Time to take the long view

In less than a day we’ll either know which candidate has won the election for president or we’ll be standing by at the starting gate to cheer the lawyers as they rush for the courthouse to file suits protesting the election of 2012.  Either way: good times.  If you’re like me and have subscribed to the mantra “please, for the love of God, make it stop,” you haven’t been thinking about the elections that come after this one; here’s a little food for thought when you do.

The demographics of the American electorate are in the midst of an historic shift that bodes ill for the future of today’s Republican Party and Tea Party and any other angry-old-white-people’s party, whether they win this election or not.  The findings of the Pew Research Center include that:

  • We are steadily moving toward the day when minorities will be the majority. In 1950, the country was 87 percent white. [Paul] Taylor says that number will dip below 50 percent by 2050.
  • “The people leaving are predominantly white. The people coming in are heavily nonwhite.”
  • The growing percentage of the population that is minority comes thanks to a fast-growing Hispanic population as well as a steady increase in the number of Americans of Asian descent.
  • “Republicans are 90 percent white. Democrats are only about 60 percent white,” says Pew Research’s Andy Kohut. “The Republicans have a white problem — or a lack of diversity problem. It’s not apparent in this election so far, but over time, the changing face of America is going to represent more of a challenge to the GOP than to the Democrats.”
  • Minorities overwhelmingly favor Democrats. That trend is likely enhanced by President Obama’s status as the nation’s first black president. In this election, African-American support for Obama tops 90 percent. Polls show Hispanics supporting the president by better than 2 to 1.
  • As for white voters, polls show they prefer Republicans. They went 55 percent for John McCain four years ago, and this year Mitt Romney is doing just as well or even better among whites.

(Surely is it just coincidence that the 90%-white party is proudly in the lead on issues of “immigration reform” and “securing our borders” and “preventing voter fraud.”)

Add to that calculus the fact that a growing number of people—now more than 40% of Americans—say they are not Republicans or Democrats, and that younger voters, the ones filling in the voter rolls as the older voters die off, are also more liberal in their attitudes on the GOP’s favorite social issue shibboleths.

When I cast my first vote in a presidential election and my guy lost, I was very worried that society was going to unravel.  It didn’t, of course, but I was only 18 and didn’t have the virtue of the long view.  The country has powered along in greased grooves for a few generations since then, just as it did for 200 years before that.  I don’t mean that everything has been perfect or that we can take national success and longevity for granted and lay back sipping daiquiris by the pool, but I don’t believe that today’s situation or the outlook for the future are as bad as the partisan zealots and the political-industrial complex make them out to be.  Not if we can finally get our leaders to take responsible action to pull the federal budget back from the cliff while there’s still time…that should become our focus between now and New Year’s; then we can worry about the cable news noise stations and their crises du jour.

Crazy conservatives shoot themselves in the foot, then reload

The radical right of the Republican Party keeps drifting farther and farther away from the reality where most of us exist.  The good part is they’re getting less and less likely to remain a national political force, since as they get more and more extreme in their views they’re pushing more and more moderates away while their own supporters, angry old white people, are dying off.  The overreaction to every imagined slight against The Way Things Should Be and The Way Things Used To Be has become comical, and an easy target for Jon Stewart and others.

The Daily Show took note of last week’s hissy fit in a hatbox over mandating health insurance coverage for contraception services and the requirement that employers offer such coverage, even some religion-affiliated employers, and was delighted to report that the conservative message machine didn’t miss a chance—again—to bulldoze blithely over that line that separates rational argument from hysterical exaggeration.  Click the pic, and enjoy.


Reflecting on September 11: a call to our better angels

In the entry hallway at our house we have a framed picture of the night skyline of Lower Manhattan as seen from New Jersey, the twinkling twin towers of the World Trade Center the focal point.  The caption under the photo reads, “We’ll never forget.”  Not forget what happened that day?  That’s the easy part.

That morning I was at my desk at work with the television tuned to CNN, trying to concentrate on the newspaper, when I became barely conscious of talk about a plane hitting one of the towers.  They got my attention when I saw the video of smoke coming from the north tower and heard the anchor talking to someone who said he saw a passenger jet hit the building.  That’s ridiculous, I thought: those planes would never accidentally hit a downtown building, and you could see on TV that the sky was a clear, brilliant blue…must have been a small private plane or something.  My office mate walked in and I brought him up to date on what they were saying, then we sat and watched…and saw a passenger plane come into the frame and slam into the other building!  My first thought: this is not an accident.  (Firm grasp of the obvious, eh?)

