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Somewhere Between Two Hypocrises Lies the Truth

I recently came across, through a YouTube video, a rather unique French public service announcement.  It encouraged heterosexual men to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS by using a condom before engaging in sexual contact.  Predictable enough subject for a PSA, one might think, but the video’s concept was both amusing and novel.  While the American mind would likely appreciate the humor, it would also deem it too graphic to be aired on network television and probably cable as well.  American liberalism has, I realize, a long standing Francophone tradition, just as American conservative thought has an equally lengthy history of criticizing it, so my point is not to cater directly to either camp.  Somewhere between the two is something close to the truth and as such I seek to find it.

To get to my point, in France, sex is everywhere, and yet attitudes towards sexuality in one’s personal life are often more traditional than in the United States.  While on the continent, one often encounters nudity on billboards, street signs, and shop windows while out and about, but the attitude of most residents is that the body is a natural entity, as are public depictions of it without the benefit of clothes to disguise the objectionable parts.  To us, of course, the only truly socially acceptable manner of presentation regarding the unveiled human body is in the art gallery and even then some people have been known to register their visible discomfort.  Furthermore, we deem nudity or frank depictions of nudity in any form to often only be granted as a privilege based on reaching a certain age and with it some perceived degree of maturity, believing that children and minors ought not to be exposed to its supposedly corrupting influences until the age where they can make an informed decision whether or not to partake.  Put that way, it sounds almost as though nudity is some health hazard, like smoking or consuming too much alcohol.  Still, for all the energy we expend spinning out cautionary tales and guilt-laden commandments, one would think we ought to expect more for our efforts.        

Impolitic Approaches and Impatient Voters

What I have noticed recently in conversation with others is that a “throw the bums out” attitude has been vocalized with greater frequency and with a growing volume.  While it is still not the majority opinion, since many cling to a belief that the Democrats in Congress will eventually get their act together, assuming Health Care legislation stalls and dies, even the run-of-the-mill Democratic voter will not reward them for their incompetent approach.  He or she is likely to vote Republican, to contemplate third party options by means of protest, or to stay home on Election Day.  Cautious and often skeptical attitudes have proven the most helpful as the best means of dealing with such a rude and abrupt reality check, though my sympathies mainly go out to the true believers and trusting optimists now in a state of shock.  Those who are never satisfied with any resolution and cast dispersions so as never to have to experience the pain of disappointment will always come out of the woodwork in times such as these, but theirs is an especially hollow victory.    

One couldn’t completely remove all the current available legislators from office and replace them with new faces in one election cycle, of course. Even if such a thing were technically possible, the existing system is too complex and convoluted; as such there is a need for at least a majority of  veteran lawmakers who know where all the bones are buried.  A populist response that vocalizes a complete frustration with the status quo needs to be tempered with the reality of the framework which which we have to work.  There will always be a need for real change, but radical strategies rarely produce lasting benefits.  I have always found it deeply ironic that for all of the effort expended in the radical Jacobin phase of the French Revolution, arguably the only real lasting and permanent measure that has stood the test of time is the Metric system.  

We know now that progress often is delayed and stymied by a me-centric attitude of simple selfishness and with it pandering to financial gain and political advantage.  We saw it this summer in the hordes of Town Hall Forum fanatics screaming and gyrating that no one was going to take away their coverage or put the government in charge of their health.   Though it is certainly true that without health and well-being, no other life goal or ambition can be accomplished easily and sometimes at all, in this case many voices were afraid of losing the right to instant gratification and immediate care.  Those who have faced a more than thirty-minute wait at a walk-in urgent care center and have disgustedly strode out the door are the perfect example of this way of thinking.   Those who get a second or third opinion and cherry pick the diagnosis that best agrees with their sensibilities underscore my larger point.  By contrast, the low-income government plan that I have no choice but to use schedules appointments for GPs four and five weeks out, and even urgent care clinics don’t accept my coverage, but the reality of it is that it doesn’t have to be this way.  It doesn’t have to be this incompetently managed and poorly networked.  Most people wouldn’t stand for it if this was their situation, and when enough people raise enough a stink, politicians are forced to take note.  How they respond, of course, can never be predicted ahead of time.

I suppose at this point I could point the finger of blame towards some generational mindset or cultural deficiency, but that would be too fatuous a comparison and too easy an argument.  It is true that we are beholden to an insistence that certain privileges ought to be within our birthright purview; this mentality can be observed in the decision making and consensus building process of Senators and Representatives.  Many excuse their own selfish demands by stating that they are merely advancing the point of view of their constituents.  This might be so at least on its face, but simultaneously romantic and Paternalistic notion of another age asserted that the role of the foremost deliberative body in the United States was that lawmakers were the supreme adults of the system as a whole.   As such, these grey-bearded and wizened elders wisely wielded authority by taking into account the unique concerns of places and personalities.  That was, of course, the mythology of a by-gone era, and in this cynical age, we are good at seeking first the Kingdom of Lies.

Last week cannot be spun or softened into something it is not.  It was a disaster for both party, party faithful, and all lovers of reform.  We have pointed fingers and let the desperate-for-revenue mainstream media go to town by using the Massachusetts defeat for its own purposes.  In so doing, we have articulated a growing sense of weariness with a dream once seemingly so close at hand that has since shrunk in the heat of heavy scrutiny like a raisin in the sun.  Still, I often think about the developmental theorist Jean Piaget and his theories of learning.  Though Piaget’s observations primarily dealt with children, postulating how they observed and processed information, I have often been intrigued by his assertion that it is only through disequilibrium, when everything is topsy-turvey and the previous strategies for comprehending the world around us are no longer helpful or valid, that true learning can begin.  Disequilibrium has many incarnations but it should nonetheless never be confused for chaos, temper tantrums, or an all-out retreat, but nonetheless when the world is turned upside down, we have a fresh opportunity to learn from our mistakes.

I myself could never be confused for an optimist, but if it takes the loss of what was apparently more a psychological advantage super-majority than a mandate for cooperation and forward progress, then we are presented with an excellent opportunity for reflecting and beginning again.  This new strategy rightly encourages a kind of urgency not present when, at least at face value, things were more stable and footing was surer.  The success or failure of subsequent reform measures will depend on whether individual designs can ever take subordinate position to that of the entire nation’s needs.  President Obama often notes that reform is not about him and never has been about him, but it seems that several Senators and Representatives do not think in the same terms.   Indeed, they should certainly think in these terms, else they have none of their own in a few short months.  If humility has a way of putting priorities in order, I would hope that several Senators hoping to write their name large in history now recognize that taking the credit is not nearly as important as pushing the bill through.

I and others have begun to recognize that this country is slowly, haltingly advancing towards the very Parliamentary system our Founders eschewed.  As formerly good British citizens, those who proposed and set into place our existing system observed first-hand legislative upheaval, awkward coalition-building, factionalism, calls for the Prime Minister to resign, pushes for a new General Election, and the power plays that went on behind the scenes.  The new government they proposed, conceived in a the spirit of Enlightenment liberty, would not fall prey to these same divisive tactics.  We have noted extensively ever since that this was not one of their best ideas to have seen the light of day.  Perhaps we need to make a major overhaul, even though adopting a true Commonwealth system would necessitate that we scrap the idea of electing a President directly, leaving that decision up to party leaders.   In that setup, the roles are reversed and the electorate votes for party more than personality.

One of the commonly attributed advantages to parliamentary systems is that it is often faster and easier to pass legislation[1]. This is because the executive branch is dependent upon the direct or indirect support of the legislative branch and often includes members of the legislature. Thus, this would amount to the executive (as the majority party or coalition of parties in the legislature) possessing more votes in order to pass legislation.  It could be said then that the will of the people is more easily instituted within a parliamentary system.

In addition to quicker legislative action, Parliamentarianism has attractive features for nations that are ethnically, racially, or ideologically divided. In a unipersonal presidential system, all executive power is concentrated in the president. In a parliamentary system, with a collegial executive, power is more divided.


