April 30, 2010

This Week in Race Relations

This really isn't surprising.

Arrogant, yes.  Borderline racist: you betcha.  Journalistically negligent, and further contributing to right-wing ignorance of American history -- absolutely.  But not surprising.

What was interesting, at least to me, were reports that President Obama struggled to contain his emotions during the funeral for Dorothy I. Height, one of the quiet titans of the civil rights, and women's rights, movements.  Obama has a well-deserved reputation for remaining cool under virtually all circumstances in public; some have questioned whether he can actually show his warm human side from time to time.

It's hard to imagine what might have been going through his mind of the first black president, a man whose background is way more complex than so simple a descriptor as that.

Obama's story is familiar, but in moments like these it seems especially poignant:  born biracial, with roots in Hawai'i by way of Indonesia, Kenya and Kansas;  educated in elite Ivy League universities but who cut his political teeth fighting for poor black people in Chicago's South Side; a charismatic politician who had to appear non-threatening enough, long enough, to collect votes from the nation's white majority, but a self-identified black man whose African American street cred perhaps will always remain in question -- even though he broke what generations of black people believed was an unbreakable barrier.

Given that, it would have been a profoundly emotional moment to eulogize a civil rights pioneer who also could legitimately be called his friend -- someone who quietly helped pave the way for his own brilliant place in history.  So I may as well let the man speak for himself.


As long as race relations is the topic, I have to admit I'm puzzled:  why is this man not in prison?

April 29, 2010

Drill, baby dri--... oh s#@$.

President Obama has been on a roll lately.

He scored a big win on health care reform, showing a nasty crossover dribble against Republicans in the process.  He's put his stamp on the Supreme Court and gets another opportunity before summer's end.  He's even sounding more presidential: after declaring he wants a Wall Street reform bill, he vowed to veto one that doesn't include restrictions on derivatives, a bit of welcome political flexing.

Got that, Harry? 

And then, there's this.  Which came less than a month after this.

The president's decision to study lifting the moratorium on offshore US drilling is fast becoming a rare discordant note in what had been Obama's virtuoso performance this spring.  It's led some pundits to shake their heads and wonder why the president went there in the first place.

It angered Democrats on the left, who got pissed that a man who seemed to have a broad, bold, common-sense vision on how green energy could remake the US economy.  And if it was designed as a light, sweet, black-gold bouquet to woo obstinate Republicans on an energy-climate bill, ... well, that sure worked out well.

Given what could become the biggest oil disaster in US history -- bigger than even the Exxon Valdez accident from the 1980s, and a catastrophe that gets worse, literally, by the minute -- Obama has wisely declared that the accident will become "part of the conversation" on lifting the drilling ban.

But he could have been ahead of the curve if this one stayed in his hip pocket back in March.

The Gulf rig explosion and the so far uncontrollable oil leak -- one that is poised to cause damage that could take decades to reverse -- would have been a ready-made, easy-to-understand argument for keeping the drilling ban in place.  It could also have served as a withering rebuttal to the "drill, baby, drill" nonsense from Republicans, as well as been an object lesson to jump-start global warming legislation and bring Senator Lindsay Graham back to the table.

But for lack of a crystal ball, the president will take a left hook, so to speak, on the chin, though he's proved adept and able to roll with the punches.

Nevertheless, sometimes the best move is to not make one in the first place.

Mr. Mojo Rising

It appears that Senate Democrats have regained their mojo, and are poised to go two-for-two in major policy initiatives on President Obama's agenda.

Early reports are that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, after threatening to hold the Senate in session all night, finally broke Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's filibuster on Wall Street financial reform.  That means the Senate will now begin debate on much-needed legislation designed to slow down, if not stop, any future meltdowns like the one that crippled the economy during President George W. Bush's final year in office.

That follows passage of health care reform legislation, after a nasty, year-long battle that seemed to demonstrate that Democrats were determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and squander unprecedented power: the largest congressional majorities they've seen in decades, and a charismatic, popular Democratic in the White House.

Critics argued that the Democrats wasted time and power by seeking the bipartisanship President Obama promised to deliver to Washington after his historic election.  Anyone with a pair of functioning eyes and a brain quickly realized, however, that Republicans were not interested, and had decided to take on the mantle of opposition party quite literally.

To me, the turning point came when Obama decided to do some political jiu-jitsu.  The "question time" with the Republican caucus was pure genius, followed quickly by a live-on-tee-vee session with GOP opponents.  That seemed to energize the Democrats, who  eked out a narrow but important win on health care.

Now Reid, in a tough re-election battle in Nevada, played a little hardball with Republicans, and the chin music seemed to have worked.

