Friday, October 31, 2008

The Symbolism of Barack Obama

With just 4 days until Election Day, the political ads are flooding the TV and airwaves. However, what has struck me most powerfully, as we come down the home stretch of this campaign, is the symbolic meaning of Barack Obama’s presidency to so many American voters. To speak of symbolism is not in any way to suggest that Obama lacks substance; quite the contrary. I think his ads generally have been some of the most intelligent we have seen in recent political history; he looks into the camera and in his own words explains his plan for the economy, health care or foreign policy. There has been very little mud-slinging at John McCain. Instead he has spoken to the issues, and treated us like we really do have brains and don’t just vote on appearance or emotion. So I recognize and greatly respect the substance of Barack Obama’s campaign.

However, I can not overlook the way in which his candidacy has inspired a renewed hope in the possibility of the United States making a new start as a constructive player in the world. He reflects an attitude of caring, and he uses the words “we” and “us”, as much as he uses “me” and “I”. While being the target of countless ads suggesting he is a friend of terrorists, a socialist, a reckless liberal, and somehow un-American, he embodies in his manner and his speech what we hope is the best of America: intelligence, compassion, inclusiveness, openness and respect. As such Barack Obama is more than a candidate; he has become symbolic of what so many people hope the United States can be.

Back during the Democratic primary, someone sent me the link to one of many songs that have been written about Barack Obama, "Yes We Can." In this video, featuring several well-known actors and singers, I hear not only a spirit of hope, but also a deep yearning for change. Even now when I watch that music video, I get chills because in spite of my cynicism, it arouses a longing in me to see peace in our world, justice on our streets, integrity in our leaders, and a reconciliation and respect between people of different races and ethnicities. As I listen to that song, I begin to believe that “Yes we can” make a difference.

I was seven years old when John F. Kennedy was elected president, so I don’t know how I reacted at the time of his historic inaugural address. However, every time I watch a replay of JFK saying “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” I get chills. I was 10 years old when Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, which almost always brings me to tears even now. Now at 55, I am once again moved to believe that this country can actually live up to its ideals and its principles. Barack Obama, not only as candidate, but more so as symbol, has touched a longing deep inside of me.

I know for many of my African-American colleagues and friends who have sufferred the unending pressures of racism, Obama evokes feelings of hope and vindication that I can not begin to imagine. For my daughters, one of whom will vote for the first time, this election really matters. While I don’t who they will vote for, I know that the excitement Obama has evoked in young people has made politics matter among their peers in ways that young people haven’t felt in a long time. From people who have connections overseas in Europe, Asia, and Australia, I hear that there is hope for a new kind of United States under Obama that will act differently on the world stage. Even the strong reaction of fear and anxiety Obama evokes in his opponents testifies to the power of his candidacy; the face of who qualifies as a “true American” has changed (and that is frightening to some). The fact that a bi-racial man, who identifies himself as an African-American but whose pedigree is global, could be the next President is astounding in both its reality and its symbolic meaning.

I have often wondered why anyone would want to run for President of the United States, but I am glad Barack Obama made that choice. I am cautiously hopeful that on November 5 he will be declared the next president of the United States. However, beyond that, I am thankful that he has evoked in me and in others, the belief that as common people we can make a positive difference in the world. Yes We Can!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The S-Word

John McCain and Sarah Palin are using up the alphabet trying to characterize Barack Obama. Along the way Obama’s opponents have used the L word (liberal), the U-word (un-American), the E-word (elitist), and the T- word (terrorist). Always lurking in the background were the M-word (Muslim), the A-word, (Arab), and the B-word (Black). So far this alphabet soup has not been able to slow Obama down, so now they have pulled out the S-word (socialist). Apparently, Barack Obama is a socialist because he told Joe the Plumber that we need to “spread the wealth around.” What a horrible thought that in a time when (according to a recent NPR report) the gap between the richest one percent and the poorest 10% of the population is greater than its ever been in our nation’s history. What a terrible thing to suggest that we might actually redistribute that wealth to the other 99%.

