Archives for the month of: November, 2004

(Appeared in The Christian Science Monitor November 26, 2004)

The other night – it seems now like years ago and not weeks – a political placard was ripped from my yard and strewn in the bushes. Defiantly replacing it on the crisp morning after, I recalled how, a decade earlier, I used to paint over the wall outside my garden apartment in Los Angeles each week. Living at the epicenter of the gang culture’s new emergence, someone was always scrawling a gang-tag on it.

According to clever analysts, political America is now “polarized.” It is divided into the heartland and the two coasts, fighting like the Bloods and the Crips. City and country. Various maps floating around the Internet show an America split into two nations, two tiny Blue islands, and a large Red one. The rhetoric remains harsh, and includes calls from the Blue side to secede, and from the Red side to “curb stomp” the Blues. The common thread is that the enemy is somewhere else.

But President Bush’s best improvement over his last outing came among urban voters. According to Gallup, his vote share among those city dwellers improved 9 percent over his 2000 performance. And those red, rural voters? Six percent fewer voted Red in 2004 than did in 2000. Every community, every state contains people who voted for both presidential candidates. Even mine.

Indeed, there is already an antipolarization backlash.

There are other maps circulating, purple ones that mix blue and red in proportion to how each region voted. Some people talk of a “purple nation.”

They make the point that we really aren’t so far apart, even on the so-called wedge issues like gay marriage and abortion. All we need do is realize that.

But what of me? I am not a tepid purple, 51 percent red and 48 percent blue. The views I hold, I hold strongly. But neither am I a Crip or a Blood.

***

During the gang heyday,young street warriors did not admire strength. Instead, it was being “crazy,” willing to do anything to pursue the glory of the do-rag color that gave you power.

Zealotry was the coin of the realm. In today’s political landscape, riddled by a kind of gang warfare, it’s the same way. Partisan zealots have taken over public life. Fancy talk of “working together” has been curb-stomped.

Walking my children to school, on the Thursday after the Tuesday, we passed handfuls of folks. We smiled at them, waved, and nodded. To some, those we know by face or name, we said, “Good morning.”

There are some whom I’m certain disagree with me, as I do them. They, too, got a smile, and gave one back. We didn’t stop to hash out gay marriage.

This silence is not the silence of the stifled. It’s a good thing. We live together. The needs of our community are closer to home than the vast questions about who voted for whom nationally. Here at home, there are safety problems as people speed through the neighborhood avoiding congestion on larger streets, there are homeless shelters that need my support, there is my school trying its best and fighting a losing battle to keep up with all the demands we’ve heaped upon it.

I live with these people. I talk with them. What will it take for us to be able to work together?

***

At Kennesaw State University recently, I attended a conference featuring Arun Gandhi – founder and president of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson.

“Turn to your neighbor,” he told us, “and make a fist. Pretend you are holding the world’s most valuable diamond.

“Now, neighbor: Try to get the diamond.”

There ensued amusing antics as a roomful of people arm-wrestled. My own neighbor good-naturedly stabbed my hand with a butter knife, to hoots of laughter at our table. I gave up the diamond.

After a decent interval, Mr. Gandhi raised his hand and waited. We stopped struggling and looked to the podium. “Tell me honestly: How many of you simply asked your neighbor if they would please give you the diamond?”

Silence. He nodded slowly, as if he rarely got much response to that question.

To my neighbor, I’d become the fist that needed prying open. An object. Too many go through their days surrounded by drivers, or shoppers, or walkers, or service providers. Objects, not people. Red- or Blue-staters to be defeated. Everyone a fist.

But I live with these people. What will it take for us to be able to work together? Few who control the national agenda offer much in the way of solutions. Their battle lines remain firm. Now, anger remains.

But on the quiet sidewalks of my community, it doesn’t come out as we talk to one another.

What it will take is the kind of thing that happens on the streets every day, if only we will see it. What it will take is for people to confront and address their differences in a way that allows for neither simple escape into stereotypes nor for escalation into shouting matches.

Sound naive? Impossible?

***

As I sat outside with neighbors one sunny afternoon last week and discussed our school, as our children played, no one was talking politics – at least not the kind of politics you read about in the daily papers. These are the same people I waved to on my walk. We were talking about grades, and homework, and why our kids have to work so hard at such a young age.

We didn’t agree on what should be done. People felt pretty strongly. But no one got up and stalked off. And we began to get somewhere. We all know we’ll still be here together tomorrow, so we stick with it.

