Over Our Dead Bodies

And while Congress busies itself by threatening to defund Obamacare at the risk of shutting down the government, we lay more Americans to rest.

Capital flag at halfmastIt was almost perfect. Or as perfect a mass shooting could be. The assailant was a black guy first of all, which helps the narrative that fuels the bottom line: Fear. If we could stay afraid of black guys, then we could feel justified in arming ourselves. And then it came out that the Navy Yard in DC where the shooting occurred was a “gun free” zone. Which plays even more perfectly into the hands of the NRA. “See that?” various right-wing news sources alleged. “The idea of a gun-free zone is a joke. It invites massacre. It is the opposite of a solution, which is, as we’ve been saying all along: More guns. Not less. Never less.”

Except there are some holes in that narrative. The first is that the Navy Yard was “protected” by gun-wielding guards. Just like Virginia Tech was. Just like Columbine.

The second was that the black guy obtained his gun legally. This throws a chink in the armor of one of the underlying threads of logic on the right that says that gun control is a fool’s errand because it only robs the good guys from getting the guns to protect the rest of us from bad guys with guns. Because we’re supposed to believe that black skin and bad are synonymous. This proved unfortunate when so many other American terrorists were white guys.

What the Navy Yard shooting actually does is to bring light to insufficient gun control laws. Because we have evidence – evidence that we don’t need time after time – that armed guards are not bullet proof. That they are not the lone answer. We know this, but we are not loud enough.

What we also know is that obtaining ridiculous multiple round assault weapons is too effing easy. That the background check safeguards are not enough. The assailant had multiple red flags including gun incidents and mental heath deficiencies that did not prevent him from obtaining a legal weapon. And while Congress busies itself by threatening to defund Obamacare at the risk of shutting down the government, we lay more Americans to rest.

So how about this? What if we go back to Congress with this equally off-the-wall idea that they can have Obamacare. They can dismantle it and defund it. They can rob the people of this country of their right to affordable healthcare. They can eliminate the right of Americans to be covered for pre-existing conditions. They can tell their twenty-five year old children that they are not eligible under their healthcare. We can continue to overpay in criminal capacity and max out our emergency rooms with non-emergencies. If they will do one thing: give up their guns. Australia-style. Turn them in. All of them. Rescind the second amendment, effective immediately.

Never happen, right? Pie in the sky?

Absolutely. And the left usually doesn’t work that way. We pass common-sense legislation through trickery and negotiation, through force and trial. And it comes in millimeters, and so watered down from its original form that it is unrecognizable. And the worst part? We’re grateful.

Enough.

Because the Tea-Partiers have gotten a stronghold on the Republican party not by making sense, but by being loud and insistent. So much that their ridiculous ideas get credence in the mainstream just by wearing everybody down. Vote to repeal Obamacare forty-two times? Threaten to shut down the government? Fine. Give up your guns.

Let’s meet them where they are. They are not meeting us up here in rationality. Let’s start at batshit nuts and get the conversation that needs to be had out there. Remember in Lethal Weapon where Mel Gibson’s
character outcrazies the criminals? We haven’t tried that yet. What if our Democratic congresspeople took on a new persona that said, “I’m surprised you haven’t heard of me, I got a bad reputation, like sometimes I just go nuts,” Mel Gibson-style (minus the anti-semitism.)

7143.0.570.359

Might we bring serious gun control discussion to the forefront of the American conversation? Might we scare the right into doing what they know is the right thing by intimidating them with our own brand of crazy? Because twenty children mowed down in Newtown didn’t do it. So I say we go extreme. We’ve been so careful to say, “No one is taking away your guns,” to the right. And it hasn’t worked. So let’s start there and maybe we’ll negotiate ourselves down to something that actually makes sense. At the very least, might we expose them for what they are: excruciatingly irresponsible. And nuts.

And then let’s consider this. Is the idea of gun confiscation as crazy as shutting down the government unless the Affordable Health Care Act is defunded?

The answer to that shows just how far off course this country has gotten.

 

America’s Exception to the Rule

What separates us from the third world and from the tyrants that run that world is not that we have weapons of mass destruction and that we are prepared to deploy them, but rather the opposite. We’re exceptional not for military might but for our restraint.

obama/putinKnow what’s funny? The conservative protest against a peaceful solution to the Syria conflict is absolutely consistent with the commonplace bloodlust of the party of “life.” And by funny, I mean disheartening. But I will give them this: unlike the flippity-floppity liberals, at least they have consistency on their side. In the wake of yet another mass shooting, the right come out en mass against gun control.

Let’s take a look at some of Obama’s changing positions. First, he says he won’t get involved unless they cross his self-imposed red line of use of chemical weaponry. Check. Then, he actually wants that threat to have teeth. He follows up like he said he would. And his position is this: unless Syria is willing to give up their chemical weapons, we’re going to start killing some people up in here. And then they agree. And Obama has the wherewithal nerve to agree. Punk.

