Fluorescent Traffic Signals – Why the GOP Needs to Read More Shakespeare


We seem to be a country continually prone to missing the signs.

We’ve heard the story of the drowning man who refused the aid of three rescue boats, confident that God would save him; the novice batter who had just been pitched two change-ups, and didn’t realize that the fastball must be next; the chain smoker who was warned by doctor after doctor that tobacco is the leading cause of lung cancer.

We read in the literary canon of tragic figures like Macbeth, whose fall comes with a series of hints and premonitions. We remember domestic events of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries – assassinations, breaches of national security – which many still believe could have been prevented, had officials seen the signs – or, more significantly, been looking for them.

We do, perhaps – in both our most ostensible and most intimate pursuits – suffer from an epidemic of ignorance toward much that points us in the right direction; we have a frequent proclivity to forgo society’s beaming and fluorescent traffic signals.

The epidemic could not come at a less opportune time for its latest victim. It evokes the words of John McKnight, in an introduction to his The Careless Society: “It is the ability of citizens to care that creates strong communities and able democracies.” The latest victim seems blatantly not to care about, nor to take heed of warnings issued by the events of the recent past. That victim is the Republican Party.

On George W. Bush’s final day in office, his approval rating had tanked to 22%, the lowest final rating in Gallup’s more than seventy-year history. In the months – even years – leading up to the presidential election of 2008, Bush was easily the least-popular president since our nation’s founding.

The American legacy that he left, it was widely believed on both sides of the political spectrum, was one that would necessitate desperate and thorough repair. John McCain – once a maverick – had recently become a Bush-policy convert and had cultivated a record of supporting some of the president’s most controversial decisions. For him, the race should have been over as soon as it began. For the democrats – who could easily have been the party of consistency and virtue – a win should have been comfortable and clean.

As we remember, the race for the Democratic nomination was the furthest thing from clean; more accurately, it was a long, excessive, and grimy process of mud-slinging and insult-dodging. Only in June, just a few short months before the nominating convention, did Hillary Clinton swallow her pride and, with a memorable and tepid, “this isn’t exactly the party I’d planned,” step aside for Barack Obama.

But in between the beginning of primary season and the eloquent Clinton exit crept many, many opportunities for what should have been the most electable Democratic ticket in American history to self-destruct. The party teetered and tottered – allowing each candidate to expose weaknesses and further wither any chances of a left-wing White House. Some argue that the scrutiny of the primary campaign simply brought on the vetting process a few months early. However, when Clinton told reporters that she couldn’t drop out because “Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California,” and when Obama was steadily attacked for his relationship with his pastor, the candidates were only adding more ammunition to the ever-quickening automatic weapon of the GOP.

We have begun to hear echoes of 2008’s teeter and totter in this year’s Republican primary. While President Obama’s approval ratings don’t nearly equate to those of his predecessor, he is not considered to be widely popular, and has certainly ticked off many who would have sworn their allegiance to the Candidate Obama three years ago. By many accounts (though most are anecdotal and few are based in statistical evidence) Obama could be just as beatable as a Bush-type figure. Without doubt, a soon-rising and largely-backed Republican nominee could quell much of the poll inflation that Obama has received from his incumbency.

By letting the Wealthy Greaser duke it out with the Pillsbury Doughboy of American Values, the GOP has proven its marked lack of regard for American electoral trends. The longer Mitt Romney shares an antagonistic stage with Newt Gingrich, the more difficult it will become for the ultimate nominee to defeat the president. Of course, this isn’t the advice I would give the candidates themselves.

What would I tell them? Keep fighting; it’s good for you.

Wet and Quickly Drying – An Explanation of the Year’s Changes, A Proposal for Next Steps


As featured on the Huffington Post:

The life we know hasn’t changed much since December 27 of 2010. Murky smog still poisons the air I breathe in Los Angeles. A snapshot of the New York skyline taken today will match that taken last year. The streets of Vegas remain depraved and Capitol Hill remains democratic. This year, in this country, things have changed; but they have done so incrementally.

If the previous paragraph leaves you unconvinced, I ask that you put on a lens not of objectivity, but of relativity. Our country has changed only marginally. In Libya, a year’s change is far from marginal – it’s palpable: its cities look physically different than they did a year ago and its society has pushed through an iron grip – and feels more free. People who live in Egypt can feel the change just as forcefully: new rules govern individuals – but even those rules are actively shifting and evolving. The Tunisians and the Yemenis drove away their longtime presidents. The Syrians Bahrainis were unsuccessful in ousting their leaders, but brought to the forefront issues of rights for women and for Shia – issues that had been buried. Beyond the Western World, change is immense.

