“…No Arts; No Letters; No Society…”

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In early November last year, I returned to the Leviathan.

In it, Thomas Hobbes grapples with the question of sovereignty and considers the human condition in a state of nature in which there is:

…no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (Leviathan, XIII)

In returning to Hobbes, we gain purchase on a future that only now begins to dawn as we in these United States consider abandoning completely our public support of the arts and letters upon which our very commonwealth depends.

There will be, I am confident, plenty of posts about the many initiatives funded by the NEH and NEA that have transformed the lives of communities across the country, and further, important advice about how one might effectively advocate for continuing and augmenting our shared financial commitments to both.

But the passage from Hobbes provokes a different set of considerations. It requires us to think about what a total renunciation of the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities says about who we are and what we aspire to be.

Washington Post, March 16, 2017

The passage from Hobbes suggests not simply that the arts and letters enhance social and political life, but that they are the very markers of the existence of a society. When we as a community say: we will no longer support the arts and humanities as a common good for which we are all responsible, we are saying: we are no longer a community, and there is no good toward which we might orient our lives.

The issue here is not whether the arts and humanities can or will be supported by other means, which they surely will, nor whether they have practical or economic value, which they surely do.

Rather, at issue is what happens when a community repudiates its deepest self?

We ought to pause a moment to consider this question before we make the decision to withdraw public funding from those core activities that make us who we are.

What is important here is not simply that the arts and humanities are funded, but that they are publicly funded because we as a community have made a collective decision to invest in ourselves and in a more just and meaningful future we might yet imagine.

For in the end, without the arts, without the humanities, there is no shared future; there is no society at all, but rather, a collection of increasingly isolated individuals for whom life has become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Mature Leadership: On Bending the Arc

By | LwCH, Politics, The Long Road | No Comments

Shortly after Barack Obama won the 2008 Iowa caucuses, I wrote a blog post entitled Toward a Mature Politics that began with the Kantian idea that enlightenment requires us to relinquish our self-incurred immaturity. Then, as now, I associated petty hyper-partisan politics with adolescence; and I saw in Obama’s candidacy the possibility of a more mature politics.

As President Obama returns again to his role as citizen, I want to pause a moment here to reflect on an aspect of his legacy that has meant a lot to me as someone who has sought over the last eight years to chart path to leadership: his maturity.

Although Kant connects the maturity of enlightenment with the capacity to think for oneself, maturity of leadership involves much more than independent thinking.

Mature leaders are able to listen attentively through the noise of the moment so as to discern how best to put values into practice; they are able to distance themselves from their own cathartic reactions in order to consider what the situation requires. There is a stillness in maturity, a groundedness that anchors the courage to enact a more just and beautiful world.

A model of mature leadership is what I yearned for in Obama then, and what I am grateful for now.

The change we believed in at the time remains most palpable to me today when I look back to see how much our kids have grown.

Less obvious, however, is the distance each of us have travelled over the past eight years. For me, it has involved the decision to put my educational commitments to the liberal arts endeavor into practice through administrative work first at Penn State, and now as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State, our first two land-grant universities.

This decision was informed in no small part by the hope of which Theodore Parker first spoke before Martin Luther King, Jr. refined it and Barack Obama wove it into Presidential politics. Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister and abolitionist, put it this way:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but a little ways; I cannot calculate and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice. Things refuse to be mis-managed long.1

Taking up this idea, King distilled it to its essence when, in his 1956 Statement on Ending the Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, he said:

The arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice.2

Expanding the idea yet further in an April of 2008 speech entitled “Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Obama emphasized that the arc of the moral universe does not bend on its own:

You know, Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice. But what he also knew was that it doesn’t bend on its own. It bends because each of us puts our hands on that arc and bends it in the direction of justice.

These three articulations themselves arc over a 150-year history that ties the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement to the election of the first African-American President of the United States.

But even as we celebrate the justice toward which this arc undeniably tends, maturity requires us to remain vigilant, for the facts of the world teach us that the bending is not as smooth as the eloquence of the formulation leads us to believe. And yet, without the eloquence and the hope that a more just world is possible, maturity, for all its sobriety, will remain unable to chart a course toward a more perfect union.

So, if “things refuse to be mis-managed long,” mature leadership will be needed to bend the arc yet further. A commitment to that endeavor is the most enduring of Obama’s legacies, and the most urgent of our responsibilities.

Responding to Complexity with Nuance and Grace

By | Politics, The Liberal Arts, The Long Road | One Comment

In the wake of last week’s violence, we have again become caught up in the fraught dichotomy into which public discourse always seems to force us. It is as if somehow the human capacity to hold complex thoughts consistently together dissolves the moment ideas enter the public sphere.

The heartbreaking killings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana require us to face the pathological pattern of violence white police officers continue to perpetrate on fellow African American citizens even as we mourn and denounce the assassination of police officers in Dallas.

The situation, our situation today in the United States, demands something difficult of us. It requires us to come to terms with the long and abiding history of racism that was woven into the fabric of the American experience long before it was ratified and legitimized in the texts of our founding documents.

There is no short term solution for this endemic racism and injustice. But there is a longer, more difficult path on which we might embark that will, over time, enable us to create a more just and a more perfect union.

It is the path of a certain kind of education, a liberal arts education deeply attuned to the fraught and broken world we share yet committed to cultural engagement and social justice.

A culturally engaged liberal arts education facilitates the capacity of citizens to respond to complexity with nuance and grace, and it deepens our shared commitment to make the world a better, more just, place.

Nuance is vital, because it involves the ability to discern the texture of a situation, to recognize how history saturates the present, how the contours of experience and identity and interest intersect, playing themselves out in our interactions and through our institutions. Grace, however, it’s vital too, because it empowers us to navigate our relationships with one another elegantly, that is, in ways that affirm and honor the experiences of others so that we might begin to move together toward a justice broader and more enduring than our finite selves.

These capacities for nuance and grace, however, remain impotent unless they are enlivened by an intentional choice to weave a commitment to justice into our relationships with one another.

The sort of liberal arts education we are seeking to cultivate in the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University is grounded in the belief that our deepest divisions, our most enduring social and political challenges, can only be redressed by a citizenry capable of and committed to pursuing justice with nuance and grace.

Ours is a vision of the liberal arts endeavor deeply rooted in the University’s mission to transform the lives of our students and improve the life of our shared body politic.

To begin to put this vision of a culturally engaged liberal arts education animated by a commitment to justice into practice, we must redress our collective failure to educate a more diverse generation of faculty. This is why we have focused significant attention on graduate education, and specifically, on recruiting graduate students like Shenika Hankerson, who brings her rich understanding of cultural practices to her research in ways that cultivate an appreciation of and respect for difference.

An education in the liberal arts is an education in the art of the possible. In the wake of the events of the past week, in the wake of the long history of racism this country continues to endure, it is all too easy to remain pinned like butterflies, as James Baldwin put it.

The harder path is the longer road we embark upon whenever we take up the liberal arts endeavor and seek the justice that is possible despite the very real injustices we continue so poignantly to encounter.

Cross posted on Medium:

View story at Medium.com

On Canvassing, Four Years Later

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Today, the girls and I, along with my colleague, Dan Letwin, and his son, Nick, took to the local streets to canvass for Barack Obama as we did four years ago.

A lot has changed in four years, particularly with the kids, as the pictures posted here attest.

Changed too is the sense of possibility we had four years ago when we really didn’t know if it was even reasonable to think that America might elect an African American President.

Even then, however, I was trying to live a kind of critical optimism that would enable us, in what still remains “a dangerously adolescent country (Baldwin),” to cultivate a sense of our own limits and to nurture more just relationships with one another.

Today, I took to the Pennsylvania streets for Barack Obama despite what I believe to be his very significant failures to move our understanding of justice from one based on retribution and violence to one oriented by a deep sense of how our lives are woven intimately into the lives of others and the well-being of the world in which we together live. Retributive justice is, of course, no justice at all; rather, justice is rooted in our abilities to respond to others, however different they may be, in ways that move us toward a mutually more fulfilling life.

The rhetoric of retribution in the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the unrepentant use of drone strikes are two of the ways this administration, like the last, perpetuates a cycle of violence that is destructive of any possibility of peace. Even at this late date in human history, when retribution has proven itself unable to perpetuate anything other than perpetual violence, we humans remain addicted to the short lived satisfaction it offers, no matter how many times we experience the pain it will inevitably return to us.

And yet, despite all of that, I nevertheless took to the streets to canvas for Obama with my kids and my colleague because Barack Obama still articulates a compelling vision of what is possible for America, even if America – and perhaps Obama himself – is not fully prepared to live up to the ideals set forth.

I will settle, for now, for a President who recognizes the need for us to take care of one another, who understands the destructive impact our human economy is having on the earth’s ecology, and who has shown himself capable of moving difficult legislation through a recalcitrant and dysfunctional political system.

So today, just like four years ago, we set out to knock on doors for Obama; and today, as then, I found myself at once saddened and heartened. I was saddened by the man who, learning that we were there for Obama, shut his door in the face of three little kids and their somewhat taken aback fathers. That act of rudeness did not rise to the comic level that my argument with the libertarians did four years ago, but still, it demonstrated a lack of civility that has become all too common a part of our civic culture.

I was heartened, however, as I was four years ago, by the few we seemed to convince, and by the woman who was herself so pleased to welcome the six of us onto her front porch, where she listened to these two middle aged fathers still idealistic enough to believe knocking on a few doors could make a difference, and to their three excited kids willing to believe it would too.

Deliberative Dialogue

By | Education, Politics, The Long Road | 6 Comments

This image captures a poignant moment in the Flash Forum in Response to the Arizona Shootings held by the Center for Democratic Deliberation on January 21 at Penn State. The panelists are listening to a student accuse them of being irrational left wing ideologues who are attempting to blame right wing rhetoric for the shootings. 

The image, which I captured with my iPhone, bears reflecting upon because it displays a the range of expressions that suggest something important about the emotional dimension endemic to all political communication.  Each member of the panel has a slightly different look that range from skeptical amusement, to inchoate anger, to concerned disbelief.
As a member of the audience, my heart began to beat a bit faster as I listened to the belligerent tenor of the comment. Plato identified the affection of the soul operative in such situations as thumos, or spirited desire, and he intentionally placed Socrates in situations in which he faced and had to respond to such spirited interlocutors–Thrasymachus in the Republic and Callices in the Gorgias to name the two most famous.
From my perspective, the most interesting and important dimension of the exchange was this: whatever validity this student had in accusing the panel of a left leaning bias was lost by the agonistic manner in which he presented his position. His rhetoric was designed to shame and dominate rather than to question and deliberate. The panel did a nice job of undermining this rhetorical strategy. But the performance of a kind of political speech that erodes the possibility of common understanding served as a very powerful object lesson about how we talk to one another politically.
I was left thinking about how we model political communication in our classrooms and in our lives. When we disagree most vehemently, thumos overtakes us and clouds precisely those capacities we most need for deliberation and understanding: generosity, humility and critical reflection – to name just three.
It was heartening, then, to hear a second student take up the right wing perspective later in the conversation in a more respectful and thoughtful mode. He posed some hard questions that invited us to think further about our own ways of framing the issue, and he did it in a conscientious and considerate way. Professor Hawhee rightly paused at the end to positively reinforce the manner in which he formulated his position.
Sometimes deliberation depends less on what we say than it does on how we say it.

The Specter of Arlen

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Despite the fact that I have never voted for Arlen Specter, I have come to respect some of the values he stood for over his long career in the Senate. As a Republican, he remained an advocate of women’s rights and more recently, as a Democrat, he stood on the right side of the Health Care debate. I had the opportunity to see him work an audience up close late last summer here in State College when he came for a town hall meeting at the Penn Stater.

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Freedom and Healthcare

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WPSU Banner.jpgIn the wake of the Specter town hall I blogged about here, I have been thinking about the underlying political ideology of those who are so angry about health insurance reform. I would characterize those who I experienced there as staunch libertarians. I wrote a blog post about the main problem with this political philosophy – a negative conception of freedom based on an understanding of the human subject as independent – for my latest contribution to WPSU.org. 

To read it, visit the post on their site here.

On God and Government

By | Politics, The Long Road | 5 Comments

I recorded the following video at today’s town hall meeting with Senator Specter in State College at the Penn Stater hotel.  It captures something of the anger and passion of the event. 

It illustrates too an absolute inability to recognize the positive role that government can and does play in people’s lives. It is striking that the lesson this man learned from the way the VA and “the state” supported his wife’s heart transplant is that government is evil and that all we need is prayer to sustain us.

Live Blogging Specter at Penn Stater

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10:03: As this comes to a close, I am feeling at once hopeful and depressed.  A life of anger and hate is difficult. It is painful to see it and to have it seep into the public discourse.

CpLatspecter.jpgHowever, there are many who live in anger and fear and who are here to express the sentiments that grow out of those emotions. I hear a fear that is corrosive.

My hope comes in the way the Senator has responded and listened.  I remain concerned that he is leaving with the impression that people are strongly against reform. 

Specter remains, happily, in favor of keeping a single payer option on the table and is trying to make good decisions.

9:58: A lot of small employers have dropped insurance over the past year. Employers can’t keep up with the cost.  How would reform help with this? Specter insists that insurance companies won’t be able to drop coverage and refuse it. The plan will cut costs he says … and I hope it is strong enough to do that.

9:53: Now the question is: if you vote yes to health insurance reform, should you be held criminally culpable?  Specter says: no. Simple, elegant.

9:45: On to abortion… Happily, Specter is in favor of both life and the right to choice.

9:38: It seems that to change one’s mind about the single payer option in the face of the attempt to garner support for reform (as Obama seems to have done) is to be a lair. Specter defends the notion that we need to be flexible and make changes to our position in the face of the interests of others.  

It is frustrating to hear that the flexibility required to come to agreement is caricatured as duplicity.

