Land of the Angry, Home of the Scared

November 5, 2018

President Obama’s comments to hecklers in Florida wondering why they were angry, especially since their party controlled the Congress and the Presidency and their president had followed through on many of his promises, got me thinking again about what we stand for as a country. My concern about our values and beliefs brought on further concerns when Trump supporters bought into his lies about rising crime ( it is not rising), the caravans invading our country ( a rag tag group of asylum seekers, many of them women and children, is not an invasion) and the threat of minorities to a white America ( if there is any threat it is from white neo-Nazis). So why are we no longer the land of the free and the home of the brave, but rather the land of the angry and the home of the scared?

The answer to this question likely is better answered by trained psychologists, but it does make a political observer wonder why the right wing is not filled with supreme joy and at the very least taking a brief moment to use Google to inquiry about the President’s misinformation campaign. It would seem to me that the anger is the result of pent up frustration over years of living at the margins in a country where elites didn’t care, while the embrace of outright lies spoken by a man who knows how to gin up a crowd just makes those on the margins feel better. Say what you want about the President, he knows how to push the right buttons in his base and has no remorse over stoking white race anger and just saying anything that comes into his mind at what has become an old-fashioned religious rally. If you have ever seen the ancient movie, Elmer Gantry, with Burt Lancaster, it perfectly depicts the charismatic ability of one man, a religious charlatan,  to get his followers to follow him anywhere, no matter how cruel or off the wall his sermons are.

It would be reassuring if we indeed were the home of the free and the land of the brave as our national anthem proudly proclaims, but our freedoms are slowly being eroded (especially freedom of the press) and we seem to willing admit that we are afraid (but mostly afraid that minorities will replace white power). We live in a time when according to that great political philosopher Groucho Marx, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” Perhaps saner leaders in both parties, truth-seeking pundits of both political persuasions, and that great moderate middle of America will bring us back to the era of compromise, consensus, and conflict resolution. Katherine Bates, who wrote “America the Beautiful” said it best, ” America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.” One can only hope.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Democratic Values v.The Forgotten

October 30, 2018

Talk to any critic of President Trump and they will likely say that he has ignored, weakened or destroyed our democratic values – the rule of law, freedom of expression, respect for diversity and inclusion, and a welcoming and humane spirit. Talk to any of his supporters and they will likely say that President Trump has strengthened the economy, put money into the hands of those the liberals have forgotten, taken strong steps to rein in illegal immigration and expanded our military while sending a clear message to the world that the United States is a nation to be reckoned with. Those who detest the President see him as a buffoon who is only out for himself; those who idolize him see the President as someone who speaks the language of those who have had no voice in American politics and are mad as hell.

While the current wave of polarization can be viewed from numerous perspectives, the great divide is really about what we stand for as a nation versus what we have forgotten as a people. A mid-term election of Democrats in the House or perhaps the Senate may temper this divide a tiny bit by checking the White House but it surely is not going to close the deep gap over what we stand for versus what we used to be as a people. In the days before we became divided the middle class acted as the “great stabilizer” as prosperity was spread over a wide spectrum of the populace leading to a general consensus on the American Dream and the commitment to build consensus and centrism in our political life. Today the middle class is in shambles with too many people either outright poor or unable to make it from paycheck to paycheck. Why should these forgotten Americans care about democratic values and proper norms of presidential behavior when they believe the elites don’t care about them or the precariousness of their economic predicament. Throw in a healthy dose of racism or at the very least the perception of unfair advantages for minorities and democratic values mean little to those who wear the Make America Great Again hat.

If there is a resolution of this great divide it is returning to the days when the economic pie was more evenly allocated, when Democrats stood fore square for the working man and woman,  when Republicans remembered that great power requires great responsibility and when we treat all Americans no matter their race, religion, ethnicity and gender characteristics as worthy of respect, decency and equality. That is a tall order and an outcome that unfortunately is years away given the current climate of distrust and hate. It would help if we had calming leaders, political cooperation, less anger and more compromise, and perhaps most of all just plain quiet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Caravan

October 25, 2018

As the 7000 migrants from Honduras and elsewhere in Central America move northward through Mexico I wonder aloud whether the failure of the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto to mount a push back of the caravan may just be a gesture of resistance to being bullied into submission by President Trump over a rewriting of the NAFTA agreement (now called the United States, Mexico, Canada Agreement). Although the migrants forced their way across the Guatemala- Mexico border, it is hard to believe that the military and local police could not have used their considerable numbers and crowd control training to turn them around, or at least halt their progress. Failing that there have been plenty of opportunities to turn the column back as it moved its way through Chiapas province.

