The End of Truth Be Told?

It was during a split second of unfeigned awareness – over a medium-sized cup of lychee berry frozen yogurt that I was sharing with my mom – that I decided to start writing. We’d been talking politics when a knowing smile lit her face. “If you really feel that strongly about these things, why don’t you blog about them?”

I launched a website temporarily called “Legislative Wordplay” a few days after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig began threading its way through the Gulf of Mexico, just before it left a blanket of crude oil on the doorstep of the Gulf Coast; seven months before a deep, rich red seeped into the bluest congress in recent memory; an era bereft of Arab Spring mentalities or Todd Akin abortion gaffes.

And now, here I sit, zipping up my final bags, nearly able to smell the greasy air of the university dining hall. I scroll up and down these web pages. I sift through a chronology of my last two and a half years. This is what I spent my time doing in high school. This is who I was – who I am.

On the whole, I count myself lucky. I am among those who get to do what they love to do. Indeed, the algorithms of geometry and precalculus may have been lost on me, but in their place I threaded the delicate strands of hobby until they evolved into a robust and finely-tuned passion.

This, I think, is where I grew.

I grew between the clicks of a spacebar eroded by time, within the rhythmic cacophony of just-too-ripe metaphors that spilled out onto Word documents. I learned in my craving to discover why some pieces were met with universal approval, while others encountered a discomfited audience brimming with chagrin. And, accordingly, I stretched my intellectual limbs in a struggle to walk the compelling line between sensitivity and contentiousness.

I remember the first truly negative response I received to a piece I had written. My piece had lamented what I had deemed the “suppressed” voice of youth. It was, in retrospect, a hasty and inflammatory few paragraphs that achieved little beyond airing my own frustrations – perhaps with a teacher, perhaps with a parent; I don’t remember. I do remember the commenter’s response: inherently negative and viciously critical. I felt shaken and became defensive by impulse.

I feel blessed and grateful for the limitless words of praise and encouragement that came both before and after such comments. But the fundamental lesson I’ve learned from maintaining this website spills out from precisely those dissenting responses. It boils down to that painful and entirely energizing question of what it means to react, and think, and live critically. Criticism is – like the feeling that overwhelms you after stretching your hamstring just before a long run – the best kind of burning sensation.

I have derived a constructive and straightforward lesson from the time I spent composing pieces for this blog. It is a similar lesson to that which I have taken from the circuitous nature of the Israelis and the Palestinians; from the heretical wit of Christopher Hitchens; from a Congress who swiftly and imprudently approved a war that has since been burned (violently) into the collective American psyche. That lesson is two-fold.

First: Criticism isn’t defined wholly by disapproval or condemnation. It is also part of the powerful and invaluable process of attaining clarity.

And second: When we are forced – either by our own innate compulsions or external influences – to clarify our intent, or spell out the means by which we attain our ends, or defend our bland or disputable viewpoints, we are accordingly forced to become aware. We become our own advocates when we are keenly challenged and engaged. And if it’s as easy as that, then why not challenge ourselves?

This article isn’t characteristic of this blog. Just as this website was never (I should hope) a diary to spew vitriol, it was also rarely a medium to unload my own arbitrary anecdotes. But as a perceptive friend of mine reminded me last week, “at the end, we always think about the beginning.”

Tonight I had the chance to video-chat with my grandparents who live a thousand miles away from me. We were talking about my experiences at camp this summer, and about what the next few weeks (the start of college) may hold in store. And the question arose: what comes next for Truth Be Told Politics?

The answer is a peculiar one: I don’t know. There exists, in this thrilling and hurried passage, a wealth of unknown. Will I be writing about politics? Or will another fascination catch my attention? Will I even be writing on this blog? Writing is my criticism; and criticism yields clarity. And God knows that we need clarity.

Whether I’ll keep writing here is uncertain. You have left me with much to think about. So I, in turn, will leave you with this: For clicking on your TBT bookmark even when there was little of interest in the news; for reading through those pieces of mine that seemed rant-esque; for allocating precious moments during your busiest days to compose a comment or e-mail me a response; for sharing my writing with your own friends and relatives; one hundred and thirty-five posts later, I cannot thank you enough.