Still, a Parliamentary system is often antithetical to a peculiarly American perspective.  To wit, The excitement of directly electing a President is that sole attention falls upon a single person or, in the beginning, group of persons.  With this comes also an unfortunately obsessive and microscopic focus on one focal point and as such, cults of personality often spring up around Presidential candidates.  There is also something intrinsically anti-American in this idea of party insiders picking the head of the government, something that hearkens back to oft-reviled smoke-filled rooms and with it  lack of transparency and accountability to the whims of the voting public.  It is for this reason that we will likely never adopt or at least never adopt wholesale, this sort of apparatus.  Yet, as some have pointed out, with a now much more fickle public, one increasingly driven to third-parties and independent identification based on weariness with the two-party system, we are stuck in a halfway state between the two.  While the Independent voter may be a free agent instead of feeling more inclined to identify with a particular third-party than an R or D, even those who would otherwise be counted on to reliably vote for either a Democrat or Republican are now contemplating getting behind whichever party can re-establish economic health and with it job security.

If we thought in terms of party rather than nominal head, we might have a better realization that consensus process is more powerful than individual desire and individual leadership.  Once again, our mythology betrays us.  When Barack Obama began his meteoric ascent to the top of the heap, many conservative voices snidely condemned his movement as Messianic, as though he was the new Jesus.  In it, they may have been reflecting the reality that we built our own Christ figures along the same lines, since the motif of one person coming from nowhere to save the world from itself is so integral to cultural expectation.  But beyond that, humanity has always sold into a belief that one being, one entity, or one figure might redeem our metaphorical and literal sins.  The only requirement is belief and with it the desire to follow the example set  in place.  Though we may not consider ourselves religious people, we are still beholden to a religious construct.  

If either party had made much in the way of headway or in actually accomplishing anything, voters might be accused of being fickle.  This mindframe is not without precedent, and indeed populist anger once threatened to undo the entire system at several points in our country.  At which point it was usually violently crushed or divided amongst itself through sabotage.  What usually happens with any grassroots movement based in anger and dissatisfaction that the groundswell of public sentiment has its apex, is rendered toothless through outside force or through a lack of coherent strategy and cohesion within itself, then is sanitized and adopted into the platform of one party or the other.  Right now we have an electorate behaving as though we have a Parliamentary system in place, but, and this is crucial, a system without any kind of majority mandate.  Though this came as a result of bad governing, the question remains as to how we’re going to reconcile our desires with the existing structure.

While the immediate loser is the party in power, the GOP should also recognize that if it manages to obtain control of one or both chambers in November, it will be expected to accomplish miracles and an impatient electorate will not give them long to do it.  Prior conventional wisdom held that one never changed horses in midstream, but today’s voters have at least contemplated the idea.  And in my own personal opinion, they would be making a supreme mistake because as divided and dysfunctional a caucus is the Democratic Party, the Republican Party is even worse. We have managed to make the problem worse, but I trust the Democrats to minimize the damage.  As we have seen, one election does not mend decades worth of rips to the sail.

The End of Brand Loyalty

For all the recent flurry of speculation and analysis regarding the Democratic Party’s shockingly sudden decline in power, one particular metric has never been adequately explored.  Though it is certainly demoralizing that in merely twelve months a feel-good sugar high of optimism has given way to despair, airing our grievances should quickly give way to building strategies for the times going forward.  We have learned quickly that party identification can never be taken for granted and that the American people want results, not gridlock.  2008 was seen by many (and indeed, me, for a time) as a realigning election along the same lines as 1980, but it seems that Obama’s coattails are really only his for the riding and that personal charisma and stirring rhetoric are subordinate to results in the grand scheme of things.    

Keeping It Simple Is Not Stupid

Recently I have been giving much thought to why Progressives and Democrats can’t seem to accomplish more than the bare minimum regarding desperately needed reform measures, even when they have the luxury of substantial majorities in both public favor and legislative representation.  The answer may lie in the prevalence of pointless, unwieldy levels of stratification.  With these comes an isolating sense of separation—individual elements of the base often have a problem pulling together with one voice, and, for that matter, do all who would deign to fit underneath the big tent.  

To many liberals, life must be overly complicated:  specialized committees, committees within committees, identity groups, splinter identity groups from larger ones, rules for the sake of rules, rules set in place when one unforeseen problem creates friction with anyone for whatever reason, exacting policies based on good intentions that soon become headaches for all, and many other examples.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  Overlap is sometimes a good thing.  

As such, the true failing lies in the absolutely ridiculous complexity of how structure ourselves and how we have in many ways forgotten how to communicate with each other.  For too long, information and strategies that could be used for the benefit of all have been isolated within specific single-issue oriented groups, each with its own nomenclature and particular phraseology.  For too long, so-called experts carrying a briefcase, a PowerPoint slide, and a hefty speaking fee have been employed to enlighten other people of an unknown universe, when with major modification, we could easily understand the intersections and common ground which links us together, not the great unknown that keeps us at arm’s length from each other.  

This sort of set up directly reflects the nature of academia, since the merits, weaknesses, and structure of pertinent concepts are hatched there and exhaustively vetted.  Just as I have recently discovered that the health care system available to low-income and disabled residents of Washington, DC, was written to be understood and effectively managed by policy wonks and the highly educated, not the poor and under-educated, so do I realize that so many of our grand goals are thwarted when they are neither designed, nor framed so that all might easily comprehend them.  

To cite a related example, when I am speaking within Feminist circles, I know that there are certain terms, overarching concepts, and abstract notions that one needs a thorough education, keen mind, and a willingness to research on one’s own time to grasp sufficiently.  Much emphasis is given to an everlasting critique of Patriarchy and cultural practices which place women in a subordinate role, and from these comes a thousand deep conversations and leitmotifs.  I can speak this language competently, with much practice, I might add, but I often can’t help but wonder if any of these worthwhile ideas and highly involved strategies ever get out to the working class battered housewife or to the sex worker standing on the corner of a bus terminal, prepared for another night of a dangerous way to make a living.

In my own life, part of the reason I have been able to keep my health from being as debilitating as it could be is that I had access through education and relative affluence to know how and where I could do my own research about the condition.  Now, years later, I can hold my own with any psychiatrist because I know and understand terms like selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor, titration, GABA, dopamine agonist, and efficacy.  However, these terms mean absolutely nothing to the average person, who must trust fully in a psychiatrist who then must translate their needs, their symptoms, and their expectations for treatment into a regimen of medications that is inexact even in the best of circumstances.  

The likely outcome with anyone diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder is a tremendous amount of constant modifications, some slight, some major, and frequently a need to try an altogether new combination of medications, all of this in the hopes that one will stumble across the proper drugs in the proper proportion, eventually.          

We humans are a peculiar breed.  In the animal kingdom, one could argue that the average mammal attends to its own more readily and with less reservations than we do.  Without romanticizing the primitive, it would seem that no other species on Earth usually has such profound reservations about reaching out to assist others.  Though certainly other animals fight within themselves for food, mates, and resources, I often wonder if we are perhaps the most self-absorbed creatures the world has ever known.  

We are given the gift, by God or by whichever belief or unbelief you espouse, to have the gift of a very complex, and very advanced organ at our disposal known as the brain.  Yet, it seems to me sometimes that this supposed great gift can dispense evil and great suffering as easily as it gives rise to good and with it great gain for all.  

As a person of faith, I sometimes wonder if this basic concept is a credible interpretation of the beginning of time as expressed in the Book of Genesis.  So long as man and woman weren’t aware of the greater complexity of all things, they lived nakedly, blissfully in paradise.  But once temptation arrived in serpent form, suddenly they recognized that reality was not nearly so simplistic and easy to swallow.  Christianity and other religions teach that humanity was created in God’s image, and if that is the case, perhaps we are caught in some still unresolved eternal polar tension between our ability to sense and structure things in advanced shades of grey versus our relatively straightforward mammalian biological imperatives and compulsions.  Some have even implied that the human condition is imperfect particularly because we have divine elements seeking to function within imperfect organs, namely our brain.  

