Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Fight the Establishment, Mr. President: It’s Why We Elected You

By and large the greatest energy in Barack Obama’s campaign for President came from the simple belief that American government needed a fundamental change. The majority of Americans who flooded to Barack Obama’s rallies and voted for him were fed up. We were fed up with a military industrial complex that poured billions into unnecessary wars and nation building; while disasters like Katrina happened under government negligence. We were fed up with economic policies that propped up fat and lazy corporations while ignoring small business owners and innovators. We were fed up with a faith-based theocracy that used thinking from the middle ages to suppress the rights of women, gays, and science.

Now before I go any further let me say that I’ve loved Barack Obama since his visionary speech at the ’04 Democratic convention; and I still like him a whole lot. I understand that he needs all of us in the trenches to fight the Tea Partiers and the Far Right. But he also must recognize that he owes his supporters something in return.

Frankly, I can’t help but look back on his first year and feel a great sense of disappointment. We continue to pour billions into Iraq and Afghanistan with only vague promises that we might get out in 2011 at the earliest. Obama and his economic team have been thoroughly unconvincing as to how bailing out failing corporations benefits working Americans. The basic right to marriage and military service is still denied to gay and lesbian Americans. And despite a 60 vote supermajority in the Senate, the chance that Democrats will pass a strong public option is slim to say the least.

Some will no doubt right me off as just another disgruntled liberal who doesn’t understand that the President must govern from the center. But I don’t see it that way at all. Obama, remember, was explicitly elected on a campaign of change; and change means changing the Establishment practices in Washington. This is not a liberal or conservative necessity, but an American necessity. And thus far, it seems that Obama has yielded to the Washington Establishment far more than he has challenged it.

To cite one among many examples, look at how much the Democrats have already yielded to the Insurance lobby in the health care debate. Instead of asking what was best for the majority of Americans, Democrats like Max Baucus have prioritized the demands of Big Insurance. Americans are sick to death of corporate lobbyists, yet Democrats continue to take their money and do their bidding.

To be fair, all of this isn’t Obama’s fault. I think it was Bill Maher who said that Obama and the Democrats are like Michael Jordan on a losing team. The Democrats seem to me a Party pathologically ashamed to stand for what they believe in; while simultaneously unsure how to use the power the voters have entrusted them with. There are some Democrats who fight for what they believe in: Anthony Weiner, Brian Schweitzer, Maxine Waters, and Jim Webb come to mind. But no one in the Democratic Leadership seems to have the courage to tell the American people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear.

Not only do American voters want to hear that the Washington Establishment is being challenged, but they need to hear it as well. I still have great hopes for President Obama. But if he cannot show the voters that he has brought about the change he promised; the chances of a Pawlenty Presidency and the triumph of the Establishment become frighteningly real.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

My Problem With Mississippi Burning (Contains Spoilers)

This Summer I finally got around to watching the film “Mississippi Burning.” Without a doubt it’s one of the most critically acclaimed and well-known films about the South ever made. It deals with the real life murder in 1964 Mississippi of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. Goodman and Schwerner were Jewish kids from New York. Chaney was a local black kid. The shocking depravity of their murder is one of the black patches in American History.

In the film, Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe play FBI agents who descend upon Mississippi to get to the bottom of what happened. As Howard Zinn has pointed out, the FBI is made to look way too good in this film with regards to the pursuit of racial justice in the USA. But there is other evidence to suggest that something along these lines did in fact occur with FBI agents in Mississippi. Anyway, I think the film is close enough to the historical record to have credibility. A historical narrative has to have some external creation from the artist in order to make it interesting; otherwise it’s just a documentary.

The film received the most praise from Roger Ebert who said “no other movie I've seen captures so forcefully the look, the feel, the very smell, of racism. We can feel how sexy their hatred feels to the racists in this movie, how it replaces other entertainments, how it compensates for their sense of worthlessness. And we can feel something breaking free, the fresh air rushing in, when the back of that racism is broken.”