9:20: A man tells a compelling story about his wife who needed a heart transplant when they had no money. They prayed on it and God answered: his VA benefits came through and she had the operation and is now healthy. 

The lesson he takes from this: government is evil, prayer is the answer.

He is against healthcare reform because he does not want government to decide to kill his wife!??

Specter makes the obvious point that the VA is a government program.

Oh, and by the way, there seems to be an Obama goon squad somewhere around here. People are worried about it, but I only see a bunch of idealistic looking Specter staffers dressed in coat and tie … and I see John Eich.

9:13:  Apparently Specter is trying to kill us when he advocates for exercise, healthy eating, and regular checkups.  Not sure how that follows, but there it is…

killlawyers.jpg9:10: It seems that the lawyers are causing all the problems in America.  Here is a sign that suggests the lawyers be killed!

This civil discourse indeed!

Specter says that he decided not to shave his head and become a sex symbol after his cancer treatment. Good choice.

9:05: There are now a few more pro reform questions being asked thoughtfully. Specter restates that the single payer plan should be on the table.  He has retained his sense of humor and recognizes that when he advocates for the rights of states, he gets a lot cheers. He predicts it before he says it.

8:55: Watching this, I am increasingly aware of the anger and fear that is animating some people in the country. These are people who genuinely feel threatened by a changing world. I hear it in the loud opposition to the very idea of global warming and any intervention by the government in the lives of individuals.

8:45: Question about public leader’s arrogance, we are apparently on the road to socialism.  The war is allegedly for American freedom. Specter says that we are not moving to socialism, the boisterous people are booing because they don’t believe him.

Specter says he favors a public option.  Says he is here to listen, but I wonder what the impression he is getting about the position of the “American people” from this meeting.  There are just a lot of angry people in this room.

8:40: Second question is from a young man whose father is a plumber without insurance. Asks what they are going to do to help him. He is clearly in favor of insurance reform. Specter says that they are working for universal health insurance (claps and boos combined) and he speaks of a co-operative program.

Specter is talking about changing parties because the Republicans were not willing to engage in a discussion about the stimulus.  He says that when he voted for the stimulus, the Republicans censored him.  He is glad to be able to vote his conscience, not on a partisan label.

8:35: Specter says that your right to free speech ends when you interrupt others trying to exercise the right to free speech. The first question is more of a filibuster than question.  The questioner wants to know “why aren’t you taking more time?” Specter says that they are taking the time to get it right.

Specter is angry and feisty.  There is a strong anger in the hall, but Specter is firm. 

theline.jpg< /span>8:25: Waiting f
or Specter, here are some pictures of the line outside the hall.  It is hard to tell who is for what, but it feels like there are a number of people here early who are against reform.  They have signs, which were not permitted into the hall.  The first 30 people were given cards to ask questions.

Specter comes enters and is talking about the anger he has seen over the past few days as he goes through PA.

Luzier.jpg8:15: I am in the hall after waiting in line for about an hour.  I had a nice talk with Joyce Luzier (shown here on right) from Phillipsburg who is supporting health insurance reform. We had a nice discussion about the importance of reform and sighed as we saw the bus of anti-reformers arrive.

No Recess without a Bill

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WPSU.jpgToday WPSU.org published a blog post of mine in which I advocate for the passage of a strong, comprehensive healthcare reform bill prior to the August recess.

I outline three basic goals the bill should achieve: to cover all Americans, to reduce costs as it increases the quality of care and to avoid increasing the federal deficit.

Congress should not be allow out for recess without passing a comprehensive healthcare reform bill.
Read the post on WPSU.org here, and feel free to comment there or here. 

Force is Not Power

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Today saddens me. 

20 June - 30 خرداد
Although it is not clear what the ultimate outcome of the events that have unfolded in Iran over the last week will be, still, today’s violent response by the Iranian government to protesters contesting the election are tragic in the most ancient sense.
The tragedy is rooted in a fundamental blindness to the powerlessness of violence. Humans seem unable to recognize this blindness, despite its absolute obviousness.  It is not that violence is not effective in repressing the spirit of a people for a time. It certainly is, and we may be bearing witness yet again today to this effectiveness. 
But effective violence is not power; it is mere force. Power comes when communities gather together around a common purpose, for a common good. Power is organic, it grows and can be cultivated. Force is coercive, it destroys and cultivates only despair.
Today as I watched the violence unfold in Iran, I felt at once intimately connected to it and remotely distant from it. The desire to be heard, to press for what one believes, to risk something for justice, this resonates with the human spirit that connects us. Yet the very real horror of looking violence in the face, of having one’s person, one’s very life at stake, that I can barely fathom. All I can do is admire the courage of those who are standing for what they believe is right and the vision of those who refuse to succumb to violence in the process. 
True power lies with them, whatever the immediate outcome of today’s events in Iran. 

One Person = One Broadcaster

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Mousavi.jpgOver the past few days, I have been powerfully moved by the voices from Iranians struggling to be heard that have been delivered to me through Twitter as I monitored the feed from #iranelection.  

In one recent post by the Mousavi1388 feed, which is one of the only ways the candidate who seems to have won the most votes in Iran can communicate, it is written:

We have no national press coverage in Iran, everyone should help spread Mousavi’s message.  One Person = One Broadcaster. #IranElection

A more poignant articulation of the political power of the social web can hardly be imagined. 

I am relieved to see that Twitter itself has recognized the important role their service is playing in Iran.  They have accordingly rescheduled a service maintenance that would have brought their servers offline during a 90 minute period at 9:45pm Pacific time, which would have been around 9:15am in Iran. If the plan to have a nationwide strike tomorrow is to succeed, communication via Twitter is critical for its organization.  I am impressed by Twitter’s sensitivity to the political significance of what is happening and by its ability to alter what was surely a logistically complex undertaking even in normal circumstances.
I am impressed also by all the people around the world who have published addresses to proxy servers that allow the tweets from Iran to bypass the government filters seeking to suppress grassroots communication.
Whatever the ultimate outcome of this struggle is, and my hopes and thoughts are with those in the streets trying to be heard–may they be untouched by violence, the manner in which this political process has unfolded has transformed my understanding of Iran, of the power of social media and of the possibilities that open when communities of communication emerge committed to a noble purpose

Following Events in Iran

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As mentioned early this week, I have been anticipating the election in Iran to see the extent to which the new possibilities for peace emerge as the structure of global politics shifts in the face of the economic crisis and the election of President Obama.

So, this morning I was disappointed to learn that Ahmadinejad had been declared the winner in a supposed landslide.  Since then, I have been following the story in a very interesting way: directly through Twitter and YouTube, I am being exposed to the views and experiences of individuals, unfiltered by the media, either here or in Iran.
Here are some of the links I have been following:

Check out the protests themselves from grassroots video like these:
Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic is doing a very nice job of keeping up on the story with these direct, social web resources:
It is very powerful to be this directly connected to events happening half a world away to people with whom I have no real direct experience. Yet these media offer a more direct glimpse into the event.  They cannot replace solid investigative journalism, but in the immediacy of the moment, they can give a real sense of what is happening. 

Profiting from Health Care

By | Politics, The Long Road | One Comment

I admire the White House’s strategy to press forward on substantive health care reform now and I hope Washington is able to resist the temptation to water down the public option in such a way that the medical-industrial complex can manipulate it for its own obsession with profits.  

I share Robert Reich’s opinion that the public option must be national in scale and able to combine with Medicare so as to be able to force the Pharma, Insurance and medical practitioners to bring costs down.

In his recent New Yorker article, Atul Gawande shows the degree to which the practices of physicians and other medical professionals in certain areas drive the costs of healthcare up by prescribing unnecessary procedures and otherwise over treating patients in order to maximize profits.  This report shows the extent to which the medical profession, to say nothing of the insurance and pharmaceutical companies, “took profit growth to be a legitimate ethic in the practice of medicine.”
It has become increasingly clear that whatever fears people have about a government run healthcare option, it will at least have the benefit of not being at its very core driven by the ethic of profit maximization.  Joe Conason has nicely shown the benefits of a strong publicly funded option, emphasizing the fact that a government program would cut costs right off the top by eliminating price increases associated with maximizing profits for shareholders.
Patients should profit from the healthcare system by receiving better care, not the medical-industrial complex by generating more money.  Aside from a strong belief that everyone has the right to basic health care, the main reason I support a strong public option is to undermine the ethic of profit maximization that has perverted the healthcare system in the United States for too long. 

The Ethics of Drilling

By | Politics, The Long Road | One Comment

I have been asked to continue to blog for WPSU on local politics, so periodically I will be draw your attention here to my posts there.

My latest post concerns the manner in which policy decisions are made in Harrisburg with reference specifically to the question of how to monetize drilling for gas on the Marcellus shale that runs underneath much of the state.  In the post I criticized policy makers for focusing exclusively on economic concerns and failing to frame the question of drilling as a broader, ethical decision.
To read the post and comment, see: The Ethics of Drilling on WPSU.org.

The Shifting Ground

By | Politics, The Long Road | One Comment

Today is the anniversary of the death of Mohammed in 632 CE. The schism that opened in the Muslim world after his death continues to play out in the contemporary political tensions between Sunni Muslims who believe that the first four caliphs where the rightful successors to Mohammed and Shi’ite Muslims who believe that the heirs of the fourth caliph, Mohammed’s cousin, Ali, are the only legitimate successors to Mohammed.

On this anniversary of Mohammed’s death, three stories suggest the shifting ground of global politics in the Middle East and beyond:

  1. Hezbollah, a Shi’ite group backed by Iran and Syria, lost the election in Lebannon this weekend.  This an important defeat because it eases the tensions between Lebannon and Isreal and opens the possibility of talks between the US and Syria, which were put off until after the elections in Lebannon. Some are even crediting an “Obama effect” for the election results.
  2. Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention to make a major policy speech about the principles of peace and security for Israel. It seems that he is feeling the pressure from Obama’s strategy to hold the Israeli government accountable for continuing settlements.
  3. All over Europe, there seems to be a political shifting to the right in the face of the global economic crisis. This unfortunate development, which could have easily been predicted insofar as tacking rightward is a standard, and disturbing, european response to uncertainty. Happily, the American response to such uncertainties seems, if FDR and Obama are any indication, to be precise opposite.

All of these stories suggest that the ground of global politics is shifting in a remarkable and decisive way, a way that opens new possibilities for peace and, of course, violence. It will be interesting to see how the elections in Iran to take place at the end of the week will turn out. That too could prove decisive for the ultimate success of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives.

Let us hope that on this anniversary of the death of the prophet Mohammed, something of the schism between Sunni and Shi’a, between Israel and Palestine, between West and East, can be healed.

The Cairo Speech

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Something more than “mere words” is at stake when the President of the United States, Barack Obama, goes to Cairo, Egypt and makes a speech offering a new beginning to the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world in which he says, among other things, that the responsibility we have to one another as human beings is difficult:

“For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes and yes, religious subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.”

I have written here often of the power of words, and again it must be said that words are themselves actions. When Obama insists upon a stop to Israeli settlements, the words have the power to shift the constellation of forces that have been locked in violent struggle for generations. When Obama says that subjugation in the pursuit of self-interest is self-defeating, that the attempt to elevate one group by repressing another will inevitably fail, he opens up the possibility that another logic might prevail upon the world, one that thinks more responsibly about the responsibilities we have to one another, and to ourselves as interconnected co-habitants of an earth that cannot long sustain our violent ways of relating to one another.
To say that words are actions, of course, is not to say that actions other than illocutionary are superfluous; but those sorts of actions will only be effective if animated by words oriented toward the question of what is just and best for the whole of humanity. Such an orientation has never guided US foreign policy. My hope is that now, with a President with the courage to allow his words to articulate a more global conception of “self-interest,” it might.
I think something like this is heard in the passages from the Koran, the Talmud and the Bible Obama evoked at the end of the speech:

Koran: “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”

Talmud: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.”

Bible: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

2009 Pennsylvania Primary

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In less than a week, we will be going to the polls again here in Pennsylvania. Although this primary lacks the national interest of last year’s Presidential primary, it remains nevertheless important to local politics.  

I thought I would take a moment here to highlight my two small contributions thus far to the local political debate:

    1. A letter the editor of the Centre Daily Times in support of my friend, neighbor and Penn State colleague, Jim Leous, who is running for a position on the school board for the State College Area School District.
    2. A blog post on WPSU.org about the importance of investing in education and my concern that a number of the candidates running for school board are running in order to minimize taxes rather than ensuring that we have a state of the arts school district. 

Cultivating New Ecological Habits

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After listening to this week’s New Yorker comment podcast entitled “Economy vs. Environment” by David Owen, I was struck by three things. 

First, economic prosperity is dirty.  Owens says that “the principle source of [hu]man-made greenhouse gases has always been prosperity.”  The advantage of the current economic downturn is that it has slowed the carbon clock a bit.

Second, new technologies won’t solve our global warming problem.  As Owens suggests, getting increased miles to the gallon is no help if it encourages people to drive more; having electric cars will not help if the electricity is produced by fossil fueled power plants and if we continue, as he writes, “sprawling across the face of the planet, promoting forms of development that are inherently and catastrophically wasteful.”

Finally, the real solution to the energy and global warming crisis lies in the transformation of human habits.  Our habits must change. We must cultivate more sustainable ways of acting and thinking, habits that allow us to live in a more symbiotic way with the planet that sustains us.

To begin, let’s figure out how to live closer to where we work.  Let’s ride public transportation when we can, even if it is inconvenient.  Let’s convince our political representatives that it is in our best interest to pay for and otherwise support things that cultivate habits that support a more symbiotic way of living in the world.

If economic flourishing is going to promote ecological prosperity, the new, green economy will have to serve a whole new set of human habits oriented toward a mutually sustaining relationship between the world and its human co-habitants.