This was the year of shattered norms; of shifting variables; of fractured precedents. This was the year in which we – Americans – watched as they – million of others – decided to swiftly and continually forget everything they had been taught. This was the year the world collapsed into itself.

TIME magazine columnist Joel Stein dubbed 2011 “The Year of the Meltdown,” asserting that we’ve had no choice but to “idly watch things completely fall apart.” Indeed, we’ve borne witness to changes that have seemed unnatural and arbitrary: massive readjustments of economic structures, sociological organizations, and individual and communal systems of thought. They have appeared often to be precipitated by anomalies, like a merchant who set himself ablaze, a reporter kidnapped, or an Egyptian woman beaten unjustifiably. The shifts we’ve seen this year make us question the basis on which they have happened; they have seemed somewhat random and erratic. Why now? Why these changes? Why these people?

But the language of change is a universal one. From all angles, in all perspectives, there is an explanation for this year of global collapse and far-reaching transformation.

Those who speak the language of faith – who seek answers to the unanswerable through mechanisms of religion and belief – need look no further than the Book of Job, in which the author elucidates that idea of random destruction and seemingly groundless change in the first chapter. “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return,” explains the book’s narrator. Cycles are a critical component of a pious life – and with them comes the faithful acknowledgement that, even ostensibly randomly, “the Lord gives and the Lord (takes) away.”

For many, an explanation that is based in religious doctrine equates to no explanation at all. Those who speak the language of science or “reason” – who understand the world as a series of systems and rules – will identify with a pervasive biological concept. In wildlife, a cataclysmic event causes destruction of biotic factors in a given area, leaving only a bare substrate. In layman’s terms, it literally wipes away all of the life somewhere and leaves a blank slate. Nature, too, works in cycles. The earth gives and takes. Change is built into the natural world.

A third, more simple and demonstrable explanation comes from my great-grandmother, who, by my father’s account, was a content woman. She repeated and repeated one particular adage. “If you don’t like the weather,”she would say, “just wait a minute.”

Change, we understand, just happens. It is destructive by nature; it has to be, in order to make way for something new or better. But what – I pose to the faithful, the academic, and the elderly – happens next?

When the Lord takes away, the Lord gives again; when a cataclysm leaves a bare substrate, pioneer species begin to settle and grow; when clouds finish raining, they make way for the sun.

Norms can be constructive; precedents are neutral. A process that been tested does, indeed, have a place in this world. There are good politicians just as there are helpful and useful laws. But right now, we have a few fleeting, precarious, and promising moments in which our era is nothing more than wet, quickly-drying concrete.

Let us usher out the year that crushed the world’s conventions; let us welcome the year in which we rebuild them. Let this be the year in which we – American observers of the sweeping changes – embrace our responsibility within our country, to ensure that we can do the work of reinvigorating outside of our country.

We, too, are at a crossroads: let this be the year in which we elect leaders who are interested not in gridlock, but in governing; interested not in exercising vicious imperialism, but in lending a voice to the Shia of Bahrain, the women of Yemen, and still-silent people across the ocean.

Let us elect leaders who will fund programs that send American volunteers to rebuild Tripoli; who will send diplomatic workers to negotiate for the rights whose absence brought on the Arab Spring; who will create domestic dialogue programs so that young Americans of varying faiths learn to understand one another.

The moment is volatile and we are still free. After this year of meltdown, let this be the one of responsibility.

An Afterthought No More – How the Occupy Movement Can Become Politically Effective


Just after arriving at Union Station this afternoon, on a return trip from San Diego, I was driving through downtown Los Angeles. My parents, younger brother and I sped away from the train stop. Past Disney Hall. Past the Colburn Music School. Past Olvera Street. Then past City Hall ––

“Wait, what is that?” my brother asks.

The polychrome slew of grimy tents, crumpled signs, and piled sleeping bags is Occupy LA.

“They’re still there?” he asks.

Indeed, they’re still there, but my brother’s response is indicative of a pervasive, perhaps nationwide impression of the movement: Occupy isn’t so much a wakeup call anymore as it is a nuisance – or, at best, an afterthought. It hasn’t been three months, but the Occupy movement is slowly emerging a footnote on history, a “remember when…” for old friends reminiscing on incidents they’d thought each other had forgotten.

Its causes are hardly an afterthought. Almost a tenth of Americans remain without work – thus, without an income. Even more have become impoverished. Income and wealth disparity hasn’t disappeared. The sundry and eclectic issues that the Occupy movement calls attention to haven’t diminished. Protesters have endured evictions, condemnations, and a good deal of mace, but the movement is dwindling in the public eye.

