Thursday, January 22, 2009

Work in Progress

My favorite section of Obama's inaugural address:

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends -- hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old.

Not earthshaking rhetoric, but it implies, correctly I think, that not only President Bush has lost his way here. We say goodbye to a President who told us he's "doing everything he can" about everything he couldnt, and that our job was, primarily, to shop. What ideals shoud we expect from an incoming African American Prez, eager to restore virtuous principles? What American ideals are we conditioned to hear, orated o'er the Mall? How you order things says alot. Justice? Equality? Tolerance? Togetherness? Freedom? Oh Gawwddd almighty, Le-eehht Freedom Ring?!?! Obama touched on all that yesterday, but when he reached into our past to pluck one guiding virtue above all others, it's worth noting he led with "hard work".

First, the political notion that work (as opposed to justice or station) is the prime antecedent of prosperity, resonates deeply with a large segment of Americans, particularly conservatives. Second, in light of the lingering Wall Street debacle, Obama's caveat that the work is "hard" breaks sharply from a corporate narcissism predicated on "easy money" to the detriment of honest production and old fashioned value. Third, hard work is a call to tangible action - all after are pleas to the heart. The middle cuplets are mundane, and the last mere lip service to right wing jingoism. But the part about honest, hard work is embedded with a barb - aimed at more than the outgoing administration.

A generation ago, Jimmy Carter talked about an American malaise. The reviews were not kind, and it was a domestic political blunder, but in a sweeping, global sense, Carter was right. He understood, better than most at the time, how inexorably the rest of the world was developing, and that cherished American paradigms - about a lot of things - would need to eventually shift in order for us to stay prosperous and strong. Instead, we elected John Wayne, blamed government for our ills and unleashed American business for a nice little run. Just ask Charles Keating. President Reagan went about the honest hard work of diverting arms to Iran, sidling up to Saddam Hussein and vetoing an anti-apartheid resolution against South Africa. Cheating on taxes became something of an entitlement, spurred on by an enormously popular president's open disdain for all things federal.

When the money ran out, we elected Clinton, who held those who held government in contempt - in contempt. Then Bush, true to form, gained traction by holding Clinton's excesses up for scorn. Another way to look at it, though, is that we've elected disparate ideologues with a common disdain for the 19th century American ideal of honest, hard work. Some will say that's unfair to Reagan, who forcefully espoused industry, but it fits him like a glove on taxes, regulation and worker's rights. To the extent he was personally honest, his opportunistic 'disciples' were not. That contempt for honest hard work and veneration of unsustainably easy money was equally evident in the Clinton and W eras.

Thirty years after impolitic Carter, the peanut farmer turned nuclear engineer, derived what was most wrong with America, we may have finally elected a more electric, politically plugged in pragmatist who can actually do something about it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

When Doves (and Hawks) Cry

Perhaps the most overarching race cliche in this country is that white people can never understand what it's like to be black. The struggle, it is said, is manifested in a hundred smaller cliches; from being pulled over by cops to receiving subpar service in restaurants, to a host of more subtle snubs and indignations.

It's true I will never directly know what black people go through, but reactions to Barack Obama's electoral victory from a cross section of African-American leaders should give our entire country pause.

We all saw Jesse Jackson sobbing like a baby in Grant Park. Fewer saw Condi Rice pull rank at a State Dept press conference before her trip to the Middle East, to gushingly proclaim renewed hope for the democracy and her pride in being an African-American. Then there was Colin Powell, whose entire family wept on Tuesday night the moment Obama prevailed. Perhaps more tellingly, Mr Powell teared up the following day, when sharing the story with a British journalist. The old warhorse is, as they say, still "working through" his emotions.

Regardless of ideology, these are savvy people. They surely saw the polls like everyone else, indicating McCain was a clear underdog. But their uncharacteristically personal, even cathartic, reactions suggest they didnt really believe their country could fairly consider and willfully employ a black man's leadership. That these shrewd, measured African-American figures could harbor such apparent doubt and release this degree of pent up emotion about an objectively "expected" electoral outcome should make us all stop and reflect.