While on the subject, I am reminded St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church.  It seems that the church had fallen prey to smooth talk, false teachings, and a distortion of the faith itself.  Much of the passage I am about to cite, as you will see, is written quite sarcastically, its target primarily those who deceive others, not those who had been unwittingly deceived.

However, I am afraid that just as the serpent deceived Eve by its tricks, so your minds may somehow be lured away from sincere and pure devotion to the Messiah.  When someone comes to you telling about another Jesus whom we didn’t tell you about, you’re willing to put up with it.  When you receive a spirit that is different from the Spirit you received earlier, you’re also willing to put up with that. When someone tells you good news that is different from the Good News you already accepted, you’re willing to put up with that too.  

I do not think I’m inferior in any way to those “super-apostles.”  Even though I may be untrained as an orator, I am not so in the field of knowledge. We have made this clear to all of you in every possible way.  Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge?  (Italics mine) I took money from other churches as payment for my work, so that I might be your servant [at no cost to you].  And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about.  You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise!

Even those who do not believe in a higher power or in Christian terminology can understand the general message here.  To get down to the heart of the matter, our own selfish goals, ego, and pride are largely responsible for the complications that separate us from others.  When we throw up barriers for whatever reason, we cause others who might use our knowledge and insight as a helpful resource to stumble or to fail outright. The intent initially may not be to isolate information inside very specific spheres of influence or schools of thought, but very soon this is its inevitable end result.  

If we were speaking of a purely Christian point of view, we would concede that no believer should be discouraged from taking an active role in the faith, nor turned away from membership in the body as a whole based on any perceived deficiency or lacking of any kind.  Sometimes putting walls up is an unconscious decision made out of a desire for protection, sometimes it is a response to feeling unappreciated and discounted by society as a whole, and often it is a reactive measure that replicates itself a thousand times once established.  Like some untreated cancerous cell, walls and barriers become duplicated a thousand times over, leading to factionalism within factionalism, specificity within specificity, and minutia within minutia.  

The Left has adopted this formula time and time again under the pretense of being sensitive and accommodating to every possible group with a semi-unifying basic agenda.  But what this ends up doing is placing the individual concern first, and ignoring the basic humanity that draws us together.  The current generation in power embraced post-modernism with open arms, not recognizing that simply denoting a specific circle of influence means also that one ought to get to take the time to understand its core philosophy as part of the bargain.  

We can advance LGBT rights, for example, but if we don’t really make an attempt to listen, really listen to LGBT citizens and to their reflections and concerns, we are wasting our time.  Recently, a controversy has sprung up within Feminist spaces that criticizes men who make very ill-informed, very glib pronouncements of what the greater movement (and women themselves) needs to do.  These forceful pronouncements are almost always set out in condescending fashion, without, of course, truly understanding where women are coming from and without much specific understanding their particular grievances.  Some have denoted this as “mansplaining”.  

I do know the resolution of this issue ought be a two-way street, since any exchange of information needs both a talker and a hearer.  Though some may disagree with me, I also assert that Feminist circles would be wise to modify, but not water-down, nor soften their message to reach maximum exposure with the world outside of it.  This might be accomplished by consciously seeking to move away from the complications of heady terminology and abstract discussions.  This doesn’t mean voices should be silenced for any reason or that women ought not speak first and speak often in so doing.  Nor does this mean that the dialogue must be dumbed down.  What it does mean, however, is that that communication requires an equal sense of that which must be said and that which must be comprehended.  

I sincerely believe that women’s rights have a relevance and a pertinence which needs to be added to the daily discourse, but I do also know that doing so requires that it keep the extensive cerebration within itself and the cut-and-dry to those outside.  But lest one feel like I am picking on Feminists (which I am honestly not), this goes for every single-issue, shared identity, or niche group with liberal sensibilities.  Just because we seem to enjoy making things complicated for perverse reasons as yet unknown, doesn’t mean that we should.                  

The true failing in all of these cases lies in the absolutely ridiculous complexity of how we structure ourselves.  To reiterate once  more, for too long, information and strategies that could be to the benefit of all has been isolated within specific issue-oriented groups, each with its own nomenclature and particular phraseology.  This directly reflects the nature of academia, since these concepts are hatched there and exhaustively vetted.  In that profession, segregated subject areas and ultra-specific foci are considered necessities within a field of study to encourage subsequent analysis.  However, this particular structure is anathema to greater progress beyond the world of professors, scholars, and students.

The Poor Need Health Care, The Rich Need to Take Note

The circular firing squad over the defeat of Martha Coakley and what this means for the Democratic Party and Health Care Reform got underway a couple days ago.  I’ve said my bit, and have nothing further to add, but I’d rather address the potential challenges facing reform aside from the loss of a seemingly filibuster-proof majority.  It is now absolutely imperative we push forward and bring a bill to President Obama’s desk.  Our backs may be against the wall, but perhaps it will take abject panic and fear to rouse our complacent, weak-kneed Democratic legislators towards the goal.  If it takes the shock and dismay of a humiliating defeat to break the logjam, then so be it.  I’m not concerned with speculating as to how we got here; I am instead consumed with what we learned from it and how we will use this tough lesson to think of others and their needs rather than ourselves.  

What I have noticed in my own struggles to obtain low-income health insurance is how class and race ensure that government subsidized plans are underfunded and often dysfunctional, but money (or the lack of it) seems to be the most powerful determinant of all.  What many have noted is that basic selfishness is what threatens to derail any efforts towards changing the existing system—namely that people who have always had sufficient coverage do not understand the limitations faced by those who do not.  We can call that privilege if we wish, but that term has always seemed accusatory to no good end to me, and my intent is not to chastise anyone but to make many aware of the challenges in front of us that never get much in the way of attention.  In my own life, I can say that I have now seen how the other half lives for the first time ever, and I noted that they live lives severely impeded by the tremendous limitations and senseless complications of the existing system.

I have been unemployed or at least severely underemployed for several months.  As a result, I had no choice but to file for government assistance.  When I was finally granted food stamps I signed up as well for a local DC funded health insurance plan.  What I have discovered in the process is that since the Recession hit, social service agencies in DC have been swamped by new applications for every existing option currently offered.  According to one worker with whom I spoke, claims have tripled since the bottom began to fall out of the economy.  The system was barely able to manage the number of filings in more stable times, and now it has in large part ground to a halt if not slowed to a trickle.  New claims are supposed to be processed in no more then 30 days from approval, and I was forced to make several time-consuming, additional calls to the proper department to even get the coverage activated.  Those without the time or without the persistence likely will be granted nothing at all and this simply should not happen.  

My great point is that without the infrastructure in place, it doesn’t matter how many people to whom we grant coverage.  Ensuring that everyone can get their teeth cleaned, fillings filled, broken bones set, flu-like symptoms properly treated, diabetes regulated, or depression adequately under control is the ultimate goal, but we must also be sure to build a sufficient number of clinics, medical centers, doctor’s offices, dental hygiene practices, well-stocked pharmacies and all the rest.  They must be built in proper proportion to need and since humankind has never been able to curtail its zeal for making money at the expense of the health of the financial system, we need to devise strategies to build these things for both good times and bad.

In DC, the low-income, government-funded system forces the poor and/or disabled to a handful of centers scattered across the District itself.  Visiting a private doctor or specialist is not an option, since coverage is only granted to those who use these designated centers.  Likewise, pharmacies and medication dispensation function under the same parameters.  Using Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, or other commercial medication fillers is not allowed under the plan.  Though there are a score of specific pharmacies which take the DC plan, in my case, there is only one pharmacy in the entire District that fills psychiatric medication, and for me it is a 35 minute trip, one-way via public transportation and then by foot.  The pharmacy itself is attached to a Mental Health services clinic which is the sole site whereby psychiatric care is provided for a city of roughly 600,000 people.