The Mexican government is likely stepping aside and laying the burden of the migrant caravan square on President Trump and his administration, after all the caravan is headed to Brownsville, Texas and has little interest in settling in Mexico, which in many respects is just as violent as the homeland they are leaving. President Trump has already threatened to cut off aid to Honduras for allowing the caravan to form and move northward, but it would be difficult to punish a newly minted trade partner like Mexico.

Perhaps there are behind the scenes talks between Washington and Mexico over a resolution of this human crisis, especially since a new government will take power in early December. But if the government of President Nieto is purposely sitting on the sidelines and quietly enjoying the immigration crisis facing President Trump, then the United States government will be forced to deal with the sad optics of  desperate families facing the US Army in the coming months.

Since these migrants really have nothing to lose by moving north and Mexico has become a partner in their trek, the Trump administration is in a potential public relations bind. Our soldiers could push them back as they move into Texas, they could use tear gas or other non-lethal methods of crowd control, or they could lock 7,000 people up in detention centers, which in some respects would give the migrants a temporary home as the matter of refugee status and asylum works its way through the courts. Trump will, of course, look and talk tough but any form of force against women and children, families, and the elderly would be splashed across the television screens and presented as a human disaster. Sure Trump’s base would cheer wildly about getting tough on the migrants, but there is still a large segment of the population in this country that were outraged with the previous separation policy of the government and the courts can be counted on to use their power to put at least a temporary check on this latest immigration crisis.

There is still time to work out a solution to the caravan of migrants marching northward and it lies with the Mexican government, whether currently in power or about to assume power. But Mexico does have a certain amount of leverage in this crisis and it can be counted on to extract something from the Trump administration for its cooperation. before soldiers and families face off in Brownsville, Texas.


The Camino-Part 2 – Some Observations

October 23, 2018

Walking over 70 miles along The Way one has an opportunity to observe and reflect on the beauty of the landscape and some of the differences between life back home and in northern Spain. I’d like to share with you some of those observations and perhaps some lessons that we here in the states could benefit from.

Trees – Spain has gone on a tree planting program that can be found everywhere. Spain has increased its forests dramatically in the last 20 years, some for the lumber industry but also much of the growth as an environmental benefit. Everywhere we walked it was possible to see neatly aligned rows of tress that beautified the landscape and made one a bit jealous that we in the States seem averse  to plant these sources of oxygen and shade. Too often we cut down tress at construction sites with little effort to replace the trees that are destroyed. We can learn a lot from the Spanish program to create a green countryside.

Telephone polls- In most of Spain electric and other wires are placed on concrete polls that are narrow and elongated triangle-like structures. While not overly attractive these concrete polls are far better than the out of shape tree trunks that our companies use to hang their wires. In the last few years these wooden monstrosities have too often crumbled during storms, only to be replaced with the same ugly tree stumps. Although I am no electric company executive, I can assume with some certainty that the choice of a large tree is far cheaper than a concrete structure. It is highly unlikely that we will follow the Spanish and move to a more attractive concrete poll and ditch the trees, but it would be nice to know that there are alternatives.

Clean streets – It is instantly recognizable when walking through northern Spain, whether in a small town or a mid-size city that the Spanish pay close attention to keeping their streets  clean. The urban and rural cleanliness is not just a result of government policy as clean up crews take brooms and shovels to pick up waste, but also a cultural pattern of taking pride in their town or city. Unlike our country, which is rooted in a throwaway mindset, the Spanish value public cleanliness. Let’s face it – many of our towns and cities are a public mess with only infrequent attempts to wipe away the clutter on our streets and sidewalks. We have become accustomed to the junk around us. This is not an insurmountable problem; it just requires a public policy decision and a little bit or personal pride.