Because of my criticisms of capitalism, I too have sometimes been called a socialist. In a society that tends to think in polarizing dualities I guess if a person isn’t for unregulated, free market capitalism, that makes him a socialist. The fact is I am not against free enterprise or against rewarding the entrepreneurial spirit, nor am I for full and complete government intervention. The bottom line for me is that basic needs like housing, education, health care, and job opportunities are equally available to all. I am against systems that allow people with power to abuse, with information to mislead, and with wealth to horde. I am for socially responsible capitalism, capitalism with a conscience, if you will. I am for companies that make products not simply because they sell, but because they are good for the environment, uplifting to the human spirit, and edifying for the community and the world. I am for a system that doesn’t just reward the creative business leader, outstanding athlete, and hardworking professional, but also the dedicated teacher, caring childcare worker, compassionate social worker, and tireless community leader. I am for a culture that does not simply say it is pro-life and pro-family, but creates the economic and social conditions that allows those families to thrive. I am for a society that places value on people’s dignity and dedicates its resources to creating healthy neighborhoods. And since the lure of profit is so overpowering for many political and business leaders, I am for regulations that keep them in line.

While I personally have been a beneficiary of the privilege, education and opportunity that capitalism provides, I don’t see those benefits being distributed equitably. Instead as the data shows, I see the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the middle class shrinking. I see CEO’s who jump out with golden parachutes, and unscrupulous bankers who get away with fraud. I see a legal system that protects those who can pay, and punishes those who can’t. I see a public school system that is based on a funding formula that only increases the disparity between rich and poor. I see companies that produce wasteful products in the name of convenience, and people who consume more than their share of energy simply because they can afford it. Capitalism has produced great wealth for some, but in its ascent it has run roughshod over many people along the way. Just ask the descendants of African slaves, Native Americans , Mexican immigrants, and white factory workers how capitalism has been used to exploit them and to justify the destruction of their cultures and communities.

For me the health of a society and its economy is not found in the Dow Jones, the S&P 500, the GNP or the GDP. To me the health of a society is determined by how well it takes care of its most vulnerable: its children, its elderly, its poor, its down and out. The health of the society is measured in the quantity of people who enjoy a basic quality of life. On that score, we aren’t cutting it, no matter how well the stock market is doing or how advanced our health care system. If that makes me a socialist, then I accept the label.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

John McCain's Test of Character

John McCain is in a tough position. Some of his supporters may be supporting him for reasons that are totally out of character with the candidate himself. McCain, a man who loves the United States and has often appealed to what he sees as the best in American ideals, is in the unenviable position of evoking some of the ugliness of U.S. racist culture.

Despite my disagreement with McCain on many issues, I have generally trusted he was a decent man, until the last couple weeks when ads and rallies revealed a xenophobic and racist undertone. As his attacks on Obama's character took on a malicious and misleading tone, I lost respect for McCain. For her part, Sarah Palin has tried to link Obama to the violent activities of Bill Ayers, the University of Chicago professor who 40 years ago was in the radical group, Weather Underground. Yes, Obama and Ayers served together on civic committees seeking to improve education in Chicago, but come on, Obama was eight years old when Ayers was in his radical phase! Various speakers at McCain-Palin rallies have highlighted Obama’s middle name, which happens to be Hussein, as if that proves he is really a Muslim. This feeds the post 9/11 hatred of all Muslims because of the acts of a few. Fear that Obama might actually become president has stoked the racial prejudice that bubbles just beneath the surface in many of his white supporters’ spirits. They now have tacked on the title “Arab” to “elitist” and “out of touch with the working class” as another euphemism for his race.

On Friday, I gained back some of my respect for McCain when he chided his supporters who tried to link Obama to terrorism and accused him of being a secret Arab Muslim. McCain responded that Obama was a “decent person…that you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.” His supporters boo-ed him when he said that!

Let me be clear: I don’t believe all of McCain’s supporters are racist, nor do I believe that McCain shares the fear, anger, distrust and outright prejudice of this segment of his supporters. However, McCain’s problem is that he needs those people’s votes if he is going to become president. My question is: will he seek the presidency at the cost of interracial understanding and dialogue? If this election has shown us anything it is that (1) young people don’t generally carry as significant racial hang-ups as earlier generations, but that (2) their parents and grandparents, especially in predominantly white areas, can not get past some deeply held racial anxieties and fears.

Now I am sensitive to the fact that there are many McCain supporters who do not share the characteristics of those who booed McCain on Friday, and I recognize that there are significant enough differences on issues that one could legitimately prefer McCain to Obama. However, the manner in which John McCain handles that segment of his supporters who harbor a primal fear that a black man might become president will not only have a significant impact on the election, but also on what happens beyond November 4 in terms interracial understanding, justice, and reconciliation.

