that schools give a pass to student misbehavior. What they do suggest is that there are alternatives to either kicking these kids out of school or criminalizing their behavior with a referral to law enforcement. And apparently, while these are simply guidelines, they will have some teeth behind them for this administration.
The recommendations are nonbinding, but, in essence, the federal government is telling school districts around the country that they should adhere to the principles of fairness and equity in student discipline or face strong action if they don't.
Beyond being an issue that is important to me personally, all of this strikes me as a significant rejoinder to those who continue to suggest that the Obama administration hasn't done much for the black community. Go into any large urban area with high concentrations of families of color and right next to a concern about violence in their community, you will hear this as the number one cause of concern. As one young activist told me recently, this is THE civil rights issue of our time. For the families affected, they see their own babies being fed to the school-to-prison pipeline and are crying out for someone to notice. That the Obama administration has done so much to tackle this problem while the media and so many progressives ignore it speaks volumes about who is sitting still while the machinery of racism rolls on.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The machinery of racism...sitting still

One of the reasons that dealing with racism these days is so difficult is that we're still stuck in identifying it based on the kinds of things that happened during the Jim Crow era. If we're not calling someone the "n" word or refusing to serve black people, then we're not racist, right?

Not so much.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has identified what he sees as the "machinery of racism." To understand, you'll need a bit of the back story. A few days ago Coates identified Melissa Harris-Perry as "America's foremost public intellectual." Dylan Byers suggested that in doing so, Coates wasn't just wrong, but that he undermined his own intellectual credibility. When asked to name his own alternatives, Byers came up with five white guys. I'll let Coates take it from there.
Dylan Byers knows nothing of your work, and therefore your work must not exist.

Here is the machinery of racism—the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with the everywhere; the right of false naming; the right to claim that the lakes, trees, and mountains of our world do not exist; the right to insult our intelligence with your ignorance. The machinery of racism requires no bigotry from Dylan Byers. It merely requires that Dylan Byers sit still.
WOW!!!

Let me give you a very simple example from my own experience that might help illuminate that. Years ago I would hear black people talk about police harassment and the perils of 'driving while black/brown." As long as I "sat still" and didn't venture out of my own comfort zone, I considered that whole proposition to be meaningless because it never happened to me or anyone I knew. My dismissal was an insult to the basic intelligence of almost every black and brown person in this country. But if anyone had called that racist, I likely would have assumed they were the one's playing the "race card" and gotten defensive.

Then I made friends with someone who was harassed almost daily simply for being brown. All of the sudden I started paying attention and was ashamed at how blind I'd allowed myself to be.

Since then, every time my eyes have opened further to my own racism, its been because I decided to stop standing still. Either I put myself into situations where I came in contact with the lived experience of people of color or I simply opened my ears to hear what they had to say.

The very nature of white privilege is that we can sit still in our own comfort zone and not notice. But given the demographic changes happening in this country, those days are numbered. Having a black POTUS and family living in the White House makes it all increasingly impossible to ignore.

At some point, we're all going to have to wrestle with the choice of either being socially immobilized as we continue to sit still - or take the risk of admitting our ignorance and ask some questions. Every time we chose the latter, we begin to unwind the machinery of racism.

Robert Gates' criticisms reflect well on our Commander-in-Chief

Instead of being filtered through Bob Woodward's bias, today we have former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his own words via an excerpt of his book in the Wall Street Journal. One of the most interesting passages came when he was talking about the similarities between George W. Bush and President Obama.
Both, I believe, detested Congress and resented having to deal with it, including members of their own party.
But then two paragraphs down, Gates goes on to talk about what appears to be his biggest problem with Washington:
Congress is best viewed from a distance—the farther the better—because up close, it is truly ugly. I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country.
Kinda makes you wonder who exactly it is that "detested Congress and resented having to deal with it." I'll grant you, it might be that they all have a point. But Gates can hardly critique the 2 presidents he worked for when he so obviously shares their disdain.

