Now that Newt Gingrich has formally tossed his hat into the 2012 ring, the GOP will have to determine for itself how willing it is to forgive a candidate with serious flaws. It remains to be seen whether the former House Speaker’s role as resident bomb thrower and agitator will endear him to more than a specific audience. If he is to be taken seriously, Gingrich will need to radically reinvent himself. One cannot easily make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear. Any effort to cozy up to Evangelical voters is bound to register only as cynical posturing, à la John McCain in 2008. Gingrich is neither a contrite, nor humble person by nature, a quality true to far too many who seek expanded powers. It could be argued that any Presidential campaign is a vain endeavor, but Gingrich has never been the sort of person to disguise his ambitions or the ways in which he has consolidated influence.
Tag: American mindset
May 12 2011
Feb 24 2011
I’ve recently been reading the late UK novelist’s Muriel Spark’s book The Comforters. Her first effort at the genre, it describes in detail the life of Caroline Rose, a recent convert to Catholicism. Set in 1950’s Britain, Rose is first supremely skeptical of organized religion. The fellow believers with whom she interacts have an intellectual understanding of the faith, but to her they lack real sincerity. Beyond that, she believes that these people appear to fabricate God’s presence in their lives, rather than displaying the humility only a truly Divine relationship can produce. In particular, Caroline finds one frequent, unfortunate practice most distasteful of all.
Jan 08 2010
With the news that unemployment remains stagnant at 10% and that employers have cut more jobs than expected is a fresh blow to the American psyche. Based on what I have informally observed, the latest stats are a more-or-less accurate portrayal of what I see on the ground. I might even be compelled to believe that today’s grim news is in fact a bit sugarcoated, particularly among those under the age of thirty-five. Friends of mine have undergone the ultimate of indignity and shame of moving back home, temporarily, they always conclude. Returning to the womb does not exactly do wonders for one’s self-esteem, particularly when independence in the form of separate living arrangement are one of the metrics we consider essential to attaining that sometimes elusive construct denoted as “adulthood”.
Jobs, jobs, jobs continues to be the story line that trumps all others, an issue unlikely to subside for a long while. Aside from the political repercussions that have been debated extensively for months and will continue to be debated as we get closer to November, I admit I’m more interested in trends often sparsely covered by the major outlets. We’ve seen the demise of certain industries and businesses that had been hanging on by a thread even in good times. We’ve noted the strain upon government agencies and the many socialized component pieces that variously make up a bulk of our infrastructure–those which depend heavily on tax revenue. What we have not really come to grips with as a people is how we best ought to respond to a period of reduced harvest over a protracted period of time. I have read many pieces that detail that which is wrong, but few which propose a resolute, firm course of action for the future. These may be unprecedented times, but it would be nice to see someone’s grand unifying theory.
Alongside the latest doom-and-gloom headlines, the media tries its best to put a micro human interest aspect in play, but these sorts of character sketches at times resemble caricature sketches more than anything else. While I appreciate a desire to show the personal impact of any massive crisis like the one in which we are still mired, it has always seemed a bit cloying to highlight the The Typical Hispanic Immigrant Family™, The Typical Single Parent African-American Family™, The Typical Asian-American Family™, and The Typical White Working Class Family™. To be sure, the mainstream boys and girls tend to leave in-depth analysis to print magazines and NPR, but in a crisis this pervasive, one can’t help but wish they’d incorporate some degree of truly thoughtful analysis. Instead we get two tiresome talking heads from opposite sides, each granted four minutes airtime each to devote to often-meaningless improvisational variations on a theme.
The noted historian C. Vann Woodward wrote,
In an illuminating book called People of Plenty, David Potter persuasively advances the thesis that the most distinguishing traits of national character have been fundamentally shaped by the abundance of the American living standard. He marshals evidence of the effect that plenty has had upon such decisive phases of life as the nursing and training of babies, opportunities for education and jobs, ages of marriage and childbearing. He shows how abundance has determined characteristic national attitudes between parents and children, husband and wife, superior and subordinate, between one class and another, and how it has molded our mass culture and consumer oriented society. American national character would indeed appear inconceivable without this unique experience of abundance.