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I have just finished listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on the Lincoln Presidency, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  Although the book takes a largely uncritical view of Lincoln‘s political wisdom, it was compellingly told and insightful.  What struck me most was the political power of magnanimity. Goodwin does not make this point explicitly, but it seems to me that the central friendship of the book, that between Lincoln and his political rival turned close friend, William Henry Seward, was rooted in the core virtue of magnanimity which both men embodied.

The magnanimity of Lincoln was revealed repeatedly throughout the story as Lincoln confounded rivals who under-estimated his ability to navigate the world of human politics.  It was what allowed him to tolerate General McClellan‘s repeated challenges to his judgment and authority during the early stages of the war.  It was what enabled him to draw on Salmon P. Chase‘s extraordinary ability to raise money for the war effort as Treasury Secretary even as Chase opposed him for the Republican nomination in the 1864 election.  In these and many other cases, Lincoln acted always in a thoughtful, even manner, never allowing his anger to cloud his judgment or his understanding of the forces that animated his opponents. 
William Henry Seward’s magnanimity was of a slightly different sort: he seems to have been free of pretty resentfulness and vindictiveness. After losing the 1860 Republican nomination for President, which everyone expected him to win, Seward was able to find it within himself, despite this disappointment, to campaign vigorously on Lincoln’s behalf in 1860.  Many credit speeches he gave on Lincoln’s behalf for the ultimate Republican victory that year.  He then accepted Lincoln’s nomination of him as Secretary of State (does this story sound familiar?) and became one of Lincoln’s closest friends and most important political advisors.
Perhaps the strong friendship between these two men was rooted in the shard virtue of magnanimity.  What strikes me as worth holding always in mind is that magnanimity requires a great deal of ethical imagination: the ability to imagine one’s way in the position of another in order to gain insight into what animates that person.  From this perspective, those initial impulses toward anger dissolve and new possibilities open for more productive modes of response.  I will recall Seward and Lincoln as I make my way through the politics of the academy and everyday life, remembering not to respond in anger, but with empathy and magnanimity, for it is at once ethically generous and politically, far more effective.

Two Little Moments

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I just wanted to pause to note two small moments that occurred as we watched the inauguration unfold on TV as a family on Tuesday.

As Val and I were focused on the inauguration, Hannah was hard at play with her dolls. As we were waiting for all the dignitaries to be seated, I turned to Hannah and noticed her holding two dolls in her hands; she was making them jump up and down.  They were chanting “OBAMA, OBAMA, OBAMA.”
Then there was Chloe who said as she sat on my lap watching the 21 cannons saluted the new President and the crowd going wild: “Daddy, the whole world is shaking.”
To which I could only reply, “Yes, Sweetheart, it really is.”

The Power of Words

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This day stands as a rebuke to all who doubt the power of words.  And on this defining day, I was struck again by the power of words spoken to inspire, transform, evoke, and celebrate.  Here are some I found most poignant:

Those who doubt the supremacy of the ballot over the bullet can never
diminish the power engendered by nonviolent struggles for justice and
equality like the one that made this day possible.

–From Diane Feinstein’s Welcoming Remarks

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the
dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the
bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the
glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

–From Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem, Praise Song for the Day

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time
has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm
our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward
that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to
generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and
all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

–From President Barack Obama’s 1st Inaugural

This particular passage evoked for me the words of James Baldwin who said that to achieve nationhood requires “the growing up of this dangerously adolescent country.” I hear in it the very real possibility of the mature politics of which I wrote here almost a year ago.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.  Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine,
drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a
charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame
their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you
on what you can build, not what you destroy.

What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a
recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to
ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly
accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is
nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than
giving our all to a difficult task.

–From President Barack Obama’s 1st Inaugural

Let me end this evocation of the words spoken today by gesturing to the way Obama’s suggestion that the ideals of America “still light the world” resonate with these words about love from Alexander’s poem:

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial,
national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need
to preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.

And these, from the Reverend Joseph Lowery’s beautiful benediction:

And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make
choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not
exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.

And as we leave this
mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the
oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our
workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques or wherever we seek
your will.

Making this Moment Possible

By | Academic, Politics, The Long Road | One Comment

Lyons_Paul.jpgI woke, this much anticipated morning, to the news of the death of a colleague.  Professor Paul Lyons taught history, social work and holocaust studies for 29 years at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, where I began my academic career. He was a man dedicated to social justice and committed to teaching young people to think critically about the world and to orient their lives toward the question of justice.

Paul’s response to the attacks on September 11, 2001 was powerful: he collaborated with his fellow Stockton professor David Emmons to teach a course on the event.  The power of this response lies in the thoughtful and expansive influence it has on future generations.  In the wake of oversimplified, dogmatic rhetoric, Paul responded with a depth of historical understanding and a passion to engage students directly about an event that changed the course of our lives.

So, this morning, as we our attention to the future with the inauguration of the first black president, I also pause to remember all those teachers, like Paul Lyons, committed to orienting young people toward justice and opening the possibility of this moment.

The Steep Climb

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In a short but powerful speech from the Lincoln Memorial, Barack Obama stood where King had stood and offered a powerful rejoinder to some of those most powerful words King spoke 46 years ago.  Where King spoke of a country where his children “will not be not judged by the color of their skin by the content of their character,” Obama spoke of “the true character of our nation” that is “not revealed not during times of comfort and ease, but by the right we do when the moment is hard.”

The shift from the individual to the community is critical and is made, no doubt, in the spirit of King’s belief that we are all bound together into a community in which injustice to one effects justice for all.  To summon this spirit of community, on that spot, at this moment is to begin to turn us toward our best selves.

And if you listen, perhaps you can hear King’s rejoinder to Obama’s sober recognition that “There is not doubt our road will be long.  That our climb will be steep” — for King said:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low …

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

King was right that he would not get to the mountaintop with us, nor are we there yet, but we are closer and with continuing work and encouraging words, ever higher we will climb.

Mortgage Relief

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For those of us who own houses and who are working hard to keep up with our mortgage payments, it has been difficult to hear about multi-billion dollar bailouts of Wall Street banks and financial institutions who have failed to make good on their commitments.

However, according to the New York Times article, Washington’s New Tack: Helping Homeowners, the Treasury Department is considering a plan that would subsidize 30-year mortgage rates so people would have the opportunity to get such mortgages at an interest rate of as little as 4.5%.

This strikes me as a very promising idea, and not only because my family and I would benefit from it. By essentially cutting the monthly cost of living for all current homeowners, the government will be increasing the amount of money middle income families can inject directly back into the economy.  Further, the plan would help the banks insofar as there presumably would be fewer loan defaults and the fees generated by the millions of people electing to refinance existing mortgages would be a windfall profit for them.

There is a qualified version of the proposal, however, that concerns me. The Real Estate lobby is apparently suggesting that these subsidized mortgages be limited to new home buyers. While this would be cheaper for the government insofar as fewer people would be able to take advantage of it, there is no reason to impose such a limitation if a more inclusive relief package would still make the offer available to new home buyers and thus stimulate the housing market. 

I think the proposed subsidized mortgage stimulus package, if enacted in an inclusive rather than exclusive way, would be a far more effective stimulus to the economy than writing individual rebate checks to all tax payers. To have a reduced monthly payment built into the lifetime of a 30-year mortgage would have a profound and lasting impact on the overall wealth of those who are working hard to afford their first home or who are, like us, working to pay off the remainder of a hefty mortgage.

Of course, this proposal only address those with the money to buy or own a house, so it would not address the struggles of millions of the working poor.  For them, relief in a variety of other forms will be needed: health coverage, unemployment benefits, etc. Such efforts, however, would not be undermined by extending mortgage relief to homeowners and home buyers; to the contrary, the overall effect of this sort of mortgage relief plan would be a more robust and strengthening economy.

If you agree, write your Congress members, the President and the President-Elect:

For those who live in Pennsylvania, you can write to our Senators here:

Critical Optimism

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My friend and colleague from the New School, Emma Bianchi, forwarded me an essay written by Judith Butler entitled “Uncritical Exuberance?” that cautions us against too enthusiastically identifying with the election of Barack Obama.  Butler discerns a danger in “believing that this political moment can overcome the antagonisms that are constitutive of political life, especially political life in these times.”

She also insists, rightly I think, that “there have always been good reasons not to embrace ‘national unity’ as an ideal, and to nurse suspicions toward absolute and seamless identification with any political leader.”

I share her concern about the disjunction between those who voted for Obama in California (60%) and those who voted against the legalization of gay marriage (52%) and about the way economic concerns may have trumped racist tendencies in voters who professed to have voted for Obama despite his race.  To the extent that Obama’s rhetoric of unity (“there are not red states or blue states, but the United States…”) colludes in masking such ambivalence, it must be critically challenged.

However, I hear in Obama’s politics something different, something more nuanced and mature. There is, of course, often the appeal to a certain unity, but always without denying difference.  Here is where a different form of politics becomes possible. This other politics is not animated by the naive ideal of post-partisanship, but by the sober courage to enact a more deliberative reality.

My experience this year as a local volunteer canvassing for Obama has pressed this recognition upon me. In face to face encounters with individuals, many of whom disagreed with me, I came to see the possibilities endemic to what Obama envisions as a “deliberative democracy.” George Packer, drawing on Obama’s The Audacity of Hope in this article from the New Yorker, clarifies the meaning of “deliberative democracy” this way:

it denotes a conversation among adults who listen to one another, who attempt to persuade one another by means of argument and evidence, and who remain open to the possibility that they could be wrong.

Deliberative democracy thus understood does not deny the antagonistic dimension of politics, nor does it enable the masking of ambivalence by an imagined unity; rather, it presumes the maturity of the citizenry and seeks to further cultivate it by engaging in honest, fallibilistic dialogue oriented always by the attempt to move us, incrementally to be sure, toward a more just way of living together.

If this is Obama’s understanding of politics and if he intends to allow his Presidency to be informed by such a politics, then in electing him, this “dangerously adolescent country” has taken a decisive step toward maturity.

Yet, however decisive, it is only a first step, for the difficulty of it comes in living it. To live it requires critical optimism: the sober analysis and recognition of the limits of our current situation animated by an unyielding refusal to allow our failures to deter us from pressing toward a more just community.

The grassroots organization of Obama’s campaign has the capacity to cultivate this sort of critical optimism. The technology it has embraced should enable it to pivot from the fund-raising and canvassing so critical to campaigning to the dynamic exchange of ideas so critical to governing.

If Obama can make this turn by empowering people to voice their views, offering them a resource by which they feel genuinely heard, and providing them with a certain level of transparency with regard to the mechanisms by which decisions are ultimately made, it will be transformative of American democracy.

Watch closely what happens as the MyBarackObama.com campaign becomes Change.gov, for here will be the first indication that such a transformation is really being attempted. I am not uncritically exuberant; yet I remain critically optimistic.

Summoning a New Spirit

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NYTObama.jpgIt is difficult to put into words the feelings of the last few days, the sense of genuine pride, of relief, of hope, of new possibility; the sense of gravity for the seriousness of the situation we now face, the very weight of responsibility that comes with an accomplishment like this.

From the moment I saw the President-elect walk onto the stage in Grant Park on Tuesday night, I knew he was changed. The full weight of the Office was squarely on his shoulders, and he bore it well.

As I listened to him speak, I was filled with a solemn sense of elation; joy in the moment, earnest in the face of the enormity of the task.  Obama captured this sense of solemn elation when he said:

What began 21 months ago in the depths of winter cannot end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek; it is only the chance for us to make that change.  And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.  It can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.  So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.

The passage resonates with almost every speech Obama has given through the campaign; it invites us to participate in something larger than ourselves, and it uses “this day, this election…this defining moment” to turn our attention toward new possibilities, to a future not measured by days or months, but by centuries.  It seized the moment as the opportunity to ask us to to imagine what we want to be and how we want it to be for our children.

From the start, Obama has had a sense for what the Greeks called the kairos, the right moment. It is a term that means also due measure, proper proportion, fitness; the proper time for planting, the season when growth is best cultivated. This most ancient of words not only designates the sense of timing with which the Obama campaign has operated, but it also beautifully articulates the very manner of its operation: balanced, steady, measured.

And now, they have turned from campaigning to governing with a swiftness that is to be admired.  Without a break, the Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, has been established and a new website launched: change.gov

One senses that this is just the beginning and that we will be asked to be an important part of what is to come.

President Obama!

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ObamaOpening.JPGThe first word Hannah could read herself, or at least recognize, was ‘Obama’.  She has been involved with the Obama campaign for at least 30% of her three year old life, and now she and her sister Chloe will never know a world in which an African-American was not president of the United States.

Here are some pictures that bring into focus how much Chloe and Hannah have grown over the course of this election.  The first is of Chloe, Caitlin and Hannah at the opening of the State College Obama campaign office in March.

Val and Girls Eday.jpgHere is a picture of Chloe, Hannah and Val on Election Day, 2008.  Hannah and Chloe have grown up during this campaign and I hope they have learned something about standing up for what you believe in and putting your energy and efforts into making the world a better place. 

Chloe and Hannah were my intrepid canvassers, walking through many neighborhoods, ringing doorbells, always very happy to be out talking to voters.  They never complained and always were happy to visit the Obama office, where they inevitably received some treats, many stickers and more than a few high fives from volunteers.

To hear President-elect Obama speak tonight in Grant Park in Chicago was gift enough for all the effort.

E-day State College, PA

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Val and Girls Eday.jpgWhen I arrived at the 31st precinct (State College West – 1) at 6:45am to begin working as a poll watcher for the Obama campaign, they had already been lined up for a half an hour.  Fathers with their daughters, young students and retired professors, mother’s with their children, all waiting to begin voting in the 2008 Presidential election.

They came in a steady stream from the moment the doors opened at 7am until 11:20am, at which point we signed in our 300th voter.  Shirley, a longtime poll worker in the precinct, reported that 300 is usually a good number for when the polls close.  (It seems that there are about 700 voters registered in the precinct, so by 11:15 over 40% had already voted.)  Shirley said she had never seen it this busy.  One 74 year old voter said that in all his years here, he had never waited in line as long as he had this year. Everyone was in a good mood and the voting went smoothly. There were a large number of first time voters and voters who had been inactive in recent elections.

