Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Predatory Conservatism Is Like A Venereal Disease

A short post this evening. After President Obama’s speech last night I pondered how the hell we got here. I’m not simply referring to the oil spill but America’s and the world’s rapidly decaying condition.

Under George W. Bush liberals warned that America was on a collision course with calamity. I suppose one could describe the Bush regime as the culmination of forty years of predatory conservatism that favored wealth over work and corporate power over community interests. Sadly, Americans were seduced by predatory conservatism’s false promises of freedom, wealth and benevolent nationalism as our center of political gravity lurched to the radical right. As of 2010, America’s predatory conservative movement boasts a legacy of economic calamity, two failed military occupations, a crumbling infrastructure and an epic environmental catastrophe as the world spirals towards global warming at breakneck speed.

It’s almost as if predatory conservatism as personified under its prodigal son, George W. Bush, unleashed a metastasizing venereal disease upon our institutions, culture, fiscal solvency and sense of social responsibility. The disease requires bold aggressive treatment. Instead, under President Obama, conservatism’s venereal disease is being treated with mild ointment.

At best Obama’s ointment can reduce the sting somewhat. But it’s not reversing the disease, which continues to metastasize. Even worse, America’s body politic is recoiling from the mild ointment as if it’s worse than the disease itself that enabled Wall Street permissiveness and the British Petroleum oil spill.

I retain my personal admiration in President Obama. But that’s where we are today.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Support Chris Owens For State Committee

It seems that entropy has been unleashed upon our lives. Hyper-sized banks, corrupt institutions, out of control developers and a political culture that wages class warfare against regular folks has taken a wrecking ball to the American dream. Here in Brooklyn, it seems that corporatist wrecking ball is on steroids. The best antidote is to support the best and the brightest of authentic progressive reformers locally.

I was reminded of that recently when Chris Owens shook hands at my Bergen Street subway station in Brooklyn last week. As readers of this blog may recall, Chris was my first podcast interview in 2006. He’s a true progressive who champions wage earners and community over the interests of developers. Chris is just the sort of person we need to represent core progressive values of decency and fairness with the Democratic State Committee for Brooklyn’s 52nd Assembly District. He's an independent voice and not part of the machine.

His campaign slogan says it best,
“Stop the corruption! End the dysfunction!”
As with any campaign, true progressive reformers such as Chris Owens are going up against well financed Goliaths who want no part of his people first agenda. Hence, support from the grass roots is critical.

I realize we’re all burned out and jaded on politics these days. That’s especially true with the horrific corruption and insipid governing happening in both Washington and Albany today. Action is empowering however and supporting Chris Owens to represent Brooklyn’s 52nd Assembly District in the State Committee is a means of thinking globally by acting locally.

That’s why I’m supporting his campaign and I hope you will too. Please click here to either join Chris Owens campaign as a volunteer or make a donation.

We need him.

If Only I Could Laugh

If I didn’t care so much, if the stakes for civilization were not so high, if the fate of our ecosystem didn’t hang precariously in the balance and our blood and treasure were not so casually tossed aside on behalf of a crumbling empire, I could laugh. A hearty-belly laugh at the absurdity of current events, our mediocre at best leadership, the irredeemable whores of big industry, and the mindless corporate mouthpieces with expensive haircuts masquerading as journalists. Yes, I could laugh at the whole damn mess.

I could laugh at America’s bizarre political math that says unless sixty votes can be cobbled in the Senate we can’t do a damn thing without achieving some faux centrist nirvana at the expense of meaningful financial reform, overhauling immigration, a cleaner environment and energy independence. I could laugh at the even more bizarre math that says stimulus spending to create jobs is bad while spending trillions in Afghanistan and Iraq is good.

I could laugh at a political culture that simultaneously portrays President Obama as a radical Black Muslim Bolshevik and Wall Street corporatist hoping to score Goldman Sachs cash. I could laugh at how the Supreme Court will be even more hostile to wage earners, whistle blowers, the environment and civil liberties at the end of President Obama’s first term then it was at the beginning. I could laugh at how American tax payers may eventually bail out British Petroleum to clean up its mess in the Gulf.

I could laugh at how my home state of New York is on the brink of fiscal insolvency as mendacious Albany politicians grease the patronage mill for contracts that fatten their wallets, borrow and spend from pension funds and cut needed services for the poor, the elderly, the young, the old and the disabled. I could laugh at my Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as his let business be business philosophy allowed mob corruption to metastasize in the New York City Buildings Department, undermine the health and safety of millions of New Yorkers while his Honor retains the image of an above board technocrat. Heck of a job Mike!

