Friday, January 28, 2011

Beyond Polarities: Occupying the "Third Space"

Someone sent me a thank-you note recently which contained a quote by William Hazlitt that I quite loved: "The mind of man is like a clock that is always running down, and requires to be constantly wound up." Hazlitt never knew about blogging (obviously), but the quote captures the state of me and my brain cells these days. Sometimes it is really hard to get into writing-wet-suit gear and dive in.

One thing did wind me up this week. I finally got to see "The King's Speech." and went straight to heaven. You wouldn't think the relationship between a reluctant would-be king who stammers with his speech therapist could take you there but, trust me, it does. I used to think Ralph Fiennes had the best eyes in the business, but now, he has been toppled, just like some Middle East despot. The entire center of gravity in "The King's Speech" emanates from Colin Firth's eyes. They allow you to track the agony of a suffocating affliction in a way that will haunt you forever.

As for my synchronistic hit this past week, it arrived while reading "Don't Look Back," a profile in The New Yorker (by Ryan Lizza) of the 57-year-old, six-term California Republican congressman recently elected Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Darrell Issa. Lizza refers to Issa as "Obama's tormenter," since he is now the head of a committee which "may at any time conduct investigations of any matter." In the middle of the article there was a cartoon inserted of a homeless (or jobless) man sitting comfortably in a chair on the street, his legs crossed, and holding a saw in his hand. Nearby is a sign which says: "Tattoo Removal, $50." Synchronistically the perfect image, I thought to myself, for Republican overkill. Current Republicans have taken reductionist views to the point where if the government takes any positive action, it is considered bad. To be a Republican now means that the government only takes negative actions: cutting taxes, cutting services, cutting regulations, and the like.

Issa is the man who once described Obama as "one of the most corrupt Presidents in modern times," who believes climate change is a fraud, and who has publicly made known his intention to harass the Obama administration with endless subpoenas and investigations, as a way to distract and weaken the President before the 2012 election. Meanwhile House Republicans say they want to cut $100 billion from domestic spending this year, even if it means throwing thousands of federal and state employees out of work. One Republican Study Committee has called for the elimination of the Legal Services Corp., which provides legal help to people who can't afford a lawyer, the elimination of Amtrak, NPR, and NEA subsidies and community development grants, and slashing the federal work force by 15 percent. Darrell Issa intends to be the background music to all this, taunting the alligator and throwing up roadblocks, while Tea Party-backed candidates , in alphabetic order, have served notice that there will be no compromise in matters of federal debt reduction.

One account I read on Ben Smith's Politico blog states that it took less than three weeks for the new Republican Congressional leadership to claim credit for job growth after they had prevented tax increases for the rich. The landslide election, combined with the recent tax vote, they said, had sent a positive signal to businesses and provided the certainty they needed in order to expand.

Right after the midterm "shellacking" that gave Republicans control of the House, New Yorker columnist George Packer predicted that the level of extremism and partisanship would go way up. There would be little mercy and a great deal of rancor, he said, adding that we are facing one of the ugliest political periods in his lifetime.

And then the gun shots rang out in Tucson.

Suddenly, incentives rose for not riding the horses of invective full gallop. Unchecked venom had become a bomb with the fuse lit. I saw the faces of Congressmen on TV that day and the next, and every single one of them looked ashen. The issue of partisanship had taken on a whole new dimension: no one was exempt. Flaws in the democratic system had (once again) revealed themselves as potentially fatal. You could smell the fear in the air. Warfare politics had just produced this sickening testimonial. Yet, in some ways, it was a gift. The President got his unexpected chance, and he took it, and he ran with it.

Stepping into the breach, Barack Obama reverted to his indelible, core posture: occupying the "third space," where people can be civil, exchange ideas, and interweave competitive relationships without rancor. He soothed, he inspired, and in the aftermath, he exemplified the kinds of bridging that will be needed for all future governmental tasks. A lack of civility did not cause this tragedy, the President assured, but only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation. Instead of pointing fingers or assigning blame, he exhorted us to "use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together."

I pull an unread book off the shelf, "Necessary Wisdom: Meeting the Challenges of a New Cultural Maturity" by Charles M. Johnston. Tell me something relevant to what I am writing, I ask, opening the book at random and hoping for something useful to reveal itself. Sometimes this works, sometimes not.

