Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What Have We Learned from the Governor’s Foreign Policy Trip?

Self-reflection is the key to self-improvement.  Given this, and in the spirit of Craig Ferguson’s late-night segment, “What have we learned on the show tonight?”  I would like to ask, “What has Governor Romney learned from his 2012 Foreign Policy Tour?” 

First of all, it is only fair to point out that not everything the governor said on this trip was stupid.  His comments about Britain’s inspiring Olympic spirit, Israel’s unbreakable friendship with the U.S., and Poland’s young democracy were all appropriate and commendable.  But here are some guidelines which, should the Romney campaign take them to heart, may prove helpful in the future.

1.       When visiting a nation that has geared itself up to a fever pitch of pride and anticipation about hosting the Olympics, it is advisable not to raise questions about the prospect of a security breakdown - given the bloodshed and mayhem such a breakdown would entail.

In all fairness, none of the governor’s questions about London's security issue were new; the Brits had been speculating along the same lines for weeks.  But this no-no falls under the rule of “I have every right to call my brother a fat, boorish loudmouth, but you must refer to him as a charmingly jolly and madcap old bloke.”

2.      When comparing prosperous communities to impoverished ones, it is unwise to praise the ethnicity or other inherent qualities of the prosperous community since this inevitably insults the less prosperous one.

The governor’s Jerusalem gaffe, unlike his London one, is hard to excuse.  Frankly, it’s even hard to believe.  Campaigning 101 should teach any attentive candidate to beware of such noxious comparisons lest they raise accusations of racism – which this one did.  I imagine Governor Romney would have something to say to a candidate who were to proclaim, for example, that “The reason Connecticut is so much wealthier than Utah is that Connecticut is a Blue state and it is not crawling with Mormons.”  The insult implied in this hypothetical remark would be even more biting had Connecticut overrun Utah in 1967 and been occupying it and stifling its economy for 45 years.

3.      When members of the press have been stiff-armed and prevented from asking questions of a candidate for a week, it is unwise for the candidate’s press reps to discourage further questioning with phrases like “Kiss my ass!” and “Shove it!”

The press can be pesky at times, no doubt about it.  But if the candidate has recently walked away from a sacred site, such as The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it is especially important to remember that phrases like “Show some Goddamn respect for this sacred site you ignorant bastards!” and so on, are not likely to conjure up the aura of sanctity one would hope for.

At any rate, this is not the last time Governor Romney will present himself on the world stage.  However, it is my fervent hope that the next time he does so, it will be in the capacity of “former candidate for president” and nothing more.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

My Old Pal

Happy Bastille Day.  Also, Happy 100th Birthday, Woody Guthrie.  It’s cool that a white, working class southerner whose ever-present guitar was sometimes plastered with a sign reading “This Machine Kills Fascists,” shares a birthday with France’s “Fourteenth of July.”  Guthrie was most famous for his anthem “This Land is Your Land,” as well as for being the primary inspiration for Bob Dylan who used to visit him in the New Jersey psychiatric hospital where he lived while being treated for Huntington’s disease.

I also have to say a personal Happy Birthday to Guy, my college roommate and, for a time, best friend, whose home was a mile or so from that very hospital where Woody Guthrie and Dylan used to meet.  I spent a summer with Guy painting his family’s house while they were away on vacation.  Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” album* had come out recently, and we had it blasting out of speakers set up in the windows as we painted the huge, two-story mansion that doubled as Guy’s father’s doctor’s office. 

Guy had about as much influence on me and my view of the world as Woody Guthrie had on Bob Dylan.  My suburban/bourgeois upbringing didn’t stand a chance in the face of his bright, iconoclastic mind.  When I met him as a freshman in college, he struck me as the smartest human being I had ever encountered.  He played an astonishingly good game of chess and he always seemed to have an understanding of things that I had never thought about.  We became roommates when I moved into his dorm room soon after his officially assigned roommate left college for alcohol-related reasons.  We continued to room together for the next three years until I got married and he dropped out of college.

Guy was not only brainy, he was bohemian.  This appealed to me immensely.  Having grown up in a small town in Florida, my only inkling of a bohemian world came to me through high school lectures on the dangers of marijuana and heroin (which convinced me that they were essentially the same thing), and the occasional off-beat pop song redolent of Greenwich Village.  One I remember in particular was called “Walking my Cat Named Dog.”  Its absurdity broke through the many layers of my Ozzie and Harriet upbringing to tug at that part of my heart that longed for something else.  Guy represented that something else.  Growing up within striking distance of New York City must have helped him become the post-Beat free-thinker that so impressed me. 

