Friday, November 20, 2015

The Difference Between Proper Vigilance and Xenophobia

In the weeks and months after 9/11, the nation's resolve was tested again and again. There was a strong temptation to lash out at Muslims in the country and make them pay for what had happened to us. I remember my wife and I went into Manhattan about a month after the attacks to visit the Trade Center site. Later on that day we ate a nice dinner in Little Italy.

While we were at Penn Station waiting for the train to take us home, a drunk was yelling at an Indian man standing on the platform. He obviously had mistaken him for a Muslim. After a couple of minutes of listening to his verbal diarrhea, I interrupted the asshole. "You do know that his people had absolutely nothing to do with the attacks," I said. "In fact, his people have been at war with the people who attacked us for centuries."

I didn't know which bothered me more: the fact that some ignoramus couldn't tell the difference between a Hindu and a Muslim or that he, like so many of my fellow countrymen, were once more sinking into the abyss of xenophobia that has gripped this nation so many times over its long history.

We saw it clearly after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Japanese Americans were interred in camps for no other reason than the fact that they were Japanese. During the Eisenhower Administration, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were forcibly removed from this country in a wave of anti-immigration and nativism. Some of those Mexicans were killed in what was disgustingly referred to as Operation Wetback.

Sadly, every ethnic minority has had to endure discriminatory treatment at the hands of the majority. The Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, the Pols, the Germans and the Jews have all been persecuted at one time or another. For the better part of a century, almost one quarter of the nation's population was enslaved; while the only true indigenous people were forcibly removed from their homelands and placed on reservations. Many of them became the victims of genocide.

Since the attacks in Paris, a new wave of xenophobia is sweeping America and it is directed, ironically enough, not at the terrorists, but at those who are fleeing the terrorists. The Syrian and Iraqi refugees that have overwhelmed much of Europe over the last few months, have now come under intense scrutiny, as it was revealed that one of the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks - the ring leader - might have been a refugee.

If that is true - and ABC News is confirming he was a Belgian citizen - it is certainly something to be concerned about. But it is worth noting that according to a piece in The Economist, of the almost 750,000 refugees that have settled in the United States since 9/11,  "only two Iraqis in Kentucky have been arrested on terrorist charges, for aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq." Two out of three quarters of a million people. Hardly an epidemic. Also noteworthy is the fact that not one of the September 11th hijackers was a refugee. All of them came into the country legally with visas.

None of that of course makes any difference.  The people have been whipped into a frenzy by both reckless and irresponsible politicians and a weak-kneed media that long ago gave up any semblance of journalistic integrity. It's hard to know who's wagging whom these days. It is one thing to properly identify those who mean to do us harm, as I and others like Sam Harris, Thomas Friedman and Bill Maher have done; it is quite another to come completely unwound and succumb to nativist hysteria.

The refugees that are fleeing Syria and Iraq en mass are not our enemies. To treat them as such, as the recent House bill does, not only distracts us from what should be our true mission - that of combatting and defeating Islamic extremism, it has the unintended consequence of acting as a recruitment tool to lure yet more gullible souls into the grips of ISIS and al-Qaeda. In short, the more we clamp down on the influx of refugees, the more susceptible we become to being attacked again.

Our best weapon against ISIS is the very thing they despise most of all: our laws and our values. It is imperative that we hold onto to them at all costs. We cannot take the bait that they have dangled in front of us. We must resist the urge to overreact to these tragedies when they happen. The only thing worse than being attacked by your enemies is to become like them. The day that happens is the day they truly win.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Take Aways From the Second Democratic Debate

Two debates down, four to go. I don't count the MSNBC and debates. Sorry, this is the major leagues, not the sandlots. So what were the take aways from the second debate? Glad you asked.

1. Hillary Clinton was the winner, again. Except for a very awkward moment when she invoked 9/11 to help explain the contributions she gets from Wall Street - please, Hillary, even Bill wouldn't have gone there - the night belonged to her. She looked, yes, I'll say it again, presidential. She was even better than she had been in her first debate. She went on the offensive more, while being careful not to seem dismissive of her opponents.

