Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Civility, Again

Civility, Again
This blog has never served as a media review, nor will it so serve now. Read: but coming. The but: a point made almost longingly and certainly with an impatience bordering on indignance last evening on CNN’s John King USA. This writer missed part of the segment, but found the gist of it clear. A congresswoman from New York, a Democrat, has decided to found a new caucus, one based on the notion of bipartisan civility revolving around a simple social act: sitting down over a beer or whatever and talking.
They used to do that easily and regularly in Washington. As the congresswoman said, such interaction occurred after legislative hours and with no agenda other than sociability. The habit reflected a politics of constructive disagreement. We have descended into a politics of hate. As the Democratic political consultant Conrad Belcher pointed out, somebody elects these screaming memies—i.e., we live in a culture of hatred—but that seems only partly the point and merely states the obvious, however unfortunately. If Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Illinois and a Tea Party darling) could discover common personal ground with, say, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont, and an avowed socialist), perhaps he would stop whining about socialist plots to take over the government and start acting like an adult.
My first experience of Washington came as an only slightly stealthy Democrat on a Republican internship designed to introduce high school students to the workings of the Hill. True, we met with nothing but Republican Congressmen and Senators, including Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona), a precursor of the Tea Party. And yet they all, Goldwater included, made it clear that they took for granted the necessity of working respectfully with the opposition. And they all had plans for a dinner party at least one evening that week at which they would have a Democrat within conversational distance. They took civility as part of the legislative landscape.
I came away from that week deeply impressed. We spent some time as a group in the office of a Rep. McCorkle (R-Nebraska), a friend of Rep. Stuart McKinney (R-Connecticut), the latter a beloved and widely respected moderate lawmaker when such a one could buck his leadership and not have to run for political cover. We then had a free afternoon, and I took up a staffer in McCorkle’s office on her invitation to come back for a while.
In the middle of my licking envelopes to send to constituents in Lincoln, the staffer interrupted me. The congressman wanted to meet me. This extremely nice man encouraged me to work as a volunteer for his Democratic colleague, Rep. William R. Cotter (D-Connecticut) who represented my district, or rather my parents’ since my first vote would not come till the following year. No irony in the suggestion, just generous collegiality. I wonder how many such interactions occur now in such a tone.
The media alternately marveled and caviled at the banality of the President’s having Skip Gates and a Cambridge policeman to the South Lawn of the White House for beers to soothe a notable case of incivility, by both Gates and the cop. The congresswoman from New York clearly sees past the banality of such gestures. Indeed. They allow us to live with each other. And that grace seems notably lacking at the moment.
Chapel Hill, NC
October 26, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Moammar Gaddafi, apparently, has died. The dictator is dead; long live the National Transitional Council and whatever follows it. How this news will resonate in Damascus and Sana’a one can only guess. One suspects, at any event, that the picture of a wounded or killed Gaddafi will acquire iconic status, unless its gruesomeness reminds too many people on all sides of the gruesomeness all around them in their streets and bazaars as the Arab Spring extends past summer into fall.
Before we get too far ahead of the facts on the ground—as I write CNN continues to exhibit caution about the reports of Gaddafi’s demise—we might think about how we got here. It appears, for example, that a NATO sortie may have fired missiles that hit Gaddafi’s convoy as it escaped the impending fall of his hometown, Sirte. This raises rather poignantly a couple of questions.
I have defended President Obama’s much maligned leadership style on this blog, and the fall of Gaddafi presents more evidence in its favor. When the NATO mission took shape, with us briefly in the lead and then in support over the not very long haul, the arrangement became the target of criticism from the right in the United States. Sens. Lindsay Graham and John McCain, in particular, characterized the plan as ineffective. One will find it interesting to see how they eat this particular crow.
However Graham and McCain preserve their integrity or not, their opposition to the NATO mission issues from a number of perspectives, not least the American exceptionalist position that we lead everything. Obama, instead, believes in partnership when appropriate, a belief based on a realistic assessment of American power and responsibilities. The Graham-McCain complaints, however, also speak to another oft-observed characteristic of our society: a lack of patience. Given a chance, Obama’s NATO strategy, run by an American admiral, did precisely what he said it would do, as CNN’s reporters have noted this morning. Given a chance.
We shock easily in part because we believe in instant truths, only to see them unravel over time. Steve Jobs founded Apple, then left in a conflict with the corporate style of its one-time partner AOL. Apple tanked. When Jobs returned to a basket-case version of his company noone gave him a chance to turn it around. Noone had the patience, in other words, to give him a chance. Shortly before his death Apple had a moment as the largest corporation in the United States.
What we think we know evolves over time. The competition in the media, one of our principal sources of information, to provide information instantly, serves us in the moment but does us a disservice over time. We cannot know everything at once, not even whether a new military strategy will work, or maybe particularly a military strategy.
Obama stands for a kind of politics of patience. This drives those who live by media-time and speak in sound-bytes crazy, and engenders all sorts of phony charges of weakness and ineptitude. In fact we have a very canny leader, if only we would let ourselves see patience as a virtue in a president. After all, how many Republicans considered FDR an idiot on December 6, 1941?
Obama has brought us a vision of the president as a patient philosopher-king, his recent spate of worried campaigning notwithstanding. I almost wish he would fall back on his oft-repeated willingness to serve a single term, a declaration we have not heard from him in some time. That way, if he must leave office—and I obviously belong to the “say it ain’t so” faction on this—he can do so with the consistency of one who valued more than political success.
PS—McCain exceeded even my low opinion of him.