We spent hours together, driving around the South and hanging out in the French Quarter.  We weren’t always the most mature dudes on the block.  One of our “fun things to do,” was, after quaffing a bit of this or that heady stuff in a Quarter bar, to climb around on the local architecture.  Sometimes it was possible to go up a fire escape, slip over onto a ledge and be off on an architectural adventure, going from roof to roof.  Once, after we had scrambled from one building to another, we decided to drop to the pavement.  What we didn’t realize was that we had landed in the middle of the enclosed courtyard of a very wealthy elderly lady who saw us plummet from the roof into what she (rightly) considered part of her living quarters.  She came out and faced us with anger, but we could also tell, a bit of fear as well.  We felt awful for having unintentionally frightened her and, in our most contrite, college boy manner, we slunk toward her gate and, apologizing profusely, let ourselves out.  No more of the French Quarter roof ballet for us.

We did, however, continue our midnight dockside explorations.  Like I said, we were 18 or 19, but inclined to act a few years short of our actual ages.  Once, while making our way to the docks, we had to cross a railroad track that was blocked by a stationary train. Guy, a high school wrestler, was quite agile, and he hopped up on a connector between two cars and jumped off on the other side.  I used the more pedestrian, seemingly less risky method of slipping under the coupling.  As soon as I stood up on the other side of the train, a horrendously loud clank indicated that it had started moving.  Guy and I looked at each other in astonishment and then laughed, but as we stood there watching the train move off, I think he must have, as I was, been contemplating how different our lives would have been had we been a couple seconds slower in crossing the tracks.

On the docks we used to keep track of where the different ships came from and, when we saw one from a Latin American port, I tried to engage the sailors up on deck with a bit of broken Spanish.  I think Guy’s favorite moment came late one night when, as we strolled down a deserted dockside, along came a man pedaling a small ice cream cart.  Guy couldn’t get over the absurdity of this: here we were in a place overrun with cat-size rats and dark, hulking ships, a place where finding an unfortunate mob-crossed corpse wouldn’t be beyond possibility, what did we find?  The Good Humor Man. 

Guy specialized in appreciation for the absurd; sometimes he seemed almost to live for this predilection.  One incident I recall involved Guy dancing with his semi-girlfriend Susie in the downstairs Rathskeller where our university generously made beer and other drinks available to us.  During the wild bouncing dance, Susie lost her footing and collapsed on the floor.  She lay there laughing with embarrassment, but Guy’s response was to continue dancing, circling around her and laughing himself as though this were all part of their “act.” 

It might be appropriate here to say I have no picture of Guy, but he looked a bit like Rudolf Nureyev; and he had a lithe and athletic dancer’s body.

                              Rudolf Nureyev

Guy was kind of the world’s first post-modernist.  He was ready to challenge every cherished truth and unquestioned assumption held to by common sense and current intellectual fashion.  Sometimes it drove me nuts, but it was always a refreshing exercise to talk to or debate him.

We plowed through different intellectual fads – Nietzsche (what college student back then didn’t experience a Nietzsche phase?), Freud, James Joyce.  Once, during our deep-into-Freud phase, Guy was complaining about his parents’ incommunicativeness.  His parents, who were actually a couple of sweethearts, had a kind of Germanic reserve and Guy used to say they wouldn’t respond to him.  So, one evening, while he was writing a letter home to his mother, he turned to me and asked, “What can I say to her?  She doesn’t pay attention to what I write anyway.”  So, in a flippant mood, I suggested writing something about masturbating and crying “Mother! Mother!” in the night.  Guy liked that idea and decided to put it in his letter.  A week or so later he reported triumphantly that his mother had written back but had said nothing to him in response to his outrageous claim.

When I left New Orleans, Guy, no longer a student, stayed behind.  He seemed happy enough when I saw him in subsequent years, but he was clearly spending too much time drinking.  Eventually he wound up living at a charity institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, where such basics as housing and food were taken care of.  I went to visit him in the 1990s with my daughter, Grace, and I found him, as always, happy and upbeat.  He talked about how much he enjoyed riding around on the back of the charity’s truck as they cruised neighborhoods picking up donations.

Guy would have been 66 this Monday, but I found out a couple days ago that he had died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2010.  Even as his health deteriorated he apparently kept his good nature and upbeat spirit.  He was unique and if our mortality is extended mainly through the memories of those whose lives we have shaped, Guy still has at least a few years to go - through those of us who remember him.  He was dear to me and I’m a different person for having known him.