Why is it dwindling? The movement has yet to attain any sort of conscious or meaningful focus. Its powers of organization barely extend beyond the microcosms of protesters’ individual urban settlements and 130-character Twitter messages.

The following is a proposal: a means of transforming the Occupiers from seemingly parasitic complainers into a cohesive and effective mechanism of policy change. Mine is far from an original concept; only a reiteration of a tried and proven process. It could, perhaps, create real, large scale, lasting change.

Most are familiar with the Occupy movement, but few know about the beckon-call that triggered it. Adbusters is Canadian advocacy group that portrays and publicizes its undertakings through graphic art. In September, the Adbusters blog published a piece of art – emblazoned with a black-and-white image of a dancer atop Wall Street’s Charging Bull sculpture – that implored its readers to “Occupy Wall Street” on September 17th. The call was picked up by several other online groups, and a few days later a cluster of mostly twenty-somethings organized, found its way to Zuccotti Park, and “occupied” it.

“Occupy” protests have, of course, swept the nation and the world in the same vein. That original art piece – that call to “occupy” – pervaded indirectly from the homepage of a blog to the humid streets of Greece, the withered plains of Texas – even the manicured lawns of the campuses of some of the nation’s most selective universities. The movement is a feat of human spontaneity and an illustration of a deep and resonant yearning for equity.

To ensure the clout and efficacy of the Occupy movement, a new call must be issued: a time to convene. A national convention – an assembly – of all who dub themselves “Occupiers” is a organizational necessity. Under the same laws and procedures that currently govern the urban settlements, convention participants should put forward proposals that can comprise a platform. The convention should vote on the issues, and those that win by a majority should be added to the Occupy platform.

It may take hours – even days or weeks – but the result will be invaluable and constructive toward the future of the movement at the issues on which it has grown: an effective, explicitly defined political platform.

From a platform – as we have learned from the Democratic party, the GOP, the woman’s suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, and even the Tea Party – come candidates, policies, political action committees, and palpable, thorough change. As results of the above mentioned assemblies and solidified platforms, women now share equal electoral influence with men, black Americans study in the same school libraries as white Americans, a pre-existing condition can’t bar you from health insurance, and that precise health insurance law is under tremendous judicial scrutiny.

“They’re still there?” my brother asks. We’re still here, will answer the representatives of the movement who are running against governors, assemblymen, presidents, offering legislation aimed at building infrastructure, creating jobs, and reforming trade and big business. We’re still here, will answer a country bereft of a nauseating financial disparity. We’re still here, will answer the ninety-nine percent.

Flake in Chief – Why Rick Perry’s “Executive Experience” is a Relative Term


As featured on the Huffington Post:

Questionable executions and Ponzi scheme conjectures aside, Rick Perry and his proponents have hammered one talking point a little harder than most others: the candidate’s executive experience.

Conservative advocacy group “One Term President” – attempting to draw a dubious parallel between the Texas governor and a party figure head – issued a statement last month when Perry kicked off his presidential campaign. “Rick Perry has more executive experience than any candidate since Ronald Reagan” wrote the group, echoing a popular message among the Right. “That sure is appealing compared to a president that had zero executive experience.”

They have a point. OTP and its allies argue, perhaps justifiably, that having run an organization, a business, or a government adds tremendously to the resume of a candidate for the country’s highest office. The sentiment is one that has been adopted by both sides of the aisle, depending on election year and incumbency. Just two months ago, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty – then a GOP candidate for president – had little trouble persuading a campaign crowd that “you can’t put somebody in the Oval Office who hasn’t had executive experience leading a large enterprise.” His attitude doesn’t differ much from the one liberal icon Bill Clinton adopted while running for president in 1992.

But the OTP crowd is missing one side of the equation. The assertion that eleven years of experience in office qualifies someone to be president likens to an assertion that if you’ve cooked eleven batches of brownies, they must have been delicious. “Leadership experience” rings hollow if the emphasis is on the latter word of the phrase. For a group, political or otherwise, to claim that Rick Perry’s eleven years as governor should hoist him above the political fray reflects profound vacuity.

As it happens, those brownies weren’t as good as they may have seemed. Just in the past few weeks, Perry has neglected the duties of his office for what he has deemed more important ventures. Most recently, he rolled the dice on life and death with cringe-worthy opportunism.