The idea that John Kerry made a blustering mistake that “accidentally” led to a peaceful resolution is disingenuous. Say what you will about Kerry, ketchup, motorcycling photo ops with Assad, the man has put his time in. They don’t misspeak at that level, not with war at stake.

And to say that Obama was played for a fool by Putin says more about the “patriotic” right than it does about Obama’s intelligence level, which has never, through two elections and a near-constant six-year litany of insults, ever been called into question. But that’s okay. We need opposition to hold our leaders accountable. We need to question the motivations of our politicians, and we need to speak up when those questions meet with unsatisfactory answers. That’s the duty of the electorate.

In his Op-ed in the New York Times, Putin disparaged the United States in general and Barack Obama in particular for considering this country “exceptional.”  He asserted that this kind of attitude is dangerous and while it may seem unpatriotic to agree, I see his point. This kind of untouchable mindset, the kind that wallows in superiority, is a breeding ground for ignorance, which could be very dangerous indeed. And yet, America is exceptional. We are a country born of conflict and debate, and have built into our founding documents the elasticity to grow in fits and spurts. We foster disagreement here.  We might not like what people say about us. There is no way that Putin’s words appearing in a mainstream newspaper didn’t irk the shit out of a big portion of our populace. But find me a pissed off citizen who doesn’t equally believe in his right to say it. That’s our exception. It’s what makes us different.

What Putin actually meant, by throwing Obama’s words and those of the preamble back into our faces, is the word “superior.”  But that’s really beside the point, isn’t it? And the fact that Putin is wrong about us, doesn’t mean that Barack Obama is right. If you take a look at the people of Walmart, it’s hard to make a case for the hierarchy and evolution of humanity with America at the top of that food chain. But let’s take a look at Congress. They don’t make it easy either  – yet what separates us from the third world and from the tyrants that run that world is not that we have weapons of mass destruction and that we are prepared to deploy them, but rather the opposite. We’re exceptional not for military might but for our restraint. Putin said, “It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States.”  We can take this not as fact – commonplace? Really? But as food for thought. The times where the US has lived up to its place in the world have been when our leaders were thoughtful and analytical where others have been knee-jerk reactors. And this mindset carries down from a Constitution that promises thoughtful action into our legal system which tries to enforce that view.

Barack Obama has the dual obligation to be commander-in-chief and also to uphold and protect the Constitution. These should not be in conflict but as of late, they often are. Let’s take a look at the credo of United States to which Putin refers: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” This was a credo born in revolution, asserting that we, the underlings of the modern-day world, had the same inborn rights as those abroad. It was the cry of the vulnerable to the strong. The fact that we have risen up as one of the world’s superpowers absolutely suggests that we have a responsibility within that world. As we are now one of the biggest, that very credo allows that we need to offer our help to those in the position from whence we came: vulnerable, small, and un-equal. Exceptional, but not in a good way.

On a micro-scale, this is the way we need to address the growing problem of gun violence in this country. If the victims are the little guys, the gun manufacturers are the tyrants. And the inherited role of the United States is not to kowtow to the big guy, but to help the vulnerable. We have muscles upon muscles in this nation, and sometimes the smartest action is to flex them. The right would have us land a punch with every conflict. Or pull a trigger.

Yet, we might do well to remember our roots. And by doing so, become the exception.

 

Will We Remember?

I was a quiet observer, trekking uptown through swarms of people who smoked in the streets of a midtown packed, like it was a street festival. We looked up and the day tingled with a feeling of something different, new, no school today.

And the pictures of the towers started to go up on Facebook last night. And as we are counseled not to forget, I wonder what it is that makes us hold on so strongly.  I understand that this was important, that the towers were not only physical structures that held the flesh and blood of so many people who lived and loved, were fathers and sons, daughters and mothers, but perhaps more. Perhaps they were the force field that was supposed to signify the divide between us and them and that what shocked us all so much, myself absolutely included, was that the divide was so easily conquered. They  broke in with a fiery hellish fury – into our country, and into our consciousness. To some, into our conscience. 9/11 was the day that a war began. To some, it is much more personal than that. And to many, it will never end.

There’s a part in us all that likes to take ownership of tragedy.  To say, “I was there,” to stake a claim that we feel more than the guy next to us, or across the country from us.  It’s a cousin to that original feeling, the one that held us separate, that divided us.  I don’t know what you feel. Though I was in Manhattan that day, my ears were turned off to the screams of sirens, my heart to the fall.  I was a quiet observer, trekking uptown through swarms of people who smoked in the streets of a midtown packed, like it was a street festival.  We looked up and the day tingled with a feeling of something different, new, no school today.

No, it wasn’t until my train peaked through the tunnel eastbound and my exodus was complete that the sound came rushing back into my ears. In the safety of my bathroom that night, in a shower that washed the smell of soot from my hair, I felt.  I felt terrified.  And I felt that the world of foreign policy and boring pages in front of the style section of the New York Times were coming to get me, to shake me into wakefulness, so that I knew that it was all real – that people in pictures or who moved across the screen from me in the blue light of the television were actual. That speeches made from the pulpits of politicians held meaning. That legislation was connected to something that could affect even me.