Better late than never, said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who has been calling for the party to stand, deliver and "show some guts" against the lockstep, opposition-for-oppositions'-sake GOP strategy.

Interestingly, the get-up, stand-up strategy may pay some dividends for Democrats, who, according to conventional political wisdom, are going to take a shellacking at the polls this fall.

I, for one, disagree with that take, and the Washington Post kind of backs me up on it.  So does Rendell -- deep in the above-linked interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, the gov opines that the Dems' losses won't be nearly as big as the punditocracy predicts.

I also think, come November, this will pretty much say it all.

April 28, 2010

Law and Border

By now, it's widely known that Arizona has passed the most absurd, draconian and unseemly anti-immigration bill the nation has seen to date, one in which police are required to stop and ask, "Papers, please," of anyone who looks like they might be in the country illegally.  

Jon Stewart, America's most trusted newsman, had it right when he called Arizona the "meth lab of democracy."  Rachel Maddow revealed that an Arizona conservative activists with strong ties to white supremacist groups and the eugenics movement helped write the bill that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law -- even though Brewer herself admitted she had no idea what an illegal immigrant looks like, and failed to coherently explain how the bill could be enforced.

Even Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a former Republican congressman and Tea Party darling who at times makes Rush Limbaugh look like Paul Krugman, said the law goes too far.

For progressives, attacking the new law is kind of like bashing a refrigerator-sized pinata with an aluminum baseball bat, no blindfold necessary.  The reactions were swift and furious.

Racist. Mean-spirited.  Probably unconstitutional. And that's just the reaction from this guy.

But, not surprisingly, the WashPost's Eugene Robinson adds a bracing dash of realism to the left-wing feeding frenzy.  After condemning the law for the first half of his column, Robinson astutely points out that Arizona is on the front line of an immigration crisis that Washington -- and, more specifically, Washington Republicans -- have failed to deal with.

Maddow agrees, and offers concrete proof of the hypocrisy.

Robinson didn't even get to the estimated 460,000 undocumented immigrants in Arizona today, or the nearly 23,000 people killed in drug-related violence in Mexico since a government crackdown in 2006.  That crime wave has begun to lap at the metaphorical shores of the United States, and border states like Arizona are largely left alone to deal with the crisis themselves, by any means necessary.

Arizonans, by a wide majority, have given the law a thumb's up, helping explain why Brewer put pen to paper and went for it.  She'd apparently rather take her chances with a convoluted, unenforceable law the Supreme Court will probably swat into the cheap seats -- not to mention the bad publicity, and the hundreds of millions the state will lose through tourism boycotts -- than risk being portrayed as weak on immigration.

And, in the national hullabaloo over the new law, news coverage seems to have overlooked a big, last-straw reason Arizonans are good with state-sanctioned racial profiling: last month's headline-grabbing murder of a popular, gun-toting rancher who was killed while tending his own property.

Police believe his assailant was in the state illegally, and that he fled back to Mexico after the crime.

To be clear: the Arizona law is short-sighted and bigoted, IMHO -- are undocumented immigrants from Ireland going to be stopped? What about European students whose papers have expired?  But, placed in context, it's easy to see why it happened, particularly in such a political climate of heightened us-versus-them fear.  The question is, where do we go from here.

What this means for Democrats' call to move immigration reform up on their to-do list, with White House backing, is unclear, especially since the issue has replaced race as the third rail of American politics, at least for the moment.

Just ask John McCain.

April 25, 2010

What if the Tea Party Was Black?

I normally don't post on Sundays, but this one was too good to keep to myself (h/t to Tink, bonjouryall.blogspot.com).

Tim Wise, who happens to be white, is one of the preeminent scholars and thinkers on race, specifically the notion of white privilege -- the concept that racism occurs because whites have created a society that gives them an overwhelming advantage because of skin color.

It's a somewhat radical theory that lies mostly on the fringes of the racial debate.  But it's becoming more and more accepted among mainstream race analysts, and it's worth exploring in a wider arena, if only to challenge one's own preconceptions about race relations. 

Wise's essay, which is making the rounds on the progressive far left, is a clear, logical object lesson supporting something I've believed all along: the Tea Party shenanigans and paranoid mind-set feels a lot like a backlash to Obama's historic election, which smashed a racial barrier that generations of African Americans -- myself included -- thought they'd live a lifetime without seeing. 

That notion has been difficult to prove, given that the TP'ers -- and the Second Amendment gun-rights crowd, and the Birthers, and the Deathers, and the rest of the astro-turfed, Fringey McFringerson noise-makers on the far-right margins -- couch their agenda in reasonable calm rational theoretically sane, albeit alarmist, conservative rhetoric that reaches so far over the top that it all but obscures a racist agenda.