I could laugh at how America’s center of political gravity is defined by xenophobes who belong in a lunatic asylum. We have Republican candidates in 2010 that want to return to the gold standard, privatize Social Security for the benefit of Wall Street parasites, and support more off shore drilling and even repeal civil rights legislation. And America's center-left is folding like a limp noodle. How funny is that?

I could laugh at how conservatism defines decency down. Nixon was crazier than Goldwater who today would be considered too liberal in the Republican Party. Reagan was even more of a ruthless class warrior against wage earners than Nixon and George W. Bush even more of a war monger then all of them combined. Then I could laugh at how the Tea Party makes George W. Bush and Dick Cheney almost seem like moderates. And I could laugh at how the American people might just put these people back in power in November 2010 and 2012.

I could laugh at how a Democratic White House gloated over the defeat of organized labor’s backed candidate in Arkansas Bill Halter in favor of the pro-corporatist Blanche Lincoln. I could laugh at how former President Bill Clinton who coveted organized labor’s support during his campaigns and his wife’s, demonized those who stood up for wage earners, health care and the environment.

Then I could laugh at how Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln’s first vote after her primary victory was in favor of a resolution to take away the power of regulating greenhouse emissions from the Executive Branch at the behest of the energy industry and the Chamber of Commerce. Thankfully the resolution was narrowly defeated but remarkable that faux populists like Blanche Lincoln can with a straight face say their vote is not for sale. I could laugh at that too.

If only I could laugh at it all. But none of it is damn funny.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Helen Thomas Speaks Her Mind

As a teenager between the hours of 6PM to 9PM I often listened to sports talk radio host Art Rust, Jr. on WABC. Rust was a pioneer who as a black man broke down barriers to become a prominent media personality and important influence. Rust's call in talk show went well beyond sports and focused on our society as a whole. He had an enormous influence on me.

Rust was a courageous journalist who claimed illegal drugs were an epidemic in sports long before others in his profession did. It was also Rust who first made me aware of a subtle form of racism that existed in our culture when he observed that well spoken black athletes were typically described by white commentators as "articulate" as if we should be surprised they could speak. Rust often noted dryly that the same observation was seldom made about well spoken white athletes.

One evening in the late 1980s, Rust's program had callers voicing opinions about comments made by Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons who claimed that if Larry Bird were black he'd be regarded as just another good player in the NBA. A black caller attempted to make excuses for Isiah Thomas about how he was interviewed after the heat of battle against the Celtics in the playoffs and wasn't responsible for his words. As I remember it, Rust cut him off and said, "Caller he spoke what was on his mind."

Helen Thomas (obviously no relation to Isiah Thomas!) spoke her mind last week when she said Jewish people should leave "Palestine" and return to where they come from to countries such as Poland, Germany and the United States. Historically, her comments are absurd. Millions of Jews were liquidated in Poland and Germany during the Holocaust. Israel was created largely as the result of a refugee crisis created by the Holocaust from countries who didn't want to accept any more Jewish people. Among the countries that had stringent immigration laws against Jews was the United States! And the reference to Germany and Poland suggests Jews should have just remained among people who had demonstrated their homicidal hostility against them.

Practically speaking, as I wrote in my previous post, if your position is that the Jews should simply leave Israel and give up on the Jewish state then you're not serious about a judicious peace. Israel has existed for over six decades and its not giving up its sovereignty any more than the United States is likely to give back territory it seized from Mexico in the 19th century. That is a non-starter. Yes, a symbolic admission of the Palestinians right of return and the hardships they endured from losing their homes in 1948 should be agreed too. I'm intensely critical of Israel's continuing occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. To suggest however that the Jews should simply leave Israel and return to where they came from is blatant anti-Semitism.

I have long admired Helen Thomas's career as a journalist. She often asked questions of Presidents that no one else dared. Her career also broke down barriers and made it possible for more women to cover the White House. A bigot is a bigot however and that is how she will be remembered. Even worse, her anti-Semitic diatribe has made it more difficult for an honest critique of Israeli policies and discussion of the disproportionate influence of the Israeli lobby. The happiest people of all right now about her comments are none other than AIPAC and Bibi Netenyahu.

Heck of a job Ms. Thomas. And good riddance.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Memo To Senator Russ Feingold: Lead the Charge Against the Israeli Lobby

As an American Jew, I’ve received two constant messages since childhood: Israel’s existence is essential to our survival and Jewish people must remain vigilant against oppression. Hence, whenever Israel was criticized such as the war against the PLO in Lebanon war in 1982, closing ranks among Jewish people was instinctive. Indeed, closing ranks was easy regardless of differing politics on other issues. Most of us have family who died in the Holocaust prior to Israel’s existence. Anti-Semitism is real and Israel’s enemies among the Mid-East’s autocratic oppressive regimes are hardly sympathetic.