Lines were drawn that day. Divisions that had been invisible then are now etched in permanent marker. Divides crept into our country dressed in red and blue, invading our neighborhoods, and working their way into our hearts and minds, disguised as truth.

And I think that maybe the towers didn’t signify divisions between us. Maybe they were buildings full of people. Maybe projecting symbols on them does a disservice to the people who loved – and lost – them. Especially as we’ve seen near endless death ever since.

Of course we won’t forget.

But will we remember what we learned?9/11

RIP Bradley Manning

We cannot save Bradley. Bradley Manning is dead. Chelsea is the answer to the vultures who feed on the deaths of others. She is the phoenix who rises from the ash.

Bradley Manning is dead.

The confused and conflicted boy who was perhaps naively idealistic and relentlessly patriotic, who believed in the USA with a conviction that brought him to the fire-filed deserts of Iraq – while most of us sat in our houses and read about it in the newspapers – has left this world. We can argue that he was too good for it, or that he wasn’t good enough. We can say that his revelations – famous or infamous, depending on your perspective – were malicious and dangerous at worst, merely stupid at best. Or you can say he was a hero, and hold him up as a martyr, someone who died for a cause bigger than himself, who threw himself at the mercy of the court (martial) and let his act be a message to the rest of us, to the wide-eyed idealists who might still live within our hearts.

That is how I will mourn him.

From his ashes, a woman will named Chelsea will arise. She’s older than Bradley. Most likely, she’s a bit more cynical. She carries with her the scars of captivity, humiliation, and injustice. She’s seen ugly things. Death, destruction, murder, war. She knows what it’s like to live in close proximity to murderers. She knows the deadened horror of an emotionless voice ordering  “Keep shooting, keep shooting,” while children hover in a van ratcheted with bullet holes and voices rise with pride – not shame – declaring, “I think we whacked them all.”

She has a rough road ahead of her, but her conscience is clean.

We can argue about the proper use of pronouns, the timing of Manning’s transgender revelation, or the twenty-five dollars a month it would cost the state for the hormonal therapy she asks for, but what remains clear is that the presence of Chelsea marks the end of the tortured life of Bradley Manning. I don’t know that things will ever be easy for Chelsea, not with what has come before her, not with the uncertainty and the imprisonment of her future. But as she embraces the gender by which she identifies, the relief she feels will free her from the shackles of what was Bradley.

I read Patty Duke’s autobiography, “Call Me Anna,”  when I was a teenager. It told of a childhood interrupted by stardom in her turn as Helen Keller on Broadway and then as identical cousins on the Patty Duke Show. What struck me then and has stayed with me ever since was the trauma she relayed when her managers/guardians changed her name to Patty and told her “Anna is dead.” The person she’d been, identified as, was simply gone. In her place was a manufactured child star. That she struggled to reconcile the two identities for the rest of her life speaks to the importance of identity.

I encountered a similar sentiment in an undergraduate education course on the exceptional child. This course introduced me to every kind of affliction that could befall a child (and eventual student.) During a documentary whose title I don’t recall, the narrator explained that to a parent of a child who is not what that parent expected or imagined, there comes a mourning process, as if the child the parent thought he or she would get was dead. It’s only after this mourning process for what was that there can ever be room for acceptance for what is.

While it takes time and work, this is a transition for us too. The line is drawn in the sand marking who were were and who we are to become. We might not all have been innocent in the before. Some of us might have known of war crimes. Some of us promoted war for either financial or righteous reasons. But what connects us all is that none of us are innocent now. Now we know. We have the knowledge of civilian murder in Iraq on our hands. We know that drones strike beyond their targets. We know about torture and we know that the Constitution is applied arbitrarily. We know that only some of us are entitled to quick and speedy trials and some are at the mercy of military tribunals, facing trumped up charges not seen for almost a hundred years.

What we do about it determines who we will be, what kind of country we will accept, and what kind of humanity we demand of ourselves.

We cannot save Bradley. Bradley Manning is dead. Chelsea is the answer to the vultures who feed on the deaths of others. She is the phoenix who rises from the ash.

 

Chelsea Manning

Now it’s time to save ourselves.

The ERA: What to Expect When We’re Respected

If we recognize on a federal level in the Consti-freaking-tution that women are entitled to equality under the law, then maybe we can understand the full potential of the United States. Maybe we can figure out what this amazing experiment of a country can do.

I come late to the ERA conversation. As a writer who concerns herself with politics, I find it as surprising as you do. But the truth of the matter is, I’ve never seen the social issues that I like to talk about through a particularly feminist eye. I didn’t identify that way. I just saw them through the lens of my experience. And because I have the right to vote, the freedom of the press and free speech, because we live in a pro-choice age, the ERA didn’t register on my radar. The fight had been fought and I could pay homage to the women who came before me by writing my viewpoints and publishing them widely, by reading, by voting, by making informed decisions and supporting my fellow women.

But that’s not enough.