Chapel Hill, NC
October 2, 2011

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Doctors: who needs them? Duh, we all do. Even Steve Jobs did, after a futile attempt to avoid them, at least allopaths, the "conventional" ones. Like Melville's Bartleby, we "would prefer not to," in the same way we would prefer, say, never to get sick. As Jobs himself said, we "want to go to heaven without having to die," the way we try to avoid more trivial inconveniences in life. Heavy, large, slow computers, for instance.

Jobs learned; I have learned, though not through mortal combat as he did. A medication became toxic and decided to attack my brain, kidneys, major muscle groups and other innocent victims like my sense of balance and ability to speak clearly. A medication, mind you, something devised to help those of us suffering from a mental illness, manic depression. Of course, I helped by rebelling against lithium's side-effects and getting off it with inappropriate suddenness. Two weeks of hell followed, then two weeks in the hospital, and now recuperation.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in my adopted hometown, has built an enormous and interconnected complex of hospitals, in which I spent time shuttled among at least three. From one room, my favorite, I had a view that suggested a castle keep standing watch over a magnificent parade of clouds, disconnected from any terrestrial reference. I floated--when I managed not to fall off a chair and raise the ire of my nursing staff and everybody else who watched it all on a patient surveillance camera feed--in what I have heard described by New Yorkers as "the best place in America to get sick."

I cannot claim a fortune comparable to Job'; I have no money at all. UNCH's staff knew this. In fact, a financial aid officer started working with me during my stay and continues to do so. This serves their interest, of course, but it also serves mine in that she has introduced me to sources of help of which I had known nothing.

A university town such as Chapel Hill--a great university town, and I did not go to school here--attracts smart and gifted people, and more than my share of them cared and still care for me as both an in- and out-patient. What did I do to deserve this? Nothing more than something very stupid. Think if I lived in the boonies somewhere, or in an impoverished country. The next time you want to challenge traditional medicine--and I had my moments even in this hospitalization--remember the graces of my care by e.m.t's and nurses and doctors and physical therapists mostly there for the right reasons, and my outcome, walking with trekking poles, but walking, unlike when I entered in an ambulance. Steve Jobs died in the hands of Western medicine, but he lived unexpected years in that same care.

Chapel Hill
October 6, 2011

Saturday, October 1, 2011

hard truths

We hear a lot about the dynamics of race in our politics, particularly presidential politics. President Obama has, of course, served as a lightning rod for the attitudes race surfaces, but to the surprise and dismay of some, he does not go out of his way to enter this domain. We so easily think of him as black, and forget that he is half-white. And we forget that which “we” regards his race profoundly colors the way “we” see him and others. A case in point: the Congressional Black Caucus, both their members and their recent conference at which Obama spoke so forcefully and, to the private consternation of some attendees, challengingly. They understandably show great pride in having as president an African-American, whom they choose to see as one of them, and therefore theirs in some unique way the rest of us do not, cannot share. To their chagrin, the President does not share their view. He has more than one foot in their end of the pool, for sure, and when he speaks to them his cadence, his diction, his rhetoric, even his pitch lilt slightly toward the speech of southern black migrants to Chicago, with echoes of Dr. King. He speaks this way to one special constituency with which he shares much, but not everything, and to whom he likewise owes much—but again, not everything. We have not ended racism in the United States, but one begins to see a shift in how it plays out in our lives. Blacks no longer form the largest minority; Latinos have surpassed them. Herman Cain speaks eloquently to the fact that the black experience has ceased its more apparent than real one-time univocality, like him or not. Candidates such as Obama or North Carolina State Senator Ty Herrell insist that they represent all their constituents equally, not just those with whom they share—or not—a sub-culture and skin tone.
The assimilationist tendency of politicians such as Obama has one interesting side-effect that particularly irks the members of the Black Caucus. They have lost some of their sense of specialness, of uniqueness and yes, of entitlement, none of which they feel prepared to relinquish, and with some very good reasons. And yet they sometimes seem blind to others and their very good reasons for attention. Some, such as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California), seem unaware or unconcerned that they come across as spoiled children in complaining that the President pays them too little heed. They do not have a special claim on him, but the same claim we all have, however unique both his role and their vindication in history: the claim to his very divided attention as chief executive to our national and personal well-being and freedom. Have we perfected the melting-pot theory of American cultural absorption? Of course not. Have we conquered racism? Hell, no. We have, however, approached a point where a black politician can eschew political blackness. Those of another generation and more left-leaning views—a Waters or a Cornel West—find this repugnant, but perhaps it has become almost safe to name such parochialism while remaining sympathetic to the particulars of its grievances. Or if not safe, then perhaps necessary.

Chapel Hill, NC
September 25, 2001