Perhaps even more significant, however, is the fact that Gates asserts that President Obama didn't trust senior military leaders.
Obama was respectful of senior officers and always heard them out, but he often disagreed with them and was deeply suspicious of their actions and recommendations.
And yet Gates himself is the one that tells us that right from the beginning of President Obama's first term, he had very good reason to be suspicious. From the Woodward article we saw that the President was angry when Petraeus leaked information to the press about his disagreement with the plan in Afghanistan. In this excerpt we learn what General McChrystal did just prior to that.
But I believe the major reason the protracted, frustrating Afghanistan policy review held in the fall of 2009 created so much ill will was due to the fact it was forced on an otherwise controlling White House by the theater commander's unexpected request for a large escalation of American involvement. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request surprised the White House (and me) and provoked a debate that the White House didn't want, especially when it became public. I think Obama and his advisers were incensed that the Department of Defense—specifically the uniformed military—had taken control of the policy process from them and threatened to run away with it.
Remember that both of these incidents involving senior military leaders (Petraeus and McChrystal) happened in the fall of 2009 at the very beginning of President Obama's first term. Even Gates acknowledges that these were attempts to put control of the policy process in the hands of the Generals rather than the Commander-in-Chief. And yet he still criticizes President Obama for being suspicious. It is actually a big concern to me that on two occasions in this short excerpt, Gates points out that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined him in this critique of the President. If she decides to run in 2016 it will be important to consider whether or not she would provide the kind of civilian oversight of the military that we should expect from our Commander-in-Chief.

Gates' big concern was that the non-military members of the administration were too controlling (ie, insisted on being part of the decision-making process). Early on he posits that this was about politics.
With Obama, however, I joined a new, inexperienced president determined to change course—and equally determined from day one to win re-election. Domestic political considerations would therefore be a factor, though I believe never a decisive one, in virtually every major national security problem we tackled.
Given that this administration walked into the threat of a second Great Depression, it should come as no surprise to anyone that domestic political considerations would be a factor in EVERY conversation. That would be necessary for both policy as well as political reasons. The fact that even Gates admits that these factors were never decisive in foreign policy matters should be viewed as a credit to the President and his administration.

Many of the things President Obama faced coming into office - including what to do in Afghanistan - were intractable problems that belied easy solutions. What we learn from Gates is a bit more about the tensions behind the scenes during that decision-making process. Going forward, we're likely to see some of the same tensions come into play as he continues efforts to end the war on al Qaeda, bring our troops home from Afghanistan, give diplomacy a chance in Iran, and reform the practices of the NSA.

In light of all that, I am reminded that a break from the U.S. hegemony of the past means that these foreign policy questions are going to be complicated and that any president will have to deal with the world as it is rather than as we want it to be. That will lead to both failures and successes. We must evaluate our Commander-in-Chief on how they manage the tensions that exist not only around the globe, but here at home - even within their own administration. And so contrary to what some are suggesting, I find that Gates' account enlightens us about the complexity involved in being this country's Commander-in Chief and I am once again impressed with the job President Obama is doing.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

President Obama takes on the military and intelligence communities

In his speech on counterterrorism strategy last May, President Obama laid out some difficult ground for his administration to cover in the coming months - basically suggesting an end to the indefinite war that started after 9/11. Sometime this month he has also promised to give a speech outlining his administration's plans to reform the activities of NSA. Much of what he has and will propose won't be very popular with those involved in the military and intelligence communities. It has been my assumption for awhile that we terribly underestimate the pushback a Commander-in-Chief gets when he takes on those very powerful forces.

And then along comes Bob Woodward with a review of the book "Duty," by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. While I'm sure that Woodward and his neocon buddies will relish Gates' criticism of President Obama, it only serves to reinforce the reality that any president who wants to bring about reforms in this arena is facing a huge uphill battle.

For example, its fascinating to compare two accounts of the process President Obama used to decide whether or not to intervene in Libya. First of all, here is how it was described by Michael Lewis.
In White House jargon this was a meeting of “the principals,” which is to say the big shots...The senior people, at least those in the Situation Room, sat around the table. Their subordinates sat around the perimeter of the room...

The point of this particular meeting was for the people who knew something about Libya to describe what they thought Qad­da­fi might do, and then for the Pentagon to give the president his military options...The Pentagon then presented the president with two options: establish a no-fly zone or do nothing at all. The idea was that the people in the meeting would debate the merits of each, but Obama surprised the room by rejecting the premise of the meeting. “He instantly went off the road map,” recalls one eyewitness. “He asked, ‘Would a no-fly zone do anything to stop the scenario we just heard?’” After it became clear that it would not, Obama said, “I want to hear from some of the other folks in the room.”

Obama then proceeded to call on every single person for his views, including the most junior people. “What was a little unusual,” Obama admits, “is that I went to people who were not at the table. Because I am trying to get an argument that is not being made.” The argument he had wanted to hear was the case for a more nuanced intervention—and a detailing of the more subtle costs to American interests of allowing the mass slaughter of Libyan civilians...

