Tag Archive | politics

Demanding a better 2020

As the presidential race of 2020 is already underway, before the office-holders elected in the mid-terms have even taken their oaths of office, it would be a great time for Americans to demand that the level of conversation be switched permanently to ‘grown up.’ The stakes are very high with the looming possibility of a recession, a bitterly divided Congress and an executive branch in a constant churn. It would be a real treat for a few brave candidates to insist on taking the high road and talking about how their policies will benefit the citizenry.

This will run afoul of the zeitgeist of contemporary politics. Rampant partisanship has created a knee-jerk politics where not only is everyone expected to wear their allegiances on their sleeves, but to be at the most ideologically pure part of the spectrum with blind obedience. Facts that may run counter to one’s argument are “Fake News” or “Hate Facts.” Serious adults don’t use terms like that except to mock those that do.

We’re seeing the worst in tantrum politics and mental gymnastics among both major political parties as the current budget impasse over a border wall continues. Trump’s insistence on a border wall is a clear sign he doesn’t understand the issues, and Democrats are hard-pressed to demonstrate any serious commitment to increased border security or give lie to the notion they want open borders.

Both parties once were able to function and understand nuances of policy. Sovereignty and human dignity are not mutually exclusive. It is inexcusable for Americans to support a porous border and deny our right to a sovereign nation. It is also inexcusable that children would die preventable deaths in the wealthiest country in the world, no matter their circumstances. We are a better country than to let people die of common disease or dehydration in detention centers; we also won’t be a country without strong, enforceable borders—there is no contradiction in those statements.

Let’s all admit that our political opponents are not monsters and that seeing the logic in the other side’s argument is not a betrayal of our own ideals. No, people advocating for stopping family separation at the border are not doing so to create some kind of socialist global utopia just as people advocating for tougher border controls are not trying to reproduce the Third Reich on American soil. These are not staggering revelations to the worlds of adults, but these are gut-punching concepts to hyper-partisan audiences that tend to dominate the public conversation these days.

Future generations will look upon these times as days of decay and decline, when a vacuum in leadership and long-standing myopic public policy exacerbated a fractured society. The values that make our society great can endure even if our institutions crumble, but it means a conscious effort to build new communities for those of us with clear vision and willingness to see beyond the outdated prism of our fraying standards.

We can rebuild communities if we leave the echo chambers of media and engage with the world around us. If we can take anything constructive from the Trump candidacy and record in office, it’s that people respond to frank dialogue and people who stick to their guns. Trump trampled several political sacred cows in his road to the White House—I thought his candidacy was dead when he insulted John McCain before the first primary was held. Have no doubt: Trump’s success in winning office came from his being rooted firmly outside the political establishment. You don’t have to be a fraudulent, vulgar ignoramus to break out of the mold and effectively challenge that status quo. Let the barriers Trump broke down let in a better slate of candidates and activists. There are decent people who hold all kinds of political opinions. Hear them out and be one of them.

Let this be the year you speak your mind and demand honesty and understanding from candidates within your own party. The first step of breaking out of our political rut is to embrace the politics of honesty and change on our own terms.

Demand more from the election of 2020 than we got in 2016. We (hopefully) can only go up from here.

Democracy is in the details

Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill is famously quoted as saying, “All politics are local.” He was right. What’s more, so much of what gets decided in our republic doesn’t happen on the televised stage but in the mind-numbing minutia of committees and boards you’ve never heard of unless you are willing to delve into the morass of local politics. But I’m telling you: delve into that morass.

This universe of local community boards and party committees have more sway and control over our politics than one might think, and they are a way to have an outsized influence on your community without having to run for public office. Depending on what you do, you might only need a few hours a month.

And no matter what your politics, you likely agree that the political establishment is decrepit and in need of new blood. Case in point: here in New York, the Democratic Party bosses were nominating candidates for party positions who were not even aware they were running. There were actually people interested in some of these party positions, but the people in charge filed the names of candidates they drew from old lists, thinking they could fudge the paperwork and appoint their own candidates later. The bosses had become accustomed to few showing interest in these party positions. With more people engaged in the political process on the local party level, this kind of rusty machine can’t continue run like that. Why shouldn’t there be a contest for these positions every step of the way—picking candidates who are actually running would be a good first step.