I think what these proud, accomplished trailblazers are trying to tell us, through their tears and excitement, is that even in 2008, it's a real disadvantage being black in this country. That, even for them, being black in the land of the free presents inferior choices and limited expectations. That this observation is more than just a literary or cinematic cliche - it's their witness. It's their lives. The election, at least viscerally, meant more to them than typical political reform, a recession or even armed conflict, to be calmly assessed on the evening news. This suddenly black President overwhelmed them emotionally, shattered lifelong expectations, and marked profoundly personal moments in their already exceptional lives.

Time will tell what outward policy manifestations the Obama administration will bring, but in only 24 hours, the heart of our nation - the inside - is undergoing enormous psychological transformation. The way blacks and whites perceive themselves, each other, and our shared destiny will never be the same again.

My Kind of Town

Like any other year, when the days shorten past Halloween, we leave the windows open at night in Sonora, and let cool air bounce through the house like music. (No one appreciates cool air like an Arizonan in November). Typically, we awaken to the sound of wrens in the carob tree out back or to early morning neighbors driving off to work. But this Wednesday morning was different. I had slept in, after watching election returns into the early morning, and awoke to the queer sound of easy laughter.

It was a man's laughter, maybe two men, distant and muffled. When I retrieved the paper off the driveway, the source of glee became apparent: two men with shovels landscaping about four houses down. But these were unlike any landcsapers I had ever seen before.

They were black!

I've lived on this street fifteen years and recall one working black man, who helped trade out our fridge, about six years ago. We see, on average, about one black human per year, invariably selling something pathetic that we dont want, door to door. In that same time, we encounter hundreds and hundreds of Anglo and Mexican-American laborers and blue collar service workers. So, to see two heavy black men digging up the neighbor's yard in North Phoenix was like spying an eskimo cutting our palm trees or a martian mowing the lawn. They were there all day, two amiable looking guys in their twenties, talking and laughing as they worked, as I passed them several times in the car. They were there from morning to nearly dusk - working each time I passed.

At first, I wasnt sure if this was Phoenix or Tara. But then it dawned on me that this might be a rebirth of the American Dream - at work, as it were. The emancipation of young black men, from self-defeating excuses and expectations. It's one thing to effectively secede from "The Man", but harder to opt out of American industry when "The Man" is suddenly black.

I wonder if that's a little piece of what I saw and heard on my street this morning, the day after Barack Obama made history. A couple guys who decided Tuesday night that now was their time. To take a chance in this new world, a bold chance on themselves, and shed their bonds of racial fatalism. For whatever reason they found themselves on "my" side of town, I'm delighted to report they both seemed pretty happy to be there.

Almost Home

I live less than a mile from where John McCain delivered his concilliatory concession speech. The media trucks, about forty of them, with their satellite tendrils pointed toward heaven, have been there for days, in the backlot of the elegant Arizona Biltmore resort. Last night, after it was dark, my wife, our dog and I walked along the Arizona Canal to gawk at history. It's been forty four years since Goldwater ostensibly conceded a few miles due right, at the Camelback Inn, and not every day a Presidential race, and possibly a political generation, die in your backyard.

We left the house as Pennsylvania was called Democratic and the national map was still up for grabs. A great bluish beam, eerily similar to the rising spotlight commemorating 'Ground Zero', drew us from a distance, like three empty-handed magi to a star. As we trudged closer, the spotlight was actually six distinct, thinner beams of red, white and blue. A fancy sports car irresponsibly sped on a sandy berm of the waterway, reserved for joggers and bikers, on it's way to a party at the adjacent Wrigley Mansion. Police, in the dark, did nothing. When we reached the same area on foot, a cop half heartedly traced us with a flashlight, wryly asking if we were known terrorists, and allowed us to procede, with canine in tow, farther east toward Republican Ground Zero.