The president may not have been surprised that the Pentagon hadn’t sought to answer that question. He was nevertheless visibly annoyed. “I don’t know why we are even having this meeting,” he said, or words to that effect. “You’re telling me a no-fly zone doesn’t solve the problem, but the only option you’re giving me is a no-fly zone.” He gave his generals two hours to come up with another solution for him to consider, then left to attend the next event on his schedule, a ceremonial White House dinner.
And here is how it is described by Gates via Woodward:
It got so bad during internal debates over whether to intervene in Libya in 2011 that Gates says he felt compelled to deliver a “rant” because the White House staff was “talking about military options with the president without Defense being involved.”

Gates says his instructions to the Pentagon were: “Don’t give the White House staff and [national security staff] too much information on the military options. They don’t understand it, and ‘experts’ like Samantha Power will decide when we should move militarily.” 
So while President Obama was looking for more military options to avoid a humanitarian disaster, Gates was telling his staff to limit the number of options they made available as a way to control the outcome. Is it any wonder that Gates writes about a atmosphere of “aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders.”

Or how about the time back in 2009 when Petreaus leaked to the press his dissatisfaction with the President's decision to announce an exit date for our troops in Afghanisan?
At a March 3, 2010, National Security Council meeting, Gates writes, the president opened with a “blast.” Obama criticized the military for “popping off in the press” and said he would push back hard against any delay in beginning the withdrawal.

According to Gates, Obama concluded, “ ‘If I believe I am being gamed . . .’ and left the sentence hanging there with the clear implication the consequences would be dire.”

Gates continues: “I was pretty upset myself. I thought implicitly accusing” Petraeus, and perhaps Mullen and Gates himself, “of gaming him in front of thirty people in the Situation Room was inappropriate, not to mention highly disrespectful of Petraeus.
In other words, Gates was not upset that Petraeus was undermining the CIC to the press, but that the CIC called him out on it. Bad move Mr. Secretary.

And so as we watch the very slow progress we're likely to see on reigning in both counterterrorism strategies and surveillance activities, its important to keep this kind of tension in mind. We'd like to think of our President as someone who's positional power puts them above having to deal with these kinds of intransigent cultures and bureaucracies. But that would be naive.

Republicans join the income inequality bandwagon with post-truth spin (updated)

For years we watched the Republican Party put everything they had into total obstruction in an attempt to de-legitimize President Obama and accomplish what Sen. McConnell said was their number one goal...to ensure that he was a one-term president. It didn't work.

In the process of implementing that strategy of obstruction, Republicans were forced to embrace increasingly radical positions due to President Obama's consistent efforts to reach out to them. Eventually that led to an embrace of post-policy politics where the sum total of the Republican platform was to oppose anything the President supported.

There are growing signs that at least the Republican leadership has recognized how badly this strategy has failed and are trying to come up with something new. The first signal came when Speaker Boehner called out the teapublicans and passed a bipartisan budget bill in December. All of the sudden instead of hostage-taking and threats, we heard pleas for "finding common ground."

And now, leading Republicans are joining the bandwagon of highlighting the issue of income inequality and feigning concern for the poor and middle class. In other words, they know their goose is cooked if they don't turn around the message of simply dumping on those who are struggling economically by calling them the "takers."

This week we'll see Sen. Rubio give a speech about his proposals to address poverty and Rep. Ryan is going to be interviewed by Brian Williams to share his thoughts on the same subject. Sen. Paul has been talking about what to do to revitalize Detroit and Rep. Cantor has a whole web site devoted to his proposals to Make Life Work for More People.

Since Rep. Cantor has been the most specific so far, I checked out his proposals on that web site. It will come as no surprise that they are the warmed over versions of the Republican ideas of the past. Dig past the pretty pictures and misleading rhetoric and you'll find that he wants to repeal Obamacare, privatize Medicare, blockgrant Medicaid, take away workers rights to overtime pay and voucherize public education.

The fact that these policies are dressed up as efforts to reduce income inequality signals that Republican leadership is returning to their roots in post-truth politics as described by David Roberts.
Republicans thus talk about "taxes" and "spending" and "regulation" in the abstract, since Americans oppose them in the abstract even as they support their specific manifestations. They talk about cutting the deficit even as they slash taxes on the rich and launch unfunded wars. They talk about free markets even as they subsidize fossil fuels. They talk about American exceptionalism even as they protect fossil-fuel incumbents and fight research and infrastructure investments.