"In chapters ahead," it says on p.75 where my hand falls, "we will examine a wide array of major future social challenges: issues of the environment, ethics, education, labor relations, health care, and more. In every case, we will find traditionally liberal and traditionally conservative viewpoints inadequate either for providing the needed solutions or for even fully framing what needs to be asked. Decisions in times ahead will require an increasing ability to think in terms of the whole living picture."
And from the previous page: "The back-and-forth warfare of partisan politics serves increasingly only to mire our good intentions in bureaucratic gridlock. Left opposed to right is simply not big enough to hold the new questions. More and more we should see leaders setting aside party ideologies to propose programs inconceivable from either side alone and inconceivable even through compromise."

So, if the Tucson tragedy can teach us anything, it will be this germinal truth--in today's world, using a saw to cut the mustard is not going to work. Identifying with one half of a polar opposite and disowning the other is not going to work. This doesn't necessarily mean, as Johnston points out and as our President so astutely understands, being friends with everyone. But it does mean entering into a creatively potent relationship with your adversary. And this is something Our Man in the White House knows how to do better than anybody. He knows how to live in Johnston's "third space." He knows this is the place that will offer a new start for putting together a new picture. Only time will tell whether the rest of us are willing to join him there.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tragedy in Tucson: The Fatal Convergence of Politics and Madness

As a blogger who mostly stalks contrasts and synchronicities, this has been quite a week. The attempt by a lone gunman to assassinate a Democratic congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, while she was meeting with constituents in a Safeway parking lot in Tucson, instantaneously unleashed predictable and bitter partisan posturing, each side menacing the other with accusations and blame. Was this terrible crime the handiwork of a single "bat-shit crazy" person, as Rush Limbaugh was quick to declare, or had it been torqued by right-wing, excessively violent, anti-government rhetoric? It wasn't long before both political parties were scrambling to control the narrative of what had happened by attributing blame to the other side.

The gunman, Jared Loughner, had already shown warning signs at Pima Community College--of paranoia, jumbled speech, scary outbursts--and believed he was a victim of government mind control, indicating possible psychotic illness. But then, paranoid speeches about government and senseless, inflammatory rhetoric punctuated by scary outbursts festoon the phrase-making of public figures like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck on a regular basis. You could say, as columnist Leonard Pitts did say, that these individuals mainstream a brand of political discourse that is "a national disgrace, hateful, poisonous and coarse," continuously stoking divisions through hatred, lies, and fear.

Palin, however, was quick to proclaim innocence, stating unequivocally that "acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own." and individuals are thus accountable for their own actions. Meanwhile, "irresponsible statements" from critics "incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn." Despite her efforts to exonerate herself, it was hard not to draw certain inferences and parallels. Palin's comments, meant to disassociate her brand from any remorse or blame, reeked anew of the the common Tea Party mantra: "Don't Tread on Me," as she ended up threatening her accusers of committing "blood libel."

Speaking, as far as I can tell, for many people, James Tarantino, a student at a local community college in Roanoke, wrote a commentary published in the Roanoke Times, in which he chastised the media for using the event to discredit Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, and to make conservatives look bad. There is no proof, he argued, that current political rhetoric fueled the young man's shooting spree. And of course, he's right: no evidence of such a link has come to light.

But the crucial point here is not whether the killer was (or was not) a proven Sarah Palin-Glenn Beck groupie. The real point is that Giffords herself felt under threat from the "crosshairs" map posted on Sarah Palin's Facebook page, that targeted a list of 20 Democrats running for re-election--with the crosshairs of a gun sight superimposed over their districts--and exhortations elsewhere to her followers to take up arms and "reload," with the suggestion that "if ballots don't work, bullets will." At least three other of the 20 members of Congress on Palin's map had also, like Giffords, been hit with vandalism and death threats.

In March 2010, Giffords openly voiced her disquiet about being "targeted" in an interview on MSNBC: "...we're on Sarah Palin's targeted list, and when people do that, they've gotta realize there are consequences of that action," she commented, as it has turned out, rather presciently. So, is Palin's targeting relevant to any discussion of the shootings? You betcha! given that Giffords considered the map a threat to her safety, and had expressed her fears more than once, both publicly and privately. It is hard to see as totally coincidental the fact that the same Congresswoman who had complained about the recurrent use of gun imagery was subsequently shot through the head while holding a small public rally.

Having gotten this far with my thoughts, I realized I was somehow missing the final clincher. Where, exactly, was I headed with this piece anyway? What was I really trying to say? I had not yet experienced the synchronistic buzz (that "Aha" moment) which usually makes the raison d'etre of what I am writing perfectly clear to me. In short, I still had no punch line pulling it all together.