My job was to write down the voter numbers of those who had voted so that a runner could pick up the list and bring it back to the Obama campaign. They had a list of targeted voters who the campaign was calling if they had not yet voted.  It was, again, all very organized.

Veronique.jpgBy noon, when Val and the girls came to pick me up, almost 400 people had voted, and I left to drive one of my colleagues to her polling place so she could vote.  When we arrived a little past 1pm at the Knights of Columbus on Stratford Ave, where the 19th and the 22nd precincts were voting, there was a huge line waiting to vote.  Actually, the line for the 22nd precinct, which covers an area where a lot of students live, was very long.  The line for the 19th, which is were my colleague, Véronique votes, the line was short.

This suggests that the student turnout is extremely high, which is a very good sign for Obama.  Obama campaign volunteers from New York and elsewhere were managing the line, making sure each person was on the proper line.  They had access to laptops on which they double checked people’s precinct to make sure they only waited on line if they were to vote in the 22nd district.

During the course of the morning, I was struck by how important this entire process is.  Here were people, each concerned enough about our community to come out and have their voice heard. When I finally had a chance to stand in front of my own ballot, I was moved to be able to fill in the circle for Barack Obama.  I paused over it, taking special care to make sure the circle was perfectly filled in, that all was in order before it was scanned.  As I filled in that circle, I recalled the words Obama spoke the night he won the Iowa primary last January: “They said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to come together around a common purpose…”  Perhaps today, our day has finally come.



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Chris and Larry.jpgToday the girls and I went out for another day of knocking on doors to get out the vote for Obama.  This time, however, we were paired with Larry, a doctoral candidate in the School of Education, who was out for the first time volunteering.

When we started, I was really hoping that he would experience the same feeling of empowerment that I have come to feel each time I muster the courage to go door to door canvassing. The day started slowly as there were no answers at the first few doors on which we knocked. Then we came to a house where someone came to the door and motioned that he was not interested.  Just as I was beginning to feel depressed for Larry, we knocked on the door of a strong supporter who was even willing to volunteer on election day. 

Chloe Driving.jpgLarry and I were rejuvenated by this response and proceeded to happily work through the rest of our assigned addresses, with Chloe helping a bit with the parking lot driving, and Hannah happily sleeping in the back.  (If you look closely at the picture to the right, you can see her napping.)

Today we were knocking on the doors of all the houses that had no answers yesterday. While we are out there, another two volunteers were going through the same neighborhood putting signs on the door nobs of the houses of likely voters indicating where their polling place was and giving them information about voting. 

Chloe and Hannah PA.jpgAgain, I was very impressed by the organization of the campaign materials and those training the volunteers.  The Obama office in State College was buzzing with volunteers young and old.  An eighty year old woman was behind us as we were picking up our packet and she said she was there to work the phones. I met a student I had last year in my first year seminar at Penn State, Stephanie Marek, who was calling off-campus students to make sure they knew where to vote and that there were also down ticket candidates for whom it was important to vote.  We saw dozens of young out-of-state volunteers catching a bite to eat before going back out canvassing. 

It was really quite inspiring to see so many people so motivated and engaged. This year is different for so many reasons, but most of all, it is different because so many people have felt empowered to participate in the political process and have been given an avenue through which to channel this very positive political energy.

The polls open here in Pennsylvania in about 34 hours …


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GOTV1 Chloe and Chris.jpgHere in State College, things are progressing very well with the Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts for Barack Obama.  Chloe, Hannah, Nanny Janny, Val and I went to the Obama office in State College today to canvass for them and we were told that all the canvassing packets had already gone out, and this was at 1:30pm!  The office was packed with volunteers, including many young people who have come from out of state for the next few days.

They told us that the Bellefonte office needed some help, so Nanny Janny, Chloe, Hannah and I headed to Bellefonte to do some canvassing.  They sent us out to Pleasant Gap, PA and again, I was impressed by the level of organization involved.

The packet I had included about 25 houses nestled into the gap that passed over Nittany mountain.  The doors I knocked on were largely of lower-income white voters who, for the most part, were supporting Obama.  My job was to ask if they knew where to vote and if they needed a ride to the polls.  Although I encountered two households who were not supportive, the majority of people I talked to were planning to vote for Obama for reasons ranging from the profound to the endearing.  When I asked one voter if he supported Obama, he told me that he supported the idea that the troops should be out of Iraq and so he would be voting for Obama.  Another voter told me that he though Obama was “pretty cool” and that, although he didn’t really follow politics, he was going to vote for Obama because he sponsored a concert at Penn State with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead. I made sure he knew where his polling place was an happily moved on to the next house.

Today’s Washington Post is highlighting a story with the headline “True Believers In McCain Flock to Pa.” The dateline says State College, Pa and the story highlights a man who drove from South Carolina to State College in his trailer, set up camp in a local Walmart parking lot (is that legal?), and starting going door to door.  He is trying to do 25 houses a hour for ten hours a day through Tuesday.

What strikes me about this story is the way it highlights the radical difference between the McCain and Obama campaigns.  McCain has decided that winning PA is the only way he can possibly map a road through the electoral map to the White House.  However, inundating the state with free roaming door knocker set up in the parking lot at Walmart does not strike me as a very effective campaign strategy.  It calls to mind the seat-of-the-pants, winging it decision making process the McCain campaign has embodied from the start, having perfected it with the choice of Palin and the suspension of the campaign to muck around in the economic rescue process.

In striking contrast to this, the Obama campaign has a very well thought out and methodological approach to GOTV efforts.  They have thousands of people coming from out of state too, but they are put up in people’s houses, fed by local volunteers and given access to resources that will allow them to make extremely effective use of their time while they are here.  The campaign has a very clear idea of what it wants done each day.

GOTV1 Walking.jpgToday and tomorrow, we are to contact likely voters and ensure they know where to vote and find out if they need a ride to the polling place.  Monday, canvassers will be hanging thousands of door nob notices on the doors of targeted voters indicating where the polling places are and reminding people to vote.  On election day, each house will be visited twice to make sure each supporter has in fact voted.  This is a potentially very powerful method and will be looked upon as a model if it works.

The current Real Clear Politics polling average for PA has Obama ahead by 7.5 points, but I am not sure any of these polls are able to factor in what will happen to an electorate when the Democratic candidate has such a powerful GOTV program.  My hope is that this will be decisive and that Obama will win PA and the election going away.

Redemption for Powell?

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While many of us have found it difficult to forgive Colin Powell for the decisive role he played in lending credibility to the lies that led us into Iraq, his endorsement of Obama today on Meet the Press goes a long way toward winning him some degree of redemption.  The passion with which he spoke in particular about the “really right answer” to the question of Obama’s being a Muslim earned him my admiration.

"That One"?

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Last night’s presidential debate was, on the whole, quite
substantive, offering the public a good sense of the fundamental
differences between McCain and Obama on issues ranging from health care
to foreign policy.  However, the single most poignant moment from my
perspective was when McCain disdainfully referred to Obama as “that
one,” pointing his index finger across his chest toward Obama, but never looking directly at him.

The comment and the gesture captured the deep level of contempt
McCain has for Obama. It seemed to express something  bitter and angry
at the core of McCain’s character. As my mother suggested at the time,
the phrase “that one” trades on an undercurrent of racism associated
with references to “those people.”

Although much more distasteful, I wonder if this gesture will have
the same effect on McCain’s ultimate quest for the White House that  George H.W. Bush’s impatient glance at his watch during the 1992 debate had on his quest for a second term.

This is also posted on the WPSU.org Vote2008 blog available here.

The Front Porch

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The girls and I went out canvassing for Obama again on Saturday and I learned something: the front porch is where the world can be changed.

OK, that sounds perhaps a bit grandiose, but I think it is something both Socrates and Jesus knew well: that the conversations we have with each individual we encounter changes everything.

Yesterday, Chloe, Hannah and I visited 29 houses in the Greentrees neighborhood of State College. We talked to people at 18 of them. Some people were already planning to vote for Obama, a few had decided in favor of McCain. Many, though, were undecided and open to hearing why I was out on a cloudy and cool Saturday afternoon with my daughters knocking on doors for Obama.

I think we changed a few minds, moving undecided voters toward supporting Obama. I am not sure how much my arguments about Obama’s economic plan or his health care initiatives had an impact. I had the sense that it was less what I said than it was that I was there on their front porch with my girls talking to them about issues that matter to us all. My hope is that these short conversations, these brief connections, will stay with people and move them to vote in November.

Of course, our adventures on Saturday were not all so wonderful. Toward the end of our route, about two and a half hours into it, with my two little political activists beginning to tire, we happened to knock on the door of a rabid libertarian, his wife, two kids and a friend of theirs. They all came right out onto the porch to aggressively interrogate me as to why I support Obama. Before I could say much, the man dismissed my comments as platitudes and declared all government to be evil. We then had a lively discussion, in which, among other things, I was told that the government should run its business like he runs his rental business and that it should not lend money to lazy people who can’t afford to pay. When I pressed him on the question of what we owe to one another as members of a community, he said bluntly: “nothing.”

With that, I bid him farewell, giving some of my Obama literature to his friend, who I felt to be silently supportive of me throughout. As I left, saddened and disheartened, my libertarian friend informed me that he would be writing himself in as president this year because, as he said, “I am smarter than Obama and McCain.” I told him: “good luck with that,” shook off my sadness and forged ahead to the next house.

After that encounter, I was so happy to meet at the next house a middle aged woman who came out in her socks to talk to me as the girls ran all over her freshly cut lawn. As I apologized for that, she assured me it was no problem, said she had not decided for whom she was voting and listened to me talk about why I was out there advocating for Obama. After our short conversation, she said: “you know, I think I will vote for Obama.”

The world can indeed be changed by a conversation on the front porch.

Register to Vote Now

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This is a simple call for anyone who comes across this blog and agrees with what they find here to please register to vote.

The Pennsylvania deadline is Monday, October 6th.

I have added the voter registration gadget from Google below for all US citizens eligible to vote to easily determine how to register online by typing in their address here.

Please take the time to register.  If you don’t vote, you have no voice; but you can’t vote unless you register!

The Death of Reaganism and the Future of America

By | Politics, The Long Road | 2 Comments

The last vestiges of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933,
which was passed during the first year of the Franklin Roosevelt
administration in an attempt to regulate the banking industry in the
face of the Great Depression, were repeled in 1999 by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton.

With a stroke of the pen, Bill Clinton, who campaigned on the idea
that “the era of big Government is over,” completed a process begun in
1980, in the Reagan administration.  Reagan, who campaigned on the idea
that he would “get government off our backs,” began the process of
deregulation. In 1980, the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act
was passed. It removed the power of the Federal Reserve Board to set
interest rates for savings accounts originally established by

The process of deregulation that began with Reagan and was completed by Clinton has brought us to the crisis we face today.

To read the rest of this post, including the suggestion that Smart Government replace Big Government, see WPSU.org.

The Issues

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In a striking comment earlier this month, Rick Davis, John McCain’s campaign manager, insisted: “This election is not about issues.  This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”

As the economy crumbles around us, the issues have finally taken
center stage in the presidential election. Despite the McCain
campaign’s attempts to draw attention away from issues, it is precisely
in the face of the very real economic issues facing Americans that a
composite view of the two candidates is indeed coming into focus.

To read the rest of this post, please click here to visit the WPSU.org Vote ’08 site.

Boots on the Ground in PA

By | Politics, The Long Road | 10 Comments

DanChris.jpgToday my friend and neighbor, Dan Letwin, and I went out canvassing for Barack Obama with our kids.  It was a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon; a perfect day to change the world.

We brought our four kids: Nicholas, 4, Chloe 4, Hannah 2 1/2, and Timmy, not yet one. The kids helped us put people at ease as we knocked on their doors. And they lent us courage to do the knocking.

After picking up our list and route from the local State College Obama Office, we headed out to the Park Forest area of Ferguson township.

Over the course of the afternoon, we talked to over 20 people, many of whom were already supporting Obama. We did, however, talk to three undecided voters who were open to our pitch about Obama’s character and qualifications. We also talked to three Republicans who were ready to consider voting for Obama based on the recent problems with the economy, but were as yet unconvinced.

KidsCanvass.jpgI was struck by how welcoming people were and how willing they were to talk. It did not hurt that we had kids running around, excited to take turns ringing doorbells and happy to just be with each other and with us on a beautiful day.

We did meet one person who felt political views were a personal matter. We respected that and left him with some literature about the Obama plan to strengthen the economy.

One Republican resident answered the door with a bowl of spaghetti, but he didn’t excuse himself on that basis when we told him we were canvassing for Obama. He expressed concern about the economy (by far the main issue on everyone’s mind) and listened to us talk about how Obama wants intelligent regulations for 21st century business practices that do not undermine innovation.

In the end, however, the best part of the day was to be with a friend, with our kids, doing our part to nudge the world in the direction toward which we believe it should go.

If we changed no one’s mind, if we failed to win a single vote for Obama, it would still have been time well spent; for surely Nicholas, Chloe, Hannah and Timmy, each in her or his own way, felt something of the powerful possibilities that open when people enter into dialogue with one another intent on bending the “arc of the moral universe toward justice”.

President 2.0

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If Barack Obama wins in November, it will surely be historic, but not only because he would be the first African American president.  He would also be the first President elected based on an organizing and fund raising campaign driven by the incredible power of Web 2.0 technologies.

The traditional “grassroots” strategies have given way to a pixelroots campaign.

To read the rest of this post, please click here to visit the post on WPSU.org.

Learning from the Lies

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Over the past eight years, the Republican party and its leaders have perfected a strategy of political dishonesty and deception.