Let's admit it, she's had far more experience doing this and it showed. She was cool-hand Luke up there. Hell, she survived eleven grueling hours in front of a Congressional committee; two hours on a debate stage was practically a cakewalk. Her strongest moment came when she defended her plan for how she'll handle the banks and Wall Street by citing a piece by Paul Krugman in The New York Times in which Krugman ostensibly agrees with her. And while she's far more hawkish than either of her two rivals, in a general election that should only benefit her.

2. Martin O'Malley didn't look half bad. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from him, but he comported himself fairly well. While I don't think he'll get much traction from his performance, I think he definitely made the case for a possible VP nod, as evidenced by the fact that when he did go on the attack, he spread the graft around evenly between Clinton and Sanders. Smart move, Martin. No sense burning any bridges, especially when you're polling around 4 points.

3. Bernie Sanders had a bad night. For someone who needed a breakout performance to close the gap between himself and Hillary, Sanders was anything but sharp. Worse, he looked awkward, off was how I put it. I don't know if it was the format, but he just didn't seem comfortable up there. He was clearly out of his element on foreign policy, at times looking clueless. The base may not care much about foreign policy but the rest of the country does. Also, Sanders screwed up big time when he failed to show where Hillary had been influenced by Wall Street. You can't base your entire campaign on the distinction between your small donors and her soft money, then fumble the ball on the one-yard line like that. A terrible moment for him; one that will come back to haunt him. And not to nitpick, but he never properly defined his "Medicare for all" plan, one of the pillars of his campaign, which allowed Hillary to define it for him. As I said, not a good night.

4. All of the Democratic candidates were head over heels better than their Republican counterparts. Let's face it, the GOP debates have looked more like dress rehearsals for the movie Animal House than actual debates. Even the Fox Business debate, which everyone agrees was the best of a terrible lot, was little more than a series of infomercials for a group of people who still haven't explained how they plan on paying for $2 to $3 trillion in tax cuts, most of which will go to the top 1 percent of the country.

While all three of the Democratic candidates took turns criticizing one another, they never sank to the level of the Republicans in their debates. All three were respectful of one another and all three had cogent and defendable arguments for their positions that come next fall will resonate with the voters. In short, we had a chance to see how adults behave in public.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. These debates are the best forum for Democrats to prove to the country that they deserve to hold the White House and retake the Senate. So far, they've done a pretty damn good job showing it.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Islam Is the 800 Pound Gorilla in the Room for Progressives

The terrorist attacks that took place in Paris Friday are yet another reminder that Islamic extremists are capable of visiting enormous death and destruction upon the West. Whether it's a large-scale, localized 9/11 operation or the stream-lined and more generalized one that occurred Friday, one thing is certain: we are not even close to getting a handle on how to deal with this enemy. Neither the Bush nor the Obama Administrations have had effective solutions for combatting it and I suspect it will take out of the box thinking to begin to grapple with this issue.

But for progressives, there is another, far more disturbing issue that plagues them. An almost single-minded refusal to come to grips with a staggering reality. That Islam, as a religion, runs counter to everything they claim to uphold. It isn't just that the majority of Muslims in the Middle East are insular and hold deeply conservative views. Many Christians are also deeply conservative and just as insular. The row over the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage is an indication of just how determined the Christian Right is to resist what it views as a growing secularized world.

But there is a profound difference between the conservative wing of Christianity in the West and Islam in the Middle East. The former is not representative of the majority of Christians and, as such, does not hold much influence within the faith; the latter has a stranglehold on it. To be a moderate or liberal Muslim in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran is to have a death wish. In Pakistan, a judge was forced to flee the country after he sentenced a man who had been found guilty of murdering someone who had been critical of the Koran.

These countries are deeply oppressive in the treatment of their people, especially their women. They are raped, many times by their husbands, and subjected to genital mutilation in their youth. Journalists who speak out against the regimes of these countries or challenge the orthodoxy of the religion in any way are imprisoned or killed outright. If there are any moderate Muslims in the Middle East they are keeping a very low profile for fear of their lives.

And while all these atrocities are happening, progressives turn a deaf ear and blind eye. Astonishingly, a movement that supports gay marriage, goes to the mat to protect a woman's right to choose and fights against draconian voter restriction laws that disenfranchise millions of African Americans and Hispanics, pulls a Sgt. Schultz when it comes to the Middle East. It staggers the mind.

