Wednesday, December 10, 2014

How Many Light Bulbs Does It Take To Change America?

Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” is playing as I write this because for the last few weeks (and more) that’s what’s happened for a lot us – those of us paying attention, those of us who don’t have the money or the heart to get lost in the Christmas hustle that feels so unimportant and unreal this year. We as a nation have been awash in waves of shame and pride: our own, each others, those of leaders and idols and ordinary people turned into symbols they never wanted to be.

Yesterday’s CIA “Torture Report” was so revolting it actually inspired bipartisan anger and shame in the Senate. We already knew “intensified interrogation techniques” (G-d save us from the danger of euphemisms) had been used after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the governmental zeal to preempt further assaults. But we didn’t how deeply, cruelly “intensified” they were, or for how long they went on, against so many people, and how ineptly and chaotically the process was handled. “This isn’t who we are,” said an aggrieved President Obama about the program approved by his predecessor. But it is. It’s a big part of who we are and have always been, in spirit, from the genocide of the Indians through Slavery, Jim Crow, Vietnam, and the deeply divided country we’ve become.

And from Ferguson to Staten Island to Cleveland (among others), the recent racial conflicts between police and young Black men (and a child) have made it plain that largely White law enforcement still doesn’t know how to cope with Black communities; that the Judicial System is equally broken and ignorant; and that Americans of all ages and colors are still capable of uniting in peaceful, nonviolent protest against the cancer of racism. Dirty waves of shame, cleansing waves of pride.

A lot of people – mostly White – thought the election of President Obama showed that racism was over in America, an idea that would be hilarious if it weren’t so treacherously untrue. I recall the young, rousing, Barack Obama speaking at the 2004 Democratic Convention saying there was no Black America or White America, just One America. I understood how much he wanted that to be so. I too am biracial and when I was still quite young, I believed it was my destiny, my responsibility, to be a communicator and a racial unifier, because I had a foot in both worlds. I never did figure out how to do that and, it turns out, neither has Barack Obama, even though he’s a whole lot smarter than I am and worked a million times harder.

The unfortunate, revealing, truth is Obama’s election fueled a resurgence of rampant, outspoken, unapologetic racism. I’m sure he expected some push-back, but I think even he was taken off-guard by how forceful it’s been. I don’t think he expected it would grind Congress to a halt, or lead a right-slanted Supreme Court to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act in the midst of a nationwide Voter Suppression Movement, or that he would be called an illegitimate president who is behaving like a king because he’s done the same kinds of things the White presidents did – mainly, behaving like The President.

As we enter a two-year campaign for the 2016 presidential election (please, shoot me now), the pundits are discussing the Obama Legacy, as if it can be assessed just like any other presidency. His legacy, for the record, is that he kept us out of another Great Depression, re-grew the economy quite impressively with no help from either house of Congress, achieved a first attempt at something resembling national health care insurance even though it’s woefully sloppy and over-detailed, accomplished a bushel of things few people either know about or remember (take a look at the White House website), appointed two progressive women to the Supreme Court, conducted himself with presidential dignity in the face of consistent disrespect, managed to get re-elected and be a two-term president, and to date has avoided assassination, even though, it would appear, the Secret Service doesn’t entirely have his back.

Now the media are asking what he’s going to do about racism in America – especially since he’s worked so hard to be The President, not The Black President, and hasn’t wanted to make White people feel…excluded? ignored? uncared for? The irony here (one of several) is that even though White people hold all the cards, a lot of them always feel short-changed because they think poor people and minorities get all the breaks and benefits. They really believe that! The same way rich people (who, except for a handful of entertainers and athletes, are pretty much exclusively White) think they’re taken advantage of because they’re rich. The mind reels.

I guess we’ll have to [hope and] wait for Hillary Clinton. Maybe she can do something about “race relations,” since paying any attention to women’s issues would clearly be favoritism. Shame and pride, pride and shame, and the increased loss of personal and national innocence as the eternal foibles of reality bubble up. And I don’t even have room left to talk about Bill Cosby.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Solutions

It’s a cool, dry, late Sunday morning here in New York City and if I had the emotional strength, I could be watching the major, weekly political talk shows (Meet the Press and such) that are no doubt now taking the “long view” perspective on Tuesday’s election (in 21st century time, that’s five days later instead of five minutes later). But I have my own long view perspective, and, I’ve received several emails over the past few days offering very specific approaches to what ails us as a nation, the contents of which I want to share with you. They show that there is hope, there are things everyone can do.