In 2000, having lost badly to McCain in the New Hampshire primary, George W. Bush, decided to appropriate the McCain message of reform and undertake an aggressive negative smear strategy in which he deployed push polls and a “whisper campaign” to propagate the lie that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. The results were remarkable: Bush won the South Carolina primary and ultimately the White House.  
To read the full post, click here to visit WPSU Vote08.

Climate Change and the 5th Congressional District

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The most distressing revelation to come to light in the Penn State sponsored forum held at the Grange Fair on August 26th for the candidates running for the 5th Congressional District is that only one of them, Democrat Mark McCracken, believes that human beings contribute significantly to global warming

To read more, visit the rest of this post at: http://wpsu.org/vote08/blog/?p=66

A Step Closer

By | Living, Politics, The Long Road | One Comment

Exactly one year ago I wrote of the disjunction between the ideals American professes and the reality it embodies.  That was the second anniversary of hurricane Katrina and the day after the 44th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in which he said “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”

On that day, I despaired that “we are a long way from such an uprising.”

Today, on the third anniversary of hurricane Katrina and the day after the 45th anniversary of King’s speech, we are a very large step closer to such an uprising: 84,000 people were present and millions more watched, like me, with pride and, yes, hope, as Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States.
The speech weaved the idea of the promise of America into a tough, compelling and powerful argument for change.  I was glad to hear Obama himself come out strongly against the fear mongering and hateful attacks of the McCain campaign.
I was glad to hear the specific changes Obama proposes: 
  • “In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East.”
  • “I’ll invest $150 billion over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy.”
  • “Now is the time to meet our moral obligation to provide every child with a world-class education.”
  • “Now is the time to finally keep the promise of affordable accessible health care for every single American.”
  • “I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will only send our troops into harm’s way with a clear mission … I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century…”
But what struck me most, what encouraged me most, was the way Obama took the ethical values question away from the Republicans and reframed it in terms of our responsibilities to one another. He did this when he emphasized that the promise of America has less to do with what we own and more to do with what we owe one another:

“What is that American promise? It’s a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have obligations to treat each other with dignity and respect… 

That’s the promise of America, the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper. 

That’s the promise we need to keep. That’s the change we need right now.”

Today we are a step closer to living out the meaning of our creed, to bringing the ideals of American into closer connection with our reality.  

But we still have a way to go, so keep marching, or to channel Hillary channeling Harriett Tubman, keep going, keep going … now to the voting booth!
Click here to register to vote.

Blogging for WPSU

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For the next few months, most of my political musings will be posted on a political blog run by WPSU, the PBS affiliate for Central Pennsylvania based at Penn State.

I have been asked to join their team of bloggers dedicated to discussing and analyzing the upcoming local and national elections. You can see the WPSU Vote ’08 site here:
The blog associated with this site is available here:
See my first post, entitled “The End of Summer,” and follow all my posts here:

The End of Summer

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Summer ended on Saturday at 4:49 am. No, this was not the moment the din and energy of 40,000 students descending upon us here in State College made itself felt – that actually began already on Friday. Nor was it the moment a reveler practicing for the new semester at the number three party school in the country woke me – that was 3:30 am on Sunday.  Rather, it was the moment the Obama campaign sent the email and text message that announced that Obama had selected Joe Biden as his running mate.
Although the choice may have been made while Obama was on vacation, it had all the seriousness and weight of the fall. The decision speaks well of Obama and his campaign:
  • It was magnanimous as Obama had to look beyond the harsh and destructive comments Biden had directed against him in order to make a “wise and self-aware” decision that is in the best interest of the country.
  • It was done with discipline: in holding Biden’s name in confidence for an extended period of time, Obama illustrated the organizational discipline of his campaign and staff.
  • The process by which the decision was made public reflected foresight and technological savvy: in announcing the decision directly to supporters via text message and email, the Obama campaign showed a keen ability to communicate with people wherever they are and won for itself a powerful Get Out the Vote tool it will use on election day. It also circumvented the elaborate filtering mechanisms of the mainstream media.
Beyond this, however, the decision marked a decisive turn away from the foreign policy hubris of the Bush Administration, a hubris on which McCain seems to be doubling down. In responding to the crisis in Georgia, for example, Obama charted a strong but measured course of action that began with a call for dialogue. Obama’s politics of engagement and dialogue has long been championed by Biden, who himself helped draft a resolution that urged increased diplomacy in order to dismantle Saddam Hussein’s weapons program even if it ultimately gave authorization to use military force as a last resort.  For his part, McCain turned to hyperbole in responding to the Russian action in South Ossetia and Abkhazia: by insisting that “today, we are all Georgians” and inserting himself directly into the crisis by calling Georgian President Mikheil Saakashivili, McCain over-reached and undermined the response of the sitting President of the United States.
Now that the summer is over, it will be necessary to turn to the weightier issues of the fall. If the summer witnessed the abandonment of a promised civility for Steve Schmidt’s spiteful, Karl Rove-style tactics that appeal to our worst selves, trading on hatred, fear and resentment, let the fall bring a serious discussion of policy, of perspective, of priorities and indeed, of philosophy.
I can only hope that the beginning of such a fall was announced by the appearance of that email at 4:49 am this past Saturday morning.

Dream Ticket

By | Politics, The Long Road | 3 Comments

ClintonObamaOver the past few weeks I have been thinking that Obama might just pick Hillary Clinton as VP.  I know the media is saying that an Obama-Clinton ticket is unlikely, but still, consider this:

  1. Who is Bill Clinton going to speak before on Wednesday evening during the Democratic convention? I can’t imagine he would allow himself to be upstaged by anyone but is wife.
  2. Hillary Clinton has been doing a lot of campaigning for Obama while he is on vacation.
  3. The news that the Obama campaign does not yet have an office in Arkansas might also suggest that they know that will be no problem once Hillary Clinton is on the ticket.
  4. Consider too Patti Solis Doyle, a long time Clinton adviser and former campaign manager currently occupies the position of “chief of staff to the vice-presidential candidate.” 
  5. They are going to place Clinton’s name in nomination at the Democratic convention (which is not unusual, but given the close nature of the primary this year, it is not insignificant).
  6. Bringing Hillary Clinton on board would completely unite and energize the Democratic party.
  7. It would put Obama in a much stronger position to win Pennsylvania and Ohio, and it would add a degree of experience that conventional wisdom thinks is needed.
All of this has me thinking that it will be her. Could it be that an agreement was struck in the one-on-one meeting Obama had with Mrs. Clinton just prior to the suspension of her campaign?  Was the plan that Obama would take a few months to allow the idea to take root that he alone is the presidential candidate, that he can navigate a high profile foreign trip with grace and that he can run a strong campaign against McCain only then to add Clinton just prior to the convention?

I think it would be a very good choice for Obama.  It certainly would be historic on multiple levels. I have difficulty seeing how anyone McCain would choose could have an equal impact or come close to generating the level of excitement of a Obama-Clinton ticket.

Obama Mamas and Papas

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Obama Mamas.jpgYesterday, in the spirit of the Obama campaign’s attempt to organize “Unite for Change” neighborhood parties across the country, we gathered with some of our neighbors for an “Obama Mamas and Papas” party. Thanks to Jim and Gloria Leous for organizing and hosting the event. Three of the Obama Mamas are pictured here (from left to right: Gloria Leous, Valerie Long and Linda Erickson).

Although I have been a bit frustrated by the way the campaign has moved more squarely into the mainstream since winning the nomination, I am keenly aware that such a move toward the center is necessary if Obama is to win in November.
My frustration is does not concern the decision to pull out of the public campaign financing system — I argued in February that he should opt out.  Rather, it has to do with the way the mainstream of the democratic party is now beginning to bring its influence fully to bear on the Obama campaign. So, for example, Obama has embraced Jason Furman, a close ally of Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s former Treasury Secretary, both of whom privilege free market principles over labor interests and the need for stronger economic regulations of Wall Street.
Also, Obama seems to be backing off a strong stance he took against the Protect America Act of 2007 which was to amend FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act). He is now supporting a compromise passed by the House which puts an end to the Bush’s use of warrantless surveillance, although it does grant retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies that helped facilitate the illegal wiretaps. This is a case, I think, of Obama’s politics of compromise: he will take this even though he recognizes that it is not everything he would want. Although I have problems with the compromise legislation, I think it is probably the right thing for Obama to do.
Something Obama said to his campaign staff on a video the campaign sent to supporters has stuck with me. It helps explain some of the recent moves they have been making.  Obama said, “we don’t have an option now … because we won [Iowa and the nomination], we have no choice, we have to win.”
I am as confident now as I have always been that Obama will do what he needs to do to win this election. I have never fallen into the misguided camp that believes that Obama is naive and inexperienced. Now, we see, he is ready to do what needs to be done to meet the Republican challenge at every turn.

18 Million Cracks

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Over the course of the last few months, I have been very critical of Hillary Clinton’s politics. However, now is the time to recognize the powerful significance of her candidacy for the presidential nomination, to reaffirm the importance of electing a woman president of the United States and to express gratitude for the ways in which her continuing to campaign into June has made Barack Obama stronger candidate by forcing him to extend the roots of his grassroots organization into many more states.

Her speech on Saturday was poignant, beautiful and graceful.  I could not help but think of Chloe and Hannah when she said:

Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.

I have been very disappointed and angered by the sort of misogyny that she had to endure throughout her campaign. From references to “Billary” to lewd nutcrackers, to men yelling “Iron my shirt,” to the sexist comments by commentators like Tucker Carlson, Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, we have witnessed an embarrassing display of destructive and hateful misogyny. 

To read more about this, see these articles: 

There is something deeply significant about my daughter Chloe’s reaction when Val showed her, earlier this year, pictures of all the Republican and Democratic candidates for the Presidency. When she saw Hillary Clinton’s picture, she said, “I want her to win.”  Chloe saw something there, something I want to affirm for her: there is someone who looks like me, a strong, confident, highly qualified woman, running for president.  
So, it is time for me, so long critical of what I still think of as a misguided political approach, to express my admiration and gratitude to Hillary Clinton for the courage she had to compete for the office of the presidency and for the 18 million people who voted for her.  
Let us not forget the unfinished business her candidacy has left us.  As a reminder of the long road still ahead, I leave you with this chilling montage put together by the Women’s Media Center. 

The Moment

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00235_thebluemarble_1920x1200.jpgSo much, of course, can be said about the significance of Barack Obama’s capturing the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States.  I simply want to mark the moment by appealing to a single line from the speech he gave in Minnesota on Tuesday:

… this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal …

I was surprised to find myself moved most by this fragment of a very inspiring speech. Perhaps it is in part because the book I am writing, The Saying of Things: The Nature of Truth and the Truth of Nature in Aristotle, has developed into a study of how human-being exists as a natural being in and with the world of nature. 

Although I am thrilled to see an African-American receive the endorsement of a major political party, and I do not think the significance of this aspect of his candidacy can be overemphasized or celebrated too enthusiastically, still it continues to be the sort of politics Obama articulates that moves me most.  His is not identity politics, but a visionary attempt to transform the nature of politics in the United States.

As I read today of how the U.S. Senate is determined to drown the climate debate in a flood of words designed to foster inaction, I look forward to a President who is willing to use words to transform the way we live in and with the world. 
As Obama takes up the mantle of the Democratic Party, my hope is that he does not set aside the transformative politics that won him the nomination in the first place.  I remain, as ever, confident that he will not.
UPDATE, 8:19: If this story from the AP indicating that Obama has instructed the Democratic National Committee not to take lobbyist money is any indication, my confidence is well founded. 

Divisive Politics

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Leigh Johnson makes a very good point that to the extent that Hillary Clinton’s continuation in the race for the Democratic nomination calls our attention to the struggle of women in American society, she should continue. 

However, it is increasingly difficult to stomach the old style, divisive politics she continues to practice.  I have already talked about her recent suggestion that the US might need to “totally obliterate” Iran if it used nuclear weapons on Isreal and her repeated use of Rovean fear tactics, but today she has taken things a step further by turning to racial stereotypes in order to conjure up votes.
In summarizing an Associated Press article (perhaps this one?) about who had won what demographics in North Carolina and Indiana, Clinton told USA Today that the AP article:

“found how Sen. Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me.  There is a pattern emerging here.”

Although the New York Times reports that she says the comments were not meant to be divisive, clearly, her suggestion that “working,” indeed, “hard-working,” Americans, are white Americans draws upon the longstanding stereotype of African-Americans as lazy. (Here too her comments are in the spirit of those of Karl Rove.)
When you add these comments to those of Paul Begala on CNN in heated debate with Donna Brazile in which he says that you can’t win with “eggheads and African-Americans,” it is difficult to see anything positive from the sort of politics the Clinton campaign is pursuing.
If I didn’t know better, I might be tempted to say that she is clinging to racial stereotypes out of bitterness … but perhaps it is better simply to say that it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, one I would swallow if she somehow became the nominee, but one I hope (and increasingly think I will be able) to avoid.

Hot Air and Gas

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If one wants an immediate sense of the different kind of politics Barack Obama is offering, look no further than the recent discussion of gas prices in the campaign.  At a time when the Obama campaign has been hurt by the comments of Jeremiah Wright, when it would seem, according to the political logic that prevails in Washington, to turn to political pandering on the question of high gas prices in order to win a few votes in the upcoming primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, Obama has opted instead to speak the difficult truth to the American people about the long term solution to the problem of rising gas prices.

Clinton and McCain have opted to respond to what is palpably the worst energy crisis we have experienced in a generation by pandering.  They both want a national holiday on the gas 18.4 cents a gallon gas tax for the summer. Thomas Friedman has rightly called this an idea “so ridiculous, so unworthy of the people aspiring to lead our nation, it takes your breath away.”  Friedman concludes his article by calling for a mature, sustained and serious response to this crisis: 

The McCain-Clinton proposal is a reminder to me that the biggest energy crisis we have in our country today is the energy to be serious — the energy to do big things in a sustained, focused and intelligent way.