In short, Republicans have mastered post-truth politics. They've realized that their rhetoric doesn't have to bear any connection to their policy agenda. They can go through different slogans, different rationales, different fights, depending on the political landscape of the moment. They need not feel bound by previous slogans, rationales, or fights.
In its current form, these Republican leaders think they can talk about income inequality and reducing poverty even as they propose policies that would decimate the very programs that have worked. In other words, its the exact same agenda Mitt Romney was promoting when he so blithely dismissed 47% of us in the 2012 election. Talk about trying to put lipstick on a pig!

One way to look at this is that the Democrats have clearly won the battle over the playing field. If everyone is going to join in embracing the ultimate goal of reducing income inequality, then it becomes a disagreement over strategies. That is a very different kind of politics than what we've been seeing with total obstruction and a post-policy emphasis. In many ways it feeds right into the kind of conversation President Obama has been suggesting for a very long time.
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.
But when the post-truth nature of these Republican proposals is revealed, it will be interesting to see if their recourse is to simply revert back to obstruction. Until they quit playing power games and get serious about an agenda, the Republican leadership will lack the authenticity that is required for that kind of conversation to happen.

UPDATE: Josh Barro weighs in with: The problem with the Republican antipoverty agenda is that it doesn't exist.
That's why, as Costa and Philip Rucker describe, Republicans aren't really having a policy discussion about poverty at all. They're having a messaging discussion. Some want to pick up Jack Kemp's "baton" of talking about social mobility and free enterprise. Social conservatives want to talk about the importance of families to alleviating poverty. Rand Paul wants to add more "anti-government broadsides" to the message.

What all these Republican approaches have in common is that they aren't policy ideas at all, or they're policies that won't do anything about poverty.
IOW, the messaging discussion is just more "post-truth" politics.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Why it doesn't pay to answer stupid questions from Senators

A couple of days ago, Senator Bernie Sanders asked a stupid question: Does NSA spy on members of Congress? I'll grant you, the response he got was in the "non-denial denial" category.
"Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons," the spokesman said. 
It all reminded me of the last time a Senator asked a stupid question - then it was Rand Paul. He wanted to know whether the Obama administration would target US citizens on American soil for a drone strike. To understand that as a stupid question, it helps to look at events both before and after he asked.

On March 5, 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech outlining the legal rationale this administration uses to approve drone strikes - including under what circumstances an individual would be targeted.

On February 4, 2013 an administration white paper on the same topic was leaked to Michael Isikoff.

On March 4, 2013, Attorney General Holder wrote a letter directly to Sen. Paul in response to his question.

And still, on March 6, 2013, Sen. Paul staged a talking filibuster on the grounds that he needed this question answered, by gawd!!!!

Subsequently, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote another letter. This time he left out all attempts to engage as if talking to an adult and brought it down to Sen. Paul's level.
It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: "Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?" The answer to that question is no.
Apparently that was enough to satisfy Sen. Paul (after all, it was the notoriety of the filibuster he wanted, so mission accomplished for him). But was it clear enough for the poutragers? Of course not!
Because now we need a definition of what “engaged in combat” means.
I kid you not. Go check the link. That was a serious response from Marcy Wheeler (otherwise known as "emptywheel").

That's why it doesn't pay to think this administration will EVER satisfy these people. Because aside from the effort to grandstand, they're not interested in engaging in conversation. From nuanced speeches to infantile clarity, there's no trick pony here.

In that light, I find the administration's response to Sen. Sander's question to be completely adequate - if not a bit amusing. Making it clear that members of Congress are treated exactly the same as every other American is not a bad way to go because it points to the stupidity of the question in the first place.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

"Placing a bet on humanity"

Today Jon Favreau writes about Pope Francis.
This is a man who washed and kissed the feet of Muslim convicts, handed out phone cards to Eritrean refugees, spent his birthday with the homeless, and reached out to atheists during a Christmas homily. In response to an inquiry about women considering abortion because of rape or poverty, Pope Francis said, “Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” And in his answer to a question about gay men and women, he uttered what have become the most echoed words of his papacy to date: “Who am I to judge?”

Through these very visible, intentional gestures, it seems as if the Pope is not just signaling tolerance or celebrating diversity but placing a bet on humanity. It is a bet that his core message of peace, love, service, and compassion for the least for these will find a receptive audience among people of differing races, faiths, orientations, backgrounds and beliefs. It is a bet that the existence of the Golden Rule in almost every major religion is no cosmic coincidence. For as Pope Francis said on New Years, “We belong to the same human family and we share a common destiny.”
What struck me about this is that so many of the transformational leaders we revere have placed that same bet on humanity.