Here's a picture sent to me by an old friend long after I had written this:

Guy, looking untypically serious, in our New Orleans apartment

*Blonde on Blonde: Still the greatest album ever.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde & Governor Romney

My friend Randy recently posted on Facebook a short item that explained conservative social policy more or less along these lines: We are prohibited from feeding animals in wilderness areas because we don’t want them to become dependent on us; by the same token we shouldn’t offer publicly funded support to poor people because they will become similarly dependent.

I think this argument is fundamentally wrong, partly because people are not raccoons and chipmunks.  What this little scenario represents is the benign “Dr. Jekyll” side of conservative politics, the side that says, “Hey, we really want to help people who are bad off, but the way to help them is with tough love and high expectations.”

But behind this benign, Dr. Jekyll countenance lurks the seething malice of Mr. Hyde, the real driving force of American conservatism.  

                            Jekyll & Hyde

 Let me be clear that I am not accusing Randy or my other conservative friends of being hypocritical.  No, what I am saying is that many of the most powerful figures in the conservative movement simply want to enrich themselves in the amoral arena of capitalism.  The “tough love” and “need to teach self-reliance” messages are nothing more than a screen of benevolence that they use to attract widespread support from decent citizens who would recoil from their real motivation, which is, “We want more money – LOTS more money - and screw anyone who tries to stop us from getting it!”

The billionaires who are pouring funds into Governor Romney’s campaign, (e.g., Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers) would, if they were honest, make this their catch phrase:


By “Get out of the way,” they mean, for example:
-         Dismantle Social Security so we can turn everyone’s retirement funds into profit-making opportunities in our Wall Street casino.

-         Cut back on unemployment payments so that the unemployed will become desperate and therefore willing to work for lower wages – bigger profits for us!

-         Eliminate minimum wage laws – ditto!

-         Cut back on taxes for millionaires – ditto!

Obviously Romney and his billionaire buddies can’t run a campaign that puts these ideas up front, and this is where the “tough love” scenario comes in handy.  The conservative story for public consumption becomes, “We sympathize with poor families; we just think that spending money to help them actually hurts them in the long run.”  This is a concept that decent people can get behind, so it has become the public face of conservatism.

But this scenario of thoughtful good intentions doesn’t hold up to scrutiny - which is why I don't buy into the "benign front" of the conservative movement.  For example, given that the unemployment rate skyrocketed in 2008 when the economy collapsed, why do conservatives fight so hard to block unemployment payment extensions now?  Do they really think that it’s due to a lack of gumption that so many people suddenly came to depend on government largesse? Do they think the 10 or 15 million Americans who became jobless did so because they were all at once smitten with laziness?  So, the best way to help them now is to cut off the money they use to feed their families?  Is that it? 

Apparently the conservative answer to this question is “Yes! That’s it exactly!”

More evidence for the underlying avarice of powerful conservatives comes from the fact that since the rise of the conservative movement (which began around 1980), real incomes for poor and middle class Americans have been relatively flat, while the incomes of the top 1% have skyrocketed.

I’m willing to grant that some people do abuse the system, taking unemployment, AFDC money, etc., when they shouldn’t.  But this isn’t an overwhelming problem, and it isn’t one whose solution is to throw tens of millions of families into desperate, Depression-era poverty.  Yet that, sadly, is precisely what the conservative agenda aims for.  Let us hope this agenda has no more success this year than it did when McCain/Palin carried its banner.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

From Jonathan Miller: LBJ & BHO

Jonathan Miller wrote the following comments after reading the Introduction to Robert Caro's The Passage to Power (a book I am also "reading" on cd):

I am reading Robert Caro's biography of Johnson, The Passage of Power. The fourth in his monumental series. The book is about political power. How Johnson got it, maintained it, lost it as vice president, and then triumphantly regained and used it in 1964 and 65. Reading the introduction, it is as though Caro is talking directly to President Obama. Urging him to learn the lessons of those seven weeks of transition, from the assassination of Kennedy to Johnson's first state of the Union speech. 

When he became Leader of the Senate Johnson found a body that many thought was a useless relic of a bygone era and bent it to his will. When he became President he faced a Congress in which Kennedy's legislative agenda was utterly stalled. In those two years of 64-5, Johnson used his legislative genius and his masterful grasp of how to use political power and passed perhaps the most important series of legislative acts in 20th Century American history; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965,  Medicaid, Medicare, and the myriad bills that enacted the War on Poverty.
It is as though Caro is saying to Obama, yes you face a Congress stymied by money and ideological division, but look it can be done. Learn from the master. America in the second decade of the 21st Century is a very different place than it was in the 1960's, in part because of the very laws Johnson managed to get enacted, but the exercise of political power does not change, just the will and expertise to use it.