The governor, who has proudly authorized more executions than any state executive in modern history, was nowhere to be found Thursday evening when controversial inmate Duane Buck was scheduled to be put to death in Huntsville, Texas. Buck, a black man whose case involved sensitive racial and psychological issues, is the center one of the most disputed cases since the state’s establishment. His attorneys have fought for a stay on his execution in the weeks leading up to September 15, but legal precedent outlines that a ruling of that nature falls into the hands of either the state’s governor or the United States Supreme Court.

A strong, stolid leader – someone who has learned from his executive experience and has proven it efficacious by standing by his controversial record – should take the lead on a case like this. Perry, however, was absent from the rolling plains of his state Thursday. He had fled to a GOP fundraiser in Iowa, forcing the Supreme Court to stay Buck’s execution – the “big government” he so scorns, in the flesh – and intervene in a decision that should have been his.

Were the Buck case Perry’s only recent lapse in “executive leadership,” perhaps his cronies’ argument would remain sound. But the evidence mounts even higher.

Perry once served as his state’s Commissioner of Agriculture. His former department’s official mission is to “…partner with all Texans to make Texas the nation’s leader in agriculture, fortify (its) economy, (and) empower rural communities…”. As governor, he has made bold statements (albeit without much follow through) on environmental issues. Last week, however, he let his trademark opportunism impede once again upon the “executive leadership” he and his supporters contend makes him more qualified than anyone else to be president.

Perry, whose state has been ravaged by some of the most detrimental wildfires in years (the ferocity of which compelled President Obama to declare a state of emergency in the region) left Texas on September 7, the same day as Obama’s announcement. Did he go to a wedding? To a funeral? To an important budget meeting on Capitol Hill? No, he jetted to Simi Valley, California so that he could expound upon his unequaled executive experience in the Republican presidential debate.

The political infidelity continues. In the month that he has been campaigning for president, Perry has spent stump speech after stump speech emphasizing his commitment to job creation and economic growth, touting Texas’ record under his tenure. But in that same month of campaigning – the first weeks on the road, laying claim to job creation spurred by tax cuts and slashed spending – jobs in Texas have finally met reality and dropped sharply. The state has experienced layoffs in its transportation sector, its mining and logging sector, and – yes – even in its government. During the month of August, thirteen-hundred people in the Lone Star State lost their jobs.

Rick Perry’s “executive leadership” boils down to this: when he sees something he likes better, he visibly drops what he’s already committed to. What’s he going to do when he could be making more money as a Wall Street broker? Or when he realizes that he’d rather be on the golf course than at the State of the Union? Or when Social Security really does just become too much of a hassle for the executive branch? If Americans want a flaky chief executive, they can count on Rick Perry to bail out when the going gets tough. But when you’re the President of the United States, it’s a bit harder to flee to Iowa.

The Irony of Framing the Debate – How Extremism Puts Things into Perspective


This piece won’t be as long as usual; it’s just a thought I had.

In the wake of recent debates and campaign stops, it has quickly become clear that the Republican presidential field generally errs on the side of political and religious extremism, or at least make statements that rely on acute (and often blind) chauvinism. Those of us who listen closely – even those of us who don’t – have watched as candidate after candidate vies for the hearts of the GOP base.

Rick Perry, in a blend of visible one-eighties and glaring political opportunism, has stated his belief that Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme and “a monstrous lie,” and has set out to eliminate it. Michele Bachmann has mixed church with her stately undertakings, and has even called into question whether or not this country needs a Department of Education – it is, perhaps, too rooted in centralized government to work, she claims. Newt Gingrich has promised to repeal the healthcare bill that has already insured upwards of thirty thousand previously unqualified Americans. Mitt Romney has vowed to cut federal spending and cut taxes drastically, for all segments of the population, which would put at risk our economy’s growth. Rick Santorum’s “social” policies are simply a mandate for prejudice. The field is chock-full of radicalism.

We’re being inundated with anxious, daunting flashes of “what would Rick Perry do on his first day?” and “could Michele Bachmann really get elected?” “President Gingrich,” we think, shuddering, or “President Romney.”

Watching the GOP debates helps me put things in perspective. Because, after all: how relieving does “President McCain” sound right about now?

Leaving God at the Door – Why Michele Bachmann Needs to Reaffirm Kennedy’s Promise


As featured on the Huffington Post:

With Elai Shine

First, she said it was a joke. Now, she’s saying it was a metaphor. One thing is clear: Michele Bachmann thinks that hurricanes happen because of welfare.

Last week, shortly after a strong earthquake shook the East Coast and Hurricane Irene left millions without power, Michele Bachmann spoke at a campaign rally. “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians,” she said. “We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’…(He) know(s) government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.”