Without enough workers to process claims, grant coverage, manage medical records, or attend to even the most basic of needs the system is essentially worthless or at least incredibly inefficient.  Without enough revenue allocated by governments from taxation or other means, it doesn’t matter how snazzy or up-to-date is any system designed to speed up or modernize the system.  Window dressing is window dressing.  Without the money to properly stock a pharmacy, medications will be obtained on a priority system and as such, meds that are rarely prescribed or are very expensive will rarely be on hand when needed.  For example, one of my medications, Parnate, is an MAOI inhibitor.  Parnate is a very powerful anti-depressant that is infrequently prescribed because with it comes potentially dangerous, even deadly side effects if I do not take care to abstain from eating certain foods.  As you might expect, it is not one of the more common prescriptions, but it is essential to my lasting health and quality of life.  A commercial pharmacy usually has it in stock, or if it does not, it can be quickly ordered or is certainly in stock at some other store in the immediate area.  With the government-subsidized pharmacy I must use, if that particular drug is available at all it is due purely to chance and luck, and if it needs to be ordered, it may be a week or more before they have it in stock.      

Regarding visits with a GP, specialist, or other specific health practitioner, some clinics and centers accept walk-ins or schedule appointments within a reasonable time frame.  Some do not.  For those who need surgical procedures or more invasive treatment, one might be expected to wait months.  When I still lived in Alabama, there was approximately one Medicaid-accepting clinic for the entire state that performed the procedure, and as such when it came time for me to have a very routine, non-invasive treatment, I was booked four whole months in advance.  In more affluent, usually blue cities and states, the wait time is often less, but it can still be a bit on the lengthy side.  As for me, I found to my utter dismay that my coverage was terminated before the procedure could be even performed after the clinic filed and billed Medicaid for the cost of the preliminary screening.  Someone must have realized that to save cost I was not what they deemed a “high-priority” need and thus I could be safely removed from the rolls to save money in what was a system already in danger of being completely depleted of funds.    

An important distinction needs to be drawn here.  The DC-based coverage I have been talking about is different from Medicaid or, for that matter, Medicare.  This coverage augments or seeks to provide coverage to those who either have Medicaid/Medicare or cannot get approved for it.  This is why the rules, parameters, and hoops to jump through are more severe.  Medicaid usually allows a person to pursue more orthodox means of seeking treatment.  Though some medical practitioners do not accept it because it usually pays out less than a gold standard coverage plan through a private insurer, many do.  Again, money is a big factor at play.  If Medicaid were capable of paying out at a sufficient rate, everyone would take it.  If it wasn’t at times forced to pay out much later than a private carrier or even being forced to issue IOU’s when monetary shortfalls and partisan bickering delayed enactment of a satisfactory state budget, then it certainly would be on par with usually employer-based coverage.

Yet, it is very disingenuous at best for those who oppose health care reform to stubbornly dig in their heels and express haughty indignation that they are NOT going to have “the government” take away their right to choose their doctor.  The only way this would ever happen for most is if they lost their insurance altogether, lost all their personal savings, and lost the ability to come up with the money to see a well-compensated physician and/or specialist.  Their worst-case-scenarios and numerous reservations are true only for those living in abject poverty, or at or below the poverty line.  The wealthier among us have any number of lifelines, be they family, co-workers, friends, fellow members of a particular group or club, or other sufficient means.  Those at the bottom have none of this upon which to rely.  Friends, family, and others are just as impoverished and less fortunate as they are, and they have no choice but to take and use what they can get.  And taking what they can get means dealing with a system that is convoluted, needlessly complex, inconvenient at best, and regimented to such an authoritarian degree that even obtaining the minimum often is an exercise in debasement.

If ever we had a need for revolutionary reform and change, now would be it.  Decades after a declared War on Poverty, we still have many battles ahead of us.  We haven’t really given this matter anything more than perfunctory attention, and we haven’t really allocated resources of any significant means to this very pertinent cause.  Doing so would require us to understand exactly how fortunate we are to have been granted, by complete luck and chance, the socio-economic status of which we were born.  For some quirk of God, fate, or nature we do not get the right to choose our parents or to choose our upbringing.  But we do have the obligation to see to it that those for whom daily adversity is not an abstraction have the same rights that we frequently take for granted.  I am not seeking to lecture, nor to hector anyone, but rather to strongly emphasize that our continued success as a people, a party, and a movement demands that we seek to assist the poor and the less fortunate.  Our wallets, billfolds, and bank accounts couldn’t open fast enough to provide aid to suffering Haitians.  If only this were possible for our own poverty-stricken citizens, many of whom struggle through conditions not that dissimilar to those we now view through heart-wrenching news reports and graphic photographs.  After all, it might be you someday who faces the disquieting realization that our health care system is designed for the wealthy, by the wealthy, and in so doing realizes just how much you took it for granted.

Our Role in Keeping the Home Fires Burning

I know now that it is foolishness personified to believe that the Democratic Party, nor any of the existing spheres of influence currently established will provide the strong leadership we need.  Back in 2006, I was, of course, certainly elated that we had won back control of the House and the Senate, but my reservations then were that the core of the majority body were the same bumblers and bloodless supposed “leaders” whose inaction led to a loss of control in the first place, back in 1994.  Unfortunately, these fears seem to have been confirmed.  Some have proposed term limits to counter-balance this tendency and while I have my own reservations regarding that solution, I know that surely there must be a better way than what we have now.  Long ago, my home state, Alabama, knew that its concerns were likely subordinate to that of wealthier, more well-connected states, so it consistently has elected the same weasels to office, knowing that with seniority comes power and with power comes the ability to set legislative priority.

Even dating back a hundred years ago or more, the state continued to elect the same decrepit, graying elder statesmen for this very reason.  The most notable example of this was when, out of fear that these men would die in office, a special election was held, whereby voters could select not only these long-standing candidates for perhaps the last time, but also those who would immediately take power the instant they passed away.  “They will be our pallbearers”, one of the ancients was reported to have said at the time.  This unique balloting situation was partially due to the fact that Alabama was a poor state and couldn’t afford the additional expense of printing out a second round of ballots if one of its aging representatives died, but it was also due to the fact that the state wasn’t willing to give up its share of influence in the Congress until it absolutely had to, either.  If Robert Byrd runs again, one wonders if the voters of West Virginia would be similarly inclined to pursue this strategy.  One also wonders if this unique course of action had been employed in Massachusetts had Ted Kennedy’s illness come to light back in 2006 how different the situation facing us today would have been.  

I think part of what we are struggling with is an ability to adjust to uncertainty.  I have recently noticed that workers in their forties and fifties, those who have paid into the system for years, are now beginning to get laid off in scores.  First came the low-wage earners, then came the young, now a group previously insulated from layoffs.  This makes for an angry, confused electorate, one which might finds itself unable to construct much in the way of a unified front from within, but still votes to throw the bums out when it comes time to cast a ballot.  What I do know, based on observing larger trends over time, is that the economy will come back eventually.  This is, of course, not exactly comfort food to those drawing unemployment and subsisting on a fraction of their previous income.  And, we must admit, nor is it a good sign for the party in power.  

We can tout a stimulus as a job saver, but the true measure of its impact might potentially not be measured for years.  The same goes for health care reform.  What leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many about the program is that it begins collecting the necessary tax revenue to properly fund it almost the instant it is enacted, yet is not fully implemented until 2014.  Not only that, some parts of it will not be in full force until a few years after that.  While this implementation stage might be the only way the system can go into effect without toxic shock, that very fact has and will prove to be a powerful talking point for Republicans and disaffected Independents already skeptical of increased taxation, for whatever means.    

