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.

To Criticize, To Clarify – The Simultaneity of Hitchens’ Death and the War’s End

Last Thursday night, as I was studying at my desk for a few final midterms, my dad cracked open my bedroom door and told me to check the news: Christopher Hitchens had died.

When I woke up on Sunday morning, still groggy and half-asleep, I grabbed my BlackBerry from my nightstand. I had one new e-mail, from the Obama campaign. “Friend – “ it read, as most of the notes from the DNC begin. “Early this morning, the last of our troops left Iraq.”

There are occasions on which it seems that the universe has a biting wit. This weekend was one of them.

In one fell swoop, we lost the world’s preeminent heretic and brought an end to an almost decade-long war that began primarily as a result of a marked lack of outspoken heretics.

Hitchens would have called it nonsense; I call it a cosmic hint.

Pundits still argue that had the war not been the primary campaign issue in 2008, Barack Obama may have secured neither the Democratic nomination, nor the presidency. A Pew poll conducted just three days before the election illustrated that half of American voters considered an Iraq invasion to have been the “wrong decision,” while the remaining voters split between varying other responses.

Obama used his early criticism of the Iraq decision as one of his strongest campaign talking points. His push for more regulation and more debate over the justifications of war toppled Hillary Clinton’s default vote in favor of the war, and John McCain’s fervent support of its prolongation.

In early May of 2003, President Bush conveyed a message similar to the DNC’s e-mail. “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” he said. Eight years, eight-hundred billion dollars, and nearly five thousand American lives later, it seems that a little Hitchens-esque heresy from within the political arena couldn’t have hurt.

One religious leader – someone who debated Christopher Hitchens – wrote last week that in losing Hitchens, we also lost a watchdog to “scour our less-careful pronouncements.” God is Not Great forced us to debate whether, in fact, God was great. His incessant declarations that “religion is man-made” compelled even the most confident believer to clarify or justify his or her own faith.

A sink that has been checked has fewer leaks, a book that has been proofread has fewer typos, and a war whose truths have been exposed – whose devastating economic implications and more devastating death toll have come to light – can end. There were leaks and there were holes. Few checked the war, few proofread its precipitating argument. More than three quarters of the senate voted to approve a resolution built on faulty evidence and unsound extrapolation.

Iconoclasm has its faults. Critique does not make way invariably for improvement; the type of criticism that pervades today’s vitriolic political scene certainly does not. An attack for the sake of attack leaves us with little more than hostility. Sweeping generalizations about movements or groups (the subtitle of Hitchens’ most recent book was “how religion poisons everything”) evade the necessity of nuance. Thunderous radical pronouncements often put their pronouncers on the defensive and trap them in categorical boxes which they would rarely find themselves in otherwise. Heresy is an imperfect art.

But I think back to my elementary school years: in each class, on each day, the same bushy-haired kid would raise his hand and ask “what’s the point of all this?” or “when am I ever going to use long division?” That raw dissidence – the roots of which can be found no further than a fourth grade math classroom – is a driving force of enlightenment. To ask questions is to clarify intent; to be a heretic is to seek the truth – or another truth. Irony lies in the reality: Hitchens himself was an early supporter of the war. But the Hitchens approach – the notion of criticism for the sake of betterment – remains sound.

The cosmic hint that I take from the simultaneity of these two events is simple: had we a Congress full of lawmakers with a Hitchens mentality, not only would our country have been the beneficiary of eloquent prose and a finer taste in whiskey; without doubt, the war in Iraq would have ended as briskly as it began.

Camaraderie Out of Extremity – Gratitude in the Wake of the bin Laden Assassination

Last night, I was flying with my family back from Portland to Los Angeles. As we strapped ourselves into our seats and powered down our cell phones, a muffled voice came over the plane’s speaker system.

“This is your captain speaking,” said the voice. “Just wanted to let you all know that President Obama is speaking right now at the White House and they killed Osama bin Laden.” Cheers and applause erupted from the elated passengers – among them, a businessman dressed to the nines, a mom traveling with her young son and daughter, and an elderly bearded man dressed in traditional Sikh garb.

When I got home, I had several text messages and voice mail messages waiting on my phone. “GOD BLESS AMERICA,” said one. “Got ‘em!” said another. The social networks (Twitter and Facebook) flared up with similarly nationalistic sentiments: photos of American flags, videos of military marches, assertions of American exceptionalism. Then, at school today, students greeted the news with marked astonishment and awe and – though some were hesitant – many expressed euphoria at the assassination. The last time Americans acted in such patriotic accord was, in fact, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001.

On September 12, 2001, in the wake of national tragedy, I went with my father to buy an American flag at a local banner store. When we got to the store, we were surprised to find ourselves at the back of a line that stretched around the block. Everyone wanted to buy a flag. Everyone wanted to prove that he or she was a piece of the American puzzle.