Those of us who were born during the Clinton years. We’ve never known a political landscape not shaped by religious influence and the impact of political guidelines brought on by the “Moral Majority.” In fact, for as long as we can remember, Church has often been mistaken for State (or vice-versa).

Two presidents, most notably, have had to pass a religion test during the campaigns that preceded their elections (albeit for disparate reasons): John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.

Before 1960, no Catholic had ever ascended to the country’s highest office. Accordingly, Kennedy was subjected to a nationwide loyalty oath of sorts. At rally after rally, press conference after press conference, reporters would ask him the same questions: Would his religion influence or impair his political judgement as president?

In Obama’s case, the questions were a bit different – and fueled more by steadfast intolerance than legitimate uncertainty. Was he a Muslim? Or was he a Christian? If he was a Muslim, did his presence in an Indonesian Madrassa during his early youth affect his current views on the American dream? And if he was a Christian, had he been indoctrinated by an “anti-American” preacher? The questions were sharp and pervasive.

Kennedy had to prove that he was the right flavor of Christian. (“Whatever issue may come before me as president,” he said in 1960, “I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”) Obama had to prove that he was Christian period. (“I’m a Christian by choice,” he’s said during his term in office.) Both had to prove that their faith in the country outweighed any other faiths they may have held. Both were held to a standard that defied and ignored any preordained ideas of an acceptable relationship between religion and policy in presidential duties. As a consequence, both gave into media pressures and testified publicly and unequivocally that their faith in God was an indication of that alone.

Michele Bachmann’s faith in God is an indication of her political mindset. She made clear last week that she thinks two episodes that have put FEMA on high alert are the Almighty’s mechanisms of conveying his disappointment with the current administration’s policies.

Had Kennedy ever stood before a rally and made a radical religious statement – or one that openly turned a blind eye to the religious impartiality that is meant to accompany a Commander in Chief – his campaign would have been over in a matter of hours. And still today (and into the next several months) if Barack Obama dares to use a term, or even makes use of “suspicious” body language, media outlets and demagogues on both sides of the political spectrum will call his actions into doubt, cast aspersions upon his allegiances, and openly question his fitness to lead.

Michelle Bachmann – in the company of other right-wing presidential contenders like Gov. Rick Perry of Texas – has created an illusion: Some of the necessary drawbacks of government, she presumes, can be solved by the infusion of religion. That principle enraptures and exhilarates her ever-growing base. Almost 80 percent of the country is Christian. Bachmann suggests that such a populace can unite under the banner of Christianity.

But Bachmann’s logic is flawed. No denomination of Christianity can boast more than 30 percent of the American population. Baptists approach around 26 percent and Catholics 23 percent. These denominations certainly don’t agree on everything, and typically clash on key issues – particularly those of social significance. While those who support her delight when she implies that there should be a divine hand in life on Pennsylvania Avenue, Christianity itself shouldn’t be a political force.

Often, the unique will and prerogative of the individual mixes with what should be populist civics. No politician comes to power without some preconceived notions or personal biases. People act in their self interest and seek to advance the causes that resonate with them. That’s just how the world works.

For that reason, it isn’t problematic that politicians have religious beliefs; it is the fervor with which those on the Right allow those beliefs to sway their political judgement that is troublesome.

Bachmann isn’t the first ambitious politician who has crossed the line in invoking religion. Our last President – a man of true faith – also exploited and abused publicly his relationship with the divine. “I am driven with a mission from God,” George W. Bush said in 2003, “God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did.”

Candidate after candidate on the Right – Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin (they keep emerging) – claim that President Obama defies the Founding Fathers’ intentions by offering a solution for people who don’t have access to affordable health insurance. These candidates, who continually call on God and religion to justify their opinion on public policy, forget Thomas Jefferson’s guidelines – which have been upheld time and again by the Supreme Court – “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions…thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” 

This same group of candidates and candidates-to-be are the driving force of several fabricated notions of conflict: war between Islam and the rest of the world; war between China and the American Dream; war between Obama and “family values.” What Michele Bachmann and her ilk fail to realize in the heat of hyperbole is that they are instigating another war altogether: the war between Church and State – and it is turning the main-stage of American politics into a circus.

Modern politics is shaped by a rapidly decreasing degree of religious impartiality. Forget  “joke” or “metaphor.” If John F. Kennedy had to prove that his religion would not conflict with his civic duty in 1960, Michele Bachmann has even more obligation to do so in our current political landscape.

Our contemporaries are the movers of the next generation. We will be voting for the first time in November 2012. We need each of the current crop of candidates to echo what President Kennedy told a cluster of cameras in 1960:

“Whatever issue may come before me as president…I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”