Politics

At least we have our health ... or do we?

A friend was recently recounting some challenges he's been facing, concluding with the observation that "at least I have my health." His challenges include a recent layoff, and I found myself wondering how secure this consolation would prove to be for him ... or for the nearly 50 million other Americans who do not have health insurance.

Although a lot of polls are being conducted to find out how people feel about different health care reform plans (and principles), I can't find any that ask how people feel about the relative importance of health. I imagine that most people would rate good health as one of their most important values - more important than even, say, a good job or a nice house. This is probably why every other industrialized nation provides universal health coverage for its citizens.

The 1948 United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights - to which the United States is a signatory - includes a right to health care:

Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

And the 1966 U.N. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - to which the U.S. is also a signatory - also specifies a right to physical and mental health:

Article 12

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

2. The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for:

(a) The provision for the reduction of the stillbirth-rate and of infant mortality and for the healthy development of the child;

(b) The improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene;

(c) The prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases;

(d) The creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.

However, our government does not yet appear to consider a basic level of health care to be a right or entitlement (unless you're a senior citizen). Instead, we have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of private health insurance ... and private health insurance companies have the right (indeed, the obligation) to pursue profits.

Private health insurance companies produce profits when their income exceeds their expenditures. Revenue comes from health insurance premiums. Expenses include the salaries and bonuses they pay their employees and the medical procedures they pay to have performed for the people who have paid the premiums. Among the most effective ways for private health insurance companies to increase their profits are to increase premiums, deny coverage and/or rescind coverage for people with the highest expenses ... the very people who most need health care coverage.

The LA Times reports that

one Blue Cross employee earned a perfect score of "5" for "exceptional performance" on an evaluation that noted the employee's role in dropping thousands of policyholders and avoiding nearly $10 million worth of medical care.

Taunter Media provides a number of insights on the numbers underlying health insurance practices (and profits) in a blog post on "unconscionable math":

Half of the insured population uses virtually no health care at all.  The 80th percentile uses only $3,000 (2002 dollars, adjust a bit up for today).  You have to hit the 95th percentile to get anywhere interesting, and even there you have only $11,487 in costs.  It’s the 99th percentile, the people with over $35,000 of medical costs, who represent fully 22% of the entire nation’s medical costs.  These people have chronic, expensive conditions.  They are, to use a technical term, sick.

An individual adult insurance plan is roughly $7,000 (varies dramatically by age and somewhat by sex and location).

It should be fairly clear that the people who do not file insurance claims do not face rescission.  The insurance companies will happily deposit their checks.  Indeed, even for someone in the 95th percentile, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the insurance company to take the nuclear option of blowing up the policy.  $11,487 in claims is less than two years’ premium; less than one if the individual has family coverage in the $12,000 price range.  But that top one percent, the folks responsible for more than $35,000 of costs – sometimes far, far more – well there, ladies and gentlemen, is where the money comes in.  Once an insurance company knows that Sally has breast cancer, it has already seen the goat; it knows it wants nothing to do with Sally.

If the top 5% is the absolute largest population for whom rescission would make sense, the probability of having your policy cancelled given that you have filed a claim is fully 10% (0.5% rescission/5.0% of the population).  If you take the LA Times estimate that $300mm was saved by abrogating 20,000 policies in California ($15,000/policy), you are somewhere in the 15% zone, depending on the convexity of the top section of population.  If, as I suspect, rescission is targeted toward the truly bankrupting cases – the top 1%, the folks with over $35,000 of annual claims who could never be profitable for the carrier – then the probability of having your policy torn up given a massively expensive condition is pushing 50%. One in two.  You have three times better odds playing Russian Roulette.

This all seems perfectly rational for a for-profit company: ration health care coverage in a way that is inversely proportional to the need (and expense). While some opponents of single payer health care decry rationing by government bureaucrats, I don't know why they would prefer rationing by private industry bureaucrats.

I've been tracking some other numbers related to health care lately.

  • A January 2004 report by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies found that "Lack of health insurance causes roughly 18,000 unnecessary deaths every year in the United States".
  • Four years later (January 2008), a Commonwealth Fund study found that the U.S. has the highest rate of amenable mortality - "deaths from certain causes before age 75 that are potentially preventable with timely and effective health care" - among 19 industrialized countries, and estimated that 75,000 to 100,000 people would have been saved if the U.S. had a health care system comparable to the top 3 countries (France, Japan and Australia)
  • The 2007 United Nations Human Development Report shows thatt he U.S. spends over $6000 per capita on health care; more than any other country ... and twice as much as France, Japan and Australia.
  • Another study estimates that 31% of health care expenditures in the U.S. are spent on administrative overhead, compared with 1% to 4% of administrative overhead associated with public insurance plans in other industrialized countries (and 3% for the U.S. Medicare plan).
  • The 2007 U.S. Census estimates that 45.7 million Americans were uninsured as of 2007, when unemployment was below 5% (the current unemployment rate is approaching 10%).
  • Another Commonwealth Fund study reports that an additional 25 million were underinsured
  • A Families USA study reported that 86.7 million Americans - one third of the population under age 65 - were uninsured at some point in 2007 and/or 2008 (75% of them were uninsured for at least 6 months).
  • A Harris Interactive poll in April - when the unemployment rate was "only" 8.3% - indicated that 47% of American workers are concerned about losing their jobs (which, in the U.S., means the loss of health insurance) ... so, while the majority of Americans may currently have health insurance, an increasing number of Americans either have no health insurance or can more easily envision themselves having no health insurance.
  • All of this may help explain why most Americans in most polls support a single payer health care system.

A few more numbers, shared in a comment by Andrew on a blog post in American Spectator that simply echoes inaccurate claims made by another blogger attributed to an unspecified report by a U.S. private insurance industry-funded think tank that purportedly contains incredible claims about the British and Canadian health care systems (e.g., prostate cancer has a 57% mortality rate in the U.K.):

The average American spends more than 2.8 times as much as the average Briton on healthcare. Yet despite this, said average American gets poorer healthcare provision and dies younger.

Yes, that's right, there's a longer average life span in the UK than in the US – this is true even on the CIA World factbook which puts the US higher up the world rankings than most other sources. And the UK is ranked 18th in the world for its standard or healthcare by the World Health Organization. Not that great I'll admit but an awful lot better than the US which comes in 37th!

America is great country with a truly awful health system.

And the cost...

US:

Total cost of Medicare and Medicaid: $602bn.
Total US population: 294m.
Number served by Medicare and Medicaid: 94m.

Annual cost of Medicare/Medicaid divided by total US population: $2047

Total annual cost of US healthcare, including private spending, divided by total US population: $7900

UK:

Total cost of NHS: $167bn.
Total UK population: 61m.
Number served by NHS: 61m.

Annual cost of NHS divided by UK population: $2740

Total annual spend on private healthcare in the UK: $569m*

Total annual healthcare spend in UK divided by total UK population: $2750

*People in the UK are free to buy healthcare privately and many can afford
to do so. The fact that this figure is so low, less than $10 per citizen, is
testament to the popularity of the NHS. Even the wealthy rarely bother to go
private in spite of being both free and able to make the choice.

...

I admire America in many ways. But it is a mystery to the rest of the World why Americans put up with being bilked over healthcare when all the get in return is a second class service and an early grave.

You could spend half the money and do so much better.

Yes, we could do so much better. One way we could do so much better would be to adopt The United States National Health Care Act (H.R. 676). Although most of our congressional leaders - many of whom benefited from the $167.7 million in campaign contributions made by the health care industry during the 2008 election cycle - dismiss a public health care plan as unfeasible in the current political climate, that climate can change.

President Obama, who received $18.8 million in health care industry contributions during his 2008 election campaign, appears unwilling to promote a national health insurance system, and I wouldn't be surprised if he is willing to compromise on his requirement (recommendation?) of a "public option", which I never thought was a good idea to begin with. [Update, 2009-08-17: Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, conceded that a public health care option is "not the essential element" to health care reform, but did express distrust in the current system: "I think there will be a competitor to private insurers," Sebelius said. "That's really the essential part, is you don't turn over the whole new marketplace to private insurance companies and trust them to do the right thing." If one does not trust the private insurers with insuring one of our most important values - our health - it seems to me that the public health care option is the only rational alternative.]