I didn’t move from the TV.  Another plane hit the Pentagon.  I watched the towers collapse, fascinated at how they seemed to accordion down on themselves, and not believing the size of the dust cloud they sent up.  Then we were all sent home from our government office in Houston because no one knew what might be the next target.  I sat in front of my television at home the rest of the day trying to get it all straight in my head—what do we know, as opposed to what we think we know—as I had done sitting at a microphone in a radio studio in Houston more than 15 years earlier, on the day space shuttle Challenger blew up.

In the next few weeks we learned that the hijackers who died along with almost 3,000 innocent victims on September 11 were connected to a global terrorist network called Al Qaeda, founded by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, and which was implicated in prior attacks on American targets around the world.  Apparently, Al Qaeda was attacking those it saw as enemies of its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.  Before the end of the year, President Bush sent American troops to Afghanistan to get bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders and their protectors within the Taliban.  We’ve been at war ever since.

Not just an impossible to quantify war on “terrorism,” which is really more a tactic than an enemy, but an actual boots-on-the-ground bullets-in-the-air war, and there’s still no end in sight.  One big reason, I believe, is that “we” aren’t at war.  Our armed forces are at war, and so are their loved ones, but when have the rest of us felt like we were at war?  There haven’t been any shortages of goods, damn few protests, and no tax increases to pay for a war.  Absent any kind of personal connection it’s not surprising that many Americans find it hard to remember that “we” have been fighting war constantly since late 2001—and for much of that time, two wars.  We have come to think of it, when we think of it at all, as a perfectly normal situation; for many of our soldiers, sailors and Marines, being in a shooting war is all they know professionally, and what their spouses and kids assume to be a normal life.

We went to war in Afghanistan to get the people who attacked us on September 11.  We finally killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan this year, but there’s no sign of an end to our presence in Afghanistan.  We went to war in Iraq to…go ahead, you fill in the blank, but we know it wasn’t to get Al Qaeda, since they weren’t there, or to stop Saddam Hussein from using his weapons of mass destruction, which also weren’t there.  Ironically, the war we chose to fight in Iraq only strengthened our enemy there, if it didn’t actually create an enemy where he didn’t previously exist.  Last month, some eight and a half years after that war began, was the first month that there were no American casualties in Iraq.

The attacks of September 11 were a shot to the solar plexus of the American people.  In the immediate aftermath we did what Americans do after a surprise attack, whether from a mortal enemy or from Mother Nature: everyday men and women responded heroically in the face of the crisis, then we all took care of those who needed to be taken care of.  We opened our hearts and our purses without complaint or even a second thought, and helped each other through until the shock wore off, then turned our attention to those who attacked us.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see the second surprise attack, the one launched by cynical politicians and government functionaries who took advantage of our fear and anxiety.  The news media, shamefully fearful of even being accused of being less than loyal patriots, stood by and let officials get away with murder, in the figurative if not the literal sense.  We let our fear overpower “the better angels of our nature” and spent parts of the next ten years squandering our time, our treasure and our good karma.

We crawled all over each other with demonstrations of the trappings of patriotism as if that was all that was required to be a patriot, as if claiming allegiance to America’s ideals was just as good as living up to those ideals when it really matters.

We let natural wariness in unusual circumstances turn into fear of The Other.  We treated Americans who are Muslim, and those who came here from the Middle East and southern Asia, as though they were in the cockpits of those planes in spirit that day.  People whose only sin was that they practice a particular religion—including those in the peaceful mainstream of that religion, not in the violent, radical extreme—or trace their heritage to a particular part of the world weren’t given the benefit of any doubt but that they were enemies of America.  How much time have we wasted on things like trying to ban shariah law, or trying to stop Muslims from building mosques where some loudmouth decided it’s not appropriate?

How is it that we really spent breath fighting with each other over whether it’s all right to torture prisoners, or just OK to secretly send them to friendly countries where they do the torturing for us?  Were we napping when the government enacted Patriot Acts at the expense of our own civil liberties?  Why did we devote our time and energy to a blue ribbon investigation into ways we could better protect ourselves in the future, and then not implement the recommendations?