Maybe that’s where it starts – with a walk through my neighborhood, and a wave or two.

On a sunny June afternoon, my gym towel forgotten by my side, I stood with what seemed like the entire YMCA membership in downtown Los Angeles as we watched the TV. A white Bronco was slowly making its way along an Interstate freeway. We could not hear any commentary, as the sound was turned off. Someone whispered tightly, “Go, go!” The white Bronco, of course, contained O.J. Simpson on his famous 1994 not-quite flight from the law. We were transfixed, as were an estimated 95 million other Americans. I stood there watching for over an hour. What was so compelling about this drive?

It was raw news, that’s what. No one knew what would happen. Would he kill himself? Flee? Get violent? It was uncontrolled, uncontrollable. No slick news producer or suit-wearing anchor was going to get in the way of our seeing what would happen. This was as real as it gets, and in real time.

What in 1994 seemed momentous is now banal. We’ve become addicted to the sensation of reality, so much so that the media conglomerates have spent millions crafting fake versions of reality so we can get that feeling. But the Internet has made reality really possible, warts and all. Those who enthusiastically heralded a new age of democratic control of the means of publication were on to something. Anyone can — and many do — create Web pages that chronicle their every idle moment. While many such pages just lay there, unvisited, others get unbelievable amounts of traffic as people tune in to have the sensation of seeing real life.

The addiction to the now, always an endemic problem in the scoop-driven news business, has been further enabled by the Internet.

In the arguments now raging about “blogs,” the battle lines have been drawn between so-called “MSM” (mainstream media) and the “bloggers” (scrappy, independent folks who just want information to be free and who self-publish the truth because MSM won’t). In this story of David and Goliath, it’s easy to see who the good guys are — it’s those scrappy bloggers. But it’s not that easy.

– First, blogging has now been co-opted by MSM. Most major news outlets have a “blog” outlet, in which its reporters constantly post tidbits, keeping the stream flowing.

– Second, even those scrappy, independent bloggers aren’t so scrappy and independent anymore. They’re turning into businesses. There are conglomerates of blogs, and the popular ones make enough off of ad revenue to get by without having any other job than blogging.

– Third, blogging relies fundamentally on mainstream reporting. Blog articles almost always refer to this newspaper article, or that piece in a weekly newsmagazine, or link to a transcript of a morning talk show.

It’s fair to say there’s a symbiosis between David and Goliath. David relies on Goliath’s content; Goliath has seen the market utility of David’s speed.

***

Recently, on the blog of a major magazine, this appeared, attached to a brief discussion of a political figure’s future plans: “I have no inside information here, so this is just raw speculation.” And another time, this, the day after learning about a mistaken fact: “I’m sticking to a tried and true policy today, yesterday notwithstanding, no posting till you . . . actually know what you’re . . . talking about.” And, from the other side of the aisle, from another blog: “As usual, we observe the accelerated-for-internet-age dictum to not make a joke about [a new, possibly tragic event] for at least three hours.”

One scandalous, one humble, one funny. All share an implicit acknowledgement of the powerful temptation to publish now, untethered by truth.

This temptation, the flipside of our general public addiction to the sensation of reality, trumps the more principled David-and-Goliath argument about letting the truth be free. The real urge, beyond letting truth be free, beyond fancy arguments about the democratization of data, is to “post.”

Because it’s exciting.

When the O.J. trial was in full swing, I worked in an office that had access to the Associated Press news wire. That was before everyone had the World Wide Web in their bedrooms. We wasted countless hours reading the dribs and drabs of information that would come out. A story would move over the wire, then fifteen minutes later the same story would move again, with corrections or additions. You could imagine the arguments they were having at the main office, as they argued about whether a story was ready to go or not. The entire system was built on a set of tensions between various people who wanted, on the one hand, to get the scoop but, on the other hand, did not want to have to issue a correction.

These stories had to be right. Because they would end up printed, ineditably so, on front pages across the nation. There was a high consequence of innaccuracy.

Now, the bonds that used to create that tension have been dissolved. Those scrappy bloggers are posting their not-yet-quite-completed thoughts without the benefit of other eyes to tell them perhaps they ought to wait. The MSM-blog hybrids are encouraged to run wild, thoughts going directly to the eyeballs of the public.

On the one hand, it’s easy to argue that all this is all to the good. Any countervailing forces to the corporate stranglehold on information are to be seen as a net plus. After all, wasn’t it bloggers who discredited the infamous CBS Bush-National Guard memos?