I don't know how a health reform bill that allows for-profit health insurance companies to continue as our primary source of health care coverage can ever extend coverage to those who need it the most. I suppose if the insurance companies were prevented from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, rescinding coverage except in cases of provably intentional fraud, and restricted to a reasonable cap on premiums, some progress might be made. But for anyone who can imagine losing their job, or contracting a chronic or debilitating illness, or suffering a serious injury, it seems to me that the only rational choice is a single payer health care system ... that is, if we all truly want to be able to say, with confidence, "at least we have our health".


Augurs of hope, past & present: MLK, Milk, Obama & all of us's

Last week, on Martin Luther King Day, Amy and I watched the film, Milk, about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California (back in 1978). When we got to the Egyptian Theatre, Amy asked for two tickets to see "M-I-L-K", spelling out Milk's name. We laughed about this presumed priming effect (from it being MLK day), but it also primed my synchronicity radar as we headed in to see the movie.

Among the most powerful scenes in the movie was Milk's "Give Them Hope" speech:

Somewhere in Des Moines or San Antonio there's a young gay person who all of a sudden realizes that she or he is gay, knows that if the parents find out they'dl be tossed out of the house, the classmates would taunt the child, and the Anita Bryant's and John Briggs' are doing their bit on TV. And that child has several options: staying in the closet, suicide. And then one day that child might open up a paper that says "Homosexual elected in San Francisco" and there are two new options: the option is to go to California, or stay in San Antonio and fight. Two days after I was elected I got a phone call and the voice was quite young. It was from Altoona, Pennsylvania. And the person said "Thanks". And you've got to elect gay people, so that that young child and the thousands and thousands like that child know that there is hope for a better world, there is hope for a better tomorrow. Without hope, not only gays, but those blacks, and the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us's ... without hope the us's give up. I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you, and you, and you have got to give them hope.

I really find this reference to us's positively inspiring, reflecting wisdom I've gleaned from other sources, perhaps most notably Oriah Mountain Dreamer, who suggests that we can either try to identify and empathize with others, or seek to differentiate others from ourselves; essentially choosing to view others as "us" or "them".

Turning from us's to hope, another civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about this theme in his "I Have a Dream" speech:

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

While Milk makes explicit references to the civil rights of blacks in his speech, as far as I can tell, MLK never made any explicit references to the civil rights of gays (much less lesbians, bisexuals or transgenders/transsexuals). Of course, they were from different eras - Milk was able to figuratively stand on MLK's shoulders in his crusade to win full equality for LGBT people.

Black people do not have the option of hiding their race in the closet, while LGBT people do, but the perpetration of shame or the withholding of rights based on sexual preference is no more justifiable than that based on race. And if "we're only as sick as our secrets", discrimination based on sexual preference may be even more insidious. Milk urged LGBT people to come out of their closet(s):

We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets ... We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I'm going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out. Come out to your parents, your relatives

The 2000 U.S. Census estimates that 12.9% of the population in this country is black; there is no official census for LGBT, but unofficial estimates range from 4% to 10%. While LGBT people have gained some civil rights in some places (nationally and internationally), for reasons I have never been able to understand, allowing people of the same sex to legally marry is opposed by a majority of people in this country - 55% according to a recent poll.

The newly inaugurated president, Barack Obama, is the offspring of an interracial marriage - an institution or practice that was illegal in some states at the time of MLK's speech. The right of states to ban interracial marriages was in effect until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against such laws in the Loving v. Virginia case in 1967. And yet, despite his interracial marriage ancestry, Obama claims he is opposed to legalizing same-sex marriages (although, according to a recent San Francisco Chronicle article on "Gays, lesbians hopeful despite inaugural pastor", he supports the extension of full rights to same-sex civil unions, and opposes a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages).

Unlike some critics, I was inspired by Obama's inauguration speech - from its inclusive opening of "My fellow citizens" (not restricting his remarks to his fellow Americans), through his highlighting of the crises we face, and the "new era of responsibility" we must embark on in order to address these challenges and remake America. However, having just seen Milk the preceding day, I cringed when he got to this paragraph:

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

How can he promote this "God-given" promise that "all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness" and yet oppose the legalization of same-sex marriages? Does this opposition not deny LGBT people their "full measure of happiness"? I don't know if opposition to same-sex marriage under the guise of "defending" marriage is childish, but I do believe that as we, as a nation, mature in our perceptions and judgments about homosexuality (and marriage), we will come around to supporting this civil right that has been denied to a persecuted group in our society.

I was - and am - excited and hopeful about the election of Barack Obama. And yet, that same day, voters in California voted to approve Proposition 8, adding an article to the state Constitution stating

Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California

and thereby striking down any municipal laws legalizing same-sex marriages.

Rick Warren, the tremendously influential and socially conservative pastor and best-selling author who delivered the inaugural prayer on Tuesday, supported Proposition 8. As with the aforementioned section of Obama's inaugural speech, I cringed when I heard Rev. Warren say the following:

Help us, O God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race, or religion, or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all.

Freedom and justice for all ... except, of course, for homosexuals who want to marry.

If Harvey Milk were alive today, and were to give his Give Them Hope speech today, I suspect he would amend it to include Rick Warren along with Anita Bryant and John Briggs - who had actively campaigned in support of Proposition 6 in 1978, the so-called Briggs Initiative, that would have banned gays and lesbians, and possibly anyone who supported gay rights, from working in California's public schools. Fortunately, that measure failed, and while Milk is no longer with us - assassinated by a fellow (or formerly fellow) city supervisor - anti-gay forces are alive and well, in California and elsewhere.

Although there were many other striking and/or synchronistic aspects to the movie, I'll finish off noting that the person who came to a podium at San Francisco City Hall to announce the assassination of Harvey Milk - and then-mayor George Moscone - was then-city supervisor Dianne Feinstein ... who was also at a podium during Tuesday's inauguration, as the master of ceremonies. I'd earlier written about ignorance, incendiaries, ironies and inspiration in the 2008 presidential campaign, and my concern that the incendiary invectives uttered by McCain supporters might increase the risk of assassination for Obama. I was relieved that there was no replay of the last time I'd seen Feinstein on the big screen (having seen Milk the day before the inauguration).

I have a difficult time believing that a leader who could compose and deliver an inspiring message of moving toward a more perfect union could really oppose same-sex marriage. However, given the range of risks and challenges faced by Obama (and the rest of us's), it may be a while - perhaps another generation - before any public leader at that level can come out publicly in full support of full civil rights for all people.

[Update: Another augur of hope was unveiled this week: [Washington State] Lawmakers announce 'everything but marriage' bill: "Expanding the rights and responsibilities of state registered domestic partners" (Senate Bill 5688 and House Bill 1727). Equal Rights Washington has posted a page through which citizens can support domestic partnership expansion.]


Revenge of the Community Organizers

Obama-ProjectVote One of the low points of the recent U.S. presidential campaign for me - and there were many - was Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's contemptuous dismissal of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's earlier career chapter as a community organizer during her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention:

I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities.

At the time, I wondered how community organizers - on the left and on the right - and the people they work with (the community "organizees"?) felt about this perspective. There were reports the next day of how this snide remark galvanized Obama supporters, including some religious groups - my favorite response was "Jesus was a community organizer; Pontius Pilate was a governor" (heard on the Diane Rehm show). There were some compelling responses defending community organizing and noting how important this work is, in general ... and in elections:

The change voters are talking about this year builds on the shared problems community organizers have been helping people identify for decades. The change voters want builds on the solutions community organizers have been nurturing and putting into place, building the leadership of everyday Americans all across our country to demand that America work for everyone.

Scanlonplantcity It wasn't until I heard the most recent episode of NPR's On The Media - the segment entitled Net Routes, based, in part on a Wired article on Obama's Secret Weapons: Internet, Databases and Psychology - that this all came together for me, helping me understand the full irony of Palin's attack on Obama: the community organizing experience she so derisively mocked in her speech was actually a key to the success of his campaign!

The Barack Obama campaign's winning web strategy employed the latest in social networking to create a highly efficient update of old-fashioned politicking. Marshall Ganz designed the field-organizer and volunteer training systems that turned Obama's campaign volunteers into organizational leaders.

Ganz' emphasis on personal narrative as a means of empowering and engaging people was particularly poignant, given my recent reading of The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self, by Dan McAdams, in which he observes:

In order to live well, with unity and purpose, we compose a heroic narrative of the self that illustrates essential truths about ourselves.

I'm including an embedded link to the 6-minute audio for this segment, and a few quotes highlighting some of the most interesting and inspiring observations made by Marshall Ganz below.

