Politics

Parting Words

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“I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad. I believe tragic things happen. I think there’s evil in the world, but I think at the end of the day, if we work hard and if we’re true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time. That’s what this presidency has tried to be about. … at my core, I think we’re going to be OK. We just have to fight for it, we have to work for it and not take it for granted.”

— Barack Obama at the conclusion of his final press conference as President of the United States,

January 18, 2017

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Letter to the Outgoing President

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A couple weeks back, I did something I’ve never done before: I sent an email to the President of the United States.

I didn’t expect a response. Honestly, I didn’t even expect that he would see it with his own eyes, as opposed to some anonymous staffer. Nevertheless, as I contemplated the waning days of Barack Obama’s presidency, I experienced a sense of personal connection and impending loss that was unlike anything I’ve ever felt for an an outgoing president. I felt compelled to reach out and say a few things to the man.

History and hindsight will be the ultimate judges of whether Obama was a good president, and what lasting impact his presidency may have. Personally, I think the future is probably going to look upon him quite favorably. (If anyone reading this happens to disagree, well, in the immortal words of The Dude, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.) I won’t pretend I wasn’t occasionally frustrated or disappointed by him. He flat-out failed to deliver on one of his campaign promises that meant a lot to me: Our extra-national gulag at Guantanamo Bay remains in operation, its handful of remaining inmates trapped in a legal Phantom Zone and the very existence of the thing a blot on America’s moral character. But given the resistance he faced in Congress to quite literally everything he proposed, I really can’t lay the blame for this one at his feet. Also, I wish he’d been more effective at selling his administration’s achievements and countering the other side’s non-stop avalanche of disinformation that’s led to some people actually thinking, among other things, that “Obamacare” and the ACA are two different things. But again, that’s not all on him. The Democrats in general have failed on this point. Finally, I wish he hadn’t been so doggedly determined to keep reaching across the aisle when the Republicans made it very clear from the very beginning that they were not, under any circumstances, going to work with him. There were times when he looked like Charlie Brown chasing after that damned football, with all of us knowing that Republican Lucy was just going to jerk it away and send him flying through the air again. It was embarrassing, frankly… and watching good progressive ideas get whittled away compromise by compromise (and still failing to pass) was pretty damn infuriating. But it was his belief in the inherent goodness of people, and in their willingness to listen to a rational appeal — his optimism that he could bridge the partisan divides that had opened up during the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations — that drew me to him in the first place. As satisfying as it might have been to hear him tell Mitch McConnell to go screw himself, that’s not the man I originally voted for.

In the end, Obama did not change the country as much as many of us hoped he would. Partisan tribalism is worse than ever, everybody is pissed off about everything, and “post-racial America” turned out to be a cruel fantasy. Indeed, his mere existence in the Oval Office seemed to draw out the very worst elements of this country from whatever dank hole in which they’d been hibernating. There’s no question in my mind that the incoming administration is the product, at least in part, of a backlash against whatever social progress the Obama administration did manage to foster. And all of that is immensely disappointing. I really hoped eight years ago that we were more evolved than that as a nation, and I can’t help feeling like we let him down, not the other way round, because we just weren’t ready for what he represented. But no matter what happens in the next four years, the Obama administration will always be a turning point in this country’s history. He was the first non-white president, and nothing is ever going to change that; I’m still proud of him for that achievement, and proud of this nation for taking a step forward by electing him. I hope I live long enough to see another such step forward, whether it’s another person of color or a woman, or perhaps even both.

I’m proud of him for much more than being an interesting statistic, though. Of the four presidents I’ve seen in my adult life — indeed all the presidents of my lifetime — Barack Obama is the one I most admire as a human being. His intellect, his sense of humor, his down-to-earth decency (so wonderfully evidenced by the photo above)… the fact that his administration remained scandal-free for eight years, that I didn’t have to make any excuses for him as I so often have for the last Democratic president… his dedication to his wife and children, the very embodiment of family values… and the dignity and unflappably cool head he so consistently showed in the face of unprecedented disrespect and obstruction from his political opponents… by all those measures, I would say Obama has been an extraordinary president. And I’m going to miss him.

Thanks, Obama. Sincerely.

 

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If Our Democracy Is to Work the Way It Should…

President Obama’s Farewell Address tonight had a number of memorable passages as he tried to put an epilogue on the past eight years, but to me there were none more salient or moving than his words about race, reflexive partisanship, and the tendency to demonize “the other”:

…if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

 

For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face. Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change.

 

We have to pay attention and listen.

 

For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.

 

For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles, who it was said were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.

 

So regardless of the station we occupy; we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

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Facts Are Stubborn Things

“Facts are stubborn things and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

— John Adams, 1770

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Stronger Together

“I will never apologize for saying that the future of humanity and the future of the world is going to be defined by what we have in common as opposed to those things that separate us and ultimately lead us [into] conflict. We don’t realize our potential as a country when we’re preventing blacks or Latinos or Asians or gays or women from fully participating in the project of building American life.”