When pushed and stressed to the brink, a person will often show his/her true character. McCain is on such a brink. The next three weeks leading up to Election Day will be a significant test of character for John McCain, as he contends with the deeply held prejudices of some who fear Obama more than they support him. No matter how the election turns out, John McCain must deal with the fact that his campaign has both aroused and benefitted from an historic legacy of racial fear and hatred.

A Phair-Weather Phillies Phan in Phoul Phinancial Times

As I write this piece, the Philadelphia Phillies lead the LA Dodgers 2-0 in the National League Championship Series (NLCS). Full disclosure: I am a fair-weather fan riding the bandwagon. Two months ago I could not have named half of the Phillies’ starting players, and I didn’t know who Brad Lidge was. But here I am cheering them on like the best of them.

Now by contrast, the Eagles send me either into euphoria or depression for 24 hours after every game. (I’ve been thinking about asking my doctor for some medication to help me with this problem.) But the Phillies – I just can’t get into watching baseball on a regular basis. I loved playing baseball as a kid and even coached baseball and softball for years, but I have always found watching baseball to be something of a yawner. I’ve been to two Phillies games since they opened the new park three years ago, and one of those was paid for by someone else. I have taken in a few minor league games, when invited by others, but even there I left early. Usually, I can’t bring myself to paying the exorbitant price for a ticket and since we don’t have cable TV, I don’t see many games. I actually think baseball is best “watched” on the radio, when you can be doing something else at the same time. And as much as I love football, I am too cheap to even pay for Eagles tickets at $80 a pop.

Thinking of ticket prices, there is something surreal about people paying an average of $250 a ticket to watch a NLCS baseball game (and $500/ticket if they make the World Series) while the world is plunging into a financial crisis. One would think that if we are going to cut back, frivolous activities like watching live sports might take a back seat. Yet the stadiums are packed and the prices keep going up. What is even more ironic is that all the new stadiums across the country (including Citizen Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field) were built to accommodate more luxury boxes for the very companies and CEOs who have been lining their own pockets, manipulating the mortgage rates, cashing in on the oil crisis, and causing the stock market to dive. Yet somehow in a sports town like Philadelphia when the team is going well, it doesn’t matter if you are a CEO or unemployed, a McCain or Obama supporter, black, white, Hispanic or Asian, Christian, atheist, Jew or Muslim ---there is one thing that binds us together – our sports teams. It is the great diversion and the great unifier.

Now purists could easily and justifiably call me a hypocrite for such statements –and I agree, but I have often felt consistency is overrated. There is no question that professional sports are as exploitative and elitist a business as there is. How else to professional sports teams routinely get public money to build stadiums so they can rake in millions at taxpayers’ expense? We may decry having to pay for welfare and education and health care, but politicians line up to support the building of a new stadium. We may think teachers are overpayed, but $80 million for that star player, hey that's a bargain! Moreover, sports can be used to divert our attention from the very kinds of activities that have gotten us into our current financial mess. I remember the 1980’s move “Rollerball” starring James Caan. Rollerball, a combination of hockey and roller derby, was used by the power elite to divert the populace from the oppression and fraud they were creating in a divided and suffering society. I get it. Sport is a huge diversion, but…what about them Phils!

Somehow these diversions, like sports, help me realize how much of a game the rest of life is. Finance, politics, business, and even war are all games with all sorts of posturing and roles, and people playing to win or lose. Unfortunately, these games have dire consequences, but nonetheless they are games. And just like with any game, after its over, we can move on, pick ourselves up win or lose, and face tomorrow. I get depressed after another Eagles’ loss and feel elated when the Phillies win, but win or lose, after my emotion passes, I still have tomorrow. The game is not the beginning and end of life; it’s only a game.

Now there are folks who mistake the game for life. There are sports fans who invest too much emotion or gamble too much money on sports. There are business people who really think they can rule the world. There are politicians who begin to believe their own exaggerated PR clippings. There are generals who forget that every “casualty” in war is not just another chess piece on the board but a precious human life. When that happens, then we need to halt the game and remind people that they really aren’t in control, and that they need a major dose of humility or even humiliation to cure their hubris. So for instance, those AIG execs who went on a $400 million junket after they were bailed out by the government, ought to be paraded out in every major city and publicly chided.