The Politics of Empathy – How Obama Can Pass the American Jobs Act

The unsettling sounds of NPR hummed through the car on my drive to school this morning. “…poverty in the United States…at a new high…sixteen percent of Americans are impoverished…”

Almost two months have passed since President Obama proposed the American Jobs Act to Congress. Administration official after administration official has stood in front of rolling cameras and preached the facts, the numbers, the empirical proof that the legislation is a grave necessity.

But it occurs to me that Barack Obama has very little regard for pathos.

I have no doubt that Obama feels sympathy for those forty-nine million impoverished, or to those tens of millions of others who are unemployed, or who are working low-wage jobs that ill-suit them. I wonder, however, if he has any idea how to relay that sympathy to an immovable Congress.

Emotion-driven decision making is the force behind “pro-life” legislation. It’s what compels millions of Jews to support AIPAC and send funds to the State of Israel. The people who pushed healthcare reform through the House and the Senate are those who have relatives who can’t afford to pay for treatment of illnesses they suffer from. In the political arena, a cliché rings true: the people who feel are the people who make the impact – legislatively and tangibly.

Nonetheless, President Obama maintains another mindset altogether: he seems to come to his political decisions almost entirely by calculation, and very rarely seeks to compel Congress to legislate on empathy. He operates on the numerical, the practical, and the demonstrable.

Time has illustrated the slim margin of risk that the president is willing to take. In recent months, he has recoiled under criticism and the audacity that once defined him has slipped out of his reach.

But I can’t seem to rid this question from my mind: If Barack Obama were to walk door to door through Rayburn, through Dirksen, under the Rotunda, and into the Speaker’s office, the whole time accompanied by two unemployed Americans – or two people who fall into that sixteen percent – could the American Jobs Act pass?

Imagine the snapshots: members of Congress shutting their doors to the President of the United States; senators refusing to meet with their jobless constituents; lawmakers of all breeds hiding in their private offices, evading the call to put their country back to work. It would, at the very least, cause a stir, and at most, result in a starkly different poverty report than this morning’s.

I ran the idea past a teacher of mine last week, who promptly rebuffed it. “Imagine the commentators,” he said, “All the headlines would say ‘Obama uses theatrics; attempts to play to populace fall flat.’” He thought it would appear as a gimmick.

Indeed, Obama and his administration may be hesitant to use sentimentalist political tactics for fear that they will be perceived as a stunt. But this isn’t the first time Obama has ignored the potential for political gain by means of populist mechanisms. In spite of his tremendous command of political and economic principles, Obama’s ineptitude to effective persuasion – understanding what changes minds, what makes people tick – eclipses much of his pragmatism.

We witnessed the same indifference toward emotion-driven public opinion in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig’s explosion during the Spring of 2010. Obama – who was spending hours upon hours organizing strategies for emergency response and toxic cleanup behind closed doors – acted ostensibly apathetic.

Almost a month and a half went by before he set foot into a Gulf city that had been crippled by the spill. James Carville’s emphatic plea for Obama to “get down here and take control” reverberated throughout the mainstream media.

Senator Obama – candidate Obama – was a masterful populist. But President Obama has very little grasp of what it means to appeal to that which isn’t calculable.

The next presidential election will be held a year from today. At this rate, he’ll understand the importance of the politics of empathy on that fateful day.

Talking Points

The following are– in my opinion– the most important points and quotations from President Obama’s Oval Office Speech on the Gulf Spill:

“Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced…we have to recognize that despite our best efforts, oil has already caused damage to our coastline and its wildlife.”
  • One vital aspect of cleaning up this spill– and moving forward with suitable policies– is admitting that something has gone wrong and that not everything is in the hands of the federal government.
  • In short, instead of setting an unreasonably high standard which he and his proxies cannot uphold, President Obama is being pragmatic and acknowledging the limitations that he suffers from on this issue.
“Tonight, I’d like to lay out for you what our battle plan is going forward.”
  • Simple and to-the-point. He’s recognized what he can’t do, now he’s telling us what he can and will do.

“These servicemen and women are ready to help stop the oil from coming ashore, they’re ready to help clean the beaches, train response workers, or even help with processing claims — and I urge the governors in the affected states to activate these troops as soon as possible.”

