The only “real” reality show is just too depressing to watch

Americans today “are turned off and tuned out of the sequestration mess in Washington. To a person, they are sick of the antics of those to whom they have entrusted enormous power.”  So begins David Gergen in his column today, and I can’t find anything in his argument with which to disagree.

The clowns we elected to represent us in Washington—and in many many cases, re-elected…shame on us—have failed to take care of one of the most fundamental things we send them to Washington to do: set a budget for the operation of our government.  Actually, as Gergen correctly notes, they have failed to do that one thing for four years running—so far.  Back in the summer of 2011 they set a trap to force themselves to act, promising across the board budget cuts at the end of 2012 at such a severe level that it was inconceivable they wouldn’t act to stop them from going into effect; when they still couldn’t beat that deadline they passed a law giving themselves two more months to wrap it up.  Well, here we are, two months later, but this time there doesn’t even seem to be the possibility that they can get together to give themselves more time.  The ineptitude is astounding!

It’s not unusual to have the legislative and executive branches of government  disagree about taxes or spending or any other policy issue; historically, someone on one side or the other finds a way to force a resolution.  But as Gergen points out, “we have a rare moment when both Congress and the president are retreating from their responsibilities. It’s hard to recall a time when we were so leaderless.”  The Republicans and the Democrats, the president and Congress, everyone is busy running from microphone to microphone insisting that there’s nothing they can do about it.  And the whole argument has become so tiresome that even in the face of budget cuts that threaten basic services, things we can all pretty much agree that government should be taking care of, a lot of Americans are just yawning and looking the other way.  How many times can the boy cry “wolf” before the villagers ignore the call?

Let’s hope we haven’t thrown in the towel yet, because this sequestration circle jerk isn’t the end of the line: whether these cuts go into effect this Friday or not, there’s a potential government shutdown only four weeks down the road if there’s no agreement on new spending authorization.  If we don’t dig up some leadership somewhere, what’s been going around for the last few years is going to come around again and again and again.  No winners here, America, not if we aren’t willing to find a compromise that keeps the whole thing from crashing down on our heads.

In the wake of the Newtown school shooting

Passing along links to what I think are worthwhile reads on the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and the aftermath…

For starters, here’s a dispassionate chronology from the Hartford Courant of just what happened in that school that morning. Just the facts ma’am, as best as they are known at the time.

Adam Lanza blasted his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School. He fired a half-dozen thunderous rounds from a semiautomatic rifle to open a hole big enough to step through in one of the school’s glass doors.

Once inside, he had to make a choice.

Principal Dawn Hochsprung’s office was straight ahead. To the right, 25 or so children were rehearsing a play in the school cafeteria. To his left were the first-grade classrooms.

Lanza turned left.

The initial reaction of most people is disbelief that such a thing could happen…yet it’s been happening more and more frequently in recent years. In Slate Emily Bazelon wonders, if this doesn’t make us change our attitude about guns, what would?

In the United States, we’re divided, and we have no universal basic knowledge of weapons. We make it incredibly easy to buy the kind of weapons that shoot and shoot again instantly, but we don’t search people at the doors of schools or malls or movie theaters, and we don’t post armed guards in these places. We have the guns without the safety checks. We call that freedom.

Of course there are plenty of people renewing calls for more gun control, for outlawing assault weapons, for some kind of change in the law to make us feel safer. But it’s not just “gun control” people; some pretty staunch gun rights advocates are urging another look at the subject with an open mind.

Joe Manchin III, the pro-gun-rights West Virginia senator who drew attention in 2010 after running a commercial that showed him firing a rifle at an environmental bill, said that “everything should be on the table” as gun control is debated in the coming weeks and months.

David Frum makes a great point about the nuts and bolts part of any change in gun laws: he believes the push must come from outside government, along the lines of what Mothers Against Drunk Driving did to change the culture, to avoid politically polarizing the debate and dooming any chance for agreement.

That campaign should be led from outside the political system, by people who have suffered loss and grief from gun violence. Only that way can the campaign avoid being held hostage by the usual conflict of parties — Democrats who fear that gun control will lose them rural congressional districts; Republicans who exaggerate for partisan gain exactly what gun control would mean.

Gun control should no more mean the abolition of guns than Mothers Against Drunk Driving abolished the car.


Responsible gun owners have a right to their guns. The challenge for the grass-roots gun-safety movement of the future is to focus on the danger posed by irresponsible owners. The goal should be less to ban particular classes of weapons — such a goal puts the law in a race against technology, a race the law will likely lose — and more to change the rules defining who may keep a gun.