But for every truth-let-free moment, there are numerous examples of irresponsible bombast, of mean-spirited gossip, of treacherous privacy-breaching. Because the Leviathan that is the “blogosphere” demands to be fed with real-time, real-seeming reality.

On the Web one day, I clicked on a link to one of the hostage-beheading videos. Responsible admonishments were all over it: “WARNING: GRAPHIC,” they read. But I could barely help myself. There it was, unadulterated, right now. I followed the link. I wish I hadn’t. That was one bit of reality I did not need to see.

***

I am part of the world that is the target of this critique. This column is self-published, on a Web site. I feel an imperative to “post” on a regular basis, lest my traffic diminish. I have no official editor. I can amend whatever I write.

In this world, people are “writers” who never thought of themselves as writers before. Voices have entered public life that would have been silent. That’s good.

But, I’m ambivalent. Sometimes, scrolling through the Internet, I worry about the price we’re paying for all that. The choice rests as much with the consumers as it does with the producers.

Can we get over our addiction to “now” for long enough to begin to taste the real fruits of democratic news?

At a recent showing of The Incredibles, there were five of us searching for seats together. The theater was about two-thirds full. It’s easy to find two together, and even four, but to get five, one needs to find a whole empty row. We found one, and filed into the spaces. As I sat down, a small voice that I can’t get out of my head asked me, in hesitant English, “Are you really going to sit there?”

I looked around. The question had come from a man in the row behind. I was about to settle down into the seat directly in front of his young son. I am tall. His son’s view would have been blocked. The man’s open face looked steadily at me, without threat.

I had just gracefully been invited to consider the consequences of my actions, to consider whether my own comfort would be worth making it hard for someone else to enjoy the show.

Today, it’s easy to get discouraged as one reads news accounts, many of which involve actions that are allowed, but that are clearly wrong.

Redolent with recent success, the U.S. House of Representatives Republican Caucus today made such a choice. They have changed a rule, dating from 1993, that prevents indicted House members from serving in leadership positions. The reason? Many feel they owe it to Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) for having boosted their ranks. Some of his associates are under indictment, and he may soon be, too. Their reasoning is that grand jury indictments involve no proof of guilt, and that sometimes such moves are partisan anyhow.

DeLay was also the subject of October admonishment by the House ethics committee, a noteworthy event. This is a bipartisan body that has a tradition of not doing anything. It takes a lot to get it to move. It issued its admonishment at a time when there had been widely considered to be a moratorium on such actions.

The original 1993 rule was promoted by an earlier caucus of Republicans, in the era of Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL). It was designed to highlight ethical transgressions of the current leadership, and to showcase a Republican slate of members who said they held themselves to a higher standard.

One wants to have had the chance to quietly ask the majority caucus, as they pondered the rule change, “Do you really want to do that?”

Yesterday, when I recounted that quiet voice from the theater to a table of lunch guests, a few looked at me incredulously. How dare someone tell me where to sit? You just don’t do that. But, the man in the theater wasn’t telling me what to do. He was giving me the kind of reminder we all need sometimes, a reminder that there are other people in this world. Even when I am focused fully on private life, those around me are affected by what I do. The man reminded me of that, and reminded me that my actions were being watched.

In 1787, one of the great thinkers of English history, Jeremy Bentham, proposed a new design for a prison. He called the design the Panopticon. The idea was simple: from one point in the center of the building, a single guard could see any inmate at any time. All of the inmates knew this, but could not tell when, or whether, they were being observed. The concept was intended to promote the moral development of the prisoners, as the constant possibility of scrutiny would serve to make them less likely to behave badly. The Panopticon was a leap forward in its day. Designed to replace the infamous Botany Bay, it was among the first prisons to incorporate the idea of rehabilitation rather than punishment. Instead of being seen as beasts, prisoners were now assumed to be able to regulate their own behavior. Bentham’s design would have provided the motivation for them to do so.

The Panopticon never really caught on, perhaps because it seemed a bit harsh. But maybe there’s another reason. People in the public eye — politicians, celebrities, sports figures — do live in a Panopticon. Everyone can see everything they do. It’s easy to say that should tend to cause them to hold themselves to a higher standard. But one look at the newspaper will tell you that isn’t so.

The idea underlying the Panopticon is being disproved every day. The fear of scrutiny by others only seems to work so far. In the face of this, it’s tempting to lower our standards. But we get the kind of leadership we settle for.

