Conventional wisdom has it that this past week marked two milestones in U.S. electoral politics. The first, Republican Scott Brown's upset victory over Democratic "favorite" Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts special election to fill Ted Kennedy's vacant senate seat; the second, the one-year anniversary of President Barack Obama's inauguration.
Each of these events gave politicians and TV talking heads plenty to chew on. But when the two stories merged into a singular media narrative on the future of the Obama presidency, it became an infotainment spectacular. One with all the hyperbole and punditry associated with that other midwinter entertainment extravaganza: the Super Bowl. Instead of picking winners and losers in the big game, this week's media circus was all about handicapping Obama.
Another holiday season has come and gone, and here we are at the dawn of a new year and a new decade. Regardless of religious, social or philosophical differences, it seems that nearly everyone celebrates the holidays in some way and for one reason or another. But even with the various views of importance placed upon the holidays we do share one common aspect as individuals as demonstrated by our annual nostalgic review of the previous year with high hopes for a better one to come.
We wonder is each year so bad or disappointing that we persistently hope for the better? If that's true, then what are we doing so wrong that each year is a disappointment? Our own philosophy is such that we try to live in the moment and enjoy what we have rather than seeking fulfillment in time yet to arrive.
The recent spate of high-profile intelligence failures -- most notably the attempted Christmas Day bombing on board Northwest Airlines fight 253 -- put me in mind of an old Groucho Marx line: "Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms." In the days following the foiled terrorist plot, the usual suspects in and out of official Washington demonstrated their own faulty intelligence.
On one hand, Obama administration officials struggled to save face in the wake of an embarrassing, and potentially catastrophic, security lapse. On the other, a handful of House Republicans sought to score a few political points -- and raise a little campaign money in the bargain -- by politicizing this latest terrorist episode. Meanwhile, syndicated columnists and cable TV pundits were working overtime, spinning the story this way and that. As usual, the ensuing debate over intelligence failures and security breaches generates more heat than light.
At the commencement ceremony held on the Bloomington campus of Indiana University on Dec. 19, 2009, the speaker was honored with the degree of doctor of humane letters and upheld as an exemplary individual before the assembled hundreds of IU graduates. One might have thought that the recipient of this signal distinction was some large-hearted benefactor to the human race.
Maybe a scientist who had dedicated many years of selfless toil to the discovery of a cure for a killer disease. Or a humanitarian who had established schools and hospitals in underserved parts of the world. Possibly an apostle of peace who had worked tirelessly to resolve a festering international conflict. Someone whose heroic efforts had prevented loss of life amid present and future generations of concerned parties in a prolonged conflict.
Unfortunately such reasonable expectations are wide off the mark in regard to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the invited speaker at the winter commencement. The secretary has been best known since 2006 as a prominent enabler of the wars that have ravaged life and society in Iraq and Afghanistan. His most conspicuous recent achievement was advocating the escalation of a merciless war waged in Afghanistan by a powerful, technologically superior military against a country whose essentially defenseless population is innocent of complicity in perpetrating attacks on the United States.
It's apocryphal, but the urban legend goes that Albert Einstein was once asked for his opinion of mankind's greatest invention, to which he curtly replied "compound interest." Compound interest, the underpinning of economic exponential growth and an utterly necessary device for the proper functioning of any economy hardwired for exponential growth, the simultaneously simple and devilishly complicated instrument that is the beating heart of the industrialized world.
Every economic transaction we make is colored by compound interest. We borrow a couple hundred grand to buy a house, make a two grand a month payment on it, yet still owe more than a two grand difference between this and the last payment. Why?
In a week marked by a series of contradictions that could make your head spin, Barack Obama accepted the Noble Peace Prize by channeling none other than George W. Bush. Not only did Obama repeat the Bush-era mantra that al-Qaida is evil incarnate, he snubbed the Norwegian royal family with Bush-like insolence.
And in a move that would make Karl Rove blush, the Nobel Peace Prize winner refused to attend a "Save the Children" concert. According to a story in the Christian Science Monitor, a cardboard Obama stood in for the president at the charity event. Add another item to this week's WTF list.
When Obama was named this year's Peace Prize recipient, conventional wisdom had it that the Nobel Committee selected Obama for one reason and one reason only: he's not George W. Bush. An important distinction to be sure, but hardly prize worthy. Or is it?
One of my professors years ago was a round, little man who liked to warn us, with a twinkle in his eye, "Making predictions is very difficult, especially predictions about the future." Will a bill pass, in what form, and then what will the long-term implications be? It's hard to predict.
Dr. John Geyman, former president of Physicians for a National Health Plan, makes the case in a Tikkun magazine article, "The Affordable Health Care for America Act (HR 3962): Enough Reform to Succeed?" He argues that whatever bill this Congress is able to pass will probably set the cause of single payer health care back because it "would leave in place an inefficient, exploitive insurance industry that is dying by its own hand, even as [the bill] props [the industry] up with enormous future profits through subsidized mandates."
His argument backs up Dr. Marcia Angell, who asks in the Huffington Post, "Is the House Health Care Bill Better than Nothing?"
In 1964 (the year I was born, coincidentally), Richard Hofstadter published, in Harper's Magazine, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." It opened like this:
"American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority."
If it sounds familiar, that's because it is. But more on that later.
On Sept. 30, National Public Radio (NPR) announced, with considerable fanfare, the results of a new poll -- conducted in collaboration with the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health -- that found that the American people feel "profoundly shut out of the current health overhaul debate." Listening to this story, I was reminded of a line from Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
The story, which aired on NPR's Morning Edition, was presented in a fashion that suggested the people's disenfranchisement from critical policy debates, like health care reform, was somewhat surprising -- revelatory in fact. For anyone paying even the most remote attention to grassroots and nationwide efforts to repair this country's broken and dysfunctional health care system, none of this was news.
Rather, this item is just one more indication of the crisis of democracy in this country: a crisis exacerbated by inside-the-beltway journalism practiced by corporate media and so-called public broadcasting.
What is it about nonprofit organizations that they readily lend themselves to self destruction? They just kind of gnaw away from the inside until nothing is left but a name and a list of unattained goals? True enough, there are many successful nonprofits, but it seems that most of those are centered in larger cities or have a more business-like approach, such as The Trevor Foundation or the successful Middle Way House here in Bloomington.
Our attention has been drawn to the smaller groups that organize to address a lack of community support for their causes or to fulfill unmet social opportunities, in particular as related to the LGBTQI community. While these organizations are in dire need, their existence tends to be short-lived, and their failure rate is fairly high.
The formula for organizing seems simple enough. A few well-meaning, well-intentioned folks sense a personal or community need and come together to share ideas and suggestions in an effort to help their fellow citizenry. Then an organization is created, a list of goals developed and a hierarchy of leadership established, based upon individual qualifications, expertise, willingness to serve and availability.