Yesterday being Sunday, I routinely checked out Frank Rich's column in the New York Times. (A friend of mine insists that Rich and I seem to share an inside track when we analyze things, often coming from the same angle and drawing similar conclusions, completely independently.) This time she was undoubtedly right, because waiting there was the precise punch line I had been looking for. It dropped out of the sky on top of me from Rich's opening headline--the title of his article--which was:

"NO ONE LISTENED TO GABRIELLE GIFFORDS." Will they listen now, I wondered?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Schmuck of the Year

Inevitably, the arrival of a new year ushers in a cover story for the winner of Time magazine's "Person of the Year." This year it is Mark Zuckerberg, the nerdy lad who invented Facebook while he was still a student at Harvard. Now, at age 26, he has become a multi-billionaire presiding over an online empire that currently boasts some 550 million members, 70% of whom live outside the U.S. This means that one out of every dozen people on the planet is a Facebook user. Personal disclosure: nearly half of all Americans have a Facebook account, but I am not among them. (I couldn't even stay the course when seeing "The Social Network.")

By wiring together one twelfth of humanity into a single network--a social entity, according to Time, almost twice as large as the U.S. itself--Mark Zuckerberg has earned the distinction of having changed the way human beings relate to one another on a species-wide scale; we have entered the Facebook age, and Zuckerberg is the one who brought us here. In his profile on Zuckerberg, Lev Grossman presents a likeable-enough guy, someone who doesn't publicly preen or reveal much about himself. He may be a billionaire, but he's not particularly into material things. He drives what Grossman calls "the automotive equivalent of a hair shirt," ie, a black Acura TSX, and he's already pledged to give away at least half of his wealth over the course of his lifetime to the campaign organized by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

"The thing that I really care about, Zuckerberg states, "is making the world more open and connected." Facebook encourages revealing your true self, not some anonymous, invented, or disguised virtual double. When you log on to Facebook, it is to meet up with your friends: a world of people voluntarily sharing things, staying in touch, having a voice in the world. All things considered, the enterprise is pretty benign in its intention. The idea of VOLUNTARY sharing is key.

Which is possibly why Time named Zuckerberg "Person of the Year" instead of Julian Assange, the orchestrator of WikiLeaks--even though Assange was the actual front winner in their online poll. Time describes Zuckerberg and Assange as two sides of the same coin, in that both of them express a desire for openness and transparency. As far as I am concerned, the similarities end there. Assange's transparency is totally involuntary, with the goal of incriminating and disempowering big institutions and governments. In his own words, Assange is fomenting "a world-wide movement of mass leaking"--dumping secret documents into the public domain on a scale without precedent--with the intention of bringing about (again in his own words) "total annihilation of the current U.S. regime."

Friends (which includes many of mine) and supporters of Julian Assange refer to him as "a breath of fresh air," someone who is performing an act of great public service. They like seeing government and corporations take a hit, and consider these transcriptions of tapes to be like sacred oracles, giving everyone access to the truth at last. Big exhale. The truth at last! Yeah, but... what they have failed to fathom, in my humble opinion, is that in reality Julian Assange is a malevolent wizard who, much like the sorcerer's apprentice, has built a machine that no one knows how to stop--and loosed it on the world. "If something happens to us," he has baldly declared, "the key parts will be released automatically." This year's breach of containment spilled nearly half a million documents that included classified military documents from Afghanistan and Iran, and a stream of diplomatic cables. The idea of a secure secret is over. Tech-savvy insurgents have unleashed an anonymous, ruthless monster that is seemingly resistant to attack. It could be the beginning of many missteps from which it turns out, we cannot recover.

Where Zuckerberg's world is filled with "potential friends," according to Time, Assange's is filled with "real and imagined enemies." Given that Assange's operative concept consists of anarchy, I personally applaud Time's decision to go with Zuckerberg instead. What is more, for his blood-curdling vein of hostility and nihilism, I relish the chance to designate Julian Assange as my personal "Schmuck of the Year."

This is NOT meant to be construed in any way as an implicit defense, or feigned ignorance, of the multiple war crimes and deceits perpetrated by the U.S. government around the globe over decades. When former Secretary of State Colin Powell made his trumped-up yellow-cake case for going to war in Iraq, I already knew, without WikiLeaks, that it was all lies. Because I happen to think that Julian Assange is a cyber-terrorist creep does not mean I am in support of U.S. foreign policy and its imperial wars. I am not. Nor do I mean to imply that Assange is the only deserving candidate out there for the title of Schmuck of the Year that I have bestowed on him. (Pace Michael Moore, who contributed to Assange's bail and defends him vigorously. I still love you.)