Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Going Off The Grid

Going off the Grid

David Brooks has been off the grid.  He’s a successful columnist, a sought-after speaker, a well-regarded analyst and thinker and opinion maker.  But, if you have been reading him, especially since he has returned from sabbatical, you get the sense that he’s also a little lonely and a little at sea.  It is as if he is searching for his community—he believes deeply in community—and the signs and the guideposts and even the certainties seem blurred and strangely alien.

I went off the grid in a different way last month. I took my youngest to college. 

I rented a minivan for a ridiculous amount of money, stuffed it full of clothes and books and hopes, and headed to a small town in the great Midwest.

Contrary to any pre-game trepidation I might have felt on suck a trek, I found didn’t need to bring survival gear, or provisions for a month.  They do, in fact, have stores in that part of the country. There is also indoor plumbing.  And cellphone and email service.  But outside of that, there was a lot of difference between my hyper-urbanized Manhattan and this rather vast addition that appears to the West.

It’s roughly 500 miles, about 8 plus hours as the middle-aged father drives, and they are 500 tiring miles.  The New Jersey section of Route 80 gets you off on the wrong foot. There are parts that remind one to roll the windows up.  The scenery is an uninspiring landscape of contradictory signs, poured concrete and exit ramps, all as if created by a gigantic machine to serve even larger machines. New Jersey’s 80 is like an urban garden turned into a parking lot.

Pennsylvania was more promising.  The concrete gave way to the mountains, and you began to see a different way of life, more rural, more spread out, less industrial.  You know that behind those mountains are towns and farms and even factories, but here, it’s quiet and green and the air is clear except for occasional fog. Connecting roads, when they appear, lead to north into state forests, and south through the bend in the Appalachians towards the coalmines and rough hills of West Virginia. It’s the special genius of the Pennsylvania stretch of Route 80 that the rest stops are exactly that—you can rest, eat at a few picnic tables, use the bathroom, and a few vending machines.  No gas, no huge plazas, no food courts.  For most of a somewhat hallucinogenic 300 miles, it’s almost as if they have deliberately cleared away all vestige of both urbanism, and the sweat and grime that supports it.  I kept waiting for someone to say, “Hear those drums? We’re in Indian Country now.”

By the time I hit Ohio, both the minivan’s gas tank, and mine were running low, and the topography had changed again.  It wasn’t the same kind of rural—more like longer stretches of flat, sometimes joyless roads, connecting large tracts of open land with rust-belt cities like Youngstown, Cleveland and Akron.  I was wearing down, I felt the weight of my surroundings, and I started to ruminate.

Very different place I was sending my daughter to.  Maybe even one that would be filled with people who “cling to their guns and religion.”  Drive out on Route 80, and you can see why West Virginia would turn sharply Republican, you can see why the GOP keeps expecting Pennsylvania to go Red, and Ohio seems ripe for the plucking.  Those people aren’t more conservative as an affectation—they are more conservative as a way of life.  The urban democracy I know, the coastal one, places different values on things.  They aren’t better or worse, but they are different.  I sometimes think to be a New Yorker is to be a citizen of every place in the world, except the rest of the United States. 

Of course, this is both profoundly self-absorbed, and idiotic. My daughter was not at risk for some sort of ideological indoctrination. Ohioans were uncommonly nice people.  And colleges, regardless of where they are set, are cloisters of like-minded people. She would not be set adrift to wander the countryside, a stranger in a strange land.  Nor were my wife and I going to be trapped in a Grant Wood reality.  We flew back (the long way, through Nashville) over some of the prettiest country I’d ever seen. “Conservative” doesn’t necessarily mean “barren wasteland.” There’s obviously more to life than glass and steel.

Yet the whole experience brought Brooks’ unspoken dilemma into sharper focus.  I saw a tiny, tiny piece of country, and it was very different than what I knew and even somewhat disorienting.  Brooks, I’m sure, sees a fifty state map in need serious help. If you are a long-time reader of his work you know that at the very center of his conservatism is a belief in not just the (traditional) family unit but in the community itself, and the community of communities.  If I can oversimplify greatly, communities govern themselves largely through upright and enlightened leadership, group effort, and the soft power of moral suasion.  That concept is scalable from the smallest hamlet all the way to Washington.

So, the ideal adult citizen is self-supporting, guided by a Judeo-Christian ethic, has served his community and, when called, his country, married and with children born in wedlock, temperate in his habits, reluctant to indulge in excess, and so on. In his business dealings, he is fair, honest, and non-exploitative.  He does this, ideally, because it is hard wired into him and he wants to.   But he also does it because he must—because coarseness, cheating, and general immorality lead to shunning.  The leaders of a community, at every level, exemplify all those qualities, and are educated, farsighted and intellectually brave as well.  