The Biltmore looked timeless last night, it's low, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired, silhouette trimmed at geometric angles with simple white holiday bulbs. A small traffic jam of fifty private cars edged slowly in line to enter the resort. A particularly impatient Lexus almost hit our dog. A white Republican tent, along the pristine golf course, was deserted in the darkness of early evening. We didnt enter the hotel, but walked along the grounds instead. The mood of people seemed neither rowdy nor downcast, but expectant. People walked briskly, as if anxious tourists at the Louvre.

We had left the teenager at home with his homework, so didnt stay for the speech. We are not that starstruck. President Bush comes by every year or so to raise money and has eaten at the neighborhood hangout. Sandra Day O'Connor frequents our Walgreens. So we passed the policeman on the way out, sidestepped an Ozzie and Harriet family on old fashioned bikes, cheerfully clanging their bells, and headed home along our canal. We passed the nouveau mansions, roofed in fat red tiles, and further on, the electrical substation and water treatment facility. A tree branch sitting in the cataract for ages, impeded the water's flow, but I could not reach to free it. Just above the waterline, concrete panels siding the aquaduct had crumbled into ebony voids. It was very dark now, save for Sara's bouncy flashlight, and one powerful beam at our backs, blue once more, offsetting the stars.

From here we knew our way, toward an unseen future, but we were almost home.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ten Things to Rue About This Campaign

10. Lou Dobbs - masquerading as an independent, angry populist, Lou's eponymous hour is a toadying monument to ratings-driven personality cult, pretending to be a public service.

9. Glossy junk Mail - Flag, smile, family dog. Garbage.

8. How can McCain claim "Country First", then put it in the hands of Sarah Palin? More like "My Short-Run Electoral Benefit First, Country Last".

7. Obama's rhetoric no longer soars - it bores

"I can put up with these personal attacks for XX more days, but this country cant afford to put up with the same old failed Bush McCain policies of the last eight years. And that's why...[applause] I'm running for [applause} President of the United States [applause]...of America [more applause]."

zzz zzz. I cant put up with Obama's same old, painstakingly airy, speeches another fortnight hence.

6. Face morphing one politician's face into another is dehumanizing and wrong. Everyone's entitled to their own face - even Dennis Kucinich.

5. Registered voters in line several hours to vote - it's a privilege that much of the world doesnt share, but are these waits really happening in 2008? In America, where one can purchase a gun, or establish a bank acct in less time?

4. Joe (or is it Sam?) The Plumber - a fraud on at least five different levels (ie not "undecided", not "buying a business", not licensed, business income well under $250K, admits Obama plan doesnt hurt him specifically, then campaigns against him nationally on lofty, conceptual grounds that progressive taxation is "incredibly wrong"). Who knew non-partisan plumbers were so ivory tower philosophical?

3. CNN's redundant lineup of pundits. Do we really need to be indoctrinated in stereo by Paul Begala AND Roland Martin on the left? William Bennett AND Alex Castellanos on the right? In addition, Campbell Brown was born redundant.

2. Robocalls - imagine all the old, infirm folks struggling to reach their phones five or six times per day, just to hear incendiary, irresponsible recordings.

1.The RNC's Contempt for the Middle Class - Obama's a measured politician with purposely vague "promises" of his own, but McCain has singularly embraced, practically celebrated misleading the electorate in 2008. His hand picked #1 proxy(Palin)is a telegenic, but alarmingly uninformed, national candidate; his #2 (Joe the Plumber) is a complete fraud. According to the RNC, these are the doofi Americans should rally around? Fascinating. Oh, and the idea of progressive taxation (which we owe to Teddy - not Franklin - Roosevelt) is now somehow socialist and sinister?

No wonder they're getting their tails kicked by the inexperienced black guy.