A closely related corollary of the unique American experience of abundance is the equally unique American experience of success. During the Second World War, Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger made an interesting attempt to define the national character, which he brought to a close with the conclusion that the American character “is bottomed upon the profound conviction that nothing in the world is beyond its power to accomplish.” In this he gave expression to one of the great American legends, the legend of success and invincibility.
If the history of the United States is lacking in some of the elements of variety and contrast demanded of any good story, it is in part because of the very monotonous repetition of success. Almost every major collective effort, even those thwarted temporarily, succeeded in the end. American history is a success story. They have, until very recently, solved every major problem they have confronted–or had it solved for them by a smiling fortune.
While on the stump, Barack Obama skillfully appealed to this particular strain of American mythology as a means of direct emotional appeal. I do not believe that it was a tactic employed disingenuously, but at any rate it sought to advance the idea that our unique character was so high-minded and noble that, despite the struggle getting there, eventually we embrace social progress. With this assertion came a very American, very unflinching belief in our perceived superiority and our own perceived invincibility. But, following this line of logic, if we as a country can elect an African-American and seriously consider electing a woman as President, it would then stand to reason that the solution to revive a sick economy would be easily within our capabilities. One would believe that with abundance would come a corresponding abundance of proposals, each novel and credible in its own way. However, it should also be noted that casting a ballot and breaking a sweat are two entirely different matters, a notion not lost on Woodward. One would hope that when this country elects a female President that we don’t inundate ourselves with self-congratulatory talk that the glass ceiling has finally been shattered forever. It has proven to be quite resilient to even the largest of cracks.
When the formerly Grand Old Party states its own interpretation of American success, it clothes its own mythology in terms of resolute military triumphs, battles won, enemies vanquished in heroic terms by complete unknowns and by generals who never lost a fight. America is a magical place where everything is possible, but only to those who embrace a struggle between God and Satan, Good and Evil, dark and light, impurity and purity. When the system fails, it writes apology after apology for the failures and corruption of capitalism, pointing to the inevitability of its eventual rebirth. It is as sure of its own infallibility and superiority just as surely as Marx was in thunderously concluding that the bourgeoisie would someday prove to be its own grave-diggers. If either were any help now, I’m sure we might be seriously considering them.
What we need, then, is to truly act as though we really are what our mythology triumphantly proclaims. Setting aside irony and cynicism for a moment, we have the power within our grasp to put into place a new American mythology, one that is comprised of more than just jingoistic platitudes or narcissistic back-patting. But what it will entail is effort and a willful desire to scrape off the rust, even when doing so is uncomfortable and puts us out of our comfort zones. Now more than ever, we ought to be the country the rest of the world thinks we are. Now more than ever we ought to live the notion that we really meant it when it was written that all are created equal, that we were a welcome respite and land of promise to our tired, our poor, our huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and that our exceptionalism is not a club quick to bludgeon or a license for arrogance, but instead the source of healing and solution of a sort that is profoundly lacking today.
Nov 11 2009
This holiday, which denotes the eleventh day of the eleventh month was once called Armistice Day, as it marked the end of hostilities during World War I. It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that our collective memory of that conflict grows fainter and fainter with each passing year, since it marked the exact instant we grew from a second-tier promising newcomer on the world stage to a heavy hitter. The European continent had threatened to blow itself up for centuries before then, but with a combination of ultra-nationalism and mechanized slaughter, millions upon millions of people perished in open combat. Our entrance into the war and world theater turned the tide but the original zeal that characterized the war’s outset had become a kind of demoralizing weariness that our fresh troops and tools of the trade exploited to win a resounding victory. Our industries revived Europe, making us wealthy in the process, and though much of this wealth was lost in The Great Depression, precedent had been set. When Europe blew itself apart once more in World War II, their loss was our gain.
A year ago today I was at Mount Vernon, enjoying a day off at George Washington’s home, taking in the iconic and beautiful view of the Potomac river. Along with the steady stream of tourists like myself were servicemen and women from every branch of the Armed Forces. A ceremony at our first President’s tomb commemorating the bravery of all who had served was to be held mid-day and, deciding I’d watch it for a while, I began moving in the direction of the Washington burial plot. What ringed the tomb was often more interesting than the main attraction. Case in point, the burial site of the estate’s slaves, which had been given posthumous mention, though the names, dates of birth, dates of death, and individual stories had long since been lost to posterity. I mused a bit that this was how most Americans living today felt about the Great War.