When Obama launched his campaign on February 10th, 2007, he diagnosed the problem with the sort of politics McCain and Clinton have perfected.  He recognizes that the politics of pandering is completely ineffective in dealing with the sort of energy crisis we now face.  He said then that we are unable to deal with our many problems because of a failed, immature politics: 

What has stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics — the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.

So this week, when faced with a pastor who is actively sabotaging his candidacy, he remained true to himself, to his message that the immature, posturing and pandering politics of old must be replaced by a more mature, reflective, honest politics of responsibility.  This week, in the face of calls by McCain and Clinton for a short term narcotic for a long term addiction, Obama responded courageously:

This is the problem with Washington. We are facing a situation where oil prices could hit $200 a barrel. Oil companies like Shell and BP just reported record profits for the quarter. And we’re arguing over a gimmick that would save you half a tank of gas over the course of the entire summer so that everyone in Washington can pat themselves on the back and say that they did something. 

Well let me tell you–this isn’t an idea designed to get you through the summer, it’s designed to get them through an election. The easiest thing in the world for a politician to do is to tell you exactly what you want to hear. But if we want to finally solve the challenges we’re facing right now, we need to tell the American people what they need to hear. We need to tell the truth.  (See, The Stump on this.)

Gas prices need to go even higher.  Already, people are beginning to change their habits and practices in the face of higher prices.  The New York Times today reported that people are flocking to smaller cars in the face of higher gas prices.  It seems that a solution to the problem is possible only when enough of us feel the concrete effects of our addiction to gas.

Fear and Obliteration

By | Politics, The Long Road | One Comment

Fear and obliteration are the two words that currently define the Clinton campaign and mark the substantive difference between a possible Clinton and Obama presidency.  

First, taking a page directly out of the Karl Rove playbook, Clinton has consistently deployed fear tactics in the final days before a primary to motivate people to vote.  We have already experienced the violence and destruction that results when people vote their anxieties. And with the appeal to fear, as we have also witnessed, comes the foreign policy of irresponsible bombast.  
Thus, it is no surprise that when asked how she, as President, would respond to a hypothetical scenario in which Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons, she said that we would “totally obliterate them.”  This is, as discussed in a previous post, consistent with a foreign policy driven by Lee Feinstein who has criticized the Bush Administration’s strategy of preemption for not going far enough.
Robert Scheer has intelligent things to say in criticizing Clinton’s statement, as does Dorothy Wickenden.
See the immediate context of her comment here:

A Bright Light on an Otherwise Tough Night

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Well, last night did not bring the victory for Obama and the conclusion to the Democratic nominating process that I had hoped.  It seems that Obama’s defeat in PA was largely due to the voting tendencies of an older generation that is not ready to move on to a more mature politics.  

The younger generation, however, was clearly energized by Obama as is clear from the following points made in an email to Obama supporters by Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a Penn State student organizer for the Obama campaign.

These figures suggest that the work that was done here in Centre Country made a significant difference.

  • Centre County was Obama’s 2nd best county in the state, trailing only Philadelphia County.
  • Obama’s margin of victory in Centre County (4,766 votes) was big enough to prevent Clinton from getting a 3-1 delegate split from our congressional district. Instead, it will be a 2-2 split.
  • The margin of victory in Centre County also appears to have prevented Clinton from obtaining a significant milestone: a double-digit victory in PA.
  • Obama won newly registered Democrats by a 62-38 margin. Without these these voters (13% of the electorate), Clinton’s margin of victory would have been a whopping 15%. This is the type of victory she really needed to claim campaign viability. The gains we made on her in PA from when we were 20 points down were due in large part to the boots on the ground registering new voters and getting them to the polls.
  • Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the county by a 69-31 margin, with 60% turnout on the Democratic side. That’s great news for the general election.
I choose to focus on these positive aspects of last night as we move into the next phase of this process.  I remain hopeful that the Democratic party will choose its future over its past.
PS: For an interesting take on how the two candidates and their respective generations view change, see Ellen Goodman’s article, How We Make Change.

Our Turn

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OK, Pennsylvania readers, it is now our turn to weigh in on the Democratic nominating process.  I hope tomorrow will put an end to the long primary season with a decisive victory for Obama.  The polls are saying that he will keep it close, but from where I stand in the center of PA, there seems to be a chance for a real upset tomorrow.  

Note the following:

Below are the two ads. I leave you with them in the hope that tomorrow will bring a victory for Obama and an end to the Democratic primary race for the nomination.

Obama wins Debate, will win PA

By | Politics, The Long Road | 5 Comments

If the title of this post is unequivocal and definitive, it is offered in the spirit and style of the American mass media punditocracy.  No sooner was the debate on Tuesday over than commentators and bloggers were pontificating not only about Obama taking a beating, as one commentator on MSNBC put it, but also about how the sorts of inane questions ABC’s George Stephanopolous and Charlie Gibson posed during the first 45 minutes of the debate were actually vitally important and highly relevant.

As a paradigmatic case, take David Brooks’ column from today’s NYT: although Brooks has a point about how inadvisable it is to make absolute pledges about complex issues like the war or tax increases, he goes astray when he defends Gibson and Stephanopolous this way: 

Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos of ABC News are taking a lot of heat for spending so much time asking about Jeremiah Wright and the “bitter” comments. But the fact is that voters want a president who basically shares their values and life experiences.

In his commentary this afternoon on NPR, Brooks went yet further saying that the reason the Democrats have not been able to win the last few elections is because “people were not convinced that the Democratic candidate lives the kind of life they lead.”  He goes on to suggest that high school educated white voters do not want to vote for a Harvard educated lawyer who bowls a 37.  

Ironically, this is precisely the sort of elitist and condescending analysis Brooks himself so likes to associate with those of us in the academy.  My sense, which is admittedly largely informed by what I see around me here in a small college town in the center of Pennsylvania, is that the debate will largely help Obama because people are fed up with the sort of immature, gotcha politics on which the main stream media thrives.  
Here, E.J. Dionne’s analysis is more accurate: Obama may be one of the first Democrats to actually win something significant — like PA and thus the nomination — by running against the media.  
He started to do this already in the debate when he pivoted from Stephanopolous’s inane question about whether Obama thought Rev. Wright “loves American as much as you do” (who comes up with this stuff and how does it get on national television?!). Obama responded by trying to shift the focus back to the important issues the country is facing, saying:

And I have confidence in the American people that when you talk to the American people honestly and directly about what I believe in, what my plans are on health care, on energy, when they see my track record of the work that I’ve done on behalf of people who really need help, I have absolute confidence that they can rally behind my campaign.

At another point, again responding to Stephanopolous, who was pressing Obama about his campaign’s questioning Clinton’s credibility, Obama tried to shift the focus to issues of substance, saying:

I think what’s important is to make sure that we don’t get so obsessed with gaffes that we lose sight of the fact that this is a defining moment in our history. We are going to be tackling some of the biggest issues that any president has dealt with in the last 40 years. Our economy is teetering not just on the edge of recession, but potentially worse. Our foreign policy is in a shambles. We are involved in two wars. People’s incomes have not gone up, and their costs have. And we’re seeing greater income inequality now than any time since the 1920s.

My sense is that people, whatever their level of education, will embrace the maturity of Obama’s politics. They will vote for him not because he is like them, but because he has his eyes on the prize and has the talent to make  substantive changes to the way American politics and policy is pursued.  

Obama in PA

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As many people must have heard, Barack Obama stopped in State College last Sunday on his six day tour of Pennsylvania.  The girls and I were there with 22,000 other people for the largest political rally in State College history.  (See, the Daily Collegian’s report and that of the Centre Daily Times.)

Here is a picture I took during the event, along with a YouTube video that captures the scope of the rally at Penn State.

Although I had heard many parts of the speech before, Obama seemed focused and energetic during the rally.  I was struck in particular by how bold his vision of politics really is.  It is guided at its core by a strong commitment to social justice both at home and abroad.

This was reinforced today on the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, when Obama spoke of the need of all of us to work to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

From Obama’s speech today in Forth Wayne, IN:

You know, Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice. But what he also knew was that it doesn’t bend on its own. It bends because each of us puts our hands on that arc and bends it in the direction of justice.

So on this day – of all days – let’s each do our part to bend that arc.

Let’s bend that arc toward justice.

Let’s bend that arc toward opportunity.

Let’s bend that arc toward prosperity for all.

And if we can do that and march together – as one nation, and one people – then we won’t just be keeping faith with what Dr. King lived and died for, we’ll be making real the words of Amos that he invoked so often, and “let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The Growing Up of an Adolescent Country

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In his 1961 essay, The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King, James Baldwin speaks of the death of segregation in America and he raises the question as to “just how long, how violent, and how expensive the funeral is going to be.” We have lived the length of the funeral, felt its violence in the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, we have paid a price too high.

Baldwin advocated, however, a quick burial of the corpse of segregation:

The sooner the corpse is buried, the sooner we can get around to the far more taxing and rewarding problems of integration, or what King calls community, and what I think of as the achievement of nationhood, or, more simply and cruelly, the growing up of this dangerously adolescent country.”3

Obama’s speech on race yesterday was a step toward the maturing of our adolescent country. His willingness to stand against the firestorm of outrage in the face of Jeremiah Wright’s statements and, without wavering, to challenge the American people to live the tension that Obama himself embodies, that we as a nation embody: this took courage. It was a stand for achieving nationhood, to use Baldwin’s words, a move toward genuine community, to use King’s.

Our response will take courage too.

I am proud to say that I hear something of the courage it will take in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer.There various civic and religious leaders were interviewed about their reaction to the speech. One voice heard here is particularly dear to me: my step-father, Theodore Loder, retired pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown and long time advocate for social justice. He has worked his whole life toward achieving the nationhood of which Baldwin speaks.

I have often said that my support for Obama is animated by a concern for the future, but reading Ted’s words quoted in the Inquirer, I am increasingly aware of how important this moment and this candidacy is for all those thoughtful, courageous leaders, black and white, who came before, teaching us the hard lessons of what it would mean to grow up as a country.

With them in mind, I end here as I began, with the words of Baldwin, this time from his 1960 essay, Notes for a Hypothetical Novel:

A country is only as good … a country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become.  Now, this country is going to be transformed. It will not be transformed by God, but by all of us, by you and me.  I don’t believe any longer that we can afford to say that it is entirely out of our hands. We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.

State College Obama Office Opens

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Tonight I went with my neighbor and friend, Paul, and his daughter, Caitlin, and with my daughters, Hannah and Chloe, to the opening of the Obama campaign office here in State College.  There were many people of diverse backgrounds, much energy and a good deal of excitement for the Obama campaign.

Chloe, Caitlin and Hannah were quite excited, dancing and singing and, of course, chanting along with the “Fired Up and … Ready to Go!” call and response.  It was powerful to feel the energy of so many young people and not a few older ones at the office opening tonight.  

There is a lot of work to be done if Obama is to do well and perhaps even win in Pennsylvania next month.  But after tonight I am more confident that it is possible.

My confidence is yet further augmented by Obama’s speech on race in America today.  It is a sober, thoughtful speech.  It is a challenging speech, one that asks us to live up to the mature politics of which I spoke here months ago. It recognizes that America “is irrevocably bound to a tragic past.” And yet, it pushes us to think about how we will respond to this past.

Will we continue to be haunted by it in a paralyzing way, or will we draw upon it even as we move toward a more perfect union? Or, to use Obama’s words:

“This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.”

This is a call to action, to live up to a promise so long deferred. Now is the time.

Registering to Vote in PA

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To those readers of this blog living in PA, now is the time to make sure you are registered to vote in the Pennsylvania primary.  

The deadline is March 24th, so if you want to be part of the Democratic primary in April, you need to register by the 24th.  You can register online here: 

Those of you teaching classes this semester, please contact Jessalyn Schwartz at jessalyn.schwartz@gmail.com if you would like to have a student come talk to your class about how to register to vote in the primary. Jessalyn writes of her efforts:

I am a graduating senior working with the Penn State Chapter of Students for Barack Obama as the Academic Outreach Coordinator. With the Pennsylvania primary quickly approaching, we have taken on the task of registering students to vote. The goal of our effort is to turn in more than 8,000 registration cards before the March 24th deadline. 

I am contacting you to ask if you … would allow one of our members to speak to some of your classes and impart a non-partisan message about the importance of this election and voting as well as inform them of how and where they can register to vote. We are not trying to get more support for our specific candidate and will not be mentioning our position, though we do have to remind them that they cannot be registered independent in order to vote in the primary. Please let me know if you would be interested in allowing us to come in for a few minutes to engage your students or if you have any questions or suggestions of other faculty members that may allow our presence. Thank you for your time. 

I hope people will consider contacting Jessalyn to make sure as many people as possible can participate in the primary on April 22nd.  

PSU for Obama

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A number of graduate students, faculty and Penn State staff have started a Google Group to spread the word about Obama and generate excitement about his campaign. It seems now that Pennsylvania will finally have a chance to weigh in on the nomination.  We will finally have a chance to make a definitive statement that we are ready to move beyond the politics of hate and division and toward a more mature politics at home and abroad.

I was extremely disappointed by governor Ed Rendell’s comments last month to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette, that Pennsylvania is home to conservative whites who are “probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate.”  Although Gov. Rendell does not yet seem ready, many of us here in Pennsylvania are ready to vote for a candidate who is capable of changing the way politics is practiced in the United States.

Noam Scheiber of the New Republic points to Bryan Curtis’s October 2000 report about Gov. Rendell’s propensity to harm those he is trying to help.  Although Obama will have to combat Rendell’s machine here, he may get some help directly from the mouth of the Governor.  

If you are a member of the PSU community, or just interested in the Obama campaign, come and join the group:

Hope with an Edge

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My Dad wrote me an email today suggesting I take a look at David Brook’s column, When the Magic Fades, in the New York Times.  He wanted to know what I thought, so here it is:

In that article, which seems to be Brooks’s own attempt to fulfill a prophesy, he regurgitates the mainstream media’s insistence that Obama is all posture and no substance, all hope and no guts.  He calls him the “Hope Pope,” the “Changemaker,” “The Chosen One,” and the “High Deacon of Unity.”  He speaks of “what’s bound to be a national phenomenon: Obama Comedown Syndrome.”  