[Ganz] helped develop a website to recruit and share information, and a weekend training program called Camp Obama, where volunteers created brief personal narratives to drive their message home.

...

The [community] organizing approach is that you hire full-time people, train them to be organizers, and their job is to recruit leaders from local communities, bring them together and equip them and train them to work together to reach out to their neighbors, the other people that live in the community, the voters themselves.

...

So there was a level of empowerment of volunteer leadership at the local level that is a theme that’s run all through this campaign. And that’s why you see the responsibility, the enthusiasm, the creativity. And that’s why when the campaign is over, as it is now, this isn't going to go away.

...

What we helped them understand is that the first thing they need to learn is how to articulate their own story, in other words, what is it that moved them to become involved and engaged, because it’s from their own story that they're going to be able to most effectively engage others. So when people leave, they leave equipped to do that. That’s sort of the foundational piece.

And in the initial series in California, we launched 200 teams in two weekends that, with the support of four staff people, built that operation out there to the point where it could make 100,000 phone calls a day. This is like an investment in civic assets, in local communities that no political campaign has done for years.

The right benefited from being rooted in social movements, which do this because that’s what social movements do. They translate values into action; they bring people in to work together. But on the progressive side, everybody had become marketeers. Everybody’d been marketing their cause or marketing their candidates as if it was another bar of soap, transforming people from citizens into customers.

What we did was bring the citizenship back in and put the people back in charge, and then put the tools in their hands.

While relatively few people attended Camp Obama or had access to the database made available to the official community organizers, I suspect that most voters did have access to - and did utilize - the other "secret weapons" used by the Obama campaign mentioned in the Wired article referenced above: the Internet and psychology.

Anyone who consciously or unconsciously constructed a personal narrative about what Obama - or McCain - means to them was engaging in a practice of personality psychology. I suspect that many of these personal narratives were influenced by other narratives that were accessed via the Internet, and that many people used the Internet to share their personal narrative, or at least their shared narrative, via the Internet (even via the simple act of forwarding an email to family, friends or acquaintances) ... suggesting a practice of social psychology.

So, although these interviews and articles are focusing on the formal community organizers, in some sense, it seems to me that the real impact of the Internet in this campaign - which was effectively promoted by the participatory approach embraced by Obama, Ganz and a legion of others - was to empower and engage people at the edges of the network(s).

DirtySouth As Arianna Huffington noted, the winner of the 2008 election was the Internet (and its users), and the loser of the 2008 election was Rovian politics [although, having listened to another segment in the same On The Media episode, The Dirty South, which incluced an interview with Stefan Forbes, director of Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, who reviewed the dark legacy left by the "southern strategy" developed by Rove's mentor - "spin when you can, change the subject when you can’t and if all else fails, mine the voters’ resentment, and fear, usually of blacks" - I hope that what we have really witnessed is the end of Atwaterian politics.].

In any case, it seems to me that what the growing participatory affordances offered by the Internet, and Web 2.0, are ushering in an era of universal deputization of community organizers. I'm just glad that Obama, Ganz and their lieutenants had the experience and insight to ride this wave more effectively than their opponents.

The McCain campaign certainly had their own network of community organizers - as Ganz noted, the religious right had a very strong, pre-existing network ... although in my judgment, the fundamentalist and dogmatic orientation of many of these groups creates a different kind of network than one that is more open to diverse opinions and backgrounds (an "unfair" advantage, perhaps, among the differences between conservativism and liberalism I mentioned in an earlier post).

I am reminded of the classic Pogo cartoon, "we have met the enemy, and he is us" ... and thinking that perhaps this new movement represents a new twist on Pogo's observation:

We have met the community organizers, and they are us.

I hope that Obama and his community organizing lieutenants will now be able to direct the energies of this engaged citizen army - and find ways to deflect or co-opt the energies of the opposing, and often enraged, army of community organizers and organizees - in ways that will help us address the mounting challenges that we are facing.

A recent USA Today / Gallup poll suggests that a majority of us share this hope, and although I believe hope and dreams trump fears and smears, I also believe that, by itself, hope is not a strategy. Ganz noted the effectiveness with which the right has historically - at least in the Atwater / Rove era -  been able to translate values into actions ... it now remains to be seen whether / how Obama we can translate hope into post-election actions.


Hope and Dreams trump Fears and Smears

The speeches of the two U.S. presidential candidates Tuesday night were hopeful and inspiring, a welcome change from the fears and smears that dominated much of the campaign ... or, at least, one side of the campaign. John McCain delivered the most gracious concession speech I have ever seen, and Barack Obama delivered yet another inspiring - and gracious - victory speech shortly thereafter.

I had planned to post a blog entry summarizing some of the fears and smears promulgated by McCain, his running mate Sarah Palin, Fox News and other conservative voices - instances I'd been tracking via Twitter - after the election, but the combined positive boost of these two speeches leads me to let these go, and focus instead on hope and dreams. 

And, in letting go of fears and embracing hope and dreams, I'm reminded of a classic book by Gerald Jampolsky, Love is Letting Go of Fear, which I first read many years ago.

The Course [in Miracles] states there are only two emotions, love and fear. The first is our natural inheritance, the other our mind manufactures. The Course suggests that we can learn to let go of fear by practicing forgiveness and seeing everyone, including ourselves, as blameless and guiltless.
...
As each of us moves towards the single goal of achieving peace of mind for ourselves, we can also experience the joining of our minds that results from the removal of the blocks to our awareness of Love's presence.

John McCain's concession speech exemplified some of these ideals. I don't know whether McCain ever truly believed the fears that he and his cohorts were trying so hard to instill in the minds and hearts of the American people, but he certainly did his best to let these go - and urge his supporters to do so - during his speech.

Here are a few of the passages that I found particularly inspiring:

In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, [Obama's] success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.

...

These are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.

I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.

...

Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.

It is natural. It's natural, tonight, to feel some disappointment. But tomorrow, we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again.

...

I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president. And I call on all Americans, as I have often in this campaign, to not despair of our present difficulties, but to believe, always, in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here.

Barack Obama's victory speech also emphasized love - through the of language of hopes, dreams and unity - over fear, despair and divisiveness.

Here are a few of the excerpts from his speech that I find most inspiring:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

...

It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled. Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states.

We are, and always will be, the United States of America.

It's the answer that led those who've been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

...

There's new energy to harness, new jobs to be created, new schools to build, and threats to meet, alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.

I promise you, we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as president. And we know the government can't solve every problem.

But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And, above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation, the only way it's been done in America for 221 years -- block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

...

What began 21 months ago in the depths of winter cannot end on this autumn night.

This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.

It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.

...

This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.

Ever since that speech, I find that two songs keep swimming through my head. One is Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth), by George Harrison:

Give me love
Give me love
Give me peace on earth
Give me light
Give me life
Keep me free from birth
Give me hope
Help me cope, with this heavy load
Trying to, touch and reach you with,
heart and soul

The other song was triggered by a line in Obama's speech: "It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment change has come to America."

The music of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young inspires me more than the music of any other band. As I noted in my review of a CSNY concert in 2006, their song, Long Time Gone, is a "goosebump" song, and one of my favorite songs of all time.

It's been a long time comin'
It's goin' to be a long time gone.
And it appears to be a long
Appears to be a long
Appears to be a long,
Yes, a long, long, log time
Before the dawn.

Turn, turn any corner.
Hear, you must hear what the people say,
You know there's something that's goin' on around here,
That surely, surely, surely won't stand the light of day.

I've written about another verse, "But you know, the darkest hour, Is always just before the dawn", in another post (The Darkest Hour) in another, far less celebratory context, in which the song offered an unexpected catharsis.

Although I invoke it again here, in a truly celebratory context, I will also note that the song was written in response to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, an event which many, including myself, see as the end of an earlier era of extraordinary hope. Listening to NPR this morning, a commentartor noted that Obama's promise that "we as a people will get there" invokes the spirit - and hopes and dreams - of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from King's inspiring "I've been to the mountaintop" speech  ... the one he gave on the eve of his assassination.

[Update: I found videos of this speech - in two parts - on YouTube; including them below.]

The speech ends off with this inspiring and prophetic passage:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! [emphasis added]

As I noted in an earlier post, on ignorance, indenciaries, ironies and inspiration:

The increasingly incendiary invective incited by the McCain / Palin campaign instill me with fear that Obama may meet a fate similar to other inspiring political figures from our naton's past. On this week's pledge week installment of This American Life, host Ira Glass played a segment from a Fresh Air earlier this year on Pete Hamill Remembers Robert Kennedy. I was deeply moved by Robert F. Kennedy's speech in Indianapolis the night that Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis, in which he raised the questions of "what kind of nation we are, and what kind of direction we want to move in". Many of those hearing the speech at the time were also moved: although there were riots in 180 American cities that night, there was relative quiet in Indianapolis.