He is spot on with regards to the portrayal of the racism in MB. You feel the nastiness and the hatred of the whites coming through the screen; and no doubt that was what by and large existed in real life. But after watching the film I just didn’t get “the sense of fresh air rushing in.” This is one of the most graceless films I’ve ever seen. Not graceless in terms of the artistic presentation but in the sense of any hope of conflict resolution and healing. This is not a film Flannery O’Conner would have written. This is a violent clash between Southern racism and the forces of justice. And(spoiler) that Southern racism is ultimately drawn out and overcome with the use of torture by the FBI agents.

That’s my ultimate problem with the film; its glorification of torture. It says “Some people are just so evil you have to torture them to achieve justice.” As someone who has been caustic about the Bush/Cheney torture of terrorist suspects; I can hardly approve of it when it is given justification in this film.

I could go on with other criticisms of this film. The black community is by and large portrayed as helpless wide-eyed victims who live in constant terror of the KKK. A church is burned down; and we see little of the strength, assertiveness, and perseverance of the Black Christianity which sustained MLK and much of the Civil Rights Movement. The only white Missippian portrayed in a positive light is Frances McDormand’s character. Of her Ebert says she is “a woman who had been raised and trained and beaten into accepting her man as her master, and who finally rejects that role simply because with her own eyes she can see that it's wrong to treat black people the way her husband does. The woman McDormand plays is quiet and shy and fearful, but in the moral decision she makes, she represents a generation that finally said, hey, what's going on here is simply not fair.” Agreed, but the movie also says that the awakening to that moral consciousness also involves awakening to the fact that these Southern bigots deserve the same violence thrown back at them; and torture to boot. I just can't accept that world view. If I give into those violent desires that puts me on the same level with those committing the injustice.

I disagree when it is used against Middle Eastern terrorists and I disagree when it is used against Southern racists in this film. Gandhi showed there was a better way to overcoming injustice; so did MLK. Maybe someday the world will catch up with them. While I found the message off-putting, this is an incredibly affective and well done film. The acting from the leads is suburb. The suspense is palpable and sustained throughout. Ultimately the viewer should make up their own mind, I guess.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Reasoned Conservatism MIA

It seems to me that nothing symbolizes the implosion of modern conservatism more than the Right’s obsession with Obama’s Hawaii birth certificate. It has been produced and authenticated by numerous officials. Hawaii newspapers from that date carry the news that a Barack H. Obama was born. But facts just aren’t enough for these people. They are hysterical that he was born in Kenya(and that he is really a Muslim) and no amount of contradictory hard facts will sway them. No viable political ideology can afford to be this divorced from reality.

What lies behind this is a deep-rooted fear of the Other. The Right is deeply suspicious of Obama’s Kenyan father and his cosmopolitan nature. His election marked the end of the era when those of white European bloodline would be sole commanders of authority on the world stage. For some this transitioning of authority is terrifying; and I think that fuels much of the neurosis we’re seeing from the "birther" movement.

I’m a liberal, not a conservative. I believe government has a legitimate role in regulating the market, tackling social inequality, and protecting the environment. But I’m not a deeply ideological person, and I respect true conservatism when it’s sincerely held and not based on fear. I respect honest skepticism from Republicans about the stimulus and the health-care bill. What I don’t respect is when the opposition merely falls back on fear and entrenched ideology. It seems today’s Republicans can’t make an argument against Obama without shouting in fearful and angry tones. I think they would be surprised how much more effective their arguments would be if they were delivered in a more good-natured and reasoned package. I believe Colin Powell said as much when he warned his fellow Republicans to “stop shouting” because the country isn’t listening anymore. Who would you trust more with a nuclear weapon; Colin Powell or Glenn Beck?

Another reason it’s difficult to take Republicans seriously is that they just won’t admit what a disaster George W. Bush was. A true economic conservative would have never passed through the Bush tax cuts without cutting entitlement spending or finding some other way in the budget to pay for it. Ironic that we went from a budge surplus under the “liberal” Bill Clinton to the largest national debt in US history under the “conservative” George W. Bush.

Back in 1988 when another Bush was running for the White House, he promised his conservative base there would be “no new taxes” in his administration. Yet after taking office he realized that economic growth could not come about without raising taxes, so he bucked the base of his Party and raised them. This soured baseline conservatives against him and likely cost him re-election in 1992. Yet many economists believe this gutsy decision set the stage for the booming economy we had under the Clinton administration.