And in addition to the usual local and state races on the ballot Tuesday, there are three ballot initiatives specific to New York City that can shape the future of local politics and open the door for more involvement. The first would mean stricter limits on individual campaign contributions candidates could collect but increase public funding for candidates. The second would create a Civic Engagement Commission under control of the mayor (please vote against this if you live in New York City). And the third would put term limits of a sort on people serving on community boards (they could serve for eight years but then must step down for two years with the ability to reapply). I think a better solution to create more responsive community boards would to make them elected positions—members are currently appointed by borough presidents.

Whatever your position on these or other issues, you won’t change a thing by throwing rocks at someone you hate, marching on Trump Tower, or trolling normies with dank memes. Go vote.

Clearly there is a populist political wave that is cresting with Democrats now after Donald Trump surfed it to victory two years ago. There’s no reason it should stop for either party. In both cases it has widened the debate.

Five years ago, Democrats were scared to call for socialized medicine and Republicans would not have dared question birthright citizenship. Both these topics are rightfully in the mainstream now. There is no reason that ideas should be kept out of the public sphere by old and uninspired machine politics.

Don’t like it? Get out there and do something about it.

In the wake of the latest bloodbath

I saw the headlines on my mobile phone and thought little of it, because grotesque acts of violence are normal now, and actually always have been. A crazed anti-Semite shot 11 people to death in a Jewish temple in Pittsburgh over the weekend.

Here are three ideas that might help:

  1. Mandate more effective surveillance of potentially violent extremists by law enforcement
  2. Create a federal database of people not allowed to own firearms
  3. Increase armed security until you can make progress on 1 and 2.

If someone who survived the Holocaust can’t survive going to a religious service in Pittsburgh, something is seriously wrong with this country. No part of how to fix this should be off the table. And as per usual the country’s reaction to this latest horror show follow predictable partisan scripts.

I shouldn’t be surprised. I thought that the September 11 attacks were so bad that people wouldn’t get away with resorting to the same tired old tropes and I was wrong then. If the horrific deaths of thousands of people on live TV didn’t shake us from unbecoming hackery, why should the massacre of 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh make us change our ways?

When an Islamic terrorist massacred 49 people in Orlando two years ago, leading Democrats lectured us on Islamophobia and xenophobia. When a Christian terrorist killed three people at an abortion clinic that same year, leading Republicans mumbled platitudes about treating the mentally ill. When a mentally ill teenager slaughtered 17 fellow students at a high school earlier this year, the President said the solution was to arm teachers. After this latest shooting in Pittsburgh, the President said more armed guards were the answer. We have an abject failure of leadership throughout our government.

Something has got to be done about too many of the wrong people getting their hands on guns. That is a focus that enjoys broad support. Guns are another divisive issue in this country, but ask the most unwavering N.R.A. member if the people involved in any of these terror attacks/mass shootings should have been able to get a firearm, and they will tell you ‘no.’ Fellow Second Amendment supporters: if we don’t come up with a viable solution, less sympathetic voices will control this issue. Years ago I came up with a proposal to create one federal system that would screen out people deemed too dangerous to own firearms but also overrule the patchwork of often unconstitutional state and local laws that have gun owners rightfully angry.

Part of that is also being able to find dangerous extremists before they become violent. Our First Amendment allows people to believe and advocate anything they want, but most violent extremists leave other clues to violent intent beyond online musings.

It’s very common to see an increased police presence in New York outside of Jewish houses of worship, especially around Jewish holidays. The idea of increased security at synagogues and temples is not out of line. Only calling for more armed guards or armed teachers or clergy is a crap answer to addressing our problem with violence. But increased security will have to do in the meantime. We have to deal with the world as it is now, not as it should be.

 

I’ll always be friends with someone you hate

“Say it’s not so, Matt,” my friend’s message read, accompanied by a photo of a public figure that I don’t know personally but follow on social media. I explained that I follow/befriend people on social media that I often disagree with, and that while I find some of this person’s views extreme, they were not the murderous villain popularly portrayed in the mainstream press.

My explanation was lost and I found myself “blocked.” It’s a real shame. This is someone I’ve been friends with since college that is generally open-minded and intellectually strong. I know this person from a college debate society, the whole purpose of which is to listen to people you disagree with and debate them peaceably without tantrums or emotional self-immolation.

Maybe this person will find it in their heart to befriend me on social media again, but if not, so be it. I can’t please everyone and I can’t apologize for the opinions of others.

No matter who you are or what your politics, you are going to find I am friends with someone you hate. I can guarantee that to everyone: someone on my list of friends is going to piss you off.

I won’t have it any other way. I refuse to live in an echo chamber only occupied by people who share my view of the world. No matter how right you think you are, no one is above having their opinions and perceptions challenged and there is absolutely nothing virtuous about a closed mind.