In situations like these, the natural inclination is to look for a historical antecedent, and some point back to the 1982 Mid-Congressional elections as well as the 1966 cycle.  Neither of these fit the profile neatly.  The Democratic majorities in the House, for example, were far greater than they are now.  In 1966, the Democratic party shed 47 seats but still had a majority cushion of more then 50 seats.  In 1982, Republicans picked up 26 seats, but the majority Democrats still had over 100 more than the GOP.  No one knows the number of seats that will be lost this coming November, but I still am unconvinced that control will change hands in either chamber.  What is more likely is severely reduced numbers which will likely require more conciliatory and concessionary measures with minority Republicans.  And, to be blunt, perhaps that isn’t all bad since resounding majorities in both the House and Senate have not prevented legislation from proceeding forward at anything more than a snail’s pace.  The Republicans may have put all of their winnings on obstructionism, but inter-party fighting has proved itself a far more effective opponent than anything the GOP has flung at it.  

What concerns me more is the completely justified anger at Wall Street and big business, who have methodically bought up every seat at the bargaining table if not other seats in other contexts.  This sort of conduct is indefensible from whichever context it is examined, and President Obama and the Democrats in power could launch attacks against this base inequality that would prove to be very popular with voters.  Though a few Republican voices might sound the alarm, it is a position that rarely goes sour and can always tap into an endless source of anger, frustration, and bile.  Populist anger at the wealthy is an ancient tactic and one that even the most fervent second-guesser can do little more than scream about, since few actually will listen, or have much in the way of general sympathy.    

As for more contentious matters, Democrats must avoid letting their opponents frame the issue for them.  To some extent, I understand anyone’s fear of big government, if only from the context of reduced efficiency of work and decreased quality of service.  Since the Recession began, I have noticed that in many government agencies, budget shortfalls and layoffs have gummed up or slowed to a trickle what would seem to be rudimentary, straightforward processes.  In so doing, this has given government employees no incentive to do an efficient job.  If you will please pardon, I will again refer to a personal example from my own life.  When I filed for food stamps two and a half months ago, the framework existed to allow and encourage claimants to send out applications online.  But, as I found when it took twice as long as it ever should have to receive my benefits, budget deficits prevented the agency from being able to hire and train the necessary people to process these online claims.  Thus, my file sat on a desk for a month and if I had not contacted an advocacy agency, it would probably still be there.                

In Progressive circles we talk frequently about Good Government™ and its enormous potential to do a massive amount of laudable things.  I, of course, believe in it as well, though I recognize that up to now it is still a dream kicked further and further down the road.  President Obama was swept into power talking about the merits of smart government and, lamentably, up to this point, I’m afraid I don’t see it.  Yet, neither am I willing to sagely propose, as some do, that there is some purity in the private sector.  Different name, same trough.  I suppose it depends on that which you fear the least.  It is the formation and perpetuation of systems which have shortchanged all of us that leads people to make conclusions as to the ultimate success or failure of any new enterprise, government or otherwise.  Our pessimism might not be justified, but our skepticism is not.

Though I too have engaged in finger-pointing as to why we’ve reached this climacteric a mere year after it seemed like we were on top of the world, I recognize that it is ultimately a self-defeating activity.  In the end, it doesn’t matter whose fault it was, unless that entity or collective body is willing to reform itself.  Barack Obama was a rock star once, not a vacuous celebrity as some tried to paint him.  Having released a critical disappointment that didn’t sell nearly as well as advertised, he is now facing the first openly hostile reviews of his career.  Yet, have no fear, fans.  Americans love a comeback, particularly with an extensive tour attached to it.  Someone as talented and as capable easily has the dexterity and strength to exceed our wildest expectations again, but only if he has the help he needs and he presses an agenda with a reasonable chance of succeeding.      

No person is an island.  We have wept and prayed and fasted and purged and been delayed by the same impasse.  My own contribution to a growing canon of proposed solutions is that we take a more active stance within government itself.  Anyone can lock arms, hold hands, and sing stirring songs.  Anyone can find themselves beholden to Protest Culture™, whereby one assumes that rallies, marches, and symbolic posturing are sufficient in and of themselves.  Anyone can oppose and find with opposition a million followers, a million voices of affirmation, and a million friends and supporters validating each and every sentient point.  We can hold the feet of our elected Representatives to the fire, but I believe in the value of electing new feet that won’t need to be forced towards the fireplace on a maddeningly consistent basis.  This is within our power.  

I am reminded of how much talk yesterday revolved around a plea for us to not sanitize the legacy of Dr. King and to keep his memory alive as a revolutionary who made many in positions of power very uncomfortable.  Indeed, if all we remember him today was as a purveyor of sentimental, feel-good platitudes, then we forget that he was more than that.  Far more.  Had he been merely Santa Claus, he would not have been assassinated.  At times, traditional liberalism has been reduced all too often to a never-ending Pete Seeger concert, with the sting removed and without any obligation whatsoever to be self-reflective.  When I left a more conservative, more Christ-centered faith of my own accord and moved towards unashamedly activist liberal faith, I always found it curious how easily the John Lennon song “Imagine” was adopted as a kind of mission statement of sorts.  If one examines the lyrics literally, its lyrics advocate an atheistic, anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist Utopia—a fact that gets overlooked due to the attractiveness of the melody that obscures what even a cursory examination of the words implies.

It is time for Democrats to be bold and edgy again.  I see this all the time in the blogosphere, but I rarely see it among elected representatives.  And even when a Representative or Senator does stick his or her neck out, it is usually to make a splash by forcefully uttering some patently inflammatory or controversial statement, knowing full well it will be media catnip.  The immediate impact is usually positive, but few know how to push their agenda beyond immediate shock value and dramatic statements that sound compelling at first hearing, but often are a bit on the childish end of the spectrum by the end.  And, it hardly needs adding, even these sorts of attitudes are in short supply, all told.  No one ever confused the base as being anything less than fired up and ready to go.  If those elected to serve us are not willing to listen to us, we have an obligation to replace them with those who will, and in so doing, being willing to drafting candidates from within our ranks to fill the slots.  Those willing to complain are legion, but those willing to serve are often not.  Participatory Democracy does not depend on a particular Patrician class we deem the experts and the only sorts that can get the job done.  The skill set needed now and forever is only the willingness to run and the ability to learn the game.

Nothing Like a Little Disaster for Sorting Things Out

As many of you have been doing, I am nervously monitoring the special election for Massachusetts senator.  By now, one would hope that no one needs reminding of the repercussions and consequences a defeat would portend both for the short term and for the long term, but one would hope also that its instantaneous impact would spur many to make long-deferred reforms.  To wit, Coakley’s defeat would make a powerful statement to residents in even the bluest of blue states.  To wit, liberalism must self-monitor and must fortify itself against a desire to snooze and slumber.  Nothing is owed to us in this world and a person is only as successful as his or her last triumph.  This realization can be applied well beyond the Democratic party and all the concentric circles of influence and power that feed into it.  Indeed, the ripple effects if Scott Brown wins will be felt across the country and will spawn a thousand prophets in the publication wilderness, each proclaiming that the end is nigh for a Democratic majority.  

Constipated activist organizations now tapping out a panicked SOS are profuse, but as is my want, I’d like to single out one in particular.  One can only hope that if, God forbid, Coakley were to lose, the mainstream Feminist™ organizations currently pushing for her election might be forced to concede that their strategies are out of date and their larger influence is negligible in the grand scheme of things.  Coakley’s detached Front Porch Campaign did not resonate well with voters inclined to distrust and thus to be turned off by on candidates who seem above kissing babies, shaking hands, and being highly visible to the prospective voter.  Though I do not welcome the sense of helplessness that might reverberate through many workplaces come tomorrow night, I know that sometimes people have to learn their lessons the hard way.  And in so doing, they have to sometimes have to learn them more than once.  Still, how many times do some have to be on the losing end of easily preventable catastrophes before they recognize that the problem is with themselves, not with external factors?  