The problem with Brooks’ ideal is that the elites he trusts often show themselves unworthy and base. And the personal qualities he admires are never enough for some, and too much for others.  Many go by the cafeteria plan of virtues—they are adamant supporters of the ones they want other people to live by.  He knows this, and in a series of Op-Ed pieces over the last several months, he explores these deficiencies and displays his alienation.  He is off the grid: the language he speaks is either not heard or not heeded.

Still, it's unfair to define his thesis by its evident shortcomings, or dismiss the overall conception that community and interpersonal relationships matter. Brooks is a hopeless idealist, he relies too much on an undefined aristocracy, but he’s also largely right.  In a country as huge and diverse as ours, with as many faiths and outlooks and priorities as we all have, there’s really no better alternative. 

The challenges that the world offers are too great to be solved by any one person or any thousand. But they also can’t be solved by all of us retreating into the hermetic comfort of the closed mind and the closed heart.  You can't go off the grid.  It’s just too beautiful a country to give up on. 

September 24, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Ignorance is Not Bliss

I am going to do something radical—tell you stop reading this (please come back) to turn to something other than Syncopated Politics.  Instead, I recommend you look at an essay by Keith Gessen in the London Review of Books entitled “Why Not Kill Them All?”  

Gessen writes about Ukraine, about the good guys and the bad guys, about Putin, about the Ukrainian fascists, the nationalists, the separatists, about the Maidan protests in Kiev, about the illegal coal mines set up by Aleksandr Yanukovych (son of the deposed former President) that pockmark the countryside with open pits and corpses, of people’s governors and oligarchs, and mobs, and thugs, and massed tanks, and on and on.

Gessen reminds one of what a good journalist can do, but he also confounds my efforts to keep everything straight in my head.  Who are the good guys here? We know Putin is an ogre, but there are also ethnic Russians, who, surprise, want to be Russians. Is that wrong? There are nationalists who want to keep the country together, and nationalists who are scary fascists with a taste for using their fists.  None of these folk are choirboys.  All seem to know how to march, know how to throw the odd Molotov cocktail, and all seem to have the same willingness, if not the propensity, to use violence.   

The most pervasive sense you get in reading the essay is chaos and an ad hoc response to every situation.  Government representatives visited Donetsk, a major urban and industrial center, met with civic leaders, but spent most of their time trying to convince hard-liner football (soccer) fans to take up arms and ready themselves to fight the pro-Russian forces in the city. Soccer fans! You might call this the Ukrainian Hooligan Resistance.  There are beatings, kidnappings, and “enhanced interrogations.” There is class conflict; the middle class seems to line up the more nationalistic sensibilities, the working class seems to go with more of a schismatic, pro-Russian, but paradoxically anti-oligarch movement.  Yet the biggest of the oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov, was secretly financing the separatists.     

I sent the link to Gessen’s essay to three very smart friends, and I think they felt as I did. It is a kaleidoscope of information that is very hard to integrate, as if you have been dropped into an ancient city with only an outdated map in an unknown language written in an incomprehensible script.  You aren’t just uneducated—you are un-educable.

What should we be doing in Ukraine?  Good question. Clearly, there’s no consensus here for anything besides blaming Obama for not taking on the Russian Bear.  But, even if you buy in to the GOP trope, which, essentially involves the unsupported statement that a more assertive President would have kept Ukraine together and dissuaded the Russians from moving troops across the borders, how do you deal with what amounts to an internal civil war? 

Here’s what John McCain had to say to The Guardian in December of 2013: These people love the United States of America, they love freedom – and I don't think you could view this as anything other than our traditional support for people who want free and democratic society.”

A ringing peroration, but which people was he talking about?  When you read Gessen’s essay, is there any group, any group at all, that fits that description—lovers of the United States, and lovers of liberty?

Here’s what Gessen said about the thinking of the people that McCain presumably would embrace as allies:  “This is what I heard from respectable people in Kiev. Not from the nationalists, but from liberals, from professionals and journalists. All the bad people were in one place – why not kill them all?”

“Kill them all” doesn't quite seem to fit our vision.  I am not blaming McCain, per se.  He’s just one of the many flapping mouths, from politicians to opinion writers, who are falling into the same trap, whether it’s Ukraine, or ISIS, or Syria.  They all seek the simplest of answers to the most complex of issues.