I sincererly hope that the combination of speeches from McCain and Obama will put an end to the fears and smears represented by the ridiculous "Who is Barack Obama?" rhetoric, and help us focus instead on the questions RFK raised:

What kind of nation are we, and what kind of direction do we want to move in?

I believe the election of Barack Obama on Tuesday represents the beginning - or perhaps the continuation - of a hopeful answer to these vitally important questions, and I hope that we, the people, can collectively let go of our fears, and our politics of divisiveness, and embrace the love and courage that will be required for us to climb the mountain toward a more perfect union.


Conservativism, Liberalism and Independence

As the campaign draws to a close, two classic Doonesbury cartoons have been regularly recurring to me, a visual analogue to the aural experience of a song I can't get out of my head. One of them was the pithiest summary of the differences between conservatives and liberals I've ever read; the other was a parody of college students acting as sheeple, uncritically accepting anything and everything their professor says, despite his assignment of writing an essay on independent thought.

This campaign has been emotionally charged for me (and others). I generally try to be positive on this blog, and yet have been finding myself increasingly indignant from the [literally] incredible smears and fears shamelessly promulgated by the campaigns and their supporters. I've started using my Twitter account to vent some of this irritation by simply and briefly noting some of the acts I find most egregious - occasionally sprinkled with sparks of hope. 

The recent news that Gary Trudeau has created an "Obama Wins!" strip for Wednesday, based on his reading that "Nate Silver at Fivethirtyeight.com is now giving McCain a 3.7% chance of winning" (though my reading of Today's Polls, 10/31, says "McCain’s win percentage is down to 2.8 percent") leads me to delve into these strips and describe how I see them as framing the current political climate in America.

Doonesbury-Conservatives-2003-07-13 In the first strip [first published on July 13, 2003], two Doonesbury characters who play the role of commentators on the public radio show All Things Reconsidered, liberal Mark Slackmeyer and conservative Chase Talbot III (who also happen to be homosexual lovers, and eventually became a married couple), discuss the differences between liberals and conservatives. The strip starts out with Mark watching Fox News, where an announcer trumpets "Fox News: we report, you decide!", to which Mark muses "That has to be the most cynical slogan in the history of journalism" [personally, I find their other slogan, "Fair and Balanced" to be far more cynical].

In the main portion of the strip, Chase sums up the differences between liberals and conservatives: "[Y]ou liberals are hung up on fairness! You actually try to respect all points of view! But conservatives feel no need whatsoever to consider other views. We know we're right, so why bother? Because we have no tradition of tolerance, we're unencumbered by doubt! So we roll you guys every time!" When Mark replies "Actually, you make a good point...", Chase responds, "See! Only a loser would admit that!"

As I noted in my last blog post - and as is reflected in many of my recent "tweets" - what irks me the most this campaign season is the ignorant and incendiary statements made and actions taken by some of my fellow Americans. Revisiting Doonesbury's characterization of conservatives, I can see that many of these statements and actions reflect the core conservative values of righteousness, intolerance and certainty.

Doonesbury-TeachingIsDead The willingness to consider alternative perspectives, think critically, and arrive at independent conclusions - hallmarks of liberalism, from Doonesbury's perspective - is the subject of the other Doonesbury strip that has been on / in my mind a lot lately. In this strip [first published on January 27, 1985], a professor is lecturing to students, who eagerly write down everything he says, without thinking about or challenging any of the increasingly provocative statements he makes:

  • "... and in my view, Jefferson's defense of these basic rights lacked conviction. Okay, any discussion of what I've covered so far?" [no response]
  • "Of course not, you're too busy getting it all down. Let me just add that personally, I believe the Bill of Rights to be a silly, inconsequential, recapitulation of truths already found in the Constitution. Any comment?" [no response]
  • "No, scratch that! The Constitution itself should never have been written! It's a dangerous document! All power should rest with the executive! What do you think of that?!" [no response]
  • "Jefferson was the antichrist! Democracy is fascism! Black is white! Night is day!"  no response].

After the professor slumps over the podium, decrying "Teaching is dead", two students turn to each other; one says "Boy, this course is really getting interesting", to which the other replies "You said it, I didn't know half this stuff."

Now, this strip was originally printed on January 27, 1985, shortly after Rush Limbaugh started his conservative radio show in Sacramento, but a few years before it made its debut on WABC-AM radio in New York during the 1988 campaign. I don't know if Doonesbury knew about the show at that point, but his strip perfectly illustrates the legions of Limbaugh fans - sometimes referred to as dittoheads - who unquestioningly accept and repeat the hateful, righteous, intolerant views he regularly espouses on his show. The strip also has current relevance, given the confusion about the First Amendment recently exhibited by Sarah Palin (the conservative Republican vice presidential candidate), the evangelical furor over [allegations about] Obama being the antichrist that I mentioned in my last post, and the growing acknowledgment (by conservatives) that conservativism is increasingly anti-intellectual and some going so far as to claim that conservatives are addicted to misinformation.

Although I do not listen to Rush Limbaugh nor watch Fox News regularly, I have heard and seen many clips from a variety of their shows, especially this election season, and all of them have exhibited some combination of righteousness, intolerance and certainty ... and none of them has exhibited anything that I would consider to be fair or balanced (though I want to note that I've never heard Rush refer to himself - or his show - as "fair and balanced" ... and in fact, he has strenuously argued against the Fairness Doctrine).

Now to be fair, Fox News is counterbalanced, to some extent, by MSNBC, a network which seems to be increasingly liberal - the "antithesis of Fox News". As I've noted before, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann is my hero ... or, at least, he was. I have to admit that as the campaign has worn on, it seems to be wearing down Olbermann, whose candid, direct and provocative style has become increasingly affected by righteous indignation ... and contemptuousness. In his recent Special Comment on "It's Palin doin' the pallin'" (embedded in my last post), which is both a fabulous refutation of Palin's charges against Barack Obama "palling around with terrorists" and a strong indictment on her - and John McCain's - associations with people who might be considered terrorists, he condescendingly refers to "poor Sarah Palin", and uses a mocking tone in many of his other references to her ... a tone I typically associate with Rush Limbaugh and the conservative pundits on Fox News.

In another dimension of "balance" between conservatives and liberals, I was very disturbed to see an article about a mannequin dressed up as Sarah Palin with a noose around its neck hung outside a house in West Hollywood this week, and then to read about an effigy of Barack Obama with a knife through its neck that was hung outside a house in Redondo Beach in response ... all in the spirit of Halloween "fun". Both of these effigies have now been removed after protests, and I was heartened to see that one of the protesters against the Barama effigy was a local McCain campaign official, Pete Kesterson [I do not know whether any Obama campain officials officially protested against the Palin effigy]. I was also heartened to see a video of Daniel Zubairi, a Muslim McCain campaign official, and other supporters, confront other supporters who were promulgating misinformation about Obama being a socialist with an Islamic background (though, disheartened to later read that Zubairi was then asked not to talk about the incident by the McCain campaign).

Finally, I want to also note that I was heartened - and humored - to see John (and Cindy) McCain's appearances on Saturday Night Live last night. Although there was some booing of John McCain from the audience, I have to say that the skits he appeared in seemed to strike a fair balance between the serious issues McCain wants to emphasize in the campaign and a rather self-effacing, humorous look at some of the issues I would have expected that McCain would not have wanted to emphasize. I have to say that the effect - for me - was to re-humanize McCain a bit, after a long, downward spiral of increasing negativity coming from McCain, Palin and their supporters (including Fox News and Rush Limbaugh).

Although SNL is often criticized by conservatives for having a liberal bias, the show has recently been willing to poke fun at liberals (e.g., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee Barney Frank in an interpretation of the recent bailout of the banking industry) as well as conservatives (e.g., their interpretation of Katie Couric's interview of Sarah Palin).

To end off on a light note, I'll embed a couple of these videos below.