How did we sit still for the manipulators who used this attack on our country to whip up sympathy for a war against a country (and its people) that had nothing to do with that attack, with the result that a larger number of Americans have died in that needless war—Americans who bravely, selflessly volunteered to protect the rest of us—than died in the original attack?  And that’s to say nothing of the cost in dollars, and the resulting impact that has had on our national economy and well being.

Back then, I thought that a few months after the attacks, when the shock subsided, we’d regain our perspective, but it seems that I was thinking about a different America, one which perhaps only ever existed in dreams: one where we followed the rules we set for ourselves, even when we were frightened; where people who hijack our airplanes and use them to kill thousands of our fellow Americans have the right to a fair and public trial; where, when crazy people who claim to adhere to the tenets of one of the world’s great religions but are in fact an extremist group led by a delusional maniac with a messiah complex attack our cities and our government institutions, we don’t ignore facts and logic to leap to the conclusion that every person in the world who practices that religion is part of a plot to get us.

Today we have the chance to do better, and I believe we can.  We can work to put aside our fear and get over the juvenile impulse to attack anyone different from ourselves.  Let’s choose to deal with people based on who they really are and what they really do, rather than relying on our fevered imaginations to do our thinking for us.  Let’s start, for example, by recognizing the difference between Al Qaeda and Al Jazeera, or the difference between a community center and a terrorist training camp.

Not forgetting the events of September 11, 2001—that’s the easy part.  If we don’t do the hard part, and act like the people we pride ourselves on being, then the terrorists have already won.

Towers 002

Beware of those peddling politics for dummies

The chattering classes say Republicans are in trouble because of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed changes to Medicare.  They say that because, across the land, there has not been a rousing call for its adoption by acclamation, and therefore we can ascertain that the proposers are on the outs with the American people.  In fact some people do object, and for a number of reasons, but I don’t know how much trouble the whole GOP is in over this issue, since I try not to make the sweeping generalization my first conclusion or give myself credit for being able to see the future or into the minds of others.

But I think that what’s happening right now on this subject is a good thing.  We need to talk about details if we’re going to find a way out of our federal budget mess.  No one has wanted to talk specifics because, well, talking about paying more and spending less is not fun.  But beyond that, few in power dare to address specifics for fear that the short attention span American voter and the heat-before-light American news media will fixate only on the fact that someone proposed something and rain down ridicule and ignominy upon them until the end of days (no, not until October 21, for much longer than that).  Any open discussion or real give and take on a serious issue becomes more and more unlikely as it becomes more and more clear that the discussion will be intentionally twisted into a negative campaign ad.

We have to talk specifics on this, but that doesn’t mean that we have to do everything that is proposed, or that every unadopted proposal is a failure.  Ryan’s plan may never become law, but it already served the purpose of getting us talking about details.  Now we need to keep talking, not recoil from the negative reaction to the first serious plan and never say anything ever again.

The budget crunches in this country are real and can’t be solved just with accounting tricks; it’s going to mean painful cuts in programs that people need as well as ones they want.  For example: here in Texas our state law requires a balanced budget and there’s only so much money available this time around—tens of billions of dollars less than the current budget.  Absent a multi-billion dollar windfall of biblical proportions, the only way out means someone’s ox gets gored…or likely in this case, everyone’s oxen.  As Patricia Kilday Hart made the point in a recent column, the discussion is about what gets defined as an “essential” government program.  In order not to reach into the state’s savings account this time, there are budget plans that make some changes:

It cuts state Child Protective Services “intake” offices so severely that officials predict 85,000 calls about abused children will not be answered.

It shortchanges school districts for the 80,000 new students expected to show up at the front doors of public schools next year.

It cuts Medicaid reimbursement rates to nursing homes so drastically that the industry predicts 75 percent of the nursing homes in Texas will shut their doors, leaving 60,000 elderly Texans without care and 47,000 employees without jobs.

The polls have been showing for a while that people want the budget fixed, they just don’t want the fix to hurt them.  Well, “they” are going to have to get over that or “we” will get nowhere…except closer to the edge as the wind picks up a little bit.