Religious demographics -Since The Way is first and foremost a religious pilgrimage, the site of our destination, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, was personally moving. To see the thousands of pilgrims praying in the cathedral and standing in line to touch the statue of St. James will always remain in my consciousness. But our trip to the cathedral also reminded us that there is a huge demographic divide in how various age groups view The Way of St. James and the cathedral. After leaving the Pilgrim’s Mass we ventured outside and saw hundreds of young people resting, talking and taking photos of the cathedral. These young people could not be found in the cathedral and certainly not standing in line to touch St. James. It was a stark reminder that in the 21st  century religion and religious belief resides among those in the 50-80 age range. For many of the walkers in the 20-50 range, the Way of St. James is a physical challenge, not a religious pilgrimage.

American pop culture – When we arrived at one of the small cities along the Way, Azura, we took a walk about the town just to get our bearings and stop for a cold beer. As we passed a restaurant I looked inside and to my amazement there on the television screen was the Spanish version of Wheel of Fortune. Yes, it is not possible to shut out American culture even in an out of the way town in northern Spain. I am sure the Spanish have many other programs that don’t rely on American television programs, but to see Wheel of Fortune is a reminder that our popular culture remains dominant and strangely attractive. Although I was disappointed to see Wheel of Fortune, it was nice to see Vanna White touch the letter screen.

As you can see walking The Way was not only a spiritual adventure but a chance to compare people, lifestyles and public policies. Certainly northern Spain is not at the epicenter of international commerce and politics but it afforded me a chance to gain an insight into a different way of thinking and living.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Camino – Part 1

October 18, 2018

For those unfamiliar with hiking opportunities available around the world, perhaps one of the most famous is the Camino de Santiago, often called The Way of St. James. Starting in Saint Jean Pied de Port in France, the hike moves though most of northern Spain covering over 500 miles ending in the religious city of Santiago de Compostela,where legend has it that the Apostle James is buried. Santiago has become the third most visited religious destination after the Vatican and Jerusalem. Thousands of pilgrims, as they are called, trek The Way for a journey that can take upwards of 30 days.

My wife and I and another couple decided that we would follow The Way. But because we are of the “senior set” the four of us decided on starting our journey in the city of Sarria, which is approximately 73 miles from Santiago. Sarria is a popular starting point because it allows pilgrims to qualify for a certificate that verifies they traveled at least 118 kilometers. I am happy to say that we finished the journey, made it to Santiago with only a few blisters and some aching knees, but an inner pride that we still had the human capacity to qualify as legitimate pilgrims.

Now before I leave the impression that our little group of senior pilgrims accomplished an extraordinary feat, let me bring a level of honesty to our hike through Spain. First of all we broke up the trip into nine days of walking 8 miles; we took our time enjoying the beautiful out of the way places of rural Spain. Each night we stayed in the Spanish equivalent of a bed and breakfast where delicious dinners were served with plenty of wine. Rather than lug thirty pounds of stuff on our backs, we traveled light and had our luggage carted off to the next bed and breakfast. Granted we did all of the walk but never did over 10 miles a day, finishing around 3 in the afternoon and then enjoying R and R with a bottle or bottles of the third R, Rioja, the staple red wine of Spain.

Of the many highlights of The Way was meeting so many wonderful pilgrims from around the world, from England to Germany to Mexico to Korea to Australia to Ireland. Wonderful conversations were had as we compared notes, learned about each others country and never talked politics. It is impossible not to be relaxed and live for the moment along The Way. When we ended our journey at Santiago de Composetela we arrived in time at the enormous cathedral for the Pilgrim’s mass, thousands of like-minded walkers worshiping together and venerating the statue of St. James. Even if you are not a believer, the site of fellow pilgrims giving thanks is uplifting.

We qualified for your certificate of The Way, rested for a few nights in a hotel built by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela in 1509 as a hospital for those pilgrims in need of medical attention, and then began our long journey home. Walking The Way will always be a vacation to remember, an adventure, a religious experience, a time to enjoy the simple beauty of the Spanish countryside. If your knees are in good shape I highly recommend The Way.


If We Could All Be Rotarians

June 11, 2018

Recently I became a member of the local Bridgewater, Massachusetts branch of  Rotary International organization. I joined a wonderful group of friends and neighbors who live by the motto ” Service Above Self.” At each meeting after the pledge of allegiance to the flag, a prayer and the singing of a patriotic song, members recite the Rotary’s 4- Way Test- a short listing of  values that guide the work of the thousands of clubs around the world.