A while back I wrote a piece that dealt with this hypocrisy within the progressive community. In the piece, I wrote the following:
Let's cut to the chase. Progressives can't have it both ways. We can't vehemently defend the right of women to earn equal pay for equal work and to have control of their own bodies while at the same time turning a blind eye to the atrocities that are committed against them on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis in the Islamic world. It isn't just hypocritical; it's obscene. We can't defend the right of free speech yet ignore the very sad and salient point that those who criticize the prophet Muhammad are considered heretics who must be put to death. It has been more than twenty-five years since Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses and to this day the fatwa on his life remains in place.
As I mentioned in that piece, it is not Islamophobic to point out the brutality that exists within Islam. The religion, despite progressive gains in some Western nations, is hopelessly stuck in a perverse 7th century landscape that threatens the whole planet. The fight going on between extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda and countries like Saudi Arabia is not so much about ideology per se as it is about the degree of that ideology. Yes, it is reassuring that most of the Muslim world condemned the Paris attacks; it would be far more reassuring if the majority of those Muslims rose up and deposed the clerics who have openly supported the jihad against the West. Now that would be news.

But while we are waiting for that miracle to happen in the Middle East, the very least progressives can do here in this country is to stop being hypocrites. Enough with the granting of Mulligans to this religion. It's time to call a spade a spade. The Ben Afflecks can scream all they want about how mean the rest of us are. We aren't mean; we just have the courage to see the facts as they are, not as we'd like them to be. We see violence being perpetrated on innocent people and we refuse to remain silent. We see injustice and it makes our blood boil. We see it as our solemn duty to shed light on such violence and injustice so that it can be stamped out.

Last time I checked, that was called being a progressive.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Role of a Moderator In a Debate

So the RNC announced it has "suspended" its partnership with NBC. Funny, I wasn't aware that they had a partnership with anybody other than AM radio and a few Fox News' hosts. The reason for the suspension, according to a letter drafted by Reince Priebus, was to "ensure that our candidates are given a full and fair opportunity to lay out their vision for America's future." In other words, the GOP wants to make sure their candidates have a safe forum to peddle their snake oil to the country without being challenged by those pesky facts that moderators tend to bring out.

Look, I'll admit it. The CNBC debate was a debacle. Fortunately, I didn't watch it. I was too busy watching another debacle that night: the Mets getting pummeled by the Royals. But from the reports I've seen, it wasn't John Harwood's finest moment. The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway wrote that Harwood "has no business moderating a GOP presidential debate." The operative word here being GOP. Apparently, Harwood can moderate all the Democratic debates he wants, but dibs off the Republicans.

This sort of us against them meme has deep roots within the Republican Party going all the way back to Barry Goldwater. They've never had any use for anyone outside their own private Idaho confronting them on their bullshit. Whether it's Candy Crowley fact checking Mitt Romney over the Benghazi attack in the 2012 presidential debate or Harwood challenging Donald Trump and Marco Rubio on their respective tax plans, the simple truth is that Republicans - particularly conservative Republicans - can't stand it when their "facts" are rebutted. They even had harsh words for how they were treated in the Fox News debate.

Excuse me for stating the obvious, but I thought moderators were, first and foremost, journalists and, as such, they had a moral and ethical responsibility to make sure that questions asked of a candidate were answered truthfully by that candidate and not ignored and deflected. It's a debate, not an infomercial. You're running for president, not top Ginsu knife salesman.

Perish the thought that a moderator might interrupt a candidate in mid fib and push back. Well, Heavens to Betsy, we can't have any of that. That would take too long and, besides, it would completely undo all the preparation that went into the false narrative of that candidate. Politicians, you see, have a vested interest in making people believe that two plus two equals five. If I'm not mistaken, that's the thrust of the Rubio tax plan. Slash taxes, magically grow the economy, all without adding a penny to the deficit. Frankly, I'll take the Ginsu knife. At least I can do something with it that's useful. About all I can do with Rubio's tax plan is line the bottom of my bird cage. And I don't even own a bird.

Seriously, journalists are supposed to be the gate keepers when it comes to the truth. They aren't there just to go along for the ride. Whether they take the role of moderator or not, when a false statement is made, it is their job to expose it. Failure to do so is a dereliction of duty.  It's time the lame-stream media they did its job instead of buckling under to pressure.