Part of the problem is pure politics.  There’s an election coming up (there’s always an election coming up) and grabbing a microphone and spouting out certitudes looks good for the base.  We used to have more cooperation between the parties on issues of national security, but it would be a sanitized version of history if we were to ever say that politics stops at the water’s edge.  It never has, and it never will.

Sheer ignorance plays a role, an ignorance that is grounded in outmoded certitudes.  The people who make policy in this country are too often living in the past.  They are still 20th Century Euro-centrists.  Think the World Wars, when the nasty old Germans, as a country, would periodically erupt from behind their borders in wars of conquest.  First, the invasion of the Low Countries and surrounding lesser powers.  Then the French display appalling ineptness (with appropriate Gallic pride, of course.)  Somewhere in there, the Italians switch sides a couple of tines. The Brits hang on, manfully; solid bulldog chins making it through with characteristic grit.  Then our boys come over to liberate the continent, the bad countries surrender, and it’s all over with.  The mean Germans are shown the blessings of democracy, and all of us cultured Westerners get to take on the Ruskies and Godless Communism.  It’s beautifully linear; each country aligned for, and against, other countries, and it’s always possible to tell who is wearing the white and black hats. 

Of course, we know this is deficient in a time where crazies are everywhere, where countries (like Ukraine, and Iraq, and Syria) are riven with tribalism, and where smashing a country just doesn’t have the positive impact it used to. And, in our heart of hearts, we know that pure force will be deficient as well.  Beating up people who have been driven by hatreds for centuries doesn't suddenly make them permanently passive.

But the most important deficiency in the way we make foreign/military policy isn't politics or even ignorance.  It’s cowardice.  Not the cowardice of insufficient force.  The cowardice of an easy conscience and an insufficient imagination.  No one says this is easy.  Try reading Gessen several times, as I did, and then pick a pure side, if you can.  Or try figuring out a way to surgically separate friend and foe in the Middle East.  You won't be able to. 

But, that’s not our job as laypeople.  We aren't the President, we aren't Congressmen and Senators charged with making the right choices.  And they can’t even bother to debate it.  The House just put off discussion of an authorizing resolution to act on ISIS until October—October to talk about what some people describe as an existential threat. 

My hunch is that there are a lot of people in Washington, who, when outside the cameras and the lights and friendly media outlets, know they don’t really know all that much.  And they fear that, fear being challenged, fear being exposed in their ignorance.  That’s why we haven’t had the hearings and policy debates at the Congressional level. 

But not knowing something is no shame—it's a curable condition, with effort. It is refusing to learn, refusing to discuss, that is a disgrace. 

We are better than that, and we ought to start showing it. 

September 15, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Why the Heck II

Why The Heck II

After last week’s post a friend asked me a very pertinent question.  He said he understood my thinking in voting for Barack Obama in 2008, but found it difficult to fathom how I could possibly reject Romney in 2012.  Romney, in his mind, was a terrific leader, an excellent Governor of Massachusetts, a man of the world, of deep experience, and a superb manager. 

Romney would have been a great President, my friend insisted.  Why the heck hadn’t I voted for Romney?

Issues, I said.  Issues mattered to me.  I wasn’t what many on the Right contemptuously call an Obamabot.  I was aware of Obama’s flaws.  But I watched the Republican primary debates very closely, I saw Mitt move sharply right, and I found the gap between what I believed and what he was saying grow to a chasm.  Mitt Romney had tried so hard to convince the GOP base that he was one of them, that he convinced me of the same.

To be fair, I didn’t have any illusions that Mitt was the passionate and committed “severe conservative” he claimed to be.  But by failing to be his own man, he made me evaluate him on the terms his party defined for him.  Those were terms I (and apparently the majority) couldn’t go with.

My friend insisted that Mitt would never have governed that way.  But I don’t think we should be guessing what politicians really mean when they are whispering to their campaign competitors, or shouting to their base.  We should take them at their word.  And we should evaluate whether we want to be led by them in the direction they indicate.  

Now is the time to make those evaluations—now and over the next two years, as we pick a new government.  We are about to have midterm elections in which every poll and every prognosticator predict Republican gains and possibly a huge Republican wave. 

Forget about being “Ready for Hillary.”  Are we ready for the Republicans? How should the voters react to potential GOP dominance? Is it what we want?

Obviously, if you are a Republican, you can head to the polls and measure the drapes.  But if you are a moderate wondering who to vote for, or a disheartened Democrat wondering whether to vote at all, I would ask you to picture a Republican future, and ask yourself if that’s the type of political world you want to live in.  What do Republicans do when they are in charge?  

The best way to gauge that is to see what they have done.