O.C.S., he says, will set in when people realize that Obama’s PAC is giving $698,000 to superdelegates, when they realize he is considering backing off his promise to abide by the public finance campaign-spending rules in the general election and when he fails to stand up to the lobbyists and the special interests in the Democratic party.

As I write, it doesn’t look like Wisconsin got the O.C.S. diagnosis in time.  No, they seem to have chosen, and chosen wisely.

My support for Obama has always been because he can use his power with words to mobilize the American people to get substantive change accomplished. I am happy that he is not afraid to play serious politics, Old School style.  He is not naive enough to believe you can get elected on a lot of talk of hope. He knows he needs to win over (which means buy off via legal contributions) all those with loyalties to the Clinton machine.

So, if I were advising him, I would tell him forget the promise he made about campaign contributions.  That was before the people of the US told him that they wanted to finance his campaign themselves via internet contributions to the tune of $36 million in January alone.  This is different from taking huge money from few people. So, I would tell him to say that he has decided to forego public financing because the promise he made previously was intended to ensure that big money special interest groups were out of the mix.  Obama’s money is not coming from special interests, but from hundreds of thousands of people giving a little at a time.  This accomplishes the same goal and leaves him free to out spend McCain by a lot.  

What I like about Obama is that he plays by new rules but is ready to respond with tenacity to old ways when needed. Meanwhile, Clinton’s tired negative strategy is falling on deaf ears.  McCain seems to be trying some of the same tricks–he says Obama is peddling empty promises, that he and his wife are unpatriotic, etc.–they have no idea what they are dealing with here.

Krugman and Brooks think Obama can’t play hardball. Watch him.

This is hope with a hard edge. 

Preemptive Dialogue

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I have recently been struck by, and stuck between, two critiques of Obama’s foreign policy approach.  The first, articulated here in Kristin Rawl’s thoughtful response to my last post on Style with Substance, argues that Power and other Obama advisors will remain far too willing to assert United States military force in areas like Pakistan and Rwanda and Darfur.  She expresses grave concerns about all forms of American preemptive military intervention.  While her emphasis on the complexity of the issues involved and the difficulty of determining a productive way of response are surely correct, I still believe that people like Joseph Cirincione, with his emphasis on engagement, and Power, with her insistence that questions of social justice should drive American foreign policy would be a huge step in the right direction.

From the right, but not so far right that it is ridiculously neoconservative, there is this recent article by Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic. He argues that Obama’s impulse to dialogue fails to appreciate the “darker dimensions of our strategic predicament.”  He points, rightly I think, to the “recalcitrance of the world,” but argues, wrongly I think, that it is a sign of youth (and thus, one assumes, naivete) to think that an essentially optimistic, dialogical stance will be more effective in addressing the recalcitrance of the world than the tough talking posturing and very real violent course of action we have pursued to date.

I would suggest that Obama’s fundamental political approach of preemptive dialogue and compromise informed by a set of ideals and values grounded in a commitment to social justice is much more mature and effective than the immature politics of demonization and destruction.  To take a willingness to dialogue as a sign of weakness is to fall into a masculine logic of violence that has proven to be completely ineffective and counter-productive.  The disposition toward dialogue is a posture of strength and security, bolstered often by a self-assured recognition of military superiority, but guided always by the understanding that the use of force is a sign of failure, even when it may be justified.  

Words and ideas have always had a more substantive capacity to transform cultures and societies than have violence and force.  If we have learned anything from the Bush Administration’s many failures it is that it is in America’s self-interest to engage the world in a proactive, humble, deliberative and dialogical way.  

This is neither the naivete of youth nor the delusion of nostalgia; it is not a rejection of nuance and subtlety, nor a blanket and abstract refusal to use force; rather it is a mature response to the complexities of the world in which we live, however recalcitrant.  

Ironically, the youth of America–as can be felt here and here at Penn State and on college campuses throughout the country–seem to recognize Obama’s hope as grounded and mature.  They hear in it a call for for a level of deliberative action and engagement far beyond the imagination of those who, like Krugman and Wieselteir, defend force and violence in the name of sober realism.

Style with Substance

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To the degree that I have embraced the power of Obama’s words as a way to move the country toward a new way of thinking about politics, I risk giving the impression that I too have uncritically fallen into the mainstream media’s simple dichotomy that insists that Clinton is substance without much style and Obama is style without much substance.  Leaving the racist undertones of this way of formulating the differences to one side, it is perhaps important to address the distinctions between the two candidates directly.

I propose to do this by looking here at the question of foreign affairs to show the substance of Obama’s position and the substantive differences between Obama and Clinton.

Turning to the question of foreign policy, we ought not rely exclusively on the track records of the two candidates nor should we focus only on Clinton’s poor judgment in supporting the war in Iraq or Obama’s good judgment in opposing it from the start. These are important points, but the best way to determine how a president will conduct foreign affairs is to look at her or his foreign policy advisors.  

One of Hillary Clinton’s main foreign policy advisors is Lee Feinstein, the Clinton Campaign’s National Security Director.  He co-wrote an article for Foreign Affairs in 2004 with Anne-Marie Slaughter that was critical of the Bush administration’s strategy of unilateral preemption even as it argued for a “collective duty to protect” the lives and liberty of citizens of “nations run by rulers without  internal checks on their power….”  It sounds as if the extent of their critique of the Bush Administration is the unilateral nature of their approach.  The “collective duty to protect” seems to be a re-affirmation of the strategy of preemption but “exercised collectively, through a global or regional organization.”  Indeed, they suggest “the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough.”

Obama’s foreign policy team includes Joseph Cirincione, Lawrence Korb and the human rights scholar Samantha Power.  Cirincione has argued for a policy in which diplomacy plays a central role in the attempt to “contain and engage” nations like Iran.  He argues: 

“Rather than pursue the faint hope that the organization of coercive measures will force Iran’s capitulation, our contain-and-engage strategy couples the pressures created by sanctions, diplomatic isolation and investment freezes with practical compromises and realizable security assurances to encourage Iran onto a verifiable, non-nuclear weapons path.”

This fits well with the central idea of Samantha Power’s Pulitzer prize winning book, A Problem from Hell, which is “that if the shapers of US foreign policy looked out for the human consequences of their decisions, the world and the United States would be far better off.”  When Obama speaks powerfully about change it is to give voice to this very different way of pursuing foreign affairs.  This is part of the substance that underlies the style.

For a good, balanced discussion of the substantial differences between Clinton and Obama on this issue see, Stephen Zunes’s article, Behind Obama and Clinton, on Common Dreams.

I want to thank Marcus Dracos for pointing me to information about the various advisors of the candidates, and for his thoughtful analysis of the differences between Clinton and Obama.  Much of what is written here grew out of conversations with Marcus.

To view Samantha Powers talk about why she works for and supports Obama, see below:

A New Political Calculus

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The Obama campaign continues to perplex the pundits and the politicians who insist on operating with an outdated political calculus based on fear, hatred and self-interest. Some in the press see Obama’s dominant victory in South Carolina as an indication that Obama’s candidacy will trigger huge racial divisions that will tear up the party and lead to disaster.  One passage from an AP article appearing in the Sun News of Myrtle Beach reads:

While blacks overwhelmingly favored Obama, the exit poll showed he got only about 25 percent of the white vote. The racial split raises fresh questions about whether Obama can win in states outside the South, despite his early victory in overwhelmingly white Iowa.

However, in his article, Opening Up a Can of Obama, John Dickerson of Slate.com  puts these numbers in context:

“Going into primary day, the national press and political class obsessed over whether Obama’s victory would be diminished because he performed disproportionally well among African-Americans. Obama did in fact obliterate his opponents among black voters, winning 82 percent of the vote, but he also got a quarter of the white vote. Obama also did well among independents, who made up 23 percent of the primary electorate: He beat Clinton 40 percent to 23 percent, which helps his argument to Democrats voting in future states that he can capture those swing voters in a contest with Republicans in the fall.”

Even the Sun News admits that the big news was the huge turnout on the Democratic side: Obama alone collected more votes than were cast in the 2004 Democratic Presidential primary and the number of Democrats voting outnumbered the Republican turnout last week. All of this suggests that South Carolina would be a state in play for the Democrats in November if Obama is the nominee.

Obama is a cross-over candidate the likes of which we have never seen.  He is motivating not only the blacks in South Carolina, but whites in Iowa and young people all over the country.  And if his speech last night is any indication, he may have just learned how to fend off the slash and burn politics of the Clintons without taking anything away from his own lofty vision.  The speech is posted below, but one of the most brilliant rhetorical moments was this one:

“The choice in this election is not between regions or religions or genders. It’s not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white.

It’s about the past versus the future.

It’s about whether we settle for the same divisions and distractions and drama that passes for politics today, or whether we reach for a politics of common sense, and innovation – a shared sacrifice and shared prosperity.”

This is another indication that the Obama campaign is not operating with the old playbook.  They are thinking in a completely different way, one that sees possibility where so many see division and partisanship.  Just listen:


Toward a Mature Politics

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In his famous essay, What is Enlightenment?, Immanuel Kant writes:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.  Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.1

I was reminded of this passage as I read George Packer’s recent piece in the New Yorker entitled, Choice: Hillary’s idea of the Presidency vs. Obama’s.  Although the media has allowed the difference between Clinton and Obama to be defined in terms of her experience versus his vision, the more appropriate distinction is really between her immaturity and his maturity.

As the Packer article makes clear, the Clintons thrive on the adolescent politics of partisanship.  Thus, in the face of her loss in Iowa, Hillary announced her strategy to go negative on Obama by saying “Now the fun part starts.”  When presented with a way to offer discounts to the elderly in Arkansas during Bill’s tenure as governor, Hillary responded: “The last thing we need to do right now is something for folks who didn’t vote for Bill.”

Sidney Blumenthal, a long-time senior advisor to Bill and Hillary Clinton, puts it succinctly when he says: “It’s not a question of transcending partisanship.  It’s a question of fulfilling it.” The immaturity of such sentiments, masquerading around as a kind of political realism and toughness, is palpable.  It is an immaturity born of years of fighting the vicious and hateful right wing of the political spectrum.  In the end, however, it is a reactionary politics that tends to degrade the political dialogue and drive us to that which is worst in us: the petty, the spiteful, the belligerent.

No one believes that the likes of Grover Norquist and Karl Rove will ever give up on the politics of hate. However, there comes a time when a people must emerge from its self-incurred immaturity and become adults. The adolescent politics of the Clinton administration gave us the rise of Newt Gingrich and the Lewinsky affair. Of course, this was vastly more innocent and benign than the violent adolescence of the Bush administration, which lied its way into war, tried to torture its way out and now, it seems, has won for itself an economic morass to go with its quagmire in Iraq.

A genuine transformation of our society and our position in the world can be accomplished only if we can cultivate a political maturity capable of thinking for itself.

It is time we grew up.

The Politics of Hate

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Today as the Republicans of South Carolina again go to the polls, I am returned to those critical days in the Republican primary in 2000 when Karl Rove deployed a strategy of hate and fear that set in motion a series of events that has led to one of the most disastrous presidencies in American history.  During the South Carolina primary in 2000, the Bush campaign, led by Rove, had surrogates use push polls to suggest that Bridget McCain, Cindy and John McCain’s adopted daughter from Bangladesh, was in fact John’s “illegitimate black child.” For a description of what happened, see Richard Davis’s account in the Boston Globe.

Although the Rove and the Bush campaign denied that this polling was their doing, it was consistent with Rove’s tactics from previous campaigns and it resonates with his most recent comments about Barack Obama in his January 10th, 2008 Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal.  I refuse to link directly to that article as it would reward the Wall Street Journal for publishing the racist musings of a hate monger.  Instead, I quote the relevant passage here: 

“He is often lazy, given to misstatements and exaggerations and, when he doesn’t know the answer, too ready to try to bluff his way through.”

This, of course, is basic, hackneyed racism designed to draw on people’s underlying fears and prejudices.  It also echos a senior White House official who called Obama “intellectually lazy” back in September, for more, see this.  All of this is vintage Rove.

However, my sense is that people are ready for something other than the politics of hatred and fear.  That approach bought us a war in Iraq, a well earned reputation for torture, and a CIA that is burning evidence of its own illegal activities.

Perhaps Americans are finally willing to turn from the politics of fear and hate to a different kind of politics. 

Perhaps we are prepared finally to live up to the ideals the founders so beautifully articulated but over which they hopelessly floundered.

Perhaps we will finally be able to hear the garbage Rove and his ilk spew as precisely what it is: hateful, small minded and cynical political posturing that works only if a population gives in to its worst tendencies.  

I remain hopeful that this year will mark the beginning of a different politics, one grounded in hope and possibility rather than fear and hate.  

Perhaps not…but, just maybe.

The Poetics of Politics

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Last year on the anniversary of hurricane Katrina I wrote about Martin Luther King and the content of our Nation’s character. In that post, I embedded a YouTube video of about Barack Obama because I heard in his voice an empowering rhythm and in his message the hope of new possibilities.

Listen, now, to his victory speech in Iowa last night:

In hearing him speak, I was struck by the power of his political poetics. The poetics of politics names something different from the manipulative rhetoric politics has always deployed for propagandistic purposes. Rather, the poetics of politics resonates with that in us capable of actualizing our best selves. Its rhythm and cadence opens us to new possibilities of community, quickens our passions, not with irrational enthusiasm, but for deliberate action intent on bringing our values in line with our lives.

The United States has been blessed with a wealth of political poets. Think of Jefferson’s “When in the course of human events …“, of Lincoln’s “Four score and seven years ago…“, of FDR’s “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself“, of JKF’s “Ask not what your country can do for you…” or of King’s “I have a dream…

Obama’s “They said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned …” does not yet rise to the level of these great poets, but only because the words mark a minor, albeit significant, victory. Even so, they give voice to the possibility that our highest ideals, when powerfully articulated, can give birth to transformative action.