But you just have to look carefully -- and sometimes not even all that closely -- to see it. 

April 23, 2010

Heard on the Street

All eyes were on Wall Street yesterday when President Obama hit town to chide bankers and explain why, like disciplining a wayward teenager, he was essentially trying to suspend their driving privileges after they wrecked the family car in 2008.

By most accounts, the speech was forceful, deliberate, rational and extended an olive branch to the scolded bankers: if you aren't about scamming your investors, the president said, you don't have anything to fear from additional regulation.  Work with us, he added, and everyone wins.

Sort of.

Though the president has a good chance of getting his way on this one -- adding to a mini-streak of legislative victories, something that could blunt anticipated Democratic losses in upcoming mid-term elections -- it's really unclear whether the bill will do what it intends, and reign in the reckless gambling on Wall Street.

The New York Times has an interesting video explaining why the bill is an attempt to map boundaries through largely uncharted waters.  It also notes the right's attempt to distort the bill by claiming it will perpetuate bailouts -- and Obama's decision to call them out on it, specifically Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

About time, say some Democrats.

April 20, 2010

The Money Silo's Filled to the Brim!

Hot on the heels of a survey showing widespread distrust of the government comes a story that shows exactly why people who want to abolish it -- sometimes under the guise of free marketeers -- are, ahem, misguided.

We need government because it's hard for people to govern themselves.  And this is why it matters.

Take it away, Jon Stewart -- America's most trusted newsman.  Give it to us straight!

April 19, 2010

Trust Deficit

NPR is launching a series based on this study by the Pew Center, reporting that distrust of the federal government is at an all-time high.

Due in large part to the tanking economy, more people than ever don't believe the federal government is trustworthy, and that could help explain a lot of the Tea Party nonsense and the Second Amendment paranoia that seems to be gripping the nation (or at least the cable news outlets).   It should be noted that the  TP and gun-rights crowd still represent a significant minority of the general population, despite their attention-grabbing antics and claims to speak for what could be called the "silent majority."

What I found fascinating, though, is the fact that we've been here before.

The first segment of the NPR series was a straight-ahead report on the survey, but the more interesting thing was the sidebar by Ari Shapiro.  He notes that in hard times, people for some reason take a dim view of our political leaders, even though there appears to be something of a time lag, in my opinion: the leaders responsible for creating the mess in the first place aren't the prime targets of the anger.

Hopefully, since we've been here before, we can come out of it even better.

Gun Smoke

This is just asinine.

If you strip away the reactionary politics and overheated paranoid rhetoric for a moment, the basics alone are unbelievably appalling, callous and narcissistic, by any standards in a civilized society.

The Second Amendment crowd has chosen to assert itself by deliberately using the violent, barbaric massacre of 168 innocent people -- most of them civilians, many of them children -- to argue against something for which there is no evidence.

They have chosen to honor the actions of a mentally unbalanced, highly disturbed sociopath whose actions were so reprehensible that his final years were spent in 23-hour lockdown in the nation's toughest   prison before he forfeited his life -- alone, on a sterile white execution table -- for his crimes.

They have chosen the date of the nation's worst act of domestic, home-grown terrorism by strapping on weapons and taking a confrontational, provocative stance against the federal government and the nation's first black president.  They declare they are willing to take arms against a government that likely educated them, protects them from crime, and collects their garbage -- at least the kind you can put in a can.  They want to fight a government that has no interest in fighting them.

They have decided, in short, that we are idiots.

April 16, 2010

Must be decaf

The Tea Party may be small, old and white, but there's no question: it's definitely hot.

By contrast, the Coffee Party -- a legitimate grass-roots answer, a bi-partisan organization dedicated to more civil political discourse -- is not.  At least as far as I can tell.

In fact, the nascent, common-sense outfit which sprouted up in the wake of last summer's over-the-top town-hall meetings and TP rallies, seems to be going over less like a percolating, pick-me-up brew and more like the lukewarm, slightly bitter pot that sits around the office kitchenette after the morning rush.  That's if a handful of news reports about the outfit are to be judged.

It's hard to tell what's on their agenda.  Their web site doesn't do much better, its mission statement built on feel-good platitudes like, "government is the expression of our collective will," and, "we will support leaders who work towards common-sense solutions, and hold accountable those who obstruct them."


Nice, but it doesn't have quite the same pop as "Don't Tread on Me," or "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

While the TP'ers were getting their anger on in Washington, the Coffee Partiers were, ... well, not doing much of anything from what I can tell.   Perhaps civility is part of their problem.  Speaking as a former newsman, I can say definitively: that calm, rational, give-and-take discussion stuff doesn't sell.