Although I knew that the Equal Rights Amendment hadn’t passed, I didn’t really understand the implications. They are practical as well as immaterial. By that I mean that the fact that women are paid seventy-seven cents on the dollar to what a man is paid (sixty-four cents if you’re a woman of color) and that this is a federally recognized discrimination – carries out in myriad ways that tell women that they are paid less because they are worth less.

Worthless.

I didn’t really understand this, or believe it, until I started to consider it through the lens of a parent and to think of it in a racial context. I’l start with the first. In reading every single parenting book that came on the market and systematically throwing them out after I gleaned the one thing that made sense in each of them, I learned something about potential. Up until then, potential had been an enemy word to me. Potential was something I learned to hide in school because once a teacher learned I had potential, they expected me to live up to it. And that took work that I wasn’t willing to put in. My advice to friends from elementary school upwards was this: Never let ‘em see your potential. Once they do, you’re screwed. They are perpetually disappointed in you. A late assignment brings chastisement instead of shrugged shoulders. And if that bothers you, like it did me, potential makes you pick up a book and a pen just to quiet the mounting frustration of others. And it creates something else: a taste for praise. And if you’re anything like me, that taste, coupled with potential, might make you a writer. In other words: trouble.

Parenting books reinforced this, but from a far different perspective. They asked me to expect great things from my child – whether it be potty training or restaurant behavior – and to let that expectation dictate their potential.  Because the thing is, if you’re expected to succeed, it becomes more work to fail.

And I started thinking about Trayvon Martin. I wondered about how he presented himself and how perceptions of him dictated the events that led to the end of his life. I thought about potential again, about our former President, who, unlike Martin, wasn’t a good student. Yet being born into a successful family where privilege and stature fed the expectations of potential, George W. Bush became the leader of the free world. He believed he was worth more. And so he was.

And that’s the thing. Society seems to take on an active role about telling people what their potential is. We tell them through our culture, and we tell them through how we legislate. And that voice becomes internalized and affects behavior. It affects who we think we are. What we can do. And what we are worth.

Of course, not everybody. For every stereotype, there are exceptions. Not every white-bread mediocre son of American royalty becomes President. Not every dark-skinned son of an abandoned father and a mother on food stamps wears hoodies and are shot down: some become President. (As a senator, President Obama cosponsored the Women’s Equality Amendment. And when he was a state senator, he sponsored a joint resolution ratifying the ERA.) Some women internalize their diminished status. Some become dependent on men for safety and financial security. Some accept discrimination as a rule. Some think the fight for equality has been fought before us. But some become the COO of Facebook. Some carry on epic filibusters. And some will run for President.

ERA March

If we recognize on a federal level in the Consti-freaking-tution that women are entitled to equality under the law, then maybe we can understand the full potential of the United States.  Maybe we can figure out what this amazing experiment of a country can do.

Because progress has slowed. We’re at an impasse. We’ve lost sight of who we are and where we are going. We agree on little but that the system is broken. We don’t agree on where and how badly it is, or on how to fix it. We certainly can’t agree on who can fix it. But I think we can agree that by giving half of our population the tools – both tangible and immaterial – to help fix it, we can only go forward. Just ask Elizabeth Warren, Wendy Davis, Tammy Duckworth, Hillary Clinton and Allison Lundergan Grimes, to name a few of the latest rock stars on the national political radar.

With a law that cannot be repealed on the state level by backwards politicians who understand that the way to continue the status quo is to lower our collective expectations, what is possible?

But we have work to do. The ERA failed because a deadline for ratification was placed on it. There needed two-thirds of the states to pass it, yet only thirty-five did in time, just shy of the thirty-eight needed. A renewed effort is being put in place now to lift the deadline and with a three state strategy join the rest of the civilized nations of the world by legislating equality. NOW will only support candidates who agree to the three state strategy and on lifting the deadlines with their endorsement and financial contributions.Together we can get there.

And then we have to do the work.

The world is expecting us.

I Don’t Give Up

It’s been a rough week. But I found some inspiration from an unlikely source.

Last weekend, the blog I didn’t post was about giving up. It seemed like the divides between us were too wide to traverse, the boxes we put ourselves in too sharp, our labels too embedded in our consciousness. In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, I was exposed to more violently racist opinion than I’d ever feared existed, not this far north, not in these 2010s. But I heard it spewed within earshot of my children and what surprised me was my reaction. It wasn’t anger. It wasn’t righteous indignation. It manifested itself in slumped shoulders and resignation. It took the wind out of my sails for a little while.

I was also subject to the bloodlust of conservative arguments, Rush Limbaugh talking points, and the gotcha verdicts of some friends and neighbors who concluded, after finding me reasonable and my thoughts nuanced, “Well, then you’re not a liberal.” I am, though, to my own definition. Probably not to Rush’s. I don’t adhere to everything left. I don’t support every Democrat. I don’t villainize every Republican.

Believe me, it would be easier if I did.