Sloth and entitlement are usually fatal flaws in politics and activism, and at least one recent harsh blogosphere attack against the established players of Feminism™ was penned in an effort to shake them out of their old ways.  These organizations do have a function and I’m not advocating that they need to be dismantled, but they do need to step into the times and embrace new realities.  The true tragedy is that there are any number of highly qualified women who could be enlisted for the cause and be convinced to run for any number of high elective offices.  Instead, someone decides to earmark and denote a particular legislative office for a Female™ and then feels obligated to advance a candidate with the highest possible degree of name-recognition, regardless of whether she is a good fit for the office.  In addition to being bad policy, this is tokenism writ large.  Tokenism has never truly advanced anyone’s noble imperative.  What it has done is appease someone’s guilt and in so doing serve as a temporary concession rather than a desire to completely integrate women actively into the political process.  If we were really committed to the idea of equality, then such decisions would be a matter of course, not a conscious effort towards appeasement.    

In this same regard, a prior school of political theory and general leadership philosophy believed that in order to be taken seriously and to survive in a man’s world, women in positions of authority ought to strive to be as tough and as masculine as their male counterparts.  In effect, as the theory goes, they ought to adopt the pose and guise of a man for fear of seeming weak or being summarily discounted as ineffectual and ineffective as a leader.  One would think that thirty or forty years of this would have given us the ability to recognize that sexist and misogynistic attacks come from everywhere, at any time, for any reason.  Women who make no apology for “encroaching” into traditionally male spaces will find themselves insulted for any reason at all, really.  For example, in the past few days, Coakley has found herself the target of a bizarre remark implying that someone ought to sodomize her with an electrical appliance.  One can’t get away from the offensive voices, unfortunately, but one can advance the authenticity of self as an excellent counter-weight to push back against the name-callers and childish smears.  

I still recall how Hillary Clinton shed tears at a campaign stop shortly before the New Hampshire primary, showing not just a very human, vulnerable side, but also a very feminine side as well.  In so doing, she transformed what was expected to be a sound drubbing into an improbable win that gave her campaign new life.  Women voters related heavily with the gesture and cast their ballots accordingly; I’m not entirely dissuaded from the notion that some men might have been taken aback in a good way, recognizing that there was more to the candidate the icy, calculating stereotype that made her seem supremely unlikeable and at times threatening to the male voter.  If we are ever to live in a world where the content of our character is more important than both the color of our skin and our reproductive organs, we will reach the point that no one ever feels the compulsion to pass, assimilate, or modify one’s authentic self to seem more fitting to majority norms.  Humanity and with it authenticity is what voters crave more than anything.  Policy wonkery and strategy are lost on the average voter who seeks to identify himself or herself personally with the latest slate of candidates for elective office.  When we can see ourselves clearly in those who run, then we are compelled to pull a lever for them on Election Day.          

I voted, in part, for Barack Obama because I saw parallels between his life story and my own.  In particular, the description of his mother closely mirrors my own—a woman passionately devoted to a cause beyond herself who sought to see the world through an optimistic lens, even though many criticized her desire as foolish and a trifle naïve.  Others saw their own dreams mirrored in his rhetoric and the possibility of what he represented.  Though a year later reality has set in and we are far less enthralled with the President then we were then, we continue to find his policies more objectionable than who he is as a person.  Personality has limitations, but it can go a long way.  A politician who is disliked as a person must rely on the political atmosphere around him or her, and sometimes only maintains power when his or her opposition is reviled even more.  

Competence goes a long way, too, and I know that, speaking from a strictly women’s rights perspective, we can’t expect to not have reproductive rights compromised for the sake of passing a massive reform act if we are unable to break free from the scourge of tokenism.  Victories are won with a collection of smaller successes that, linked together, move closer towards ultimate triumph.  An occasional arm-twist, guilt-trip or, worse yet, established tradition of being granted an occasional “favor” in exchange for unwavering support are not going to get us where we need to be.  No one would ever confuse that for complete integration and total parity.  We should know instinctively what it will take to get there, but the question remains if we are willing to do the hard work on the ground to actualize it.  The ivory tower might be cushy and familiar, but it is a universe in and of itself, one wholly removed from any semblance of the actual lives of working people.  We have in front of us an opportunity to learn from what will be a debacle whether victory is won or lost.  Let’s not ignore it.  

Haiti: A Well-Regulated Relief Effort Being Necessary for Everyone’s Security

Earlier today, I was returning from meeting by bus.  After having boarded and taken my seat, I settled in for what I anticipated would be a relatively short ten minute ride.  Instead, the traffic on Massachusetts Avenue over by Embassy Row snarled to a complete halt.  The weather today in Washington, DC, had been dreary …

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Some Learning Curves are Longer than Others

In recent conversation with a friend, we discussed the means by which any organization or group might best enlighten those who cling to bigoted, ignorant, or otherwise offensive points of view.  It is a conversation no different from the very same ones we have in a multitude of related corners, spaces where abstract theorizing has to take the place of hard fact.  As an anthropologist, my friend is constantly aware of the intersection where intellect and biological construction meet and couches her views from that point.  As she puts it, evolution of any sort is a tediously slow process.  We have, for example, still not really advanced to the point that we have gotten the hang of this whole walking upright issue.  The human body’s propensity to arthritis is but only one of those most visible examples of this fact of reality.  If our skeletal construction are but unfinished business, it would stand to reason that many others are too.  

Game Change: Timing is Everything

The book, Game Change, has rightly been the talk of Washington, DC, and the pundit class.  Like many have, I have read the published excerpts, a few of which shock me, but most of which confirm the rumors long existent about the real nature of the notable players in the groundbreaking 2008 Presidential election.  What the book does for me is question the number of times I have given the benefit of the doubt to politicians based on their passionate entreaties that they have been so unfairly smeared by the media.  In some instances, I have completely doubled back and reversed course altogether from my initial reservations regarding certain candidates (namely Hillary Clinton) by second-guessing myself.  In doing so, I assumed that perhaps my own first impressions were wrong or were motivated by some heretofore unrealized internalized sexism on my part.

I wonder about the timing of releasing such salacious, and ultimately damning revelations now.  Clearly, John Edwards’ reputation and political fortunes were rendered null and void long before the book’s release, though one does get the added bonus of being supremely grateful he didn’t even come remotely close to securing the nomination.  The small, but substantial band of true believers who bought into what we know now was coordinated, though barely contained myth might be the real losers in all of this.  These people felt demoralized and rudderless when Edwards crashed to earth.  If even half of what is printed is true regarding Elizabeth Edwards, she is unlikely to be able to reserve space on daytime television couches ever again.  At any rate, few will be pressing the Pope to canonize her for suffering nobly with quiet resolve from breast cancer while her husband was carrying on an affair with another woman.  The Edwards’, like so many political marriages, apparently are made for each other, somewhere on cloud-cuckoo-land.      

What might be the intent of releasing this book now?  To encourage the Democratic party to rid itself of dead weight to maintain ample majorities in both the House and Senate with the upcoming Mid-Congressional elections?  To make President Obama look good by comparison?  To dance one final dirge on the grave of the supposedly invincible Clinton machine?  To keep the Republican party weak and divided leading into 2012?  As a cautionary tale towards all Americans that one should never believe the man (or woman) behind the curtain?  Or is it purely as a means to stir up controversy and sell books by the cartload?  Only the authors themselves know for sure.    

Everyone’s been talking about the Harry Reid comment, as well they should, but when I read it, all I see is an out-of-touch politician stuck in a way of thinking forty to forty-five years out of date.  Who says “Negro” anymore, aside from hip hop superstars, except maybe in an ironic context?  Though the remark is embarrassing enough on its face, it also points out just why Senator Reid was in a vulnerable state before this bombshell exploded.  Behind the times and certainly behind the eight ball, the ultimate impact of this ill-chosen remark will not arrive for another ten months, but if this is the beginning of the end, history will record the precise reason why.  One would hope this would also be a bucket of cold water to the face of the Democratic party, who has consistently clung to wet noodles like Reid and eschewed inspirational and potentially transformative leadership out of a stubborn refusal to delegate power to those with better ideas and better strategies.