Talk about no drama.

Bitter Tea

I had intially wanted to use this post to write about the passing of Benjamin Hooks, a giant among giants in the civil rights movement who passed away this week.  Hooks deserves his own post, and will have one in upcoming days after the rest of the pack has had its say.

But at the risk of repeating myself -- and further legitimizing what most serious analysts consider a fringe movement -- I yet again turn my lonely eyes to the phenomenon known as the Tea Party, a purportedly grass-roots organization seemingly dedicated to the collapse of the federal government.  Their plan: a refusal to pay taxes, a willingness to take arms against a popularly elected president and a seemingly unquenchable desire to "take back their country" -- even though it's unclear exactly what "their country" was, who took it away from them, or why.

I just finished listening to "The Diane Rehm Show," a popular news chat program on my local NPR affiliate.  Today, Diane and her guests cogitated on the domestic news of the week, including the rising Dow Jones numbers, prospects for immigration reform and President Obama's push for tougher regulations on Wall Street.

What got my blood, to paraphrase Sachel Paige, "angried up," however, was an intense discussion of the Tea Party, which held high-profile rallies in Boston and Washington earlier this week.  The news roundup quickly pivoted into an intense Tea Party debate, turning on notions of race, class and facts that really aren't facts.  Rehm and her three-member panel attempted to distill the anger old white guys feel about the country's new direction now that an African American president is in office.

It also touched on the confrontational nature of recent TP protests, and some of the harsh rhetoric its leaders, like Sarah Palin, employ.  It's not uncommon to see signs calling for open revolution against the US government and not-so-subtle hints that violence is the only way to re-establish the America they want to see.

At one point in the discussion, after everyone acknowledged that calls for violent overthrow of the federal government, veiled death threats, overt death threats and people packing heat at presidential speeches are a bad thing, Rehm asked her guests if they know of any prominent leaders on the right -- congressmen, RNC Chair Michael Steele, Fox News talk show hosts, anyone -- who is "standing up and saying, 'Knock it off'."

Sadly -- but not surprisingly -- no one had an answer.

Usually, I would avoid linking to an hour of warbling from Rehm and the clubby, inside-the-beltway windbaggery of her largely color-free panel of pundits.  But this one deserves to be heard -- not only for the White Men Gone Wild discussion, but for lefty WashPost columnist EJ Dionne's verbal beat-down of conservative WashExaminer editorial writer Byron York.

On three occasions, Dionne dismantled York's misleading defense of the Tea Party, whose white-male, largely middle-class membership was detailed on the front page of the New York Times.  After reciting statistics from that story which calls into question the populist, grass-roots image of the TP crowd, Dionne then called BS on York when he threw out a popular but out-of-context fact conservatives use to work up the TP faithful: 47 percent of Americans don't pay taxes.

You know who doesn't pay, goes the unspoken follow-up:  THOSE people.

At most TP rallies, this chunk of bloody red meat is thrown out to show how the deadbeats among us don't pay their fair share while at the same time soaking up taxpayer-funded "entitlements" like welfare and unemployment benefits which add to the already bloated national deficit.  But Dionne, my favorite limousine liberal, put York's weak jumper into the cheap seats by archly pointing to a NYT piece by David Leonhard explaining the true nature of that statistic, and why it's so misleading.

Dionne also dope-slapped York after York claimed that the angry left was just as confrontational and disrespectful to the White House when President George W. Bush was in office.  Poppycock, Dionne replied  But York held fast -- until Dionne cocked back his rhetorical hand and let fly.

"I hope someone is studying this," Dionne, clearly irritated, said to York.  "Somebody should do empirical work on this.  One of us is right, and one of us is wrong."

But the one that nearly made me throw my radio across the room came from a journalist I  respect: veteran NPR anchor Linda Wertheimer, who declared she no longer believes that race is an unspoken central factor in Tea Partier's outrage at the Obama administration.

Say what?  Really? Joanie, set her straight.

April 14, 2010

History Lesson

I'm always fascinated by the disconnect some modern-day politicians have with our nation's history, and the broad assumption - largely proven, in many cases - that their followers don't know it any better, either.

I readily admit I'm no historian or scholar, but I do have a college-level grasp of how this nation was founded, and some of the things that happened on the way from Plymouth Rock to President Obama.