McCain QVC open:

Palin / Couric open

Oops! I just discovered that last night's show included an SNL parody of Countdown with Keith Olbermann, played by Ben Affleck:


Ignorance, Incendiaries, Ironies and Inspiration

I've been growing increasingly appalled by some of the ignorant and incendiary statements made by Republican John McCain's presidential campaign and its supporters. Ironically, one of the McCain campaign's political advertisements that appears to have had the most incendiary effect on evangelical supporters, "The One", is one that I find, personally, to be positively inspiring. However, before I say more about that, I want to review other advertisements and rallying cries that appear to be designed to inspire fear and hatred, and perhaps even violence, and a few other dimensions of irony that are emerging as we move into the final stretch of this campaign.

A recent BoingBoing post, If It Walks Like A Duck and Talks Like a Duck Dept: The McCain-Palin Mob, includes a video posted by Blogger Interrupted from a McCain campaign rally in Strongsville, Ohio, a purportedly "picturesque, progressive suburb". While no one in the video called Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama a terrorist, several interviewees suggested that Obama might be a terrorist, noting "he's got the bloodlines" (presumably referring to Obama's Kenyan father), "the name" (Barack Hussein Obama) and/or "the connections" (Obama's prior association with William Ayers). The setting of the video ("Strongsville"), along with the statements made by people there, reminded me of the Orwellian maxim "Ignorance is Strength", one of the most compelling - and frighteningly prescient - instances of irony I've encountered.

At a McCain rally on October 6, people were willing to call Obama a terrorist, and to propose a radical solution. In response to McCain posting the rhetorical question "who is the real Barack Obama?", supporters yelled "kill him! terrorist!" (at the 0:13 mark) ... immediately - and ironically - followed by McCain complaining about getting "another angry barrage of insults" whenever he asks that question (other responses by supporters at other rallies include "traitor!", "bomb Obama!" and "off with his head!"). I suspect McCain meant to imply that the angry barrage of insults came from Obama supporters (or perhaps the oft-maligned liberal "gotcha" media), but as far as I can tell, angry barrages of insults appear to be more of a hallmark of statements made by McCain, his vice-presidential running mate Sarah Palin, Fox News and other McCain and Palin supporters, than from the Obama campaign. And McCain's implcit or explicit endorsement of these insults leaves me questioning "who is John McCain?", a man I once considered an honorable senator and soldier.

In yet another dimension of irony (and ignorance), Keith Olbermann recently noted in his recent Special Comment on Sarah Palin's Hysteria that the Republican vice presidential candidate has a few questionable connections herself.

Palin delivered a warm, videotaped introduction to the 2008 Convention of the Alaskan Independence Party, whose motto is "Alaska First. Alaska Always", whose mission is to secede from the United States, and whose founder, Joe Vogler, once stated

The fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred of the American government, and I won't be buried under their damn flag.

and

I'm an Alaskan, not an American. I've got no use for America or her damned institutions.

In addition to "palling around" with secessionists, Palin was once blessed by Pastor Thomas Muthee, who prayed that she would be protected from witchcraft (and be able to raise campaign money), and who had earlier conducted spiritual warfare against a woman in Kenya, accusing her of being a witch, blaming her for the local crime, rallying a mob to threaten her, and chasing her out of town ... which might be considered acts of domestic terrorism (I'd be interested to know what Palin thinks of the Salem witch trials, an earlier example of evangelical excess in this country, but that would probably be interpreted as yet another "gotcha" question).

Speaking of religious fervor brings me round to the McCain campaign's political advertisement, "The One", which many consider to be a shameless effort to fan the flames of evangelical furor over [allegations about] Obama being the antichrist. Ironically, I found this advertisement to be positively inspiring.

I hope "the world will be blessed", and "the nation healed, the world repaired", by an Obama presidency. His message that "we are the ones we've been waiting for" should, I would think, strike a chord with libertarians and others who believe in self-reliance. The ad quotes Obama as saying "I have become a symbol of America returning to our best traditions". This is a welcome contrast to the McCain campaign's increasing regression toward our worst political traditions. The ad quotes Obama as saying "This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal". The video cuts to a scene from The Ten Commandments, where Charlton Heston (playing Moses) parts the Red Sea, which may raise the specter of the anti-christ for evangelical Christians. As someone who is neither evangelical, nor [fundamentally] Christian, but deeply concerned with the health of our planet, I am inspired by the hope that our next president will help slow the rise of the oceans and begin to heal our planet.

The increasingly incendiary invective incited by the McCain / Palin campaign instill me with fear that Obama may meet a fate similar to other inspiring political figures from our naton's past. On this week's pledge week installment of This American Life, host Ira Glass played a segment from a Fresh Air earlier this year on Pete Hamill Remembers Robert Kennedy. I was deeply moved by Robert F. Kennedy's speech in Indianapolis the night that Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis, in which he raised the questions of "what kind of nation we are, and what kind of direction we want to move in". Many of those hearing the speech at the time were also moved: although there were riots in 180 American cities that night, there was relative quiet in Indianapolis.

The themes of love, justice, understanding and fellowship emphasized by RFK - and MLK - reminded me of how deeply moved I was by Obama's speech on "A More Perfect Union", which I still consider the most inspiring speech I've heard - live - in my adult political life. And the memories of the MLK and RFK assassinations also deeply move me, though in a very different way.

McCain recently described Obama as a "decent man" who we should not fear. Unfortunately, in that same speech, he also alluded to Obama's earlier relationship with Ayers, implicitly raising the very "terrorist" fears that seem to be inciting his supporters to threaten violence against Obama, thus compromising any potentially ameliorative effect of his "decent" words. As far as I can tell, the McCain / Palin campaign has adopted a desperate "win at any cost" strategy. Recent polls suggest the campaign may lose the election ... if they don't curtail their character assassination tactics, implicitly and explicitly encouraging and endorsing violence, we may ultimately experience a far greater loss.


Consistency, Change and Conventions

Between the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention, and their coverage on PBS (especially the Lehrer NewsHour), I've probably watched more TV in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years. It seems that change is very much in the air - or, at least, on the air - but it appears that the conception of change is not consistent across parties ... and, indeed, in at least one case, it does not even appear consistent within a single individual.

I've watched the party nomination acceptance speeches of Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and John McCain, as well as the speeches by Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton - which, I suppose, could also be considered speeches of acceptance (of Obama's nomination) - and the speeches by Fred Thompson and Joe Lieberman - which often times seemed to focus more on rejection (of Obama) than acceptance (of McCain).

As is the convention with political conventions, and politics in general, the speeches were generally high on emotion and low on fact. One generally has to turn elsewhere to learn more about the facts. One source I found increasingly helpful - both for facts and an emotional uplift (particularly during the Republican convention) - was The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (part of Comedy Central's Indecision 2008 coverage).

The Daily Show obviously plays loose with the facts and exhibits a certain bias throughout its coverage, and this applies to its coverage of the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention. However, I suspect the level of truthfulness and bias is on a par with Fox News, and it's important to remember that the former is billed as a comedy show while the latter is billed as "fair and balanced" reporting. And, although a vocal minority on the right claims that PBS exhibits a left-leaning bias, and John McCain once claimed that cable networks are less biased than PBS and "superior in some cases", I think most people recognize that PBS offers the least bias and greatest depth of any news and information source on U.S. television.

Regardless of one's views of the respective (if not respectful) biases exhibited by various organizations and shows, there was a recent segment on The Daily Show that reviewed some of the facts and fictions about John McCain as a maverick reformer - or, as they so humorously reframe it, reformed maverick - which contrasts sharply with his running mate's claim that

"As for my running mate, you can be certain that wherever he goes, and whoever is listening, John McCain is the same man."

As the following video suggests, consistency is in the eye of the beholder:

Personally, despite my disagreement of some of Senator McCain's views, I had a generally positive impression of him during what the video describes as "The Wild Years (1936-2006)". But, in the segment "Abandoning Everything He'd Ever Stood For (2006-present)", the juxtaposition of statements by Senator McCain and Presidential Candidate McCain highlights striking inconsistencies in his views of the intolerant right wing of his party, a woman's right to choose (about which The Daily Show had a great segment entitled "Bristol Palin's Choice"), taxes, and the "difficulties" encountered in the war in Iraq.

Now, I suppose these statements could simply reflect that John McCain is an agent of change (i.e., he is willing to change his own views). And, as they showed in another segment on his acceptance speech, his views on change are not terribly different from the views of change articulated by the Republican nominee for president in 2000, George W. Bush, on topics such as abortion, education, taxes and bipartisanship (see the segment between 4:51 and 5:48):

I'm reminded of Ghandi's views on consistency, change and truth:

"My commitment is to truth as I see it each day, not to consistency."