As far as I'm concerned, Reince Priebus and the RNC can take their ball and go home if they want. If they can't handle a few tough questions during their primary debates, just wait till they get to the general election debates. Hillary will clean their clock and laugh all the way to the finish line.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cleaning the Barn: John Boehner's Parting Gift to Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan can say this "process stinks" all he wants, but the simple truth is John Boehner, his soon to be predecessor, just did him the biggest favor of his political life. Faced with a looming debt-ceiling default, Boehner didn't just take a bullet for him, he took the whole damn firing squad.

The budget deal now being worked out by Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the White House doesn't just take the threat of debt default off the table, it takes it off through March 2017. It also provides $80 billion of sequester relief that will be split evenly between defense and domestic spending, thus ensuring that there will be no government shutdown during what will undoubtedly be a tightly contested presidential election.

The wingnuts on the Right are already screaming bloody murder - what else is new - but the deal on the whole is a good one that both parties can live with. Indeed, it's the kind of deal that used to get done all the time before Washington became ground zero for gridlock. If anyone should be squawking, it's the Democrats. They were hoping they could use the threat of both a government shutdown and debt default against Republicans in 2016. Now those issues have been taken off the table.

It's still not a given that the deal will even pass the House, even with Democratic support. Forget the Freedom Caucus, many establishment Republicans are pissed that they were bypassed by leadership. Still, if I were a betting man, I'd say between both parties there should be enough votes for it to pass. The real test will come in the Senate where McConnell will have to contend with the likes of Ted Cruz, et al.

The lesson here, if there is one, is that government CAN work when it wants to. This is good news for many who had given up hope that this town could accomplish anything significant. And make no mistake about it, passing a two-year budget deal that removes the threat of a debt default is not only significant, it's practically earth shattering. When I first heard about it, I thought someone was pulling my leg.

I'm sure a large part of why this deal got consummated was that Boehner was on his way out. There's something liberating about knowing you don't have anything more to fear from your opponents. Kind of like when an employee puts in his two-week notice. What's the worst that can happen? They can't fire you, you're already leaving. Boy, what I wouldn't give to be able to read Boehner's mind. Since taking over the House in 2011, the Tea Party has made his life a living hell.

Payback's a bitch, ain't it?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Send In the Clowns

Watching the Republicans' interrogation of Hillary Clinton this week, I was reminded of that scene in the movie Animal House where a fraternity freshman gets his butt paddled with a stick and says, "Thank you, sir, may I have another?" The only difference is that in this instance the GOP has been both the giver and recipient of the paddling.

For eleven hours, Trey Gowdy's henchmen took turns bending over and smacking themselves in the ass in front of an entire country. And they looked like fools the whole time. Even people not normally sympathetic to Clinton couldn't help but remark she had a pretty good day. Good day? Her campaign announced that donations on Thursday - the day of the inquisition - were flooding in and most of them were under $250. Even more encouraging was that a majority of them were from new donors. If that's a good day, I'd love to see what a great day would look like.

I've heard of death wishes, but this is ridiculous. Think about it. The Republicans have chaired nine investigative committees on Benghazi to the tune of $20 million in taxpayer money and all they've accomplished is making Hillary Clinton look like a victim. In the process they've turned a national tragedy into a three-ring circus. If I were Hillary, I'd volunteer to testify for the next round of hearings in advance, say sometime in the summer, right about the time Ben Carson or Donald Trump is wrapping up the GOP nomination. Who knows, if her campaign gets an early enough heads up, they can schedule their own pay per view event.

And now, having thoroughly made a mockery of this whole process, these rocket scientists are planning on holding a select committee on, you guessed it, Planned Parenthood, led by Michele Bachmann wannabe and Captain Video space cadet Marsha Blackburn. I swear somebody must be spiking the punchbowl over at the RNC. Normal people aren't this consistently stupid, or self destructive.

The more I think about, the more I realize John Boehner may be the sanest Republican in Washington. He had the good sense to get out while the getting was good. What I can't figure out is why Paul Ryan would knowingly sign up to take his place, especially since the loonies who forced Boehner out don't think he's a true conservative. Ryan is many things, but a moderate isn't one of them. Apparently the litmus test for purity with the Freedom Caucus is a willingness to take the whole nation with you off the cliff.