In our era of divided politics, trolls on both sides of the spectrum feel morally justified in becoming increasingly uncivil. I’ve had a few people block me or “unfriend” me. One even called me names and blocked me so I couldn’t see or respond, a cowardly low. People engage in this kind of behavior when they have no real ideas or don’t have the wherewithal to defend their beliefs.

But I also have lots of friends that don’t block me. The friends with more substantial progressive activist bona fides – the people who’ve actually been in the streets and done battle with the cops, who’ve been to jail for their activism or actually rumbled with real Nazis in the real world – don’t find the need to block me on social media or prove their online virtue through their computer keyboards. I have friends who are law enforcement officers and military veterans who have been shot at in the line of duty at home and abroad; none of them have expressed horror that I’m friends with people that are communists or anarchists. They don’t need to wear their patriotism or their toughness on their sleeves, they live it every day.

Fortunately, the majority of my friends are confident enough in who they are to listen to other’s people’s views. That doesn’t mean they agree with me or like that I’m online friends with people they deplore, but they have strong enough wits to disagree without name calling.

I can’t judge people based on their ideology alone. Some of the people considered most virtuous in public life have been some of the most miserable human beings; egos rendering them incapable of treating others with dignity and respect. How you treat the waiter or waitress at a restaurant tells me much more about you than whatever politician you voted for last November. So many people who check all the right virtue boxes can’t be bothered to act like a decent human being in real life.

I hope my friend comes back online. I won’t block or unfriend someone just because they hold opinions we may despise. There’s something about my collection of friends that everyone can hate. But I have a great group of friends nonetheless. I’ll never apologize for keeping an open mind to different ideas, no matter how offensive they might seem to others. If that makes enemies out of some friends, then that’s too bad.

If you’re not making enemies, you’re not living life.

Fear no battle: face your enemies to love life

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were forced to say nice things about each other at the end of their most recent televised debate. It was the highlight of the debate and the question each candidate did the best at answering in my opinion.

There are deep ideological and cultural rifts coursing through this country, though is probably most consensus on things than people realize. Still, our politics reflect that and why shouldn’t they? There’s not a lot of consensus on things and we’re going to have to fight it out in the area of our legislatures and other corridors of power.

I submit this idea: there is more damage done by people trying to avoid fights than by engaging in them. Honestly think about that. We’re all so afraid of conflict that we will upend our lives to avoid them rather than face them head-on. Why?

Years ago when I was in college, I was active in a debate society and one of the officers was impeached and put on trial. It was trivial stuff that college kids love to blow out of proportion, but an entire meeting that would normally have been dedicated to debating the issues of the day was spent putting someone on trial with counsel and a judge and the society membership acting as jury. Debating the fate of the officer lasted into the wee hours of the morning, and he was convicted of several offenses but then not removed from office. Discussing this a year or so later, a member of a rival debate society thought this was the worst thing ever and boasted that this would never happen among their member. I told him, in the most diplomatic terms possible, that he was full of shit.

A life devoid of conflict is not life at all. And life is about resolving conflict, not avoiding it. What appeared to outsiders as a fratricidal bloodletting was business as usual for our group. We thrived on debate and emerged from the impeachment ordeal stronger and better. Sure there were hurt feelings and bruised egos; when aren’t there. A real debate society will never turn down an opportunity to debate.

Our state of politics is the same. It’s not comforting that the U.S. has widely disliked candidates heading our major parties’ tickets. But let’s have it out politically and fight our fights. Of course it’s going to get negative and nasty. Our statesmen of old were every bit as negative and back-biting as our politicians of today. The difference is that they didn’t pose and shirk their responsibilities to engage and fight it. That’s how things move forward. You’re not going to win every fight; but a battered fighter is worth ten times an unscathed coward.

Our Congress can block things and refuse to allow Supreme Court candidates or other candidates for important positions to come to a vote. That’s the most wuss thing you can do. Do you not want a candidate to hold office? Vote against them. Take a stand and let the chips fall where they may.

When battle lines are drawn, advance upon them, don’t retreat. Great nations were never built by people who avoided fighting for what they wanted.

The start of a long, hot summer

The 7 train was unusually crowded coming home tonight, especially for the late hour. The consolation prize of working late at the office is that the trains usually aren’t as crowded. Not tonight. There’s no Mets game so there must have been a bad delay that is still making the trains more crowded. It happens all the time.