The scene struck a discordant note with me in another way. It’s the same on-one-hand, but on-the-other-hand kind of conflicting emotional response that underlies my thinking about war and those who engage in it. If I am to follow the teachings of my faith, war is never an option to be considered for even half a second. Indeed, if it were up to me, I’d gladly abolish it from the face of the earth. However, I never want to seem as though I am ungrateful or unappreciative of those who put themselves in one hellish nightmare situation after another as a means of a career and with the ultimate goal to protect us. It is this same discomforting soft shoe tap dance that I take on when I pause to give reverence to the memories of those who established and strengthened our nation, while recognizing too that they were indebted to a practice I consider deplorable.
I would never describe hypocrisy as a kind of necessary element in our society, but a “do as I say, not as I do” quotient that seems to be commonplace in our lives does merit recognition. For example, quite recently a friend of mine who had lived in France for several months was describing to me the cultural differences in attitude towards sex in our culture versus theirs. Here, we are indebted to a hearty Puritanism which shames those who engage and scolds those who make no attempt to conceal. Yet, we still think nothing of eagerly consenting to casual sex and our media and advertising reflect this. As it was explained to me, in France, sex is everywhere, no one feels as though a highly public display is the least bit out of place or vulgar, no one feels guilty at its existence, but they are much less inclined towards hooking up with complete strangers or faintly known acquaintances than we are. It is certainly interesting to contemplate whether we’d sacrifice the right to one-night-stands or the promise of frequent escapades if after doing so we would henceforth face no repercussions of guilt and strident criticism for daring to see sexuality as something more than a weakness of willpower and a deficit of character. One wonders if we would sacrifice achieving something with nearly inevitable consequences attached for the sake of not getting what we want whenever we want it. The trade off, of course, being we would no longer have to feel dirty or ashamed for having base desires.
I mention this paradox in particular because the national past-time these days might be the sport of calling “gotcha”, particularly in politics. The latest philandering politician is revealed for the charlatan he is and our reactions and responses are full of fury and righteous indignation. “How dare he!” Granted, one party does seem to act as though it has a monopoly on conventional morality, but if it were my decision to make, I’d drop that distinction altogether, else it continue to backfire. Yet, this doesn’t mean we ought to take a more European approach, whereby one assumes instantly that politicians will be corrupt and will cheat, so why expect anything otherwise. Still, we ought to take a more realistic approach towards our own flaws and the flaws of our leaders instead of adhering to this standard of exacting perfection which has created many a workaholic and many a sanctimonious personal statement. To the best of my reckoning, we must be either a sadistic or a masochistic society at our core. Perhaps we are both.
It is easy for us to make snap judgments. I have certainly been guilty of it myself. Taken to an extreme, I can easily stretch the pacifist doctrine of the peace church of which I am a member. I can imply that military combat of any sort is such an abomination that everyone who engages in it is beholden to great evil and deserves precisely what he or she gets as a result. This would be an unfair, gratuitous characterization to make. Though I do certainly find war and warfare distasteful, I prefer to couch my critique of the practice in terms of the psychological and emotional impact upon those who serve and in so doing speak with compassion regarding those civilians in non-combat roles who get caught in the middle and have to live with the consequences. Likewise, I would be remiss if I dismissed the role George Washington played in the formation of our Union if I reduced him to an unrepentant slaveholder and member of a planter elite who held down the struggling Virginia yeoman farmer. Moreover, I could denigrate the reputation of Woodrow Wilson, whose leadership led to our victory in the First World War, by pointing to his unapologetic beliefs in white supremacy and segregation. I could mine the lives of almost everyone, my own included, and find something distasteful but somewhere along the line we need to remember that hating the sin does not meant we ought to hate the sinner, too.