Well in a few days Ryan may get that opportunity. The debt ceiling needs to be increased by November 3 in order to avoid a default. Assuming Boehner punts, which he might, it will fall to the new Speaker to decide whether he wants to play Russian Roulette with the full faith and credit of the United States.

Twice before in the last four years, these clowns have played with fire and damn near burned down the whole joint. Will the third time prove to be the charm or will Paul Ryan have the courage to disappoint them just like his predecessor did on so many occasions?

We'll have to wait and see; with bated breath.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Bernie Sanders' Education Problem

Did you catch the Bernie Sanders' interview on Bill Maher's Real Time show this past Friday night? I did, and two things struck me. One, it was one of Maher's better interviews; and two, Sanders spent most of it explaining what socialism is and isn't. Keep in mind, he was speaking to a mostly sympathetic audience who was completely on board with what he was proposing.

Now let's suppose for a moment that instead of a sympathetic audience, ol' Bernie ends up speaking in front of an audience who has no freaking idea what socialism is, or worse, gets their information on what socialism is from your friendly "fair and balanced" or lame-stream media cable news channel. How long do you think it would take him to "explain" the facts about socialism to that crowd? Starting to get my drift?

It is an axiom of all sales professionals that you avoid overtaxing potential customers with minutia that could distract from the ultimate goal: getting a sale. It is no less true for politicians. Eschew the complicated, embrace the simplistic. Every successful politician from FDR to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton has employed this axiom. Reagan, incidentally, didn't get the title as great communicator for nothing.

Conversely, unsuccessful politicians like Jimmy Carter ignored it. Remember how brave many of us thought Carter was when he confronted America on its fossil fuel addiction? The voters sure remembered. They elected Reagan in a landslide in 1980. Turns out voters don't like getting lectured to. They tend to get insulted.

Bernie Sanders is that lecturer who has lit a fire under his base and opened up one helluva pandora's box for the Democratic Party. No, he's not a Communist. I majored in sociology and I studied all the major theorists from Marx to Weber to Durkheim. If Sanders is a Communist, I'm a Vulcan.

None of that will make any difference. The moment Sanders starts yapping about European socialism and countries like Denmark, it's over. Every single policy initiative he supports will go out the window. The electorate won't be focusing on income inequality, free college tuition and universal healthcare, which are the themes of his campaign; they'll be focusing on two hundred plus years of fairytale American exceptionalism. George and Martha, Cowboys and Indians, John Wayne, the charge up San Juan Hill, apple pie and Chevrolet. The whole nine yards. The GOP will have Bernie Sanders looking like one of Stalin's henchmen from the motherland. And every minute Sanders spends trying to rebuke - er, "educate"- the public will be one less minute he'll have to lay out his proposals to them.

Fait accompli, as they say in France. In tennis, they have another expression: game, set and match. Think I'm being overly pessimistic? Think again. Why do you think Republicans are now saying they'd rather run against Hillary Clinton than Bernie Sanders? The Party that has been pulling shit out of its ass for years is praying Bernie wins the nod. The last thing they want is to run against Hillary. She'd clean their clocks in the general and they know it.

Don't pay attention to the national polls that show Sanders ahead of potential GOP opponents. When you break it down state by state, Clinton is stronger in the all-essential swing states against any Republican than Sanders, especially if the GOP ticket should end up being, say Kasich / Rubio.

Take it from someone who's made a living in sales for twenty years. You don't educate your customers at the cash register. You close them. Period. Political candidates who spend the better part of their campaigns educating the electorate typically don't fare well come election day. Conversely, candidates who keep it simple, prosper at the ballot box. In an election that might well be decided by less than 3 percent in some states, every vote counts. If even one out of twenty potential Sanders' voters has second thoughts when they go into the voting booth, that could turn the whole election.

I've seen all the FDR comparisons and, yes, they called him a socialist too. The difference is, FDR never called himself a socialist. Bernie wears the title like its a badge of courage. Look, when it comes to the issues and integrity, there's no one better than him. In a perfect world, he'd be the ideal choice to lead the nation forward. But this is hardly a perfect world and his opponents are unlikely to give him the platform he needs to make his case to an electorate that, more often than not, lives down to its worst expectations.