Grass Roots Politics

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I have always thought Obama’s background as a community organizer would help his chances in Iowa. A few hours time will tell if this intuition was right. However, this article, entitled “A Tiny Iowa Paper and One Very Big Name: Obama” by Peter Slevin of the Washington Post, suggests that from its beginnings the Obama campaign has been assiduously focused on the personal dimension of national politics.

What seems most significant to me in this story is the degree to which it is reported that the Obama campaign operates in the mode of attentive listening. This sort of sensitivity to local concerns and local people is a hopeful sign that this candidate is committed to the real concerns of everyday people rather than to the business concerns of corporate lobbyists.

Although I remain too cynical to think that a politician could be elected in the US who turns a deaf ear to corporate interests, at least it would be nice to know that voices of traditionally less influence are also being heard.

This sort of personal politics need not be naive. In fact, there are signs that Obama’s strong grass roots connections will allow him to succeed in Iowa because he has empowered his precinct captains to make deals with delegates committed to other candidates, like Kucinich, Biden and Richardson. This seems to be a powerful strategy for success in Iowa.

Success in the larger, richer states, however, will require that this grass roots approach take hold on a much broader scale. A victory in Iowa would be the first step in broadening the field of political participants in the United States.

Fiscal Responsibility: Pay for Educational Excellence

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In the Centre Daily Times today (after 11/4, link requires subscription), I noticed a central theme that appears in the answers the State College Vision slate of candidates gave to the question: What would your priorities be if elected to the office you are seeking?

They all emphasize that the new District Wide Master Plan will be a priority and that community input and fiscal responsibility will inform all decisions concerning the plan.

On the face of it, these seem to be worthy and laudable priorities. However, a deeper look into what these priorities mean for these candidates in this context suggest less noble forces at work.

For these candidates, fiscal responsibility seems to mean minimizing the community’s tax liability for our schools. Barney Grimes puts it this way:

We must also provide “the most bang for the buck” with taxpayers’ resources. The expenditure of funds should be based upon fully transparent, established and mutually agreed upon priorities.

Ann McGlaughlin wants to put the question of what is most affordable to taxpayers on an equal footing with the educational and extracurricular needs of our children. One of her priorities is:

To update the district facilities master plan so that it not only supports a strategic plan for educational and extracurricular needs, but also prioritizes renovations in a manner that taxpayers can afford. To provide a disciplined, financial perspective to planning and policymaking, maintenance of the district’s financial health and common-sense stewardship of the taxpayers’ resources.

While affordability and the financial realities of the district must always be a factor in administrative decision-making, it should never be permitted to drive those decisions. Rather, the single most important question should always be: what needs to be done to ensure that our children receive the best education possible? Once that is determined, the community should be challenged to come up with the financial resources necessary to meet those educational needs.

Fiscal responsibility cannot mean minimizing our tax liability, but maximizing our investment in the educational needs of our children.

The community should be prepared to pay whatever it costs to ensure that we have state-of-the-art facilities, superior teachers, an innovative and demanding curriculum, and talented, conscientious administrators. There is no more important financial commitment a community can make to its future.

My concern with the emphasis the State College Vision candidates place on affordability and transparency is that their own candidacies have been funded largely by local developers who are less concerned with the educational needs of our children and more concerned with the financial needs of their businesses. I worry that the obsession with tax liability, when combined with the influence of local developers, will turn the noble goals of transparency and openness into an ignoble reality in which the superior financial resources of local developers will manipulate public opinion in such a way that business interest trumps educational need every time.

Because of these concerns, I intend to write-in James Leous and Robert Hendrickson on November 6th.

Save Our Schools (SOS)

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The write-in campaign of James Leous and Robert Hendrickson have produced three short, funny YouTube advertisements that highlight some of the differences between their positions and those of the State College Vision slate of candidates. I blogged last week about my concerns that the State College Vision campaign has been blinded by the business interests of local developers.
This week I thought I would highlight these YouTube ads to try to give a sense of some of the concerns of the Leous and Hendrickson campaign.
A Negative Vision
The first ad is designed to emphasize the lack of a vision articulated by the State College Vision campaign. This campaign was born out of a vociferous community movement to block the renovation of the local high school, but has not set forth a positive agenda now that the renovation project has been abandoned.

Investing in children, not local business interests
This second ad highlights the commitment Leous and Hendrickson have to investing in the sort of innovative technological that will offer students in our district critical skills for success in a rapidly changing academic and professional world.

The Democratic Process
This final ad is designed to highlight the rather puzzling objection on the part of many on the State College Vision side that the election is basically over and that the Democratic Party’s support for the Leous and Hendrickson write-in campaign amounts to an unwillingness to listen to the will of the people. However, of course, many independents were not permitted to participate in the primary election. Also, a number of people who supported the Vision slate of candidates because they opposed the High School rennovation may have changed their minds in the face of:

  1. revelations about the business interests that funded the campaign and
  2. the Visions campaign’s failure to articulate a positive vision of how to preserve and strengthen the excellent tradition of education the current Board has worked so hard to establish and maintain.

Write-In Leous and Hendrickson

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The upcoming School Board election in State College seems to mark an important turning point for our schools. As someone with two young daughters who will enter the district in the next three or four years, I was very disturbed to read the following article from Voices of Central PA.
Although many people were clearly upset about the idea of renovating the High School, it seems that we have lost sight of the important question of who can best ensure that our schools continue to achieve excellence. It is more than a little concerning that local developers contributed so much money to the State High Vision slate of candidates.
Happily, it is still possible to counteract the influence of these developers because Jim Leous, my neighbor and colleague at Penn State, and Robert Hendrickson, who has served on the Board during a period in which the district established a strong record of excellence, are running as write-in candidates.

Don't be fooled again

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Today is Labor Day and there is short quiet before the storm of debate in Washington about the war in Iraq unleashes itself upon us. General Petraeus will give his assessment later in the month. The White House will deploy its propaganda machinery to instill fear in the population in an attempt to reinvigorate support for a failed effort in Iraq. The anniversary of 9/11 will again be manipulated for political purposes.
Before this storm of debate drowns the voices against the war in Iraq, we would do well to recall the August 19th Op-Ed article in the New York Times by seven soldiers operating on the ground in Iraq.
Since, however, this is a Times Select article and may not be accessible to all, I quote a few sections here to amplify in some small way, their thoughtful and courageous position:

Given the situation, it is important not to assess security from an American-centered perspective. The ability of, say, American observers to safely walk down the streets of formerly violent towns is not a resounding indicator of security. What matters is the experience of the local citizenry and the future of our counterinsurgency. When we take this view, we see that a vast majority of Iraqis feel increasingly insecure and view us as an occupation force that has failed to produce normalcy after four years and is increasingly unlikely to do so as we continue to arm each warring side.

They make a strong argument for stepping back from the counterinsurgency campaign as they conclude their argument this way:

In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal.

Until that happens, it would be prudent for us to increasingly let Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve their differences as they see fit. This suggestion is not meant to be defeatist, but rather to highlight our pursuit of incompatible policies to absurd ends without recognizing the incongruities.

We need not talk about our morale. As committed soldiers, we will see this mission through.

For two of the seven authors of this article, Sgt. Omar Mora and Staff Sgt. Yance T. Gray, seeing the mission through meant their own death on Monday, September 10th.
For more on this, see:

The Content of Our Character

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Martin Luther King dreamed that one day people would be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” If you listen to that speech again, it is difficult not to be moved by the notion that the United States as a country has established an ideal of equality and justice for itself; that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” We are a long way from such an uprising …
As we mark the second anniversary of hurricane Katrina, the disjunction between our ideals and our reality is ever more poignant. The plight of the least advantaged among us is ever more difficult. We as a nation should aspire to be judged by the content of our character, and our response to the disastrous storm, two years ago and still today, is a powerful testimony to our lack of character as a nation.
If we are to begin to live up to the ideals King himself understood America to have set for itself, we will need both vision and eloquence. I see and hear something of both here:

Congress in Fear

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Last week I wondered whether Congress would have the courage to pursue the question of impeachment. This week we received the unequivocal answer: no. In fact, not only will the Congress not pursue the national inquiry the framers envisioned, but they passed legislation to grant further powers to an executive branch with a long history of abuse of power.
The issues surrounding the updating of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act are complicated. For a thoughtful analysis of the process that led to the bill signed into law this week expanding the government’s power to eavesdrop without warrants, see Patrick Radden Keefe’s article in Slate Magazine, entitled “Wiretap at Will.”
I was happy to see that Hilary Clinton and Barak Obama both voted against this legislation, disappointed that both of our senators from Pennsylvania lacked the insight and courage to vote nay. Of particular concern, of course, is the use of that ancient strategy of tyrants to appeal to fear in attempting to appropriate ever expanding authority.

A "National Inquest"

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In the Federalist Papers #65, Alexander Hamilton articulates the “true spirit” of the institution of impeachment written into the constitution. Article II, section 4 of the United States Constitution, puts the question of impeachment in stark and striking terms:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The precise meaning of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” remains vague enough to allow each generation to decide for itself its precise meaning. Hamilton, however, gives us a sense of what the framers thought of the institution of impeachment. He writes:

The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.

The question of impeachment is couched in terms of violated trust, of misconduct and of injuries done to society itself. The offense is not criminal, but political: it concerns the well-being of the community of citizens. Hamilton writes that the “true spirit” of the institution of impeachment is to for it to be “a method of NATIONAL INQUEST into the conduct of public men.” The impeachment process seems to have been seen as vital to the long-term health of the Republic.

The institution itself appears to have been based on a deep belief in our capacity for self-examination, in our willingness to face up to the ramifications of our own decisions and inquire into the conduct and performance of those we have elected. Impeachment does not imply constitutional crisis, rather, it is one of the ways the constitution itself seeks to safe-guard the society against its own poor judgment.

Thus, it is to that branch of government allegedly most alive to the interests and will of the citizenry (the House of Representatives) that the founders gave the “the sole power of impeachment” (Article I, sec. 2, clause 5).

Of course, Hamilton recognized that undertaking such a serious, but necessary because palliative, endeavor would be difficult and take courage, for, as he writes, the prosecution of impeachments “will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused.” A concern for the seriousness of the question of impeachment and for the dangers endemic to the passions it agitates led the framers to consider the Senate as the proper place for a tribunal that would be “sufficiently dignified” and “sufficiently independent.” As Hamilton puts it:

What other body would be likely to feel CONFIDENCE ENOUGH IN ITS OWN SITUATION, to preserve, unawed and uninfluenced, the necessary impartiality between an INDIVIDUAL accused, and the REPRESENTATIVES OF THE PEOPLE, HIS ACCUSERS?

Today it is unclear whether the House of Representatives has the courage to adopt articles of impeachment against Vice-president Cheney and President Bush, nor if the Senate has the confidence, maturity and integrity to prosecute an impeachment trial with impartiality between the individuals accused and we, the people.

Hamilton and his colleagues trusted that posterity would somehow find the courage to apply the medicine, however bitter, that would preserve the health of the Republic when its chief executive officers abuse and violate the public trust.

The question of impeachment is a political question in a larger sense than the so-called “politics” that reigns in Washington. It concerns the well-being of a community that finds some of its core values – individual rights, the just treatment of others, the balance of powers in government – threatened by the very ones who pledged “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The decision as to whether to pursue the question of impeachment ought to be made with sober seriousness, not with an eye to the short term political expediency of a single party or a specific candidate, but with the long-term prosperity of the community as the sole and guiding consideration.

In this light, it is difficult to argue against the urgent need for such a “national inquest.”

Below you will find some articles on the issue that will be updated over the course of the next few months as the national discussion of impeachment continues.

Jocasta and the Lieutenant General

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In the June 25, 2007 edition of the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh reports on the report General Taguba filed chronicling the “systematic and illegal abuse” of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison and its initial reception at the Pentagon. Soon after the first complaints of abuses, Hersh reports that Joseph Darby, a military policeman gave the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division a CD full of images of abuse and a video. Taguba himself reported that “he saw ‘a video of a male American soldier in uniform sodomizing a female detainee.'”
One need not watch this video to apprehend the profound significance of this event and the troubling symbolism of the image: an American soldier, clothed in the uniform of American hegemonic authority, sodomizing a female prisoner. If it would not do violence to the horrible suffering of that singular female prisoner, it would not be difficult to see this image as a symbol of the profound American failure to date in Iraq.
What is more troubling still is our unwillingness, still today, to deal with the truth of this image. We remain like the lieutenant general of which Taguba speaks who, when urged to look at the photographs, responds “I don’t want to get involved by looking, because what do you do with that information, once you know what they show?”
This unwillingness to look as a response to a horror that has already taken root in one’s consciousness is, in fact, a time honored human tactic of delusion. In Oedipus the King, Jocasta, Oedipus’s mother and wife, has a similar response as she begins to recognize the horrible truth of her life–that she has married and bore children to her own son. She tells Oedipus, who himself remains tenacious in his pursuit of the truth, “Pay it no attention. Do not even wish to call to mind mere foolish, futile words … if you have any care for your own life, don’t search this out.” (King Oedipus, 1056-1061, from Sophocles: The Theban Plays, trans. Ruby Blondell, Newburyport, MA: Focus Classical Library.)
We Americans seem today to remain like Jocasta and the Lieutenant General. Indeed, we have internalized Jocasta’s advice to Oedipus: we do not even wish to call to mind such words and images that will reveal the truth of who we have become.
But the lieutenant general’s words already reveal too much, for the decision not to look is, in fact, a choice to collude in the abuse, in the full range of violence endemic to our actions in Iraq. It is a responsibility we all now bear, even those of us who never supported the president or his disastrous war, even, indeed, those of us who try to seek the truth by looking at and thinking through the implications of the images that find their way to us despite ourselves.