Priority one tends to be voting rights. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 22 states have enacted new restrictions on voting to be in effect for the 2014-midterm elections.  These vary, but include more stringent voter identification laws, reduced or eliminated early voting, changes to absentee voting, restrictions on registration drives, and fewer hours for polling places. The primary purpose of these, even the GOP admits, is directed at reducing Democratic turnout, particularly among minorities and younger voters.  Think of it as securing the borders against unwanted choices by the electorate.

Also a target are working people. The GOP loves the working person, so long they don’t have the temerity to organize, or ask for higher wages, or equal pay for women, or better health and safety regulations. In 2013 alone, 21 states introduced right-to-work legislation.  At the Supreme Court, a conservative majority legitimized discriminatory conduct based on religious belief, and curtailed the rights of public service unions to collect dues.  

The environment?  I want to table the entire question of climate change, since there is absolutely no way you are ever going to convince the overwhelming majority of Republican voters that such a thing exists.  So, for the purposes of argument, let’s stipulate it's a gigantic fraud.  How about the rest of the environment—water, air, land preservation?  I don’t think anyone can make a serious case that the GOP supports any substantive regulations, and particularly not those that involve the extraction industries.  Who co-wrote the GOP platform on the environment?  Congressman Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s energy and power subcommittee, and a major supporter of coal, gas, nuclear, and “reducing the regulatory burden.”   Want to see the GOP in action on the topic?  Visit North Carolina, where, earlier this year, an accident at a waste pond caused nearly 27 million gallons of contaminated water and much as 82,000 tons (that’s “tons”) of coal ash spilled into North Carolina’s Dan River.  What happened to good old Duke?  To start with, they were well protected—from liability.  Before the incident occurred, state regulators, as directed by newly elected Governor Pat McCrory (a Duke employee for 28 years) blocked lawsuits against Duke for existing hazardous sites, eventually shielding 31 waste ponds from litigation and absolving Duke of responsibility for cleaning up it’s own mess.  Then, after the accident, it rushed to declare the water safe to drink despite having detected substantially elevated arsenic levels.  

Maybe the environment isn’t important to you.  How about personal privacy, and reproductive rights? Just since the start of 2014, 13 states have enacted new regulations restricting abortion, and most of these aren’t little “tweaks” but rather omnibus actions with the clear intent of closing any and all abortion providers in their states.  I understand the pro-life arguments and respect those who oppose abortions. But, if you are a voter with anything less that an “A” rating from the evangelical right and don’t want this view imposed on you, you should strongly consider that the GOP expects to nationalize what they have accomplished at the state level.

And guns, an issue that people get more passionate about than pregnancy?  The GOP and the NRA stand together as one.  Guns for good guys and good gals, pretty much everywhere, in every place, and at every time, and for anyone who can get a permit. Maybe you are like me, don't oppose reasonable gun ownership, and don’t care what people do in other states.  If Texans want to play cowboy, and you live in New York, let them play cowboy in Texas.  But, that’s not enough for the GOP.  They support what amounts to universal reciprocity on carry.  If a Texan can get a license, regardless of his background, his health, even his emotional stability, it must be honored in every state that permits carry.  That’s just about everywhere. You need not meet New York’s standards for obtaining a permit. When Ted Cruz rolls his tank into Manhattan and flashes his Lone Star permit, Texas rules. That’s to be national policy, written into the GOP Platform.  At the state level, Georgia passed a bill of such (breath-taking) breadth that I think I’d want to buy a gun as a precaution before I went there.  In Georgia, not only can virtually everyone get a gun, but they can use it: you can claim “stand your ground” even if the firearm you are standing with isn’t legal.

These five are an “O-fer” for me, and I can offer a dozen more.  You might agree with me on some or all, but still decide that utility is more important that principle, and just vote for the guy you think will make the trains run on time.  That’s the beauty of living in a democracy.  We don’t have to justify our choices. We just have to make them, and then live with the consequences.   

My friend told me today he was going to convert me.  He’s very smart, and very persuasive. But, he has got some “issues” to work on. 

September 10, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Choices: What the Uzi Teaches

Choices: What the Uzi Teaches

Why the heck did I vote for Barack Obama?  Twice?

Several weeks ago I received set of persistent and pointed emails from one reader who was asking me to justify my votes for President Obama in 2008 and 2012.  He was polite, and I tried several responses, but the writer was having none of it, and finally, with no minds changed, we managed a ceasefire.

But that didn’t stop me from thinking about it.  Why the heck did I vote for Barack Obama?