Also, it was easy to rationalize sustaining the occupation that occurred after the Six Day War in 1967 when the Palestinians engaged in terrorism. It was easy to perceive and rationalize Israeli’s actions as defensive and certainly not oppressive.

As a result, the voice of American Jews was AIPAC centric and monolithic. Well, the time has long past for American Jews to confront harsh truths. Until we do and are upfront about it, America’s political leadership will remain skittish and reluctant to do what’s right. And why should we fear the truth? As one of my favorite bloggers, Martin Longman of Booman Tribune observed in a recent post:
“One of the interesting things about Israel is that it is much more self-critical and contemplative than most people give it credit for. All you really have to do to prove this to yourself is to read their left-wing press. You'll quickly discover that Jews living in Israel consistently publish things in the newspaper that our mainstream media would never allow to see the light of day.”
So if the Israel press can be honest about itself why can’t we? One truth is that Jewish people today are far less oppressed than most in this cruel and barbaric world. Yes, anti-Semitism still exists both in America and abroad. For the most part however, my generation of fellow Jews have successfully assimilated in the respective cultures we live in. We’re not excluded from jobs or universities because we’re Jewish anymore. Nobody has refused to be my friend because I’m Jewish. I’m assimilated yet my identity as a Jew still remains and is not threatened.

Yes a strong Israel deserves credit for helping Jewish people become more secure in the world. And I staunchly defend Israel’s right to exist. You may disagree with Israel’s founding in 1948 but Jewish people were in exile after the Holocaust and at the time most nations were not accepting Jewish refuges. Israel was essential and sixty two years later it’s irrational and wrong to expect the Jewish state to just disappear. That’s a non-starter and if that’s your position you expose yourself as not being interested in a just peace.

Sadly though, we now have to confront another harsh truth. Israel’s image as a little country defying the odds in a hostile region fueled by aggressive Arab nationalism is no longer valid. Indeed, most Sunni Arab states today know Israel is here to stay and would prefer the Israel/Palestinian conflict disappear so they could focus instead on the threat posed by Iran. The Sunni-Arab states are far more concerned with Islamic fundamentalism that undermines their stability and power than Israel.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank coupled with its failed blockade of Gaza is playing into its enemies hands and undermines the national security interests of its greatest benefactor: the United States. Yes the peace activists from the Turkish flotilla were being provocative and Israel clumsily and amateurishly gave them the incident they wanted. War is politics by other means and Israel never misses an opportunity to inflict harm on itself.

Admittedly, I myself have been too slow and knee jerk to defend Israeli policies even as I critiqued my own country for pursuing the folly of the “global war on terror.” Since the second Lebanon war took place in 2006 however I’ve belatedly come to the realization that Israel's political class is irredeemable and can't be trusted.

It’s also remarkable to me that Jews who are liberal on most issues and regard most conservative positions in recent years to be irrational, take comfort in the uncritical support of insane right wing pundits such as Charles Krauthammer. This is a man who recently wrote a column alleging that environmentalists contributed to the British Petroleum disaster in the Gulf. I’m supposed to just accept that such a person is wise with respect to obtaining peace in the Middle East? As John Boehner might say, hell no!

The only viable solution is a just two state solution that ensures Israeli security and autonomy for the Palestinians. Ultimately such a solution will resemble the settlement that Bill Clinton attempted to negotiate in the waning days of his administration. To get there, American Jews need to flex their political muscle in a new direction.

It’s up to Jews the world over, especially American Jews, to empower their elected leaders to persuade Israel to turn their blockade of Gaza over to the international community. In such an arrangement, Hamas will be under the microscope like it never has been before and the Palestinian Authority that has made tremendous self-governing progress in the West Bank will be further empowered.

One way Jewish people can influence the conversation away from the monolithic AIPAC media spin machine is to contribute to J-Street, an organization of progressive Jews attempting to establish a counterweight to the Israeli apologist lobbying machine. American politicians will never take on this lobby unless they have cover from Jewish people willing to speak up. J-Street is rather like Israel was in its early days, an underdog up against giants.

What would also help is some kind of gesture from an American Jewish politician sympathetic to J Street’s views but with credibility as a friend of Israel. A dramatic speech at J-Street’s offices might empower congress and the Obama administration to pursue another course.

I nominate Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold for the job. He’s a true liberal who has never been shy about going against the grain and doing what’s right on issues such as civil liberties. Feingold’s often spoken of the enormous pride he has in his Jewish heritage – a pride that I share.