The truth is, labels are bullshit. We separate each other based on differences of human construct and pretend that they are the truth. Republican, Democrat, Christian, Jew, black, white, brown, gay, straight, male, female. There are so many shades of difference within each of these labels that they really fail to conform to what we want them to mean. But it makes it easier to dismiss someone if they’re in another group. Why do you think Columbus called the Indians “savages”? Because it made it easier to slaughter them than if he recognized their humanity. The same with slaves. And so on, with each label, collectively and separately, in different capacities in every stage of human technological “progress.”

And it’s easy to preach inclusiveness. To say that to recognize love and goodness and humanity in everyone could solve the world’s ills. I have a hard time doing it myself, even with some family members, let alone with the George Zimmermans and Mitch McConnells of the world. It’s the transition from recognizing a truth and what needs to be done and actually doing it that’s so difficult. As a whole, we know what needs to be done here. Now. We know that corporations have taken over, that money should not be protected as speech, that the safety of our children should be a higher priority than the profit margins of gun manufacturers, that those who expose war crimes should be protected over those who perpetuate them, and that the convenience of SUVs and plastic water bottles should be curbed to save the abstract idea of a future beyond us.

But making the transition from “I should” to “I am,” is harder than I sometimes imagine. Because anger sometimes gives way to resignation. It makes the shoulders slump. It writes blogs called “I give up,” even though we’re young and smart and savvy. We hold the power to change in our collective hands. We are, quite literally, the future. And if we’re lucky, we haven’t been hardened yet into un-moveable rock. Our minds are malleable. We absorb the blows of indifference and hateful ideas and overwhelming circumstance and then we keep going.

I like to let older generations off the hook, to excuse them for outdated opinions or stalled evolution of thought. Because I really, really like old people. It’s kind of my thing. I have an older friend who I’ve known for my entire adult life. A man whose decisions and opinions I vehemently disagree with, more often than not. But I respect him. And he does me.

Last night, he told me something. He watched his son as he lay in the hospital, sick of a terrible virus that’s ravaging his organs. He watched his son’s husband come and go, the man he referred to as his “daughter-in-law” for as long as I’ve known him. And after thirty years, he recognized the truth of love between them. This tough-as-nails man, in his hard-formed rock of a mind compounded by decades of experience and opinion, changed. Just like that.

I said, “But I thought you’d always accepted that your son was gay.”

“No,” he told me. “I did because I had to if I wanted a relationship with my son. But I never accepted it.”

He opened his eyes to see what connects us beyond labels of what is right or left, or right and wrong. And I realized that I’d put him in a box of my own making. That I’d written him off as too closed to change. That I was the one who wasn’t open to the possibility of someone of that generation surprising me. Not him, not this.

I hung up and changed the title of this post.

 

Obama Stands His Ground

By speaking forthright about his own experience as a black American, again he raised the level of discourse in the country to one above talking points and pretended offense. He opened himself up to the ridiculous misinterpretations that are plaguing the Internet, those who will take his words out of context, to reshape them into something unworthy of a President. But it wasn’t.

Obama made his first big splash on the national stage at the 2004 DNC. He gave a speech that invoked his white mother and black Kenyan father. He was young, articulate, smart. He sounded like we wanted our representatives to sound like, especially when we had the moronic bumblings of George W. as our face on the world stage.

But I wasn’t paying much attention then. I didn’t think he stood a chance.

It was only after Spitzer’s fall from grace (or whatever her name was, to steal a one-liner  from Colbert) that I tuned in to Barack Obama and started taking note. It was in March of 2008 and my political hero disappointed me, to say the least. Spitzer had been to me the guy to cut through all of the bullshit, to call Wall Street for what it was. I remember thinking, This guy must be squeaky clean. If he has made any missteps in his life, surely they would have gone after it. Spoiler alert: He did. And they did.

The democratic presidential race was still a muddle of candidates then, each tearing the other down, the media fanning the fires of divisiveness. Hillary Clinton was the front-runner. John Edwards was in there. Joe Biden. Kucinich. They were all making the late night talk show rounds, appearing on the Daily Show. I wasn’t too invested at that time. There were debates to come, scandals to be exposed, alliances re-aligned. It seemed pointless really.

Barack Obama was gaining traction and supposed dirty deeds and telling associations were coming out of the woodwork, most infamous among them, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. When Obama stood up and addressed that in March 2008, and made the effort to talk about race the way I’d never seen anyone do before, not anyone with so much to lose just by acknowledging this issue, I effectively replaced Spitzer with a new political hero. His words sought to make one culture and class of Americans understand the other, much like his did on Friday.

 

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

 

On television, they call it breaking down the fourth wall, the imaginary line that separates the character onscreen from its audience. They sit around a kitchen table, positioned around it to face a camera, but it’s a rule to ignore it, to pretend the audience isn’t there.

A similar rule has come into existence since the inception of Obama’s administration: he  is not to address race. To do so would be to give credence to every racist’s nightmare: admit that we elected a black guy, who sees things from a black perspective, and might dare to speak to that or legislate as such, undermining centuries of white aristocracy.