Ghandi never ran for the office of U.S. President (or Vice President), and I suspect that holding - or admitting to - this kind of perspective would not serve candidates well in this time and place. He also once noted that

"I have sacrificed no principle to gain a political advantage"

This uncompromising policy would also not serve him well in U.S. politics.

But speaking of consistency, change, conventions and compromise, I want to note that in her introduction to the president's speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, First Lady Laura Bush reminded the conventioneers that she had introduced her husband during the 2000 Republican National Convention as "a man of character, whose principles would not shift with the winds of politics or polls". I do believe that President Bush has an uncompromising commitment to the truth as he sees it ... and I suppose that one of the things that has bothered me during the last 8 years is that his view of the truth is often inconsistent with mine.

A few years ago, in a revelation of the truth as he sees it, President Bush claimed that God told him to invade Iraq, which is more consistent with reality than any other rationale I've seen regarding his reason(s) for doing so. The high cost of the war in Iraq - and the willingness to continue paying the price - is one of the important differences between the two U.S. presidential candidates. While McCain supports the war, I don't believe he does so for divine reasons ... but, as a final note on consistency, change and convention, it is noteworthy that the "beautiful, charismatic, and creationist" [as Jon Stewart put it] Republican Vice Presidential candidate appears to share Bush's view that the war in Iraq is "a task from God". In the truth as I see it, this does not reflect the kind of change we need.


Satirization or Assassination?

NewYorkerCover-20080721 The New Yorker published its July 21 edition this week, with a cartoon on the cover depicting U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, in a way that reflects some of the worst fears of what I suspect is a nontrivial percentage of the electorate. On the cover, shown on the right, Barack is wearing a turban, Michelle is sporting an AK47 assault rifle and ammunition belt across her chest; the pair exchange a "fist bump" under the gaze of a turban-bedecked Osama bin Laden in a portrait hanging over a fireplace where an American flag is burning. The cartoon has a caption "The Politics of Fear", but this listed on the bottom of page 2 rather than on the cover.

I have no doubt the cartoon is intended as a satirical critique of some of the more egregious and hyperbolic extrapolations and projections that have been appearing in the press, e.g., Fox News anchor E.D. Hill using the infamous Fox News question mark to make sideways editorial comments (which I've intentionally invoked in the title of this post) in asking "A fist bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab?", unsubstantiated rumors of a video of Michelle Obama making "anti-white" statements, the ridiculous controversy over Obama's [earlier] refusal to wear a flag pin, and, most recently, a Newsweek poll released on Friday that reported some surprising statistics about how many people believe various flavors of the rumors about Obama's connection to Islam:

Twelve percent of voters surveyed said that Obama was sworn in as a United States senator on a Qur'an, while 26 percent believe the Democratic candidate was raised as a Muslim and 39 percent believe he attended an Islamic school as a child growing up in Indonesia. None of these things is true.

This follows an earlier Pew Research poll released in March showing that 10% of Americans believe Obama is Muslim; among those most likely to believe this are people in rural areas (19%), white evangelical Protestants (16%), conservative Republicans (16%) and people who never attended college (15%).

What I wonder is how the satirization intended by the cartoon is likely to affect the level of misinformation about Barack Obama - will it decrease the misinformation by opening up a dialogue (through all the controversy it is engendering), or will it increase the misinformation - and misinformedness - due to the media's echo chamber effect ("a group of media outlets that tend to parrot each other's uncritical reports on the views of a single source, or that otherwise relies on unquestioning repetition of official sources") and confirmation bias ("a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions and avoids information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs").

In my last post, writing about my experiences at Foo Camp 2008, I noted a session in which a prominent former blogger was subjected to online harassment with strong sexually-oriented and violent images, e.g., a Photoshopped image in which a noose was inserted in a photo of her head and neck and another Photoshopped image that superimposed a pair of panties over her face in a way that might be interpreted as muzzling or suffocating. Some of the people defending the authors of these images and similarly harsh words posted in an online forum dedicated to harassing this woman claimed that these were intended as "satire", and that she and others were simply taking these words and images too seriously. I found myself wondering what the response might have been if similar images had been created and posted with, say, Hillary Clinton as the target of the "satire" ... I suspect the FBI would have been involved and arrests would have been made. I now wonder what the reaction would be if Michelle Obama had been the target ... and even wonder whether she already has been such a target (!).

I'm hearing similar "overreaction" sentiments being expressed about the New Yorker cartoon - that people who are reacting negatively are simply taking it too seriously. I do tend to take things too seriously at times, but I'm not alone ... and I wonder how many "serious" people are - or were - in the "undecided" category of the U.S. electorate. The "satire" directed against the aforementioned blogger led to her departure from the blogosphere, and while I don't think the "satire" directed against [the people who spread or believe rumors about] Barack Obama will cause him to drop out of the race, I am concerned that this may negatively affect his chances for being elected president.

Despite numerous reports over the last several years that Saddam Hussein had no connection with the 9/11 attacks, an earlier Newsweek poll suggests that a surprisingly large proportion of the American public believe there is a link:

Even today, more than four years into the war in Iraq, as many as four in ten Americans (41 percent) still believe Saddam Hussein's regime was directly involved in financing, planning or carrying out the terrorist attacks on 9/11, even though no evidence has surfaced to support a connection. A majority of Americans were similarly unable to pick Saudi Arabia in a multiple-choice question about the country where most of the 9/11 hijackers were born. Just 43 percent got it right -- and a full 20 percent thought most came from Iraq.

[I cannot find a direct reference to this poll on the Newsweek site, purportedly reported in June 2007 ... so maybe I'm just spreading rumors here ... the second-hand reports of the poll certainly confirm my biases.]

I hope we'll soon see additional polls to determine the impact of this controversial cartoon. Among the questions I'd be interested to know answers to are:

  • How many people saw the cover in a physical magazine vs. a reproduction of the cover in traditional news media or somewhere on a web site?
  • How many people had even heard of the New Yorker before, or know that the New Yorker often engages in satire, especially in its cartoons?
  • What are people's initial reaction to seeing the cover? Satire? Character assassination? Confirmation of their deepest political fears?
  • How do the statistics mentioned above change over the next week or two, e.g., how many people now believe Obama is a Muslim?
  • How many copies of this issue of the New Yorker are sold? (I bought one)
  • How does the number of subscribers change?

And, of course, on November 4, we'll know the outcome of a much more important poll ... the question is whether we'll know how much this "satire" has affected that outcome.


Religion, Politics, Racism and Invisibility: Obama and Wright vs. McCain and Hagee

Robb's comment on my post about the Capitol Steps show in Seattle got me thinking - and writing - [again] about some of the religious and racial issues in the U.S. presidential race. I started to write a comment in response to Robb's comment, but as it grew longer and longer, I decided to move it into a separate blog post.

Robb is a good friend from college who grew up in the U.S. but has spent many years living in New Zealand, where he has been increasingly appreciating the natural beauty of the land (especially the mountains), the indigenous people - Maori - and their culture ... and writing inspiring prose and poetry about his experiences and growing appreciation in his Musings from Aotearoa blog. In his comment on my post, Robb, raised a number of provocative issues:

I find this issue of 0bama "throwing" Wright "under the bus" to reveal the real dark side of this issue, old fashioned racism. I still fail to see what he, Wright, has actually said that can be construed as being either inflammatory or has anything to do with 0bama directly. What are people so afraid of here, or should I write, perhaps inflammatorily, what is conservative, entrenched, white America so afraid of here? I am trying to track where I read it down, but I recall reading somewhere John McCain's religous mentor saying the New orleans devastation was the "wrath of God on those people". Where is that in the news media? 0r what things are spoken from the pulpit of many white churches on any given Sunday in the land where Emmett Till was murdered? Where is the balance?

Good questions! I want to spend a bit of time reviewing some of Wright's recent remarks before exploring McCain's religious connections.

WrightAtNationalPressClubReverend Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of the current Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, has made a few appearances lately. I enjoyed watching Bill Moyers interview Wright on PBS a week ago, a venue in which Wright came across as a relatively reasonable - and clearly passionate - man. I did not watch Wright's more recent National Press Club speech and Q&A last week, but it was carried on C-SPAN (and there are segments posted on YouTube), and Fox News has posted a transcript; I had seen and heard snippets of commentary during the week, but it was not until Robb's comment that I decided to sit down and listen the entire speech and read the transcript.