The conflict swirling around us at this moment is just as indebted to paradox as the sort which existed during the lives of any of these notable figures in our history. John Meacham wrote,
…[T]he mere fact of political and cultural divisions—however serious and heartfelt the issues separating American from American can be—is not itself a cause for great alarm and lamentation. Such splits in the nation do make public life meaner and less attractive and might, in some circumstances, produce cataclysmic results. But strong Presidential leadership can lift the country above conflict and see it through.
This is what we are all seeking. While I am not disappointed by President Obama, I see a slow, deliberative approach to policy that is alternately thoughtful and exasperating. I certainly appreciate his contemplative, intellectual approach, and can respect it even when I disagree with its application. One of the paradoxical tensions that typify the office of Chief Executive or any leadership role, for that matter, is the balance between power and philosophy. Meacham again writes,
…Politicians generally value power over strict intellectual consistency, which leads a president’s supporters to nod sagely at their leader’s creative flexibility and drives his opponents to sputter furiously about their nemesis’s hypocrisy.
If ever was a national sin, hypocrisy is it. It is the trump card in the decks of many players and it is used so frequently that one can hardly keep track of the latest offender. If it were not everywhere and in everyone, it would not be such a familiar weapon. Even if one has to split-hairs to do it, one can always locate hypocritical statements or behaviors. Politics can often be an exercise in pettiness, and the latest bickering between Republicans, Democratic, liberals, center-left moderates, conservatives, and center-right moderates have morphed into this same counter-productive swamp of finger-pointing. It is this attitude which keeps voters home and leads to further polarization. Securing Democratic seats and a healthy majority in next year’s elections will require rejuvenation of the base but also inspiring moderate and independent voters to even bother to turn out to the polls. What this also means is that we ought to learn how to forgive ourselves for our shortcomings and recognize the humanity in our opponents as well. A scorched-earth strategy works for the short term, but it also guarantees a ferocity in counter-attacks and leads to long-term consequences only visible in hindsight. By all means, fight for what one believes, but eschewing tact and diplomacy is the quickest way to both live by the sword and die by it. I’m not suggesting toughness or steel-spines ought to be discarded, but rather that we all have weaknesses of low hanging fruit that make for an easy target, and the instant we eviscerate our opponent by robbing their trees, we should soon expect a vicious counter-attack in our own arbor.
Sep 23 2009
One of the seemingly few bright spots for the GOP in an otherwise dismal 2008 election cycle was the ascent of Virginia Representative Eric Cantor to the position of Minority Whip. While many state voters cast their ballots for a Democratic Presidential nominee for the first time ever, several ballots included votes for both Barack Obama and Cantor. What was on the minds of voters, as reported at the time, was that Cantor was something of a tolerable moderate. Ever since then, however, Cantor has taken his position as the second ranking Republican House member and used it for predominately obstructionist ends. As this article states, if anyone ought to claim the title of Dr. No, Cantor should.
What has always concerned me about the supposedly cozy relationship that the United States has with Israel is how the right-wing deifies this most atypical of all Middle East nations. According to conservative rhetoric, Israel can do no wrong and as such must be protected as some kind of sainted child from the scourge of terrorism and Arab aggression. In their way of thinking, Israel is a buffer zone against hostile regimes and a virtuous champion of “our” values. As such, it must always stay strong to contain and repulse potential threats. Yet, it would go against logic and reason to assume that any country is perfect. Each and every nation makes significant mistakes and lest someone with selective reading skills miss the point, my stating this does not make me somehow Anti-Israel, Pro-Terrorist, or Anti-Semitic.
When you marry this fawning Pro-Israel talk with Evangelical Christianity, then the effect produced is truly frightening. Most Evangelicals believe Israel to be the Holiest of Holy sites. In their way of thinking, this tiny country is the precise location where the inevitable will come true and the long-promised war between God and Satan, Good and Evil will transpire. Though much about the Christian Right frightens me, the power and potential exploitation of self-fulfilling prophecy fills me full of dread the most. But even so, Evangelical Christianity and Judaism are a union of convenience, much like the one that exists between the United States and Israel, rather than a pairing based on shared purpose. Many Evangelicals hold a particular reverence for Jews, but also believe it is their stated agenda to convert them to Christianity. Though both religions utilize the same scriptural teachings, the interpretation and emphasis of the same words and concepts is vastly divergent.