  • Now, Obama is exerting his presidential force. He’s saying that he’s provided the people of the Gulf Coast a source of aid, and it’s not something that they’re paying extra taxes for: it’s the troops.
  • In essence, he’s giving the governors of the Gulf states a gift, and it’s up to them to decide whether or not to use it. He cannot be blamed, he’s saying, for not supplying the states with enough assistance.
“In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent third party.”
  • This is probably the most important step in moving forward. All eyes have turned to the federal government and its lack of regulation of Big Oil. BP abused safety policies before the spill and hid economic facts afterward.
  • So, Obama is saying that BP will be responsible for paying all costs resulting from the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill, and that, in order to make sure that everyone is compensated appropriately, BP will not be in charge of the monetary distribution.
  • This is important in terms of both Obama’s public image and Gulf Coast citizens’ well-being.
“That’s why we must make a commitment to the Gulf Coast that goes beyond responding to the crisis of the moment.”
  • Obama’s looking to the future instead of getting caught up in the momentary issue.
  • He’s creating a “long-term Gulf Reservation Plan” to not only clean up the spill, but also looking to get back jobs, a healthy environment, and prevent this from happening again.
(Referring to the moratorium:) “I know this creates difficulty for the people who work on these rigs, but for the sake of their safety, and for the sake of the entire region, we need to know the facts before we allow deepwater drilling to continue.”
  • This is the responsible and respectable thing to do. He’s acknowledging that in order to move forward, he must look back. He’s avoiding any impetuous behavior.
  • Also, this is a good pushing-off point for a campaign that promotes alternative energy sources and weans this country off of oil from offshore drilling.
“(We need) to build an organization that acts as the oil industry’s watchdog — not its partner.”
  • He’s acknowledging the importance of government regulation.
  • E.g. Just as a lack of regulation caused the housing market to collapse (the mortgage crisis), so too was a lack of regulation a key ingredient in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon.

Fessing Up

Earlier today, my grandpa was telling me about an incident that his company had once encountered with another company, with whom his company had genial relations. It was clear that one of the companies had made a pretty significant error and money had been lost by the other company. “It’s not about whether or not a company makes mistakes,” my grandpa said to me, “It’s about how they recognize and fix those mistakes to avoid them in the future.”

Yes, there’s been a media outcry for Obama to get “mad”. Yes, offshore drilling has become a more controversial issue than ever. Yes, leaders of both parties have fiercely reprimanded BP. But all those things happened rather quickly and have hardly affected the situation in the gulf in any practical way.

At the first congressional hearing after the explosion, BP America’s President blamed Transocean for the explosion because BP had contracted them. Transocean was at fault, the BP president said, because they were the “owner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig,” and they had “responsibility for the safety of the drilling operation.” The CEO of Transocean said that it was Halliburton’s fault, because Halliburton had provided the cement casing for the safeties on the rig. Then, the representative of Halliburton said that no, it wasn’t Halliburton’s fault, because the cement casing would have worked perfectly, had blow-out protector on the rig been intact.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why we’re nowhere.

My grandpa was right. When no one takes responsibility or fesses up to their mistakes (which, by the way, all three of these companies made), the process cannot be improved and it becomes impossible for congress or the president to make laws that will prevent the problem in the future. BP, Transocean, and Halliburton have barely expressed publicly what they’ll do in the future to prevent further problems. Does that mean that they won’t do anything to prevent this in the future? Are they only worried about restoring their public image? All three companies have spent their time making sure that it looks like the explosion was not their fault.

In the same way that Obama waited much too long to get to the South, it’s BP has waited much too long to acknowledge its mistakes. (Keep in mind– to emphasize this point– that BP’s first move after the explosion was to force every one of the exhausted, disheveled, confused workers on the rig to sign a contract which exonerated BP of any responsibility. Then, BP scurried through small southern coastal towns and got residents to sign pre-written agreements that capped the amount of money that BP would have to pay for any damage done to the citizens’ environment.)

“It’s not about whether or not a company makes mistakes, it’s about how they recognize and fix those mistakes to avoid them in the future.”

Whenever You’re Ready

Monday, May 3, 2010. 13 days since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.

Dear President Obama,

Now would be a good time to fully withdraw your support of offshore drilling and use this incident as a major argument for curbing America’s addiction to foreign oil. A moratorium on current projects sends the wrong message and is also the wrong choice. You need to carpe the frickin diem before it’s too late.

Less talk, please. More action.