As with my earlier experience in reviewing the larger contexts of Wright's sermons from which short snippets have been repeatedly rebroadcast in the mass media, and which have been reportedly perceived as so inflammatory by so many, I found myself agreeing with nearly all of the views expressed by Wright in his National Press Club talk on "The African American Religious Experience; Theology & Practice". And, in an effort to help provide a larger - or at least different - context than has been offered in most accounts of this talk, I wanted to share some of the excerpts that I found most inspiring.

Invisibleman Wright starts off describing the relative invisibility of the black church and black religious tradition, beginning with its roots during slavery, and continuing through the present day, referencing The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison - implicitly and explicitly - throughout his remarks, and I think this invisibility characterizes - or cloaks - many of the issues that are arising throughout this controversy. As he progresses through the talk, his presentation become more inclusive, promoting liberation for all peoples, urging acceptance of differences without presuming deficiencies, and closing with an invitation to reconciliation, through which greater unity can be achieved ... and I can't help but note that the theme of unity is one of the key messages of Wright's [former?] church member, Barack Obama.

Robb's reference to "throwing Wright under a bus" highlights the unfortunate, but understandable (given the mass media focus on the most controversial aspects of Wright's views), tone of Obama's response to Wright's most recent remarks, in which he condemns the "outrageous" and "destructive" nature of some of those remarks. I find Obama's assertion that Wright is "giving comfort to those who prey on hate" to be particularly interesting. Wright's refusal to recede into the background - to become invisible - may be giving ammunition to those who prey on hate, but I don't see how it offers any comfort to anybody. The explosive charge of that ammunition is more the result of media coverage of Wright's comments than the comments themselves, which, in my interpretation, represent more of a challenge to those who promote and prey on hate rather than a comfort to them.

Anyhow, before offering further interpretations and judgments, here are some extended exerpts of the actual words spoken by Wright during his National Press Club speech: 

The black religious experience is a tradition that, at one point in American history, was actually called the “invisible institution,” as it was forced underground by the Black Codes.

The Black Codes prohibited the gathering of more than two black people without a white person being present to monitor the conversation, the content, and the mood of any discourse between persons of African descent in this country.

Africans did not stop worshipping because of the Black Codes. Africans did not stop gathering for inspiration and information and for encouragement and for hope in the midst of discouraging and seemingly hopeless circumstances.  They just gathered out of the eyesight and the earshot of those who defined them as less than human.

They became, in other words, invisible in and invisible to the eyes of the dominant culture.  They gathered to worship in brush arbors, sometimes called hush arbors, where the slaveholders, slave patrols, and Uncle Toms couldn’t hear nobody pray.

...

The prophetic tradition of the black church has its roots in Isaiah, the 61st chapter, where God says the prophet is to preach the gospel to the poor and to set at liberty those who are held captive. Liberating the captives also liberates who are holding them captive.

It frees the captives and it frees the captors.  It frees the oppressed and it frees the oppressors.

The prophetic theology of the black church, during the days of chattel slavery, was a theology of liberation.  It was preached to set free those who were held in bondage spiritually, psychologically, and sometimes physically.  And it was practiced to set the slaveholders free from the notion that they could define other human beings or confine a soul set free by the power of the gospel.

The prophetic theology of the black church during the days of segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, and the separate-but-equal fantasy was a theology of liberation.

It was preached to set African-Americans free from the notion of second-class citizenship, which was the law of the land.  And it was practiced to set free misguided and miseducated Americans from the notion that they were actually superior to other Americans based on the color of their skin.

The prophetic theology of the black church in our day is preached to set African-Americans and all other Americans free from the misconceived notion that different means deficient.

...

This principle of “different does not mean deficient” is at the heart of the prophetic theology of the black church.  It is a theology of liberation.

The prophetic theology of the black church is not only a theology of liberation; it is also a theology of transformation, which is also rooted in Isaiah 61, the text from which Jesus preached in his inaugural message, as recorded by Luke.

When you read the entire passage from either Isaiah 61 or Luke 4 and do not try to understand the passage or the content of the passage in the context of a sound bite, what you see is God’s desire for a radical change in a social order that has gone sour.

God’s desire is for positive, meaningful and permanent change. God does not want one people seeing themselves as superior to other people.  God does not want the powerless masses, the poor, the widows, the marginalized, and those underserved by the powerful few to stay locked into sick systems which treat some in the society as being more equal than others in that same society.

...

God does not desire for us, as children of God, to be at war with each other, to see each other as superior or inferior, to hate each other, abuse each other, misuse each other, define each other, or put each other down.

God wants us reconciled, one to another.  And that third principle in the prophetic theology of the black church is also and has always been at the heart of the black church experience in North America.

...

To say “I am a Christian” is not enough.  Why?  Because the Christianity of the slaveholder is not the Christianity of the slave. The God to whom the slaveholders pray as they ride on the decks of the slave ship is not the God to whom the enslaved are praying as they ride beneath the decks on that slave ship.

How we are seeing God, our theology, is not the same.  And what we both mean when we say “I am a Christian” is not the same thing. The prophetic theology of the black church has always seen and still sees all of God’s children as sisters and brothers, equals who need reconciliation, who need to be reconciled as equals in order for us to walk together into the future which God has prepared for us.

Reconciliation does not mean that blacks become whites or whites become blacks and Hispanics become Asian or that Asians become Europeans.

Reconciliation means we embrace our individual rich histories, all of them.  We retain who we are as persons of different cultures, while acknowledging that those of other cultures are not superior or inferior to us.  They are just different from us.

We root out any teaching of superiority, inferiority, hatred, or prejudice.

And we recognize for the first time in modern history in the West that the other who stands before us with a different color of skin, a different texture of hair, different music, different preaching styles, and different dance moves, that other is one of God’s children just as we are, no better, no worse, prone to error and in need of forgiveness, just as we are.

Only then will liberation, transformation, and reconciliation become realities and cease being ever elusive ideals.

During the Q&A following his speech, Wright was asked about about his recent remarks about the political nature of Obama's recent remarks renouncing some of Wright's earlier remarks.

Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls, Huffington, whoever’s doing the polls.  Preachers say what they say because they’re pastors.  They have a different person to whom they’re accountable.
...
He didn’t distance himself.  He had to distance himself, because he’s a politician, from what the media was saying I had said, which was anti-American.  He said I didn’t offer any words of hope. How would he know?  He never heard the rest of the sermon.  You never heard it.

Wright was also asked about his earlier assertion that "the government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color" - still, for me, the most disturbing of his statements during the increasingly infamous sermon snippets. He referenced the books Emerging Viruses: AIDS And Ebola : Nature, Accident or Intentional?, by Dr. Leonard G. Horowitz, and Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, by Harriet A. Washington, and went on to say:

I read different things. As I said to my members, if you haven’t read things, then you can’t — based on this Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything.

I share Wright's distrust of our government, though I still do not believe his earlier assertion. However, given the larger scope of all he has said (at the National Press Club, during Bill Moyer's interview, and in his sermons I have watched on YouTube), I am not willing to dismiss all of Wright's views based solely on this one questionable dimension ... and I can think of many, far more destructive, examples of questionable assertions by political and religious leaders.

Speaking of which, getting back to Robb's comments, and his reference to a hateful "wrath of God" condemnation of the victims of Hurricane Katrina by a religious figure associated with U.S. Senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain, I tracked down an article on "McCain’s faith: Pastor describes senator as devout, but low-key" in the Associated Baptist Press. McCain's pastor, Dan Yeary, notes some controversial religious connections for McCain:

The candidate endured some criticism in February after San Antonio pastor and Christian Zionist leader John Hagee endorsed him. Catholic and Jewish leaders denounced Hagee for statements he has made in the past that could be interpreted as anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.

Hagee claimed the critics had misunderstood and de-contextualized his comments. Nonetheless, McCain’s campaign issued a statement in which he distanced himself from the preacher’s more controversial remarks without rejecting or repudiating the endorsement.

The senator has received less media scrutiny for a separate endorsement of his candidacy by Ohio pastor Rod Parsley. Parsley, who leads a charismatic multi-media empire, has been criticized for statements insisting Islam must be “destroyed” and for denigrating gays, the separation of church and state and secularists.

This led me to another article, "McCain, Hagee and the Politics of God's Wrath", in The Nation blog, which provides references to John Hagee - not McCain's pastor, but an endorser (and we know Obama has been criticized for people who have endorsed him) - and his "wrath of God" condemnation(s):

Hagee, whose views about a host of social issues give new meaning to the term "hateful," is not McCain's pastor. They have no personal or spiritual relationship. Rather, Hagee is a close political ally of McCain and an ardent supporter of the Arizona senator's presidential bid.