But if they and we can keep things in perspective, then we can enjoy the diversionary games when they bring us together. Lord knows, we could use a bit more unity, and frankly every once in a while it’s nice to have a diversion. So fair-weather fan that I am, I will cheer the Phillies hopefully into the World Series and a championship. Now we Philadelphians have been conditioned not to get our hopes too high when it comes to championships. So if they win, we will celebrate and have a parade. If they lose, we will gnash our teeth for an evening. But either way, the next day we will get up and get on with life. Because in the end, as my Dad always reminded me after my team lost a close one, it’s only a game.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Two Aspects to the Wall Street Bailout We Don’t Talk About

The vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden on October 2 was very interesting on many levels, but they each said something I hadn’t heard in all the talk around the $700 billion bailout, buyout, rescue (or whatever we want to call it) plan being considered by Congress this past week. Gwen Iffil, the moderator, asked them a question which neither candidate wanted to really answer (and which neither Obama or McCain did answer when asked), which was “What plan or priority will your administration have to give up in order to payout the $7 billion?” At different times each of them said something in passing that I hadn’t heard before.

In response to the question Joe Biden said, “Well we might have to cut back on some of our foreign aid commitments.” And then in response to another question, Sarah Palin briefly talked about the need for people live within their means.

Biden’s response reveals that in addition to the poor of the U.S. being likely to suffer in this crisis see my earlier posting), so too the global poor will bear a major share of the burden for the greed and graft of the financial markets. puts it this way:

Largely missing from debate has been the impact of this plan on U.S. government spending on human needs in the next Administration. What will be the toll exacted on human needs for all Americans in the next budget, and who will win and lose in the latest bailout plan? And there has been almost no mention at all of the impact on our global commitments to help eradicate poverty, reduce illiteracy, address easily preventable disease, provide food and shelter to the world's neediest at home and abroad.

Ironically, the Wall Street Crisis comes at a time when the United Nations is requesting that the developed nations of the world contribute $72 billion per year (or .7% of GNP as promised) to meet the modest goal of reducing extreme poverty. The U.S. is asked to contribute approximately $100 billion over the next 4 years as their part in the plan.

Until this week $100 billion seemed like a lot of money, but now we know that when push comes to shove we can garner far more resources when we need to finance a war or compensate for the greed and graft of some unscrupulous rich folks. Moreover, while it seems like the U.S. share is out of proportion, among the 20 developed nations of the world, the U.S. is dead last when it comes to foreign aid on a per capita basis. Now it appears we will have a lock on that position for some time to come. Furthermore, the rhetoric of “ending poverty in our lifetime” will simply remain more empty rhetoric with the U.S. leading the way.

Which leads me to Sarah Palin’s comment about lifestyle. In large part the current crisis has threatened our American practice of living way beyond our means. Moreover, when it comes to energy, we often act as if we should have the freedom to consume as much energy as we want. Both tendencies point to the world’s need for we Americans to simplify their lifestyles. Except for Palin’s comment, none of our leaders have talked about the fact that we American are just too materialistic, drive too many gas-hogging cars, live in houses that far outstrip our needs, and generally disregard the reality with 5-6% of the world’s people, we consume 25% of the world’s resources. Our need for “stuff” makes us “dependent of foreign oil.” The world can’t afford us, and it is time we slow down, and scale down.

Our family regularly recycles, continually de-clutters, drives high gas mileage cars, forsakes cable TV, seeks to consume energy and generally tries to live within its means. And yet, I am continually amazed at the amount of wasteful stuff we still have laying around, and how alluring it is to consume just because I can. The messages from the media and the market is buy more, consume more, and accumulate stuff, and it is an ongoing temptation. These days I have been reminded of that phrase I first heard from the Quakers over 30 years ago: Live simply so that others may simply live.

If the last couple of weeks has taught us anything, it is that not only can we not afford to continue to live and operate in the way we have been going, but also the world can’t afford us either. John McCain and Sarah Palin like to say that terrorist groups such al-Qaeda hate the U.S. because of our commitment to democracy and freedom. That’s bullshit. In their own words much of the world (including our allies) resent and hate us for our greed and materialism, and the way it drives us to run roughshod over the rest of the world. Perhaps the chickens have come home to roost, and it is time we take a hard look at ourselves, and simplify.