Impossible, you say—there’s no way we could change the culture on guns. Well, we’ve done things like this before

To modern sensibilities, the injustice [of lynching] once again seems obvious, as do the solutions: Prosecute lynchers, fight for racial justice, strengthen the rule of law, and mobilize public opinion to condemn rather than excuse outbursts of brutality. And yet it took more than 100 years for lynching to begin to disappear as a feature of American life, and even longer for Americans to fully acknowledge the depth of its horror. In the meantime, thousands of influential people, including many esteemed congressmen and senators, argued that lynching was simply a fact of life, a random act of violence about which nothing could be done. It was not until 2005 that the U.S. Senate, spearheaded by Mary Landrieu, apologized for failing to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, and for leaving hundreds of innocent people to be sacrificed to official inaction.

But just changing gun laws isn’t the answer; we should look at changing not only laws but our attitudes toward mental illness, and be better at seeing the warning signs that disturbed people give before they commit such an extreme act of attention-grabbing.

One reason shooters tip their hands is that they are trying to solve a problem. Though they are often intelligent, high-performing boys, their peers tend to see them as unattractive losers, weak and unmanly. In a school culture that values sports prowess over academic accomplishment, they face rejection. The shooters are rarely loners, but tend instead to be failed joiners, and their daily social experience is full of friction. Since they are almost always mentally or emotionally ill, those rejections — so common in adolescence — take on greater importance and become a fixation. Rebuffed after trying to join friendship groups, they look for ways to gain attention, to reverse their damaged identities.

The shooting is the last act in a long drama: a search for acceptance and recognition. The earlier acts fail miserably. But once a shooter starts to talk about killing people, ostracism can turn to inclusion. Suddenly, he is getting the attention he has been craving.

Help for mentally ill. A change to the culture of guns. David Gergen makes the case that we must take action to honor these dead and do it now or next time the blood will be on our hands.

Some years ago, no one thought that we could change our tobacco culture. We did. No one thought that we could reduce drunk driving by teenagers. We did — thanks in large part to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Years from now, no one will note what we say after this latest massacre. But they will hold us morally accountable for what we do. To honor all of those who have been slain in recent years — starting with the first-graders in Connecticut — we should highly resolve to change our culture of guns.

Meanwhile, to some measure of surprise, the National Rifle Association is laying low. Out of respect? Don’t know; they’re not talking.

On Dec. 13, the National Rifle Association’s Twitter account announced a giveaway promotion, thanked its followers for getting its Facebook page up to 1.7 million “likes,” and related a story from Wyoming in which a gunman apparently retreated from a nail salon after realizing one of its customers was “packing heat.” It tweeted the Wyoming case using the hashtag #ArmedCitizen.

On Dec. 14, the day an armed citizen killed 26 unarmed women and children at a Connecticut elementary school, the NRA’s Twitter account went silent. It has not tweeted since. Meanwhile, its Facebook page has disappeared, along with those 1.7 million “likes.” Navigating to now redirects to the Facebook homepage.


UPDATE Dec. 18: The NRA ends its silence with this statement.

Considering “American exceptionalism”

Two hundred thirty-six years!  Wow…amazing to think that this country has not just survived, but prospered for that long, given all that it and its people have faced over those seven or eight generations.  Some attribute that to the hand of God, some to the nature of Americans, some to a combination of the two.

If you’ve led a sheltered life, like me, then the concept of “American exceptionalism” is a relatively recent revelation.  Come to find out, today it’s a dog whistle blown by social conservatives amid the political battle, and wielded like a heavy club against those of us who “just don’t get it.”  And so I was very interested to run across a thoughtful series of essays at that shed a lot of light on the topic.

The first installment, on the site’s Belief Blog, looks into the history of the idea and makes it pretty clear that it began as a religious concept among the Puritans who fled England almost 500 years ago.  Those people established a theocracy and their descendants were big believers in Manifest Destiny, but the concept evolved along with beliefs about democracy and egalitarianism.  Very interesting reading.

So is the second part, which will bother some “exceptionalists” no end: it looks at the evidence which proves that in some respects America is not the best country in the world, and wonders why some people think that even considering the evidence is a sign of weakness, or treason.

The third rail of American politics is acknowledging we may not be the greatest country in the world.


It’s not like acknowledging flaws is the same as acknowledging failure. The business sector seldom rests on its laurels. Successful companies assume there’s room for improvement, and they’ll put themselves through ISO 9000, Six Sigma, benchmarking, best practices and any number of other assessment programs to get there.