McCain sought Hagee's endorsement and continued to defend and embrace the pastor – saying he was "glad to have the minister's endorsement – even after Hagee said that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans because of the city's "sinful" acceptance of homosexuality.

"What happened in New Orleans looked like the curse of God…" Hagee explained after the city experienced a national disaster that cost at least 1,836 lives – making it the deadliest hurricane in American history – and permanently dislocated tens of thousands of Americans from not just their homes but the communities of their birth and upbringing.

I hadn't heard about this rather hateful comment that Robb mentioned - it was, one might say, invisible ... leading me to wonder about the relative visibility and invisibility of religious and political connections as they apply to white presidential candidates and black presidential candidates - but it reminded me of the many hateful pronouncements by Christian Coalition of America founder, former minister and erstwhile Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson (who has endorsed many other Republican candidates over the years). [BTW, I was surprised to discover there is a Christian Coalition in New Zealand.] One example of hateful speech by this self-described "Christian" was uttered in response to Gay Days at Disney World:

"I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you, This is not a message of hate; this is a message of redemption. But a condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It'll bring about terrorist bombs; it'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor."  

I'm further reminded of some of the hateful speech associated with other conservative commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage and Sean Hannity, but do not want to digress further. I'll simply note that while Hagee is not McCain's current or former pastor, his unsolicited endorsement of McCain seems to be far less visible in the mass media than some of the unsolicited endorsements by controversial figures that Obama has received.

Speaking of media, further on in his comment, Robb notes:

I am not at all acquainted with American television these days, hardly with New Zealand television for that matter, but I must say when I do watch television here I find the best, and most informative, and most balanced programs on Maori Televison. And even as "enlightened" as white New Zealand claims to be, I readily recall the battle in the late 90's it was to get that up and running. Privileged people are always afraid of change it would seem.

The reference to Maori Television was prompted, in part, by my reference to 1995 testimony in which Senator McCain claimed that cable networks are less biased than PBS and "superior in some cases". Robb's observation that "privileged people are always afraid of change" really strikes a chord, and reminds me of an unfinished post I started months ago - after finishing Yochai Benkler's book, The Wealth of Networks, and after hearing an interview on NPR with Tony Blair, in which he shared his father's perspective that "if you became successful then you became Conservative" - and may just prompt me to finish (and post) my rumination on the issue of incumbency, and the encumbrances that incumbents sometimes erect to maintain their unfair advantage(s) ... which, in my mind, relates to issues of religion, politics, racism and invisibility.


Political Song and Dance - and Humor - with The Capitol Steps

Capitolstepslogo

Amy and I enjoyed a hilarious political revue by The Capitol Steps comedy song and dance troupe ("We put the 'mock' in Democracy'") at The Paramount Theatre in Seattle last night with our friends Dave and Lisa. Among the entertaining songs - and insightful (and inciteful) prologues - included in last night's show were:

  • Ebony and Ivory [Ebony and Ivory (Stevie Wonder & Paul McCartney)], envisioning a Democratic "dream team" of Senators and U.S. Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton
  • Superdelegates [Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (Mary Poppins)], a satirical look at the Democratic superdelegates (and the party's more ordinary delegates)
  • Leader like Barack [Leader of the Pack (The Shangri-Las)], a glowing affirmation - one even might say "devotional" - sung by an [impersonated] Obama fan ... not entirely unlike my own affirmation of inspiration from Obama's speech on transracialism
  • When I'm 84 [sung to the tune of When I'm 64 (The Beatles)], a riff on Senator and presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain's age
  • Relying on 9/11 [Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)], a retrospective revue - accompanied by a "generic rock star" - of the single issue platform of former mayor and Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani
  • Huckabee [Let it Be (The Beatles)], a religiously righteous tongue-in-cheek proposal for the Republican vice presidential nomination of former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee
  • Tap Three Times [Knock Three Times (Tony Orlando and Dawn)], about Senator Larry Craig's indiscretion in the men's room at the Minneapolis - St. Paul International airport (BTW, Keith Olbermann - one of my heroes - revealed a humorous streak I had not seen before in a Dragnet-style re-enactment of Senator Craig's bathroom scene)
  • How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea? [How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? (Sound of Music)], a funny look of some of the not-so-funny issues revolving around Korean President Kim Il-Sung and his country's recent emergence as a nuclear power
  • Keep Us Alive [Stayin' Alive (Bee Gees)], a humorous reminder of the ages of the four remaining liberal members of the U.S. Supreme Court (Stephens, 88, Souter, 68, Ginsberg, 75, and Breyer, 69) ... and of an important, though rarely discussed, issue at stake in the current presidential election

There is a Capitol Steps YouTube channel where videos of some of their performances can be watched as well as listened to. They even have a MySpace page with some additional songs. And, of course, one can buy Capitol Steps CDs.

One of the actors did a fabulous parody of U.S. President George W. Bush; my favorite quote was the president's purported motto: "uncertain times call for uncertain leadership". I laughed the hardest and longest during the "Lirty Dies":

Lirty Dies are what you get when you mix your basic national scandal with word-initialization-rejuxtaposition closely following the underlying precepts of harmony, alliteration and innuendo.

Lirty Dies follows a great political tradition: We're not quite sure what we're saying; you're not quite sure what you're hearing.

Some might say they are merely spoonerisms taken to ludicrous heights.

We think this is sad. Something comes over people when they learn

Whip their Flurds..or.. Spew up their Screech....

These are people who can:

Flo with the Go...with Mealthy Hinds and Lappy Hives...

People who....umm....

Follow their Hearts
(We'll let you do that one)

The lirty dies targets in last night's show included Haris Pilton, Gush vs. Bore and Cloger Remens.

Another segment I enjoyed was during Juan Nation, a satirical piece on U.S.-Mexico immigration and border issues that initially made me uncomfortable. An actor impersonating Mexican President Felipe Calderon spoke of how he would do as U.S. president, "As you know, I would do twice the work for half the pay; the downside is that I'd have 19 of my cousins living in the Oval Office, but on the upside, the rose garden would look immaculate". My discomfort yielded to loud laughter when another actor, playing a redneck, came out on stage with one of my favorite lines: "I'm with the insane border patrol group better known as The Minutemen, and my dirt-poor ancestors did not flee Europe so we could let in a bunch of immigrants!"

I think I was uncomfortable because when I looked around the theater just before the show started, I saw only one African-American - and no Mexican-Americans - in the audience of several hundred. I was reminded of the discomfort I felt when I noticed that all but one family of 3 among the 700 people attending a Christopher Paolini talk on his Eragon book tour on Mercer Island in September 2005 were white (though the age demographics was very different than the audience at The Capitol Steps' performance). All but one of the 39 members of The Capitol Steps - and all of the 5 members (3 men, 2 women) who performed in Seattle last night - are white. Although they did seem to focus more of their satire on Hilary Clinton than Barack Obama, they were willing to raise the race issue in the lyrics for Leader like Barack (sung to the tune of the Shangri-Las' Leader of the Pack), with a lead singer and two background singers (whose lyrics are in italics below).

I'm glad I've found someone to embrace (brace, brace)
My friends say he cannot win the race (I can't believe your friends would talk about his race)
Is Barack black? Not very. He's not like Whoopi Goldberg, more like Halle Berry.
I hope some day, it's President Barack.

In any case, I suppose it should not come as a surprise that there is a racial divide in media (books, music, comedy). I know that the few times I've channel surfed to television stations geared towards people of other races (e.g., Black Entertainment Television), I don't find it very entertaining. But, of course, I don't find the vast majority of mass media - especially on television - very entertaining or engaging.

I did, however, find The Capitol Steps very entertaining - I don't think I've laughed so hard since the last time I saw them, 8 years ago, at The Northshore Center for the Performing Arts (in Skokie, Illinois), with our friends Andy and Rebecca. That was during another U.S. presidential election - one in which the outcome proved to be disastrous - so it was nice to inject some much-needed humor into the process ... and I hope I won't need quite so much comedy salve to compensate for the outcome of the current election. Recent stories about a misguided "gas tax holiday" proposal (and its reflection of a "global warming holiday" for erstwhile environmentalists) and an older story from 1995 about Senator McCain claiming that cable networks are less biased than PBS and "superior in some cases" (!) have heightened my concerns that the ongoing and increasingly bitter fight between the two Democratic presidential candidates will lead to a situation in which much humor will be required during the next four years.