The Four Way Test is really quite simple – reminding members of the way they should think, speak and take action as they serve others. The 4- Way Test is as follows:

Is it the Truth?

Is it Fair to all concerned?

Will it build Goodwill and better Friendship?

Will it be Beneficial to all concerned?

As you can see the 4- Way Test accents some key values – truth, fairness, goodwill, friendship and service that benefits all  people.

As someone who has taught and written about politics for decades I wondered what would happen if the 4-Way Test were included into the oath of office that our political leaders swear on the Bible. Wouldn’t it be helpful during this time of stress, strain, division and anger if those who are charged with making public policy lived and worked by the Rotary’s values?

Pledging to uphold the Constitution and to protect the United States is certainly the foundation of what political leaders must adhere to as they hold public office, but we have come to a time in our history where simple humane and decent values are either ignored or thrust aside in the quest for a win or a power grab. Political leaders at all levels often refer to themselves as public servants but too often they forget the other half of  the call to duty – Service Above Self.

The over one million Rotarians around the world perform countless acts of service from hurricane relief efforts to planting trees to what our local group does – award college scholarships and donate dictionaries to middle school children. If there is a need in the community or in a country far away, it is certain that the Rotary will be there to provide assistance.

Our country and our democracy is facing a host of domestic and international challenges that will define the future of the United States. One way to ensure that the future of our great nation is secure is to put service about self and to implement the values of the Rotary 4-Way Test in our daily lives – Truth seeking, Fairness, Goodwill, Friendship and spreading the Benefits of our wealth and power to all Americans.

 


Why is Trump Still Popular, It’s Easy

June 5, 2018

Legions of liberals scratch their heads when they see polling data that show President Trump’s approval rate over 40%. Despite the stupid tweets, the lies and exaggerations, the flaunting of the rule of law, the destruction of presidential norms of behavior, blatant corruption, and the embrace of public policies that isolate the United States and pose real dangers to our future as the leader of the free world, Trump trudges on not just with his base but also with independent-minded voters who are unwilling to denounce him and push for his removal from office.

So what’s going on here with the stability of the Trump approval? It is really quite easy. Trump supporters see more money in their paychecks, and some have seen bonuses or small increases in their salaries, jobs are so plentiful that workers can now pick and choose, the stock market despite regular ups and downs is generally on the uptick, inflation is minimal, and areas of the economy once viewed as dead are no longer on life support. As the Democratic strategist James Carvelle reminded Bill Clinton’s staff, ” It’s the economy, stupid.”

Although some in his administration and certainly those among the punditry have called him a “moron” or just plain “dumb”, Trump knows the current state of American political culture – flag waving patriotism, fear of minorities, militarism, disgust with political correctness, support for small town Americana, and hatred of the eastern and California elite. Somehow the Democrats forgot that our political culture can be defined by what the working class believes is what America stands for, not what the New York Times editorializes. Trump has tapped into this working class culture and is not afraid to use it to bludgeon the left. Few people read the Times but they do listen to the President.

Of course having an approval rating in the low 40% range means that somewhere in the 60% range Americans either despise Trump or have serious questions about where he is taking the country. But if liberals are to make any serious dent in that 40% they have to admit there are now two competing political cultures in our country and begin to make efforts to understand the Trump culture and where possible make efforts to offer realistic alternatives.

What does that mean – “realistic alternatives”? In no particular order liberals must tag Trump with the inevitable increases in health care premiums, offer a better package of tax cuts that puts more money in the pockets of working class people, stop making pro-choice the signature position of the left, forget the big cities and take bus rides to rural America for listening tours, show the American public that patriotism means more than the flag,  and last but not least ask Nancy Pelosi to retire.

The challenge of the liberals as they try to compete with Trumpism is like moving a huge aircraft carrier on a different course; for years liberals have forgotten that they were originally the party of the working man and woman and that their support came from the heartland. If the Democrats hold to their old model of politics the blue wave of November 2018 just may fizzle out as the economy hums along. Trump may yet set himself up for self-destruction, but the liberals must change or face their own self-destruction.