I urge anyone reading this to either email or telephone Senator Feingold’s office and ask him to take a stand against the Israeli lobby.

No More Hiatus

During my twenties a decade ago, I worked at a wholesale ophthalmic lens warehouse in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn. It was my job to open as many accounts as I could nationwide via telemarketing as well as troubleshoot customer complaints. It was a tough way to earn a living but I gave it everything I had. Anyway, one of my favorite all time work colleagues who ran the stock lens floor had this saying:
“It’s an imperfect world and we are very much a part of this world.”
He sagely repeated this to me often as I struggled with mishaps that occurred daily and impacted my commission. All kinds of things would go wrong and it seemed I had dissatisfied customers screaming at me every hour. Lenses would be picked wrong, mishandled, or the messenger services were late with their deliveries. Our customers were mom and pop size opticians and optometrists competing with large chains such as Lens Crafters that promised instantaneous turnaround at discount prices. So whenever we screwed up (which happened frequently) I heard about it.

Earning the trust and loyalty of these customers tested my patience and endurance. The wholesale ophthalmic lens industry is intensely competitive with respect to pricing and when shipping charges are factored there is hard bargaining over pennies. We were competing with services far more local to these customers nationwide and simultaneously vying with larger operations than ours to maintain our own client base in Brooklyn. So the customers had plenty of alternatives if they were dissatisfied with us. However, mistakes in the industry among wholesale operations such as ours was common and our competitors were hardly superior. So if a relationship with the customer could be maintained, the rough waters were easier to navigate.

Adding to the challenge was that quality of our customer service was contingent upon the conscientiousness of people who barely earned more than minimum wage with no health benefits or seemingly any stake in the company’s growth. Meanwhile, the two owners of the company I answered to were often fighting each other and had no patience for excuses (such as their polycarbonate lenses being overpriced). I also didn’t have health benefits and there was no pension plan for any of us. One of the owners even tried to motivate me one day by saying that if I consistently hit certain sales targets he could retire. Why he thought that would inspire me I can’t say.

And yet, the education from the experience of those years was indispensable to me and even resembled politics. I learned early on that both the customers and the lens pickers I relied upon respected sincerity and despised phoniness. Being glib, over promising, making excuses and trying to cover your butt with untruths when mistakes were made never worked.

So I found my voice and played it straight with all the constituencies I dealt with: customers, bosses and my frustrated overworked colleagues. When we screwed up an order I acknowledged it and persuaded my bosses to make amends to the customer. If I couldn’t offer a better price on a particular product I admitted it but offered to help the customer on something else they bought frequently. With my colleagues on the lens floor and billing departments I was with them in the pits, sharing their gallows humor and owning up to my own mistakes which made it easier to get a better performance from them. They didn’t have a commission stake like I did but their work ethic was real and treating them with respect went a long way.

My bosses were tough to handle, as they sometimes wanted me to compromise my integrity with clients or co-workers but overtime they realized it was an asset to have somebody that everyone trusted. Maintaining my credibility became integral to their bottom line.

The experience was often humbling, as I didn’t have all the answers or solutions to every crisis of the moment that emerged. It was also a challenge because as anyone who knows me can tell you, I am hardly a social butterfly. Often I wished I could just retreat from the whole thing and bury my head in the sand. As the years went by though I had a loyal customer base. One of my customers, an optometrist from Indiana said to me one day that,
“I appreciate how you listen to what I need more than you try to sell.”
I think about those years working in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn as I observe today’s political discourse and reflect upon the art of political blogging. Alas, our political conversation today is more about “branding” than listening, learning or dealing with challenges truthfully. The right, left, middle and everything in between are stuck in this loop of over the top shouting and equivocation.

Years of blogging and activism burned me out on the whole thing and retreating seemed preferable to trying to shout louder than the Tea Partiers, the Birthers or anarchists who claim there is no daylight between George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And then you have those elitist institutional pundits such as David Brooks and David Broder, who believe it’s OK to split the difference on reality in the name of centrism.

Shouting won’t get it done and neither will silence.

So, I’m going to resume posting again from my corner of the universe when I have the time and inclination. And I like I did in Sheepshead Bay, I’ll plug away in my own way. Some will follow. Some will be persuaded. Some won’t give a damn. Some honest well minded folks will point out when I’m wrong. Others will gratuitously shout.

We live in a very imperfect world and our country is very much apart of that world. Problems and challenges abound in all directions.

Hopefully, overtime I’ll reach enough sane and decent people who can make a difference.