If the portrayal in Game Change rings true, then we were fortunate to neither have nominated, nor elected now-Secretary Hillary Clinton.  She comes across as a supremely impotent and callous leader:  petty, cold, vindictive, and totally unprepared after the surprise loss in the Iowa caucus.  The irony among many is that, if this story is true, Hillary Clinton is the absolutely last person I would ever want picking up the red phone at 3 am.  Furthermore, the results of Bill’s apparent unwillingness to stop philandering might not have been leaked to the public, but the fear that it would proved to be a major distraction, among many many others in the Clinton War Room.  There were many of us out in the blogosphere who were accused of being clandestine Republican, or at least disloyal traitors to the party for voicing these same reservations, and I hope that now perhaps we can be vindicated as placing mostly ethical conduct (if not a winning team) before party line.

I don’t blame those who wanted to see Hillary Clinton as the first female President in the hopes of putting a symbolic end to the oft-reviled glass ceiling.  Even going in, she was clearly not a flawless candidate, but many who participated in the front lines of the women’s equality movement were willing to overlook them in order to make a clear and unequivocal statement.  As for me, I can’t count the number of times I’ve voted for a candidate who neither inspires me, nor fills me with anything more than a rather perfunctory obligation to cast a ballot (see: Kerry, John).  In the minds of some, no red flag or combination of red flags could have swayed them from taking Hillary Clinton to new living quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  But, in saying this, it is very dangerous to superimpose any dream on one single individual, particularly when the cause itself can at times be distorted into purely self-serving ends, rather than with the intent to positively influence as many people as possible and in so doing improve life for everyone.  

Regarding the Hillary supporters, I do understand their motivation.  When she was criticized from whichever corner was actively firing at her, they felt criticized, too.  All of the times where women in position of power were discounted or called “bitch” when they tried to intrude upon what had long been spaces reserved purely for men translated to a supreme justification for their unyielding favor with Team Clinton.  Still, what one must do, however, is qualify the criticisms and the negative comments in their proper context.  “Bitch” can be meant in an equally petty, snidely condescending fashion regarding any woman who broaches Patriarchal protocol and demands to be both highly visible and highly outspoken.  “Bitch”, it must be added, can also be an epithet for someone whose mean-spirited behavior and ill-tempered personal conduct renders them most unpleasant and not especially ingratiating.  So there is a difference, though sometimes it can be obscured or manipulated when it is politically expedient to do so.  

This degree of self-identification at the expense of viewing the Senator’s New Clothes is what drove the hard-core Hillary loyalists, some of which became PUMAs come convention time.  It is also why the mainstream Feminist organizations like NOW backed Hillary Clinton to further their own cause, though in truth they are beholden to aging leadership, obsolete strategies, and tone-deaf attempts to stay relevant and pertinent to a new generation of younger feminists as well as those interested in the cause.  Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising why these organizations allied themselves with a candidate who shared all these same regrettable tendencies.  Hillary Clinton might as well have been a PUMA herself, since by the end, it was only those of her own age range, skin color, level of education, and background who clung tenaciously to a fading hope.  Again, true change will always be threatening to the status quo, but passing the torch isn’t an inspirational invocation, it is an admonition in this context.  It is well past time for a new generation of Americans to move forward the cause.          

Returning briefly to then-Candidate Clinton, though there was certainly an undercurrent of sexism inherent in media portrayals and public opinion of Hillary Clinton, as revealed in the book, the candidate certainly didn’t help her case by her private behavior.  Furthermore, she was brought down and utterly discounted by one of the most bizarre bedfellow arrangements I’ve ever seen in the form of the Anybody but Hillary bandwagon, the nascent Obama campaign, and the weakened, but still effective Republican party media blitzkrieg.  For once, all three were on the same page, with the same target in their sights, and all were dishing out a version of the presumptive front-runner that the passage of time has proven to be closer to fact than to fiction.  When you actually are that which your opposition claims that you are, then it is time to consider punting.    

Books like these reveal a fundamental truth about Americans, and perhaps all humans.  We are all eager voyeurs, gleefully peering behind the curtain to observe a glimpse of something we should not be able to spy, but also praying that the camera eye will never be turned upon us at any time, for any reason.  One might call it hypocrisy or the by product of a repressive society, but at any rate, it is the fundamental tension that leads us to create carefully crafted public images which are often nothing like our private, unguarded selves.  This is true on Facebook and it is true out in the work world.  I’d rather pursue this angle rather than resorting to a bunch of faux moralizing about how this book is scandalous and tawdry to no good end.  Scandalous and tawdry has become a cottage industry of sorts and it will always have an eager market.  There was a market for it a thousands years ago and there will be a market for it a century hence, I have no doubt.    

One would hope, then, that recognizing the painful dysfunction inherent in our political stars would cause our views to soften or at least evolve.  Being given a clear example of how propriety has a way of distorting the real from the imagined one would think would be liberating.  Imagine if there would be no need to outsource our own shortcomings to a war room within our own heads or, if we had the money, five or six well-paid keepers.  Still, to normalize this sort of behavior is neither my intent, nor my goal.  I’d rather focus on how initial altruism often takes a back seat to ultimate ambition, both in the minds of candidates and those actively involved in the game itself.  This is the lasting lesson I glean from all of this.

We can continue to build a cynical notion that politicians and politics are a game of smoke and mirrors.  Books like these do nothing to dispel such beliefs and everything to root them in place.  A study of hubris on the scale of this one should give us all reason to wonder if, were we in the same position, we would do any better.  It takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline not to give in to the applause, to the star-struck supporters, to the constant attention, and to the flirtations and propositions of those attracted to power, eloquence, and inspiration.  Fame is ephemeral, certainly, but it is also often instantaneous or immediate.  One day we are unknown, the next everyone knows our name.  We might handle it better if we’d had time to prepare ourselves for the good times and also the slings and arrows that are part of a packaged deal.  Though we may tell ourselves and others that being important is a state of being we would not wish for ourselves, there is a partially hidden part of us who craves it and would not turn it down if it were offered.  The rewards are too tempting for most to resist, or at least for very long.  When new fame comes attached to power, one can understand why any system views it uneasily, though the reality is that only by embracing a fresh set of legs and a new energy can we ever move farther down the road towards progress.

Lessons Learned from the Demise of the Recording Industry

In college I was THE music snob around campus.  Or, at least I thought I was.  Friends of friends would stride up to me in the media center or outside of class, asking my opinion on this release or that release, or requesting names of albums that I deemed worth hearing.  I was, of course, only too glad to oblige, since I practically lived in independently-owned record shops and spent the majority of my meager income on CDs.  To some extent, I was the local in-house expert.  So when the recording industry began to tank, I managed to patch together a few credible guesses as to why it happened and for what reason, but I didn’t have the luxury of a full understanding, the way that only someone on the inside would really know.  

Steve Knopper’s recent book, Appetite for Self-Destruction:  The Spectacular Crash of the Recording Industry in the Digital Age answers most, if not all of my questions.  It is a work of interest to even those who are not ravenous audiophiles, since the music industry took such a massive role in the American consciousness, particularly with the rise of rock ‘n roll, and since its decline, a massive void has been left that has never really been filled.    

Even before reading the book, I had not much in the way of sympathy for the recording industry.  Avarice is one of the easier sins to spot and since it is so omnipresent, we are fine-tuned to detect each and every instance.  Sometimes we are mistaken, but often we are not.  Even a few minutes skimming through the book could provide a tremendous body of evidence for anyone inherently skeptical or openly hostile to capitalism, or at least unregulated capitalism.  What I personally found most interesting is just how many times that the recording industry has crashed, only to revive itself, Phoenix-like based on a combination of dumb luck and embracing the future rather than being stubbornly rooted to the tried-and-true.  