Today, the Tea Party rallies in Boston, theoretically returning to its namesake location to underscore its roots as an anti-tax, small-government organization of the little people.  But as I mentioned in an earlier post, the Tea Partiers again demonstrate their seemingly willful ignorance about the country they claim to cherish.  NPR sets them straight in a report outlining what every fifth-grade history student -- or even a former viewer of Schoolhouse Rock -- should know:

The Tea Party in Boston Harbor wasn't to protest outrageous taxes or large government intrusion into the lives of colonists; it was a protest against taxation without representation.  King George took their money but didn't give them a vote in Parliament.   Kind of like where I live here in Washington, which takes my tax money but doesn't provide me with a sitting senator or voting member of Congress.

Meanwhile, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, swimming in the wake of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's recent ham-fisted nod to the Sons of the Confederacy, doesn't believe that the dustup over slavery doesn't amount to "diddly."  He contends that people who are upset about McDonnell's declaration of Confederate History Month without acknowledging the evil of slavery -- the very issue that prompted Virginia to fight for its "independence" in a war of secession -- don't really get it: it's about the Confederate soldiers and their sacrifices.  And he reminded people that he declared Confederate History Month in Mississippi a long time ago -- even though his state has one of the nation's highest populations of African Americans.

The Post's Eugene Robinson has a few suggestions on how Barbour, McDonnell and others can catch a clue.  I don't think Jackson, Miss., gets the Post's early editions, though.

April 9, 2010

This Week in Race Relations

I have to admit I was surprised but not shocked when newly-elected Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, still in the early months of his first term, decided to declare April as Confederate History Month, celebrating "the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War," and how their "fight for independence" helped shape present-day Virginia and the rest of the nation. 

Well, heck.  There's so much there I hardly know where to begin.

As a former longtime resident of the Old Dominion -- I went to college there, and spent the first seven years of my career working for the Richmond Times-Dispatch -- I'm not quite sure exactly why the governor felt compelled to make the declaration.  I mean, it's not as though sympathetic residents of Virginia ever stopped celebrating, studying or honoring their Confederate heritage.

Take Monument Avenue, for example, one of Richmond's crown-jewel landmarks, a beautiful boulevard that's chockablock with statues honoring Confederate heroes from the familiar (Robert E. Lee, JEB Stuart) to the obscure (Oceanographer Matthew Maury).  Then there's the Lee Bridge.  And Jefferson Davis Highway.  And Lee-Jackson-King Day, a cognitive-dissonance, only-in-Virginia state holiday honoring two Confederate generals and civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.  (he got stapled on to the holiday as a sop to the black community, much the same way tennis legend and Richmond native Arthur Ashe's statute was a backhanded, 20th-century addition to Monument Avenue).  And the Confederate History Museum, which was a few blocks away from where I live.  And the re-enactors who dress up in period costumes and lay wreaths at Lee's statute on the date of his birth.

It led me to wonder what's next: Slavery Appreciation Week?  Klan Day at Richmond Stadium -- free hoods to the first 500 whites through the turnstiles.  Massive Resistance special-edition license plates?  What about giving a nod to King's assassin with Lee-Jackson-King-Ray-Lee Day?  Has  nice ring to it.

I could go on, but you get the point.  Actually, the NYTimes' Gail Collins does a much better job of it.

April 3, 2010

April madness

Here's hoping the NCAA greedheads get what they deserve on Monday: a Butler-West Virginia men's basketball championship finale, one that would lack a marquee team to root for, like, say, Duke or Kansas or North Carolina, and send the TV ratings for one of college sports' biggest games into a nosedive.

If schadenfreude is the goal, though, it would be a tough pick in a Bulldogs-Mountaineers matchup.  The 'Dogs represent, well, the underdogs like my alma mater -- hard-working, mid-major teams that try to actually graduate their players. A Butler win would validate the perception that nice guys can finish first in a corrupt, money-grubbing system.

On the other hand, if the Mountaineer triumph, it would confirm the suspicions of cynical critics who believe that the 'Eers' Bob Hudgins represent everything that's wrong with big-time college athletics: greedy, self-absorbed coaches who exploit needy, sometimes selfish players in order to land the next million-dollar contract by colleges seeking reflected glory on the basketball court.

April 1, 2010

State of Independents

This post, by Dylan Matthews, a guest blogger filling in for the vacationing Ezra Klein, captures what I've long suspected about the so-called "independent" vote, and how crucial it allegedly is to the political process.

Rather than a voting bloc that's true to its name, the independent vote is quite partisan, yet likes to consider itself more broad-minded than a narrow definition like Democrat or Republican (never mind the fact that those definitions also include wider band width, such as 'moderate' or 'progressive.')

Given the analysis, Obama's "outreach" to Republicans seems to be more about helping out the aforementioned moderate Democrats than bridging the apparently insurmountable gap between the two parties.
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