What will it take for us to cease to be disappointed daily? I got a glimpse of it when I took my family to see The Incredibles. The quiet voice. But these were special circumstances. Who knows what moved that man to speak up, and who knows what moved me to hear it without getting my back up?

What quiet voice can invite those in power to stop for a moment, for once, and consider whether what they are about to do, while possible, may be wrong?

Walking my children to elementary school, we pass by a handful of folks out about morning business. We smile at them, and nod. To some, those we know by face or name, we say “good morning.” It’s the Thursday after the Tuesday. According to the morning news reports, emotions are still high. Each of us, nodding to the other, assumes an intimacy of agreement. But I wonder, how many of my neighbors, if we compared notes, would do battle with me? How many think the choice I made last week was wrong?

There’s a growing sense among many that America has become divided into the heartland, and the two coasts. City and country. Various maps floating around the Internet show an America split into three countries, two blue, one red. Some writers have suggested secession, in language that seems only half in jest. Others feel as if the Civil War might have returned.

This is a false view of the division. Indeed, the Red candidate’s best improvement came among urban voters. According to Gallup, his vote share among those city dwellers improved nine percent over his 2000 performance. And those red, rural voters? Six percent fewer voted Red in 2004 than did in 2000. Every community, every state contains people who voted for both presidential candidates.

There’s another map floating around the Internet. It, too, shows how the various states voted by color, mixing red and blue according to the proportions that voters chose Republican or Democrat in the presidential campaign. The map is shades of purple from east to west and north to south. (There is another map that breaks it down by county, too.)

We live cheek by jowl with those “other people.” Those other people are my neighbors, smiling and nodding hello.

Talking to my friends and family, there’s an undercurrent of geopolitical territory marking. We assume, in part because we are told to by clever political analysts, that we all agree with one another in our cohesive bands, that we all touched the same part of the screen in the voting booth. Those who disagree live out in the country, or over in the city. After all, didn’t we all have the same signs on our lawn?

Some of us, though, had no signs at all.

Now, anger remains. From one side, it emerges as hatred. From the other, gloating. Where will this anger go? On the quiet sidewalks of my community, it doesn’t come out as we talk to one another, except insofar as we shake our heads in smug agreement over the half of America who is not present, or as we despise the single American who ran to win against our choice. I’m certain my neighbors and I don’t see eye to eye on everything, but those subjects of disagreement seem to just slip by.

This silence is not the silence of the stifled. It’s a good thing. We live together, and we ought to work together. If we had to, I am sure we could talk about our disagreements. The needs of our community are much closer to home than the vast questions about who voted for whom nationally. Here at home, there are safety problems as people speed through the neighborhood avoiding congestion on larger streets, there are homeless shelters that need my support, there is my school trying its best and fighting what feels sometimes like a losing battle to keep up with all the demands we’ve heaped upon it. All of these are policy questions, driven by political leaders and the decisions they make. But they all have local faces.

A member of my family recently moved to an adjacent neighborhood, and has taken up the habit of a daily walk. He didn’t used to walk so much. He has come to know those he passes by on a daily basis, and likes them. He knows their names, and they his. I bet they don’t argue politics. I bet, if they had to, they could work together to make something happen.

I bet, when you get down to it, they’re purple.

A column in The Washington Note (Steve Clemons) has attracted a lot of conversation. It’s titled “America: F**k Yeah!” The line, from the movie Team America: World Police, is portrayed as a favorite of those who subscribe to

“a kind of pugnacious nationalism that has taken hold of the American personality. . . .[W]hat Walter Russell Mead has called the Jacksonian American. These Jacksonians believe in a core set of values — apple pie, NASCAR, church, hard work, family values, gay and lesbian stuff hidden from sight. They believe in the country and aren’t bent on notions of empire. In fact, they hate our involvement in Iraq or other global problems but believe that America is the only nation that can set the world straight. According to them, we Americans don’t want to be a global cop — but if we have to, we will — and we are going to do it our way, damn it.”

It seems to me that most of the thought leaders in each party are missing the boat when it comes to these folks. There are exceptions: The Decembrist (Mark Schmitt) is a standout. But, read through the comments and postings across much of the Internet and you will see Democrats saying we need someone with a “better message” while the Republicans say the election proves that these Americans are “culturally conservative.”

Here is what I take away from the Jacksonians: these Americans, like most of us, just don’t put up with things they think are bulls**t.