Yet it is the rigid ideology of another Bush which rules today’s Republican Party. And as long as they keep shouting, Obama and liberals like me have no real opposition. I can't debate an ideology which isn't based on reason.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

In Defense of Gay Christians

The U.S. Episcopal Church has just reaffirmed their commitment to ordaining openly gay priests. Thus the Global Anglican Communion moves closer to the ever talked about schism. N.T. Wright, perhaps the most influential living Anglican theologian, wrote a condemnatory op-ed in which he reaffirms the Christian Church’s traditional ban on those engaging in same sex relationships. The whole article is worth reading, but his seems to me the key bit:

“Our supposedly selfish genes crave a variety of sexual possibilities. But Jewish, Christian and Muslim teachers have always insisted that lifelong man-plus-woman marriage is the proper context for sexual intercourse. This is not (as is frequently suggested) an arbitrary rule, dualistic in overtone and killjoy in intention. It is a deep structural reflection of the belief in a creator God who has entered into covenant both with his creation and with his people (who carry forward his purposes for that creation).

Paganism ancient and modern has always found this ethic, and this belief, ridiculous and incredible. But the biblical witness is scarcely confined, as the shrill leader in yesterday’s Times suggests, to a few verses in St Paul. Jesus’s own stern denunciation of sexual immorality would certainly have carried, to his hearers, a clear implied rejection of all sexual behaviour outside heterosexual monogamy. This isn’t a matter of “private response to Scripture” but of the uniform teaching of the whole Bible, of Jesus himself, and of the entire Christian tradition.”

Before responding to this I should say two things: (1) I’ve been reading N.T. Wright for the past couple of years and I have enormous respect for him and his writings, despite our disagreement over this issue. (2) I am hardly a “good” Christian, so I don’t wish to pronounce to other Christians from a lofty perspective. This being said, I fully affirm the rights of gays and lesbians to participate in every aspect of the Christian church. I realize most Christians disagree with me on this, so I’ll briefly try and explain my thinking.
First of all, Wright ignores the fact that Jesus makes no explicit mention of homosexuality in the gospels. Sure, he has a passage about the importance of marriage and a couple of criticisms of “fornication” but on the whole he seems very uninterested in casting judgments on human sexuality; he has bigger issues to deal with(of course, Bart Ehrman will step in here and tell me that the gospels are embellishments; but he is entitled to his belief and I am entitled to mine). Yes, Saint Paul has some explicit condemnations of same gender eroticism. But Saint Paul is not Jesus; a great theologian and a great Christian; but he is not the Messiah. Doesn’t he also say women shouldn’t be in church unless they cover their heads?

And if we look at Jesus himself, we find him with some shocking things to say about vices the Church seems to tolerate. In the Sermon on the Mount he explicitly condemns violence against enemies. Yet most churches send Chaplains to the US military and have given their blessing to countless wars. Jesus clearly equates divorce with adultery; yet many of the same churches which ban gay participation welcome the participation of divorced persons. Quite simply, it is disingenuous to ban gays out of a gospel ethic while endorsing wars and condoning divorce. I fully believe in military Chaplains and divorced people participating fully in church. I’m shocked that this same grace isn’t extended to gays and lesbians.

For most gays and lesbians, their sexual orientation is intrinsic to their identity. This isn’t a willful rebellion; this is who they are. Wright seems to view human sexuality as a neat programmed package intended for marriage and procreation. Yet in Andrew Sullivan’s book “The Conservative Soul” he makes a powerful argument involving the female clitoris. Why, he asks, should women have an area of sexual stimulation which is unnecessary for procreation? It’s a provocative question to say the least. Why did God make that? Perhaps for the same reason He made gay people. I realize most Christians disagree with me, but I just can’t keep silent on this issue.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bruno, Michael Jackson, and America

I went to see Bruno Friday night. I thought it was hilarious. Obviously, the reviewers have been far less kind than they were to Borat. It lacks the newness of Borat; and you can tell Cohen and co. had a much more difficult time getting usable material. But I thought what they got was pretty hilarious. You have to have a taste for the scatological to appreciate it. The gay sex scene with the exercise equipment was incredible. Ditto the cage match at the end with Celine Dion blasting.