— President Barack Obama

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Election Day

Surely I can’t be the only one who has an anxious voice droning in their heads this morning, repeating over and over, “The Death Star has cleared the planet… the Death Star has cleared the planet… ”

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Moving Forward with Tiny, Stumbling Steps

Today, an American president is visiting Cuba for the first time in nearly a century and calling for an end to the last vestige of a Cold War that supposedly ended 25 years ago, an ineffective embargo that accomplished nothing of practical value but certainly generated a lot of human misery.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, barbarous fanatics murdered a bunch of innocent people. One step forward, two steps back, round and round she goes.

On days like this, it’s easy to give in to despair, to allow yourself to think that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and nothing we do matters because the problems we face are intractable. One step forward, two steps back. But one paragraph of President Obama’s speech to the people of Cuba this morning stood out for me:

But just stop and consider this fact about the American campaign that’s taking place right now. You had two Cuban Americans in the Republican Party, running against the legacy of a black man who is President, while arguing that they’re the best person to beat the Democratic nominee who will either be a woman or a Democratic Socialist. Who would have believed that back in 1959?  That’s a measure of our progress as a democracy.

I participated tonight for the first time in a Democratic caucus in my home state of Utah. I’d heard stories of caucuses in years past where only a dozen people showed up, but today, tonight, the lines were stretched around the block. I had a pretty quick and easy experience myself, but I saw accounts on Facebook of people waiting hours to cast their ballots. In Utah, the reddest of the red states, where membership in the Republican party is all but assumed. Were all of these people Democrats? Can there possibly be so many Democrats in this entire state? Probably not. But if that many independents and, yes, probably some Republicans too, were moved to get involved tonight, something big is swirling around out there. And my gut feeling is that it’s pretty positive.

I grieve for the people of Brussels, just as I did for the people of Ankara and Paris before them. And I am genuinely worried about the possible outcome of the general election this fall. But no matter what happens in November, I firmly believe the forces of civilization are moving forward step by fumbling step. And the barbarians and fanatics of all descriptions — including our homegrown ones — can’t stop it. Not in the long run, anyhow.

As Andrew Sullivan used to frequently say on his departed and much-missed Daily Dish blog, know hope.

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My, How Times Change…

elvis_follow-that-dreamThat beautiful weekend I was looking forward to Friday evening turned into a gray and rainy Sunday afternoon… the perfect time to watch an Elvis movie on television, just like when I was a kid!

Now, now, don’t be mean! While it’s true that Elvis Presley’s cinematic oeuvre is not exactly, shall we say, challenging fare, his movies, especially the earlier ones made before Elvis himself got bored with them, are reliably harmless entertainment that really is perfect for leaving on in the background while you do other things. In recent years, I’ve become rather fond of them and the cheerful escapism they offer. Sometimes, though, the world they depict seems so very far away from our own that it may as well be some alien planet in a science-fiction flick.

Consider the set-up of today’s selection, Follow That Dream from 1962. Elvis plays a member of a vagabond family that decides to homestead a patch of Florida land where their car just happens to run out of gas. It’s stated early on that Elvis’ character receives a disability check from the Army on account of a bad back, which he shrugs off as he lifts the car over an obstacle in the road(!). Later, as he’s explaining his relationship to the other family members, he mentions that a pair of twin boys aren’t really his brothers, they’re distant cousins that he and his father took in after their parents died, in part because they came with benefit checks of their own. So, to reiterate, Elvis’ character is a welfare cheat and a homeless squatter who uses children to increase the monthly take! And all this is played for laughs, presented to the audience as if it’s cute and quirky, and maybe even heroic, i.e., if the government is dumb enough to keep mailing those checks, why shouldn’t the family be cashing them?

Remember, this movie was made in 1962.

I just kept thinking that today, a half-century later, a whole lot of people would be calling for this family of cheating bums to be tossed over Trump’s Wall into Mexico, or worse… because if there’s one thing that our society no longer tolerates, let alone smiles about, it’s people on welfare, especially if there’s any hint that they’re gaming the system. Which is funny, because we have no problem with the robber barons in the financial sector gaming that system at everybody else’s expense. I don’t think this movie could even be made today, to be honest, or, if it was, it would have a very different spin on the scenario…

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Don’t Believe These Crackpot Lies…

Superman wasn’t the only Eisenhower-era hero who had something to say about the American ideal. Here’s Batman saying essentially the same thing in somewhat blunter terms… as Batman does, of course:

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Like I said yesterday, these old PSAs look quaint and preachy, even laughable, to our jaded modern eyes, like those 16mm educational films that people, ahem, of a certain age will remember drowsing through in school. You know, those much-spliced, color-faded, warbly-sounding propaganda pieces that showed little Billy becoming a better citizen by getting to his box-boy job on time every afternoon, or whatever. In all their simplistic earnestness, though, these comic-book messages deliver a powerful signal-to-noise ratio. Of course, they were created as a response to the rampant bigotry and xenophobia of their day — the 1950s really weren’t some perfect age of grace that we fell from with the coming of the sexual revolution, no matter what conservatives like to imagine. And how sad is it that they are still so brutally relevant today, nearly 70 years after the fact?

But I like to think that’s as much because of the timelessness of their values as the tenacity of the ills they address. Remember, kids: “Don’t believe those crackpot lies about people who worship differently, or whose skin is of a different color, or whose parents come from another country.  Remember our American heritage of freedom and equality!

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