And today, as the dust finally settles, camaraderie has returned. Even in the heat of the most vitriolic and polarizing climate in modern political history, Americans seem to be united again around one cause – one ideal. It is evident to me that in times of extremity – and, all too often, only in such times – people collaborate. When two students feel helpless before their history test, they may come together to study. When two companies are faltering on the brink of collapse, they may merge. So too, when Americans feel overcome by mourning, or overjoyed with pride, something magnificent happens.

Tomorrow, of course, we’ll all return to our bickering; Democrats will be Democrats, Republicans will be Republicans, we will be we, and they will be they. But today, as we witness the power of mutual loyalty, I am grateful to live in a country whose citizens sometimes – everyone once in a while – find allies in one another.

This is Truth Be Told’s 100th post.

A Spicy Situation – Obama’s Libya Wisdom

When I was two years old, and my parents and I had been living in Manhattan for about a year, we had a visit from some out-of-town relatives. Because it was a special occasion, my mom and dad dressed me up and took me out to a fancy sushi restaurant with our visitors. I probably ate some pasta or soy beans while my parents and their guests ordered the more sophisticated yellowtail rolls and tempura.

Late into the evening, I – situated in my highchair – spotted something out of the corner of my eye. Resting on my dad’s empty plate was a tiny cup of what I assumed could only be a bit green play-dough. Of course, being the ambitious toddler I was, I took the mysterious green goo, rolled it into a ball with my fingers, and stuck it in my mouth. Several hours of screaming ensued and ample tears were shed as a result of the inhuman amount of wasabi that I’d just consumed.

Before you jump to conclusions, let me quell your “what the hell is this kid talking about?”-esque concerns. The moral of the story is that, needless to say, I stayed away from wasabi for a long time after that. To this day, I still avoid spicy food in almost every form.

Imposed regime change is America’s wasabi. Assessing the extent of this country’s military responsibility in Libya is no more complicated than a toddler’s unfortunate run-in with spicy food. The lesson is evident: nine years ago, a dictator was oppressing his people, our military became heavily involved, and we never really left. The President is making use of his hindsight. He is at odds with the idea of being an accomplice to history’s repetitions.

Blanketing the world with democracy is not the prerogative of the United States. It is not our job – nor should it be – to paint the Middle East red, white, and blue. Our forefathers came here as an extension of an empire and proceeded to break the imperial grip. The President is historically and analytically correct in believing that regime change comes not out of the the bombshells of a fighter jet, but from the power of human organization and assembly.

When I’m slumped on my bed, clicking the “refresh” button on my MacBook’s internet browser time and again, I see the horrific images: I watch the bodies pile in Tripoli, terrified children hide under houses in Benghazi. I watch the flames emanate from a Tunisian twenty-something’s t-shirt, and see the smudged tears trickle down the bloody face of a would-be martyr in Tehran. But strength is derived from meticulous consistency. The lead-up to this conflict has been eerily similar to that of Iraq’s, so it is wise to weigh our actions based on past mistakes rather than to foolishly cross our fingers and hope that this time is different.

Our responsibility to the people of Libya is to be their watchdog, to shield them from imminent death, and to remain vigilant and attentive until their anxieties have faded. “But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake,” said Obama tonight. He’s right. Because he knows that America has tried the wasabi – and he knows that we didn’t like it the first time around.

A Watchful Eye, Not a Loaded Gun – America’s Role in Libya

Last Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that military action in Libya is still on the table.

It shouldn’t be.

America need not and must not act as an imperialist regime. It must be a global humanitarian guardian. Mothers and sons alike are being shot dead in the streets. Children are afraid to go to sleep for fear that they will not wake up. Men who try to document the terror are being discreetly disposed of. And it is painful and irrational to try to put a price on human life.

But when George W. Bush brought us into Iraq, I was seven years old. Now I’m sixteen, and we still haven’t left. If that is not a frightening and persuasive factor in the fight against fighting, then I don’t know what is. Time will kill Ghadafi – but the ever reverberating impact of international military action will kill many, many more.

We are responsible for keeping a watchful eye on the rest of the world. We are responsible for cutting off Ghadafi’s cash flow and crippling his iron grip. We are responsible for setting in motion international humanitarian efforts. We are responsible for helping Libyans end the violence. But the United States simply cannot impede militarily upon sovereign Libyan land.

In 2006, when Barack Obama was a United States senator, he delivered a speech. During the speech, he spoke about precisely this issue – but took a drastically different stance than the one he seems to be mulling over now. If I had a direct line to the oval office, I’d implore him to take some advice from – ironically – himself.

“We should be more modest in our belief that we can impose democracy on a country through military force. In the past, it has been movements for freedom from within tyrannical regimes that have led to flourishing democracies; movements that continue today. This doesn’t mean abandoning our values and ideals; wherever we can, it’s in our interest to help foster democracy through the diplomatic and economic resources at our disposal. But even as we provide such help, we should be clear that the institutions of democracy – free markets, a free press, a strong civil society – cannot be built overnight, and they cannot be built at the end of a barrel of a gun.”