Hollywood and celebrity culture are parodied pretty mercilessly, as is the South’s social conservatism. The scene with the gay conversion pastor was excruciating. It is difficult to think of a more irreverent answer to the question “Will you accept Jesus into your heart” than Bruno’s quip, “Are you hitting on me?” Of course, the assumption by both Cohen and the pastor is that acceptance of Jesus necessitates the eradication of one’s gay orientation. If Cohen had interviewed a pastor who told him Jesus accepts gay people, there would have been no material for the movie.

The assumption made by most is that Sacha Cohen hates America and the South in particular(He wrote a senior thesis at Oxford on the four civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi). But I don’t think you can make that vulgar an assumption about his motives. Sure he’s a satirist, but a popular satirist who clearly enjoys the theater America provides for him. In Hegelian dialectical fashion, he needs America as a place for his own self-definition. Now that this particular brand of satire has exhausted itself, it will be interesting to see what direction his career takes.

I’ve always had the strange premonition that Michael Jackson would die relatively young. His whole way of life seemed so unsustainable; this continual spiraling out of control. He may indeed have had Vitiligo and bleached his skin to make the coloring more uniform. Clearly he was addicted to plastic surgery at an irrational level; and there were no shortage of unethical butchers in Hollywood always willing to slice into his face and nose yet again.

When I look at pics and videos from the Off the Wall/Thriller days I’m struck by how downright beautiful he was. I’m heterosexual but I can’t think of a better adjective than that. Before Michael Jordan, Oprah, and Barack Obama, he was an Afro-American who stepped into an untouchable stratosphere. From there his personal demons just got the better of him. I don’t think he molested kids; he just wanted sleepovers with them out of a simple need to escape from his abusive and unreal childhood. Child molesters typically don’t give interviews where they speak glowingly of their sleepovers with children. Or maybe he was just that divorced from reality. Who knows.

He defines the tragedy of America’s pop cultural decadence. He was one of the greatest dancers and stage performers of the century. But one wonders if the unnatural state he had to exist in ultimately finished him. I don’t doubt this existence was difficult, but as a creature with free will he does bear responsibility for the life he chose. I hope he’s in a better place now. Undoubtedly the music was fabulous and will live on. I even have a fondness for Bad and Dangerous.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Palin's War on Elites

Ross Douthat’s latest nytimes column on Sarah Palin has sparked a big debate among the bloggers. Particularly this quote: “With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, she’s botched an essential democratic role — the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites.” Now give the conservative Douthat credit that he does articulate what has been so farcical about Palin’s appearance on the national stage. She lost any credibility the moment she gave that “I can see Russia from my house” interview. Her interviews and public statements have consistently revealed someone far too ignorant and small-minded to be let anywhere near the executive branch.

But it is interesting to break down the assumptions contained in the last part of the Douthat quote. Clearly he thinks that someone is needed to take on the “elites.” But who are these “elites”? No doubt, as a conservative he would argue they are the big government liberals and ivory tower types. But when Palin appeared on the national stage to denounce the “elites” a conservative Republican had been running the country for eight years. The Supreme Court is tipped 5-4 towards the conservative judicial view. Yet conservatives go on about this long-standing oppression of hard-working Americans by the “elites.” 12 years of Reagan/Bush. Eight years of a centrist Dem constantly pulled to the Right by congress. Eight years of the most unapologetically conservative president in U.S. History. How can big-government “elites” oppress people if they haven’t been in the necessary authority positions to do so? I’m sorry, but the only “elites” in charge of this country for the past thirty years have been the conservatives.

This whole argument about “elites” and big-government oppression goes back to Richard Nixon. He saw that he could build a majority by playing up to the prejudices and resentments of working-class whites. Palin plays the same card; though with considerably less skill. Here is the essential conservative Republican pitch to blue-collar America: "You don't like gay people getting equal rights? You don't like intellectuals in universities? You don't believe non-Christians should have a place in government? Well, we are the GOP and we agree with all of those prejudices; so vote for us and we'll do all we can to enforce them." Never mind helping working people with skyrocketing prescription drug costs; never mind helping their kids get a chance to go to college. The GOP never offers working Americans something to vote for; it only gives them these mythical big government bogeymen to vote against. At least William Jennings Bryan had legitimate policy proposals to help working-people. Sarah Palin is no William Jennings Bryan.