An additional irony to add to all of this is that the compact disc, which revolutionized the industry and temporarily made it wealthier beyond belief, was very nearly vetoed by suspicious major label executives whose reservations primarily stemmed from the fact that they were unwilling to take a chance on something that wasn’t a proven seller.  The demise of the industry is a combination of a metaphorical compulsion to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs and an often childish desire to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face.  In an earlier era, the backlash against Disco brought the industry to its knees, but the invention of MTV  and the promotion of Michael Jackson and Thriller removed it from life support and returned it to profitability.  A decade or so later, billions upon billions of dollars flowed into the coffers due to the adoption of exploitative profiteering.    

By the late 1990s, the record business had boiled down much of the business to a simple formula:  2 good songs +  10 or 12 mediocre songs = 1 $15 CD, meaning billions of dollars in overall sales.  Cassettes, too, gradually fell victim to this formula, and were phased out.  Attempts to resuscitate the singles market, like the “cassingle” and a shorter version of an album known as the EP, ultimately failed.

“It’s no coincidence that the decline of cassettes and the rise of CD burning arose simultaneously,” says Steve Gottlieb, president of the independent label TVT Records.

Despite withering criticism and tremendous hostility at first, once the CD became the chosen format, it quickly became a cash cow, and suddenly all the initial reservations were mysteriously cast aside.  Music industry execs willfully revised the history of the proceedings and sang hosannas, claiming they had been in favor of this exciting new technological advance all along.  But yet again, they never even considered restraint or long-term consequences.

Or, as it is written,

But see, there is joy and revelry, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine! “Let us eat and drink,” you say, “for tomorrow we die!”

The perverse are hard to be corrected, and the number of fools is infinite.  


In the context of modern capitalism, it would be easy to draw parallels.

Cycles of boom and bust have been our fate over the course of centuries, often for identical reasons.  The difference between the recording industry and the major power brokers on Wall Street is that much thought is given to keep the system profitable and stable, since its lasting health is of paramount importance to all with a dog in the fight.  This doesn’t mean, as we have recently discovered, that the American economy or the Wall Street pirates don’t take dumb risks at times or play fast and loose with otherwise sensible strategies, but most of the time it is fortunately not one unforeseen development away from complete meltdown.  Part of the shock among many during our latest financial crisis was that the existing framework, designed to prevent another Great Depression, completely collapsed, and with its demise came the discrediting of theories that had stood unchallenged for years and years.  Economists will have their theories and counter-theories for years to come, but in this circumstance, how it happened is not nearly as important as the fact that it did.  

Any industry reflects in large part its clientele and those under its employ, and musicians don’t tend to be the most fiscally conservative bunch, nor the most inclined to restrain their impulses.  Record executives often partied as hard as the acts they signed, which often necessitated a desire to keep pumping out inferior product.  And it is for this reason that I believe that the industry has only itself to blame.  Indeed, if there were a way for us to rip apart any major corporate entity, I would surely advocate for it.  This is a bold pronouncement, and I justify it from a moral stance, since the more I read about the way any massive conglomerate functions, the more it makes me want to take a hot shower.  As for the recording industry, major movers and shakers acted like low-level mafioso, and none of them comes across the least bit sympathetic or personable.  I believe that the demand for certain services will always exist and since necessity is the mother of invention, someone with a good idea will step forward to satisfy a need.  In time, the systems proposed by today’s enterprising soul will probably grow corrupt, but I see human progress as a constant cycle of building up, revising, tearing down when necessary, and then building up again.          

To return to the subject at hand, with the CD boom came excess of all kinds.  Major labels hired far more staff than was necessary and in an effort to keep everyone on payroll, they went for the low-hanging fruit in the form of copycat bands.  For every original act, ten sound-alikes were signed, purely to bleed dry the record buying public and generate the maximum possible revenue.  Profit became more important than discovering new talent and facilitating musical advances.  It was this degree of sustained unethical business practice that led frustrated consumers to embrace wholesale file sharing and illegal downloading of music files.  Though the industry managed to shut down Napster, Pandora’s Box had already been opened and it has never been shut.      

To summarize from the book,

Labels were fat and happy, although some executives worried about a market peak.  “You have the huge infrastructure of people…on a ton of floors and all of a sudden you’re stuck with these huge costs.  And its harder to cut people than it is to hire them,” says Lyor Cohen, chairman of the Warner Music Group.  

“All these companies did was try to find fabricated s**t so they didn’t go through having to let people go.  Then you go into an era of fabricated, highly promoted, highly advertised stuff–it’s very flimsy, it sells quickly, and we’re also hurting our credibility with the long term music lover.  And then [the fans] go away to college.”

Teen pop was one last squeeze of the sponge to get the world to spend millions and millions of dollars on compact discs.  It wouldn’t last.

As for the music industry, well, Knopper seems to think that it has finally destroyed itself for good.  I wouldn’t disagree with his conclusion.  What I am waiting to see is what means of music dispensation the future will provide.  Today we cling to our ubiquitous iPods with the omnipresent white ear buds.  If recent history reveals anything, it promises that in the immediate future we’ll be using something else altogether.  As for the established powers, the industry itself is in a bit of a death spiral, running in a million different directions, desperate to find a Messiah.  I admit I do feel pangs of nostalgia at times for the excitement I once felt when looking forward to the latest release by a favorite band and the gratification of buying a CD copy to take home.  Still, there’s enough of the DIY anarchist left in me that enjoys the ability to focus more on live music and the amateurs who play for the love of it, not for the love of money.  I have always been a believer that there is something eternal about art; art always survives.  In stating this, I note that I have always believed that it simply isn’t compatible with capitalism and never really will be.  Some of the most awkward compromises I have ever observed attempt to bridge the gap between the two with minimum success.

When we discuss change in any context we find that its enemy is a system designed to resist, not facilitate reform.  I honestly can’t think of any gathering or organization off the top of my head whose stated agenda is to eventually pass along the torch to new ideas and new generations.  Change we can really believe in is not change in the abstract, rather it is change that is both well said and well done.  It may be against human nature to predicate any organized group on the assumption that incorporating new strategies and new plans of action is a matter of course, not just a a good suggestion and an interesting proposal worthy of contemplation.  Pushing forward in time rather than stubbornly clinging to the here-and-now is a discomforting notion to some, since we often relish control, and in so doing believe ourselves to be obsolete to some extent the instant when we pass the baton, but it is the only way we will ever accomplish anything worthwhile and lasting.  

We as humans are frequently paradoxical creatures, and each of us wishes to leave our mark, to some extent.  We prefer edifying experiences, shall we say, in which we might be remembered by subsequent generations and thus find a way to live forever.  Here in DC, this is evident by the number of public buildings bearing the name of some elected representative or all around important person.  For a time, people might hold close to them the memory of someone who rose to a position of high authority or accomplished something supremely influential, but the passage of time renders that memory fainter and fainter.  Eventually, inevitably, most people see merely two proper nouns and a building, not some rich legacy of accomplishment.  Our greater accomplishments might not be measured in individual achievement, but in the immeasurable elements that go well beyond personal gratification.  The edifying tendency keeps those who have always had power from sharing when it justifiably becomes the duty of a younger generation to take the reins.

We often are confused because our hearts lead us one direction and the world leads us another.  The world tells us to put our own selves first and our heart compels us to use our talents and gifts for the betterment of others.  Perhaps those things that do not threaten another person, no matter how unintentionally, and cannot be perceived for any reason as a direct challenge to someone else’s competitive spirit and personal insecurities are those that truly stand the test of time.  The memory of sales figures may fade and so too a lifetime’s worth of legislative accomplishment, but a contribution to the ongoing business of finding ways for people to live in peace proves to be immortal.  Proposing the means to co-exist based on love and not fear will live on beyond a few paltry decades.  Compassion and kindness cannot be commodified or copyrighted, nor should they, else they soon be the domain of the archaeologist.    

The Danger of American Mythology

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.

Woodward continues,

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.  

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