Obama has joked about it. When he made his entrance to the White House Correspondents Dinner, he swapped out “Hail to the Chief” for rap music. “Rush Limbaugh warned you about this,” he said. “Second term, baby.”

Yet by breaking down that wall we can all exhale and have an actual conversation that isn’t insulated by the pretense we were all participating in. In his impromptu speech regarding Trayvon Martin on Friday, the president had a real, off the cuff moment. It was heartfelt. There was no teleprompter. He spoke to the indisputable disparity between how laws are written and enforced along racial lines. He spoke about the violent history that informs the experience black Americans face. And he spoke about his personal experience.

It has the country up in arms because it was something we rarely see from someone in such high office. In fact, it’s something we haven’t seen Obama himself address since 2008. We see watered-down and contrived rhetoric, designed to offend the least amount of people possible. An impossible task, but a goal so many deem worthy. Yet, in its in-offense, so many words fail to stick. This is why Joe Biden resonates. He might be gaffe-prone, but only because he speaks in real sentences, unlike political robots of the Rubio variety.

By acknowledging that there’s a documented disparity to how our laws are enforced along racial lines, he’s now being accused of anything from fanning the flames of racism and exacerbating an already heated moment to being a blatant racist himself. I’m no Obama apologist. I’ve been equally vocal about how his policies as President have either expanded upon George Bush’s disastrous ones that preceded him or have shown a rampant dismissal of civil liberties. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that there are no political heroes.

Yet, by speaking forthright about his own experience as a black American, again he raised the level of discourse in the country to one above talking points and pretended offense. He opened himself up to the ridiculous misinterpretations that are plaguing the Internet, those who will take his words out of context, to reshape them into something unworthy of a President. But it wasn’t.

Because here’s the deal: the stains of the race issue touch each of us. If we’re not working to fix it, if we’re complacent, we add to it. We fix it by talking about it in real terms. By looking at it without unequal comparisons. By acknowledging our roles. We tackle this in real, unscripted moments.

This is where heroism could be found.

On Spitzer: Can our Leaders be Cheaters?

Do we really need to expose sexual peccadilloes of our politicians – does the immorality of their personal/sexual life translate into their jobs in public service? Or is this an outdated mode of judgement?

You know what I can’t stand? Cheaters. Though I try to keep an open mind about most things, and understand that nobody’s perfect – including and especially me – infidelity riles up something in my insides. It’s brought distance to previously close relationships and prevented some from what might have been. And although I thought I was an equal opportunity judge and jury of character, my husband sees it differently. He notes that I’m more tolerant and forgiving of our female friends’ transgressions than of our male friends.

It pisses me off when he says that.

Because he might be right. I hate when I’m hypocritical.

The thing is, I usually understand women better. Their motivations seem more complex than kicks on a Friday night. But it could just be my bias. I’m working to rectify that.

Here in New York, we are swimming in penis jokes. Between Anthony Weiner’s campaign for mayor and now Eliot Spitzer’s run for city comptroller, it would seem like New York is nothing but a bastion of sexual dysfunction – which makes for a fun coverage if you’re a late night talk show host or a headline writer for The New York Post. And though I can’t speak with authority for all of us, I wonder if maybe every single place in the country might be bastion of sexual dysfunction. Maybe not of the high-priced prostitute variety (which might be limited to the coastal states) – or even like the Twitpic heard ‘round the world that completed the punchline that Weiner’s name serves up on a platter, but of the unfaithful spouse type. Nothing gets the morality police aroused (heh) like an election, where we put our candidates through public scrutiny that isn’t matched in any other profession in the world.

It’s always interesting to watch candidates paint themselves as pillars of virtue while their opponents’ PR people dig up dirt. Eliot Spitzer was the super-smart attorney general from New York, who didn’t mince words and brought toughness and badassery to the democratic party. He ran on moral superiority – taking on the thieves, liars, and criminals that ran Wall Street before anyone ever knew it needed to be Occupied. He flew into the Governor’s mansion and I thought he was a sure shot to be our first Jewish president. And then. He was outed as “Client #9” in a high-end prostitution ring and he prepaid for his next visit. So while the revelations about Spitzer were particularly zing-worthy – uncovering a level of hypocrisy not seen before in recent memory – what does it really mean? 

Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of the Women’s City Club, has taken Spitzer’s misdeed and painted it within the context of the wider sex-trafficking industry.  She makes a terrific point about how prostitution isn’t a victimless crime. And crime it is, since this is New York and not Las Vegas. A crime for which the prosecutor has yet to be prosecuted (unless you count the press.) And though Bien-Aime admits that Spitzer had worked to pass legislation against sex trafficking in the past, she is clear in her view: no forgiveness. NOW has taken a similar stance and is actively protesting both Spitzer and Weiner’s candidacies.