I don’t get out of work much earlier than 7 p.m. these days, and I’m usually at my desk well before 9 a.m. It’s at least an hour and change commute each way, but I can’t really complain. I have a job and the kids are fed and we have health insurance.

It’s a small office where I work. Everyone has too much work to do and not enough time to do it. We get emails on Sunday night which I do my best to ignore until Monday morning, but I can’t always. There’s always one more thing to mark on the calendar; we won’t remember it otherwise, and our work will suffer. None of us want to do a half-assed job but there are too many clients and not enough staff. The boss stopped telling us that “help is on the way” months ago. Now he fesses up that it will get worse before it gets better. I daydream about quitting all the time; I keep reminding myself that I have kids to feed and I need this job.

A woman who crammed herself onto the train at Queensboro Plaza is trying to move to what she thinks is a better place for her to stand, but she can’t get there. She’s asking people to move and they answer her back that they don’t know where else than can go. We’re all packed onto the train as tight as our bodies will allow. Some poor slob lucky enough to fall asleep on his commute has too much luggage in front of him and that throws everything off. The woman struggles in vain to make it to this coveted space, trying to nudge her way past people who don’t budge.

I was lucky that I got on at Grand Central and got a good spot to stand in. I try to read but wind up looking out the window of the train. It’s almost 8 p.m. and the setting sun shines a punishing glare across the city.

There is hate and violence in the streets of the country and it will get worse before it gets better. There is ineptitude at every level of governance and service and the promise of more of the same. There will be more fighting and less fixing at every turn.

The kind of political violence we’ve seen in other parts of the country has yet to really rear its head here this season, but it’s still early. I like to think that we’re an exception, that New Yorkers are accustomed to a certain level of general animosity and dislike for one another and that by necessity we don’t let it get out of hand. But this year could prove me wrong; it’s proven me wrong at every turn so far.

When I was in high school I was lucky enough to visit Rome. It’s a beautiful city full of great history and art. The people were nice too.

New York will survive and be here forever, long after the American empire has done the way of the Roman one. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for at this point. We do what we can and look out for our own, try to remain strong and leave our bloodlines in good shape for the future. Let our blood survive while society drives itself asunder. It’s happened before; we can fight one another but we can’t stand except from human nature or the forces of history.

This is going to be a long, hot summer.

Political enemies make the best friends

There is a popular meme being widely shared on social media. It depicts several of current crop of presidential candidates and says, “If you are voting for any of these candidates, please unfriend me now …. Just kidding. I’m not twelve.”

It’s a funny meme and one people ought to take to heart. I learned long ago that political views and personalities are not one and the same. Just because someone agrees with you on political philosophy and public policy doesn’t mean they are agreeable people are even good people. You will find that you will completely loathe some of your own allies more than your sworn enemies. A person’s personality is not dictated by their politics.

Some of my most productive and pleasant conversations have been with people on the extremes, the outside of what is considered proper or viable political discourse. These people could speak honestly with me because they had nothing to lose. They didn’t have to put on airs to convince themselves or the world around them who they were. Their outlier status bestowed on them an easy confidence that meant they didn’t have to prove who they were or make a dramatic demonstration to establish their identity at every turn.

I have friends who span the political spectrum from far left to far right. Some of my friends would be horrified that I’m friends with communists, cops, Black Lives Matter protesters, white nationalists, transgender activists, Republicans, Democrats, Green Party activists, Libertarians, and more. I’m friends with active duty military members as well as pacifists, anti-war demonstrators as well as veterans (and some of the most fervent anti-war people I know are veterans).

I didn’t set out to cultivate friendships from every political persuasion, it just happened that way. I’ve met lots of interesting people from all walks of life. I value the friendships I’ve made along the way even though I will always disagree with many of my friends on the important issues of the day. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I don’t want to live in a world where everyone agrees with me. That would be a strange place and no fun at all. Life is better when your ideas are challenged and you are exposed to ideas on all sides. Many of the opinion writers I read are people I rarely agree with but their arguments are so well written I can’t resist. Also, how will you learn to defend your ideas unless they are challenged by worthy adversaries?

Also, human beings are complex, many-sided beings. The person who may be very conservative on one issue may be very liberal on another. No one worth knowing is a completely blank slate of ideological talking points. No one with a sound intellect can be pigeon-holed into a stereotypical ideological bracket on every matter.

There’s nothing wrong with despising someone’s ideas or speaking your mind when it’s appropriate. But trying to pick and choose your friends by an ideological litmus test will lead you to quickly paint yourself into a corner.

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