The latest Eric Cantor soundbyte, which must have been constructed with the clear design to inflame and to invoke response deserves a response. Though I diligently try to ignore those clearly aiming to start a political controversy and/or a resulting war of words, I simply couldn’t stay silent on this matter. Too much hypocrisy and irony exists within it to not raise my voice in protest. Observe.
…Cantor…express[ed] his opposition to Obama’s “disproportionate focus” on halting the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank instead of adopting a policy geared toward eliminating the “existential threat” posed to Israel by Iran’s nuclear program.
“If you look at the policy that this White House has followed, it certainly does not seem as if we are dealing with a true friend” of Israel, Cantor said.
What constitutes “a true friend of Israel” is a matter for debate and one, particularly in this context, notably not set by the Jewish nation itself. Instead, it frequently finds use as a political talking point, designed to criticize and shame those possessed of a point of view in opposition to the whims of whomever is making it. I would question whether, strictly speaking, Cantor is a “true friend of Israel”. Few conservatives in this country are willing to note that if the label “socialist” could be pinned to any nation, Israel might well have a strong claim to the distinction. State-owned businesses and industries have existed within the borders of the Jewish state ever since its founding in 1948. While in times past many Israelis more heavily favored a socialistic system and many still do today, the nation is nonetheless highly dependent on U.S. assistance, whether it be in the form of military or economic aid. This has created a conflict. The unenviable position between playing by Washington’s rules or governing their country by the ways they themselves would prefer is not an easy one. That, in and of itself is not a particularly uncommon response. Since we have the biggest guns and, until recently, had the strongest economy, the countries we actively assisted always had to modify their own political leanings against Washington’s hard line and heavily conditional purse strings.
Furthermore, Israel’s system of government is based heavily on the European Parliamentary model, containing a wide variety of disparate political parties, instead of the predominant bicameral system we use. It is, in effect, a European state transplanted to a region that has never known anything resembling Democracy, and the fact that tensions and aggressions would exist between it and its neighbors does not take a rocket scientist to explain, nor to understand. Some assume that Arab states strongly dislike Israel for purely petty, superficial reasons, but the truth is that it is such an bizarre anomaly in comparison with the rest of the region, that a mutual degree of distrust and fear which exists ought to be obvious.
Cantor has, true to party line, recently spoken out against health care reform. If he were a true friend of Israel, as he implies that he is, he would take into account this reality.
Simcha Shapiro calls Israel’s health care system “socialized medicine with a privatized option”.
Israel has maintained a system of socialized health care since its establishment in 1948, although the National Health Insurance law was passed only on January 1, 1995. The state is responsible for providing health services to all residents of the country, who can register with one of the four health service funds. To be eligible, a citizen must pay a health insurance tax. Coverage includes medical diagnosis and treatment, preventive medicine, hospitalization (general, maternity, psychiatric and chronic), surgery and transplants, preventive dental care for children, first aid and transportation to a hospital or clinic, medical services at the workplace, treatment for drug abuse and alcoholism, medical equipment and appliances, obstetrics and fertility treatment, medication, treatment of chronic diseases and paramedical services such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy
To the Obama Administration’s credit, they have fired back with a response to Cantor’s charge.
Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to respond to Cantor’s comments but said that securing a lasting two-state peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians was “how you can be a true friend to Israel.”
The lessons to be drawn from this are many. As we have done many times before, this country likes to project its own agenda and its own internal political squabbles onto whichever country happens to be the current topic for debate. The irony here, among many, is that other nations, believe it or not, have their own strong opinions, their own distinct political persuasions, and their own means of conducting business. I suppose it would be inevitable that any country as large and influential as we are would project its own narcissism onto countries not nearly as fortunate and privileged as we are. I have frequently made a point to ask people who live in other countries what honestly bothers them about the United States. The number one gripe, regardless of national allegiance, is that it seems as though we really believe that the world revolves around America and, not only that, in so stating this we assume every other nation ought to acknowledge our importance and dominance, too. It’s one thing to be a superpower and have that status influence the discourse of other countries. It’s quite another thing altogether, however, when we assume if not altogether demand that other countries ought to make our concerns their concerns as well. This situation proves to be another unfortunate example of a behavior we would do well to discard.