John Dickerson of Slate takes Spitzer to task for asking the forgiveness of the public while being known to never be particularly forgiving himself, as if “forgiveness” is a virtue that we want in our attorneys general. Spitzer is known for his ruthless, take no prisoners style, which is appropriate when you’re actually taking no prisoners. And though Dickerson gives Spitzer props for having the foresight to prosecute Wall Street for its illegal pillaging of American society way back in 2005, his conclusion is unequivocal: no forgiveness.

Forgiveness. It’s a fascinating concept in the political context. Politicians, like celebrities, have their marriages fail on the public stage: John Edwards, Newt Gingrich, Weiner, Spitzer, Mark Sanford. They parade with the cuckold wives, standing beside them to prop up their lost credibility. We tut tut and gossip and judge, then go have one too many and make out with the neighbor’s husband or hook up with old high school girlfriends on Facebook.  It all begs the question: do we want politicians to be philosopher kings, above and away from the public in geography and morality, or should we accept them as a reflection of who we are? Can they serve the public owning their humanness or do we have to hold them to moral perfection (which includes the obligatory church-going?) Might these expectations result in a powder keg of unrealistic expectation? Might the celeb status of our politicians contribute to their spectacular failings?

Am I asking these questions because I’m looking for a way to forgive Spitzer because I admire his tenacity, his mind, and the good that I can still see him achieve in public office? As a woman, am I participating in a paternalistic culture that shames women by doing so?

Or might I be becoming a more equal opportunity forgiver, able to see nuance in not just the infidelity of women, but men as well?

Why I Won’t be Wearing a Hoodie

White Americans can absolutely feel sadness, anger, and shame at the death of Trayvon Martin. We can empathize with a victim. But we are not the victims.

The George Zimmerman trial has arrived on the heels of the Jodi Arias trial with the timeliness of an NBC summer series, here to satisfy our bloodlust for the spectacle of murder.  And although it’s so darn hot, here come the hoodies to mark solidarity with the young black victim.

I sympathize.  I empathize.  I mourn.  I raise my angry fist against racial injustice.  But I won’t be wearing a hoodie.  Thousands of white Americans like me have risen up in a united front to protest the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin.  We celebrated the ripples of racial awareness that his death has brought to light.  We have flooded the blogosphere, changed our avatars, and posted to our Facebook walls for all to see that we are decidedly against the killing of innocent black children, in case anybody had thought otherwise.

I’ve kept on the sidelines of the Trayvon Martin coverage, watching and reading, with a sense of

Michele Obama

unease.  In the wake of what was supposed to have been the ushering in of a post-racial America with President Obama’s face and his wife’s strong and shapely arms, this shooting in Florida serves as an almost perfect platform from which to call attention to the blatant bigotry that still poisons this country.  It’s a way to say:  Hold On. We might have a black first family, but there are schmoes in Alabama who believe that they are better than that Ivy League-schooled, world-traveled, democratically elected man because they are white.  And what’s more, they might think that the country might just be a little better off if he is swinging from a high branch. And although these opinions might have been quieted or spoken about in the confines of that man’s home in the past, the fervor and venom with which we attack our political figures in the media has unwittingly  provided a podium for his racist speech, integrated into social media.  The black jokes of the prosperous eighties that were quieted by the liberals spreading “political correctness” are crawling their way back into the vernacular.  What might seem like harmless talk is the groundswell of the white American population, using a wink and a nod and now a gun, to keep the black folks in their rightful place, below us.

Is Trayvon Martin the obvious conclusion to the racial divide brought into the open by the election of our first black President?  Has this been coming?  The symbol of Barack Obama’s face has been replaced by that of a seventeen-year-old boy in a hooded sweatshirt, the target and the outlet.  By self-righteously donning a hoodie and trying to identify with Trayvon, is white America doing the black community or the country as a whole any favors?  We are not the victims, even if we are not either the aggressors.  But the hoodies?  They seem to be a cop-out from addressing what the real issue is here.  There is a color divide in the United States.  It is socio-economic and geographically and racially based, it is exploited by our politicians and our talking heads, for gains that have nothing to do with the public good.  It tells us that we should hate, that we are different than those of another color, that there is a fundamental disparity between what the blue states want and what the red states believe, and that the roots of those differences are evil.

The hoodies feel like a distraction.  The false unity of the hoodies distracts from what can be a true unifying thought: by listening to the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and fears of the “other,” might we realize that the answer is not simply black and white: I wear a hoodie, therefore I am not racist.  The more complicated answer might be that we are all a mix of red and blue, that our states are purple, and that to honor a young boy we need to look inside ourselves and see not just the stoicism of Trayvon Martin, but the seeds of George Zimmerman.

The 4th Amendment, the 4th Estate, and the Slope upon which we Slip

If we’re to welcome truth and transparency as we say we do, why the urge to persecute a truth teller?

In our earliest Politics and Government courses, we learn about how the United States set up a system of checks and balances to keep one particular part of government from becoming too powerful and thus, tyrannical. And so the branches were separated into executive, legislative, and judicial – each with distinct responsibilities and powers that could reel in the other two. We decentralized power from the federal to the state to give more power to the people and then imposed voting restrictions to make sure the people didn’t amass too much direct power themselves.