When a man set himself on fire in Tunisia a few months ago, sparks flew across a continent. From those sparks came flames, and from those flames, an inextinguishable wildfire of deliverance.

We no longer live on playground where the world’s most powerful can kick their legs up and watch in amusement as their ‘children’ run amok – flailing their arms in a bustle of absolute mayhem. The powder keg has exploded. This is the age of human empowerment.

In order to sustain and prolong the streak of emancipation that has swept the globe over the past few months, we must not act on impulse, or even out of empathetic rage. It is, admittedly, a challenging balance to maintain, but the United States must remain both an ally of democracy and a staunch opponent of force.

Report Card – A Brief Response to SOTU


He had a few different jobs to do from a few separate perspectives.

In the Eyes of the Left

He had to lay out his agenda in a definitive manner and avoid digressing from the party script. He had to concede little and give the Republicans much to mull over. He had to acknowledge the presence and potency of the new House majority, but suppress its voice to the best of his ability. He had to talk about guns — in light of Tucson — and talk about civility in light of the political climate. He had to promise to veto a healthcare repeal and vow to protect the middle class. He had to win over the “green” people, make education a priority, and address immigration reform. The list was endless. From the outset, the Democrats were not likely to be pleased.

From this perspective: B+

He covered most issues and did, in fact, present his agenda. Contrary to White House spin before the event, his speech was pretty partisan. It was sprinkled with a unifying tidbit here and there, which made it seem like somewhat “kumbaya”-esque. He neglected some key social issues (evidently for political purposes), but for the most part, his speech didn’t concede too much.

In the Eyes of the Right

Was there anything that the president could have said that would have pleased the right? Well, he could have said that he supports full gun-ownership rights and would be more than willing to sign a repeal of the healthcare bill. He could have said that taxes on the rich needed to be lower and that the issue of the declining quality of public education should take a backseat to more ‘important’ problems like regulation. He could have said that our two wars needed to be continually waged until every building in Baghdad and Khartoum is burned to the ground. In other words, to please the Republicans, he would have had to become a Republican.

From this perspective: D

He was partisan in one direction.


I haven’t seen a whole lot of coverage of this element of the speech but I thought that the way the chamber looked during the speech was fascinating. For example, because the members were so intermingled, even when Obama spoke a line that only Democrats stood or applauded for, it looked as though the entire House chamber rose.

I also found a somewhat disheartening irony in the appearance of the House chamber. For the sake of unifying around a common cause, each member of Congress (among others working on the Hill) wore a white and blue-striped ribbon on his or her lapel. This was intended to honor the victims of the shooting in Tucson and keep Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — who was shot in the head — in Congress’ thoughts.

Here’s the irony: each Democrat wore the ribbon on his or her left, each Republican on his or her right. Nice job, Congress.


Ostensibly, the SOTU was a call for unity. If ever there was a place where the idea of unity and cohesion could take precedence over partisan gridlock and resistance to compromise, it would not be Capitol Hill. And Barack Obama knows that, which is why he sugar-coated his speech with a bipartisan flare. But the agenda that he set out in his speech covered left-wing talking points. The vitriolic mood is going nowhere.

Election Guide

If you think that more minorities belong in jail, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you’ve seen your share of nature and have come to terms with letting the rest of it go, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you think that no one else should benefit from your success, that you and your money are better off in the a secluded bubble of wealth, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe those who are different should be sent away, ostracized, or persecuted, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you know which religion is best, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you think that not all Americans have the right to health insurance, if you think that only those who can afford it should have it, and that you are not somewhat responsible for the well being of your neighbor, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that the government doesn’t serve any critical function, or if you feel the deep desire to give up your compensation when you retire, if you have the concrete knowledge that you’ll never lose your job and you’ll never be in need of financial assistance–why bother having welfare?–vote Republican tomorrow.

If poor people are none of your concern and poverty–you’re sure–is a back burner issue, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that there is a right way and a wrong way to love, that the distinctions are clear, that the government should dictate to Americans who they can and can’t love, and  that feelings should be in the hands of Congress, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that corporations shouldn’t be held accountable for deeply destructive environmental policies and financial irresponsibility that has proven detrimental to millions, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you’re under the impression that the subprime mortgage crisis couldn’t have been  prevented by regulation and oversight, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you don’t believe in the American Dream and instead believe that those seeking it should be sent away en masse, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you know that we need more wars, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that Texas oil billionaires need more money, that large companies should be able to fund major political campaigns, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you’re sure that old white men should make decisions about what does or doesn’t happen to bodies of young women, vote Republican tomorrow.

But if you’re interested in a future antithetical to the one just described, you may want to reconsider your vote. I cast my vote for the Democratic Party in 2010.