Just as the fundamentalists of our day have recoiled when Pope Francis suggests that the alleviation of human suffering should take precedence over obedience to the rules, the Pharisees of Jesus' day had the same reaction. At one point they complained when those who were following Jesus picked grain on the Sabbath (which was against the rules). His response indicates that he placed that same bet on humanity: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."

Fundamentalists tend to fear that kind of thing because their world view is based on the idea that without adherence to the rules, chaos and evil with reign. Jesus didn't negate the rules, but instead called us to something higher. Observance of the Sabbath - like other rules - was meant to be in service to humanity. He trusted us enough to suggest that when it comes to a decision between alleviating human suffering and obedience to the rules, we could make the right choice.

It is that same belief in humanity that Ta-Nehisi Coates ascribed to leaders like Martin Luther King and President Obama.
Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined -- in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion's share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King's belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.
If you want to know what makes right wingers afraid and many leftists suck their teeth about President Obama, this is it. Both sides of that coin panic at the thought of letting go of their belief in the inherent evil of those with whom they disagree.

None of these leaders I've referred to here would deny the existence of evil. Its just that they saw it as their calling to look deeper and call out the good. Here's what Barack Obama said about that in response to a question about the teachings of Reinhold Niebuhr:
“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from na├»ve idealism to bitter realism.”
What grounds us against swinging from idealism to bitter realism is a belief in humanity...that the potential for good can overcome the potential for evil.  I suspect that is a necessary ingredient for leadership that brings about transformational change.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Trying to have a 21st century conversation about privacy on 20th century terms

Lots of folks are wanting to excuse what Edward Snowden did because the results of his leaking of classified information has started what they think is a productive conversation about privacy. Please excuse me if I don't agree. What we're having is a conversation about privacy based on what we assumed it was during the last century - not today.

Let me provide you with a bit of background for that conclusion. First of all, from Al Giordano:
The democratization of public or semi-public exhibitionism has thrown traditional concerns about “personal privacy” out the window. Who needs the CIA anymore when everybody is out there blurting the kinds of secrets it used to take surveillance to discover? Privacy didn’t disappear because Big Brother took it away. We gave it away! Freely! It fell aside to a greater impulse: the need to expose ourselves in public, to have an audience, and to keep it.
Seriously, how often do you read something on your facebook timeline or twitter feed and cringe in reaction at TMI (too much information)!!!!!! We're living in an era when exhibitionism has taken precedence over privacy. The therapist in me is extremely curious about the roots of all that. But whatever the source, the reality is that we're all desperate these days to be heard.

The tool that is facilitating that exhibitionism is the internet - in all its various forms. And behind the scenes there are critical questions remaining about how it will be used. On that front, Dan Conover has written the best article I've seen yet. He starts out by saying that individual pieces of data are not the concern.
Collecting information is easy, traditional, and essentially inconsequential. Connecting information, however, is the radical act that will either empower or destroy us...

The NSA's email metadata campaign is designed to efficiently collect and then discard information. Not because the NSA is a civic-minded agency that wants to protect our theoretical privacy, but because your personal email isn't the target of the fucking machine. Your mundane metadata is the shit that NSA machine operators have to shovel in order to find covert organizations.
If we really want to have a conversation about what privacy means in the 21st century, here's what we should be talking about:
Google knows where you are, what you search for, what you bought. It knows what porn you stream, what political rhetoric you consume, and -- through G+ -- it can compare that knowledge to your social graph. Facebook is doing the same thing, in increasingly annoying ways. Target uses informatics and inference, based on massive data sets compiled from your shopping and mine, to spot women who've just learned that they're pregnant, and to send those women special offers and coupons for expectant mothers... 
Today we're worried about an NSA program that looks big and scary, but really isn't . But the day is coming when corporate control over our information will produce a civil liberties crisis that will make our NSA worries look quaint by comparison That day will come because that day must come, because in the same way that atomic fission was neither good nor bad, smart, unregulated, authoritative networks are neither good nor bad. 
The problem with humans isn't that we're inheriently good or bad, it's that eventually some greedy asshole turns everything we learn into a weapon... 
I am convinced that connected information is ultimately going to be a boon to humanity, and that it's entirely within our power to write rules for the collection, use and control of the "public" information we all contribute to the commons. But to prevent that power from turning on us, we simply must start a conversation that relates to the actual threats, conveyed in the context of their actual potential for abuse.
That's what a conversation about privacy looks like in the 21st century. The new exhibitionism we have embraced on the internet just might be approaching the crossroads of a decision about whether it becomes a "boon to humanity" or a weapon. Engage that one!