The genius of the Bush campaign was the impression it created of Kerry: a windbag. The Bush campaign made Kerry seem like a waste of time. In this sense, the conventional wisdom that Senator Kerry “won” the debates is off base. Kerry lost, big time, because Bush seemed like a person, while Kerry seemed like a senator running for President. Every time he addressed specific points, he lost more ground. “I have a plan,” he said. No one really wanted to hear a plan. He should have said, “I have a dream.” The newly-maligned Edwards did far better in this respect against the gray Cheney.

Introspection is perhaps the last thing the Democratic Party needs right now. Instead, it ought to take a crash course in ordinary America. This isn’t out in the heartland. Ordinary folks are everywhere, even in blue-blue New York City and Boston. The “progressive” commentariat ought to humbly study them, not through polls and focus groups but through experience. It needs to take off its thinking caps, and go hang out at malls. Shop at Wal*Mart, not Macy’s. Cancel the subscriptions to the New York Times and to the Atlantic Monthly, and pick up a copy or five of USA Today. Quit listening to NPR. Eat dinner with the family at McDonald’s. Don’t go to Starbuck’s.

Can this must be done without condescension? Yes. Bill Clinton famously preferred fast food counters to swanky joints. John Edwards celebrates his wedding anniversary at Wendy’s. But maybe it’s too soon to expect this from everyone. People are still smarting.

Still, I worry if the time will ever come when the Democratic party takes such folks to heart. Ordinary America must feel like the child of some successful politicians do: the parent is off Saving The World but barely even seems to know, much less like, the kids back home. How many strategy leaders in the Democratic Party can say that they have a real attachment to middle America, enough so that they actually enjoy spending time there? And how many only like middle America in theory, from the comfort of learned journals?

Yes, the Democratic “message” is off, and that party needs to get a new one. But, judging not only by the post election commentary but also by all that was said running up to November 2, it looks like the sympathies are off as well.

There is a palpable divide between the Democratic Party leadership and the very people it purports to embrace. They just don’t seem to like those folks. And so, they believe the problem is that the other side has a better message, or campaigned more effectively.

This sells politics very, very short. It’s a far nobler pursuit than the message gurus and campaign technicians would have us believe. Politics is, after all, about how we will live together, not how we will attain power.

Today is the first day of the rest of the life of the Democratic Party. What will it spend this day doing?

Along with many other Americans this morning, I am pondering what it all means that, after four years of intense labor things have changed very little. Only about three million votes appear to have moved over the last presidential term, in the face of unprecedented amounts spent trying to move voters this way and that, by both parties.

In this election, few fell down on the job. The tactical aspects of both campaigns were well-handled. There were larger issues at work, ones that the Republicans appear to be better-poised to take advantage of for the moment. But, that is only because, in my view, the Democratic leadership has not admitted to itself that it is misreading the nation.

What is this factor? What is being missed? It’s this: the nation is indeed divided, but not between Red and Blue states. The nation is divided between the Head and the Heart. And this division does not need to exist.

I wrote a column on this a short time back. It seems relevant still. Here are the key passages:

On the one side are the Heads, living in the realm of policy and intellectual rigor. The Heads look at outcomes, perform stakeholder analyses, and think hard about what the smartest public choice is on any one of a host of issues. More important, they support the choices they make through appeals to the intellect: “Our ideas are smart,” go the arguments. “On balance, these are the best policies because they result in the best outcomes.”

But arrayed against the Heads are the Hearts. This is the team of sentiment. The Hearts look at each possibility and ask, “Does it feel right? Will I be morally comfortable taking this action?” The Heart partisans think about what their gut tells them, what their role models might do, and what “message” they will be sending to children. And, they support their choices with arguments that tug at the heartstrings: “These choices are the right ones because they are inherently moral and bespeak the aspirations of America,” they say.

In today’s political constellation, the Democrats are the Heads, and the Republicans are the Hearts. While obviously Democrats do not lack hearts (nor do Republicans lack heads), their key arguments are appeals to intellect on the one hand, and to sentiment on the other. President Bush evokes an idealized America, the sort portrayed in popular country music, in which right is right and wrong is wrong, and those who oppose right are unwaveringly vanquished. This was the refrain in his White House press conference on Iraq a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, Senator Kerry seeks nuance in his positions, the sort of nuance found in so-called “alternative” music in which good is never all good and bad is never all bad — in the end, it depends on context. This is what he must explain when he says he voted in favor of the Iraq war, but that he only intended that vote to authorize going to war if the U.S. could gain more international backing for such a move.

Where does this leave most of America? Behind, that’s where. . . .

See the full article for more.