 

Unwritten into the three branches of government, but included in the Bill of Rights, is a fourth that, when used in the manner in which it was conceived, provides a check to an out of balance government that has merged the three branches into an monster of our own creation. At least, that’s what Edward Snowden is counting on the Fourth Estate to provide. His life, and much more, depends on it.

 

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of fear, especially when we have the first hand experience of terrorism in our recent memory. Many of us in New York and Washington witnessed the assaults on 9/11 firsthand. I did. In the wake of fear, we forfeited certain rights in the name of safety. And that’s what this debate that the president keeps saying he’s open to having is really all about: how much of our civil liberties are we willing to sacrifice in the name of safety? The Patriot Act was born of a time where we, as a nation, felt vulnerable to violence. We allowed our legislators to loosen its grip on our search and seizure laws to intercept information from terrorists. It was for our safety, and because the image of three thousand corpses lay fresh in our minds, we gave a half-hearted protest. Because we weren’t really protesting it. Because it felt safe.

 

And yet.

 

The great James Madison, in his discussion of what we should include in this radical experiment of a country, considered the checks on government to be tantamount to its lasting success. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

 

And yet, in giving the powers that be the go ahead to mine personal data, to torture, to assassinate, to use drones, to hold prisoners indefinitely and to persecute those who risk all to tell us about it is exactly a government who has failed to control itself. The checks aren’t working. The balance has tipped. And the last ditch effort of a true government of, by, and for the people is to bring the truth to the people through the press and hope they haven’t become so insulated by streams of information that they can discern what is at stake. And act.

 

The Fourth Estate cuts both ways: it can exonerate, and it can convict in the court of public opinion which wields incredible power. And the smear campaign predictably begins, with journalists combing through Snowden’s teenage web presence to his girlfriend’s salacious job. Much has been made about his GED, which speaks more to elitism than Snowden’s capability.  It’s lazy, it misses the point, and it tarnishes the bad name that some liberals have already earned. It has prompted respected columnists like Rick Unger, political contributor to Forbes Magazine, to fabricate a quote and deride Snowden’s reputation and respectability based on it.

 

“Snowden declared, during a live chat with the Guardian on Monday, that he believes that “all spying is wrong.” And because it is Snowden’s personal judgment that all spying is wrong, he also believes it appropriate that he reveal our covert activities to affected foreign governments without a shed of concern for what the rest of his fellow Americans might think about this.”

 

Except nowhere in the transcript of Snowden’s live chatdid he voice that sentiment. It was a deliberate misquote and an example of shoddy journalism by a respected writer in a respectable publication. Why? The revelations that Snowden disclosed secrets about our spy programs to China and at the G20 summit in 2009 provide a welcome relief to those who only want to vilify. Yet if we’re to welcome truth and transparency as we say we do, why the urge to persecute a truth teller? Might it be because we want no part of the truth that’s coming to light, because it opens up a can of worms which, at its bottom, reveals that our president is not the liberal wet dream we hoped he would be? That even without Republican obstructionism lies a man whose political philosophy is more complex than the Aaron Sorkin screenplay we’ve written for him in our imaginations?

 

If we paint Snowden as a bad guy, does that make Obama good? Is this the dichotomy that we have to choose between? Yeah, I kind of think it is. Are we to vilify Snowden for making an awkward situation for the president at this year’s G8 summit? Or do we celebrate that a citizen is making our president take responsibility? That is the job of the populace, who cannot do so if they are not informed. That is the job of the Fourth Estate. It’s how we keep the powers that be in check.

 

Yet, the media has largely kept up with the hero/traitor narrative, with most concluding the latter. Much has been made of his self-extradition to Hong Kong (and now Russia) as traitorous and cowardly, when it’s really another form of information – it brings to attention the lengths this administration has gone to persecute whistle-blowers. They are not safe in America anymore, as they were when Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers. There have even been assertions that Glen Greenwald, Snowden’s (in)famous interviewer (parentheses are depending on the audience reading this), should face persecution himself for the act of journalism.

 

These signify a dramatic change in this country, not only in legislation, but in the mindset of the governed. We have moved from a representative democracy that rests on inalienable rights to secret courts, private subcontractors of the NSA compiling files of our personal digital correspondence and the “people” of the US calling for the head of the person who brought it to light. The big picture here is the loss of the American value system. It’s easy to promote freedom of the press and freedom of speech, due process, and search and seizure protections when you aren’t afraid and there is no direct threat, but it’s much harder when you are. But I think it’s the cornerstone of who we are supposed to be and if we lose that, we lose the identity that people died for, fought for, wrote, argued, and marched for. It’s the last shred of justified exceptionalism.

 

We can question why Snowden’s revelations have prompted outrage because he’s making us confront a truth we’d rather not consider: we like spying. We are okay with unwarranted phone tappings and the blurred lines of the 4th Amendment. Because it  gives us the illusion that we are safer from the bad guys. That illusion is worth its weight in gold – or blood.

Or conscience.