Mr. O has not had the best time of it, to say the least. I realize that in six years, my support has changed from aspirational to defensive.  I knew, going in to the 2008 election, that Obama didn’t have the depth of experience I wanted in a President.  I thought (and still think) he had both the talent and intelligence.  I hoped he would change the fetid atmosphere in Washington, dominated by small-minded Roveian tactics enforcing the sourness of Cheney/Bush’s ever-expanding Unitary Executive. 

He didn’t, for reasons that are going to be explored by historians and pop psychologists for decades. He has had a lot of help. If there ever was a definition of a bipartisan failure, the last five-plus years have been it. Rarely have so many politicians and elected officials done so much to discredit themselves, their ideologies, and their parties.

So, with the “hopey/changey” stuff off the table and the sewer filling up, I found myself in a defensive crouch.  For a fairly long time, most of that was directly related to the overwhelming sense that Obama got a raw deal.  The Republicans just wouldn’t play with the new kid on the block.  But, even that didn’t suffice.  At the end of the day, we were learning two things.  The GOP might be the nasties in the neighborhood, but Mr. Obama showed minimal adaptability and growth.  To quote the beloved Donald Rumsfeld in a different context, “you go to war with the army you have---not the army you might want.”  What Republicans were demonstrating is that they would only join an army they were in charge of.  What Obama was demonstrating was that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make the effort to change their minds.

“With or against us” is a stark, binary choice.  Go with an Administration and a person you agree more with on policy, but who hasn’t risen to the challenge, or dance with the authoritarian motorcycle gang who broke down the doors to ride into the ball?

Which leads me to the Uzi.  By now, the story is so well known that I am relieved to not have to repeat it. There are a couple of things that appear to be clear: a) it was a complete, tragic, accident, and b) no laws were broken.  Sadly, but inevitably, it’s turned into another one of the endless debates on the Second Amendment.  In fact, it has virtually nothing to do with the Second Amendment.  What it has to do with is choices—both how we as a group, through our elected officials, make them, and, far more intimately, the judgment we show in governing ourselves.

No law is a substitute for common sense.  A law might have stopped this particular shooting range from offering that Uzi to that traumatized nine year old, and because of that, one wishes there had been one in place. But Arizona is a gun-friendly state that didn’t have one—and no law could have prevented all nine-year olds from ever being handed an Uzi to shoot.  To preclude that, you need thinking, prudent adults that are supervising the children to all decide that an Uzi is just too dangerous to play with.

In short, the question the Uzi poses is the essence of how we think about government, or more accurately, how we should think about government.  We can’t be purely top down rule-makers for every possible situation; it is both impractical and a betrayal of the ideals on which we were founded.  What should be obvious to all is that while you can regulate and even ban behavior, nothing can completely prevent deliberate lawlessness, foolishness, or just bad luck.  That principle applies whether we are talking about Uzis, or drinking, or social issues like reproductive rights or gays, or a host of other concerns.  And it applies at every level of government.  Integrity, respect for the Constitution, respect for the rights of others, and good judgment are what we ought to be looking for, not an expansion of Justinian’s Code.

That does not mean that government should abstain from deciding where public safety is concerned and the risks to others are great.  That is why you can’t drive at 110 MPH in a 50 MPH zone.  Or (hopefully) why you shouldn’t be permitted to dump your hazardous substance collection into the nearest well.  But it does mean that the hand of government should be used with restraint.  We cannot always protect people from themselves, and we have no right to insist, upon pain of the law, that they live the personal, moral, and religious life we would choose. A democracy cannot function when it prioritizes the creation of inmates and penitents. 

And that’s the rub. Because, when you scratch the surface of both the Democratic and Republican parties, neither trusts the people.  Neither ever means, “we don’t need no more laws.” What they really mean is “we don't need no more laws that we don’t agree with.” And that leaves the moderate voter, the non-single issue voter, whether he is center, center left, or center right, with a conundrum. When you go into the voting booth in a system that seems to be growing increasingly polarized and Parliamentary, you are not only picking alleged competence, but also a political and personal lifestyle.  

We shouldn’t have to.  That, oddly enough, is what we should all be getting out of the Uzi.  Arizona didn’t have a law because it didn’t want one.  Arizonans have recoiled in horror, they will mourn, but the culture isn’t going to change, and those of us who might disagree have no business insisting on it. We can do what we want in our own home states. 

So, to my correspondent of a few weeks ago, who pressed me on why I supported Mr. Obama, here’s my reasoning:  I am not willing to trade the personal liberty rights I value in return for an inchoate promise of greater competence and security.  But show me a candidate who has demonstrated thoughtfulness, and is willing to trust and respect my judgment enough to put aside the base’s desire to create a ideological utopia, and I am more than willing to listen. 

That’s my final answer. 

September 3, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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