If businesses don’t evolve, they end up like Atari, Pan Am and Woolworth’s, onetime industry leaders that crashed against the rocks of strategy, innovation and competition. So the successful ones aren’t shy about borrowing good ideas from others.

Then why is it so hard for the United States to admit its shortcomings and do the same?

(Read the piece for the answer.)

And in today’s third installment, CNN political analyst (and longtime Republican political adviser) David Gergen, and his researcher Michael Zuckerman, try to answer the question “What makes America special?” and conclude that exceptionalism, like beauty and more, is in the eye of the beholder, and that the heart of our contemporary on-going political pie fight is a conflict over which of our “core values” is core-est.

…Americans espouse five core values, stemming from key historical experiences, that distinguish us from other Western nations: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire.


…these values can be in serious tension with each other. Those who believe foremost in egalitarianism, for example, run in very different directions from stout defenders of laissez-faire.

In politics, nowhere does this tension between core values play out more starkly than in debates over liberty versus equality. Republicans have traditionally argued that a free society allows everyone to do better, while Democrats have objected that without basic fairness, society as a whole is held back. In that spirit, Romney ardently defends liberty and just as ardently, Obama defends social equity.

So, why should we care about this right now, while we’re preparing to ditch work and fill our faces and gawk at politically-hued ballistics displays in the middle of the week?

On this July Fourth, then, we have an America where many, including our leading politicians, disagree on what makes the country special — and on what values should take precedence. There is nothing inherently wrong with such disagreements: Indeed, a competition of ideas is healthy for the republic. But, as has become painfully obvious, the differences in perspective have become so sharp and deep that we are tearing ourselves apart.

That’s why this July Fourth should not only be an occasion for wondering what makes America special, but also for pondering how we can build bridges across the divide.


For our money, the winner of the 2012 election won’t be the one who makes a stronger argument for egalitarianism over liberty or liberty over egalitarianism, but the candidate who joins the two, persuading voters he is best equipped to lift floors as well as ceilings, ensuring every American has an honest shot in life.

Happy birthday, America!

T-minus three weeks and counting…

There’s just the faintest whiff of default in the air in Washington, D.C., so the frequency of budget meetings is on the rise.  Late last week President Obama and Speaker Boehner sounded confident they could make a deal  that would reduceBoehner government spending by $4 trillion over ten years, but Boehner has backed off from what The New York Times characterizes as “a transformative proposal, with the potential to improve the ugly deficit picture by shrinking the size of government, overhauling the tax code and instituting consensus changes to shore up Medicare and even Social Security. It was a once-in-a-decade opening.” 

Why?  According to the Times’ analysis Boehner faced the realities of preserving his own power as speaker versus trying to get his own party to accept compromise on taxes; he also may be passing on a rare chance to get Democrats to compromise on major entitlements.

Kathleen Parker is another conservative voice making the case that Congressional Republicans may be pushing their advantage too far, turning their noses up at serious concessions from Democrats while making no progress on solving the immediate issue of the debt limit:

Few honest brokers think that we can prevent a financial catastrophe without both cuts and revenue increases, but there are surely ways to get there from here without necessarily punishing the poor or the wealthy.


Meanwhile, not raising the debt ceiling is fraught with peril. Even prolonging raising the ceiling is potentially hazardous before a default happens, as investors take preventive actions that could distort the money markets.

Republicans have made enormous advances toward government reforms that were viewed as unachievable a year ago. Voting no may have become the aphrodisiac of small-government conservatives, but it is not necessarily an act of bravery or wisdom.

Sometimes it’s just stubborn.

If Parker’s suggestion of possible pig-headedness by Republicans is too harsh, Obamaconsider the perspective offered today by David Gergen: with Obama’s indication today that he won’t accept any short-term agreement, all of the players have now painted themselves into their separate corners, and we all will pay the price if they don’t find their ways out:

Republican and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, fortunately, agree that it is essential to avoid a default on the debt. They are right. But to get there, each side is going to have to give a little.  It is impossible to imagine either side doing what it would take to reach a $4 trillion deal; the GOP won’t ever agree to tax increases of as much as $800 billion to $1 trillion, nor will Democrats agree to major entitlement cuts. They especially won’t do it in the rush of last-minute negotiations over the next few days.

But in the name of fiscal sanity, they may be willing to agree to a much more modest set of compromises—something that prevents default, allows dust to settle, gives them a chance to build up support back home and keeps negotiating over a longer period of time.

Props to the GOP for getting Democrats to agree to so much of what Republicans want; please don’t get carried away and push for “too much” and not get the debt ceiling resolution that’s needed right away.