My own perspective is that what will happen legislatively over the next two years is anybody’s guess, because the Republicans are not going to stop being who they are – although it appears that the less wildly crazy wing of the party seems to now be in charge. But their core allegiance to the rich and corporate, and their inbred lack of understanding and concern for everyone and everything else, remains intact.

The President, while being genuinely willing to negotiate and compromise – which he has been willing to do since Day One, while the Republicans have been busy hating him and obstructing everything he’s tried to do – is, I believe, also more intent on pushing forward with the things he actually believes in, the things he hasn’t heretofore been very aggressive about, to the consternation of his Progressive base. So what will actually happen is a crap shoot and will no doubt be interesting and aggravating to watch.

Fortunately, there are people out there, people with actual political power, who see some opportunities for Democrats (legislators and ordinary citizens alike) to get their act together and begin to articulate a cohesive message as they move through the molasses-paced 2016 campaign that has already begun, with a simple and sensible agenda.

My first email came from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which published an op-ed on the political website, The Hill, entitled “Route to Power for Democrats: Big Ideas,” which espouses the reasonable, progressive, Sen. Elizabeth Warren agenda of “taking on Wall Street, reducing student debt, and expanding Social Security benefits,” as a primary message that all practical working people can get behind.

The second message came from Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose primary message is that the influence of Big Money in politics (a privilege for the rich so smoothly sanctioned by the Supreme Court’s legitimization of the democracy-busting Citizen’s United fundraising operation) must be eradicated. He also stresses that the enormity of Income Inequality, which pits the tiny but extraordinarily wealthy Billionaire Class (several hundred families holding 95% of the nation’s wealth) against the rest of us (that famous, or infamous, 1% vs. 99% equation) must be balanced with significant tax reform, a stronger labor movement, and a federally-increased minimum wage.

To increase public involvement in and support for this agenda, one of the many things Sen. Sanders is doing is proposing that Election Day be made a Federal Holiday called Democracy Day to promote the meaning and importance of democracy and the vital role that ordinary folks play in it by voting (and making it easier to vote because as a federal holiday, people will get a paid day off from work). He has proposed a bill and created a petition that you can sign.

Last but not least came a wonderful article by one Mark Morford published in San Francisco’s SFGate entitled “The Best Worst President Ever,” which strives to explain why much of the middle and upper classes have come to embrace the Republican Big Lie that Barack Obama is the “worst President ever.” No one can deny that the President has made mistakes and is not a perfect person or a perfect President (no human is perfect!). But many people are willing to entirely dismiss his considerable accomplishments for both political – and racist – reasons. This is a good and important read. 

Indeed, if you click on all the links in this blog post you will learn a lot more about how progressive Democrats and Independents (and maybe even secretly-rational Republicans) can work from this important point forward to avoid the United States of America turning into a full-scale oligarchy disaster.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Now What?

I watched British mysteries on PBS until 11:00 last night, because I didn’t want to see election returns until there was more certainty about the results. When I finally clicked onto MSNBC, everyone was talking so fast and so much was flashing quickly on and off the screen that it took me a few minutes to understand what was going on – but it didn’t take too long. Democrats had been creamed from coast to coast. There were renewed and additional Republican Governors; more Republicans in the House with an increase in Tea Party crazies; and indeed, the Republicans had taken over the Senate.

Today, those of us who were listening heard Mitch McConnell (by political necessity) and President Obama (by leadership responsibility) talk about working together more productively on issues about which they can find some measure of common ground – chiefly immigration reform, infrastructure repair, and foreign trade (according to the President). But neither of these leopards has changed his ideological spots. McConnell is no friend of the common (wo)man or liberal ideals, and the President is still firm on general health care, the funding of the “Big 3” benefit programs (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) and environmental realities – including, of course, climate change.

I’ve also been watching political analysis throughout the day and there seems to be general agreement that there will be less gridlock and more actual governance than the Republicans have allowed over the past six years; that the Republicans successfully communicated the idea that the nation’s ills were the President’s fault and managed to avoid addressing real issues at all; and that the Democrats shot themselves in their fractured, disconnected feet by not unifying behind the President’s considerable achievements. It was also felt that those Americans who voted, as well as those who didn’t, were both expressing their anger with what has become the dysfunctional status quo.

What politicians in both parties will do from hereon in remains to be seen. But what can we, as citizens, do to influence their actions? I didn’t hear/read any discussion of this, which I find both peculiar and unfortunate. Because in the final analysis, all politicians want votes. They spend huge amounts of money to get votes and accept that money from some very questionable characters. Ironically and importantly, many, if not most, Americans are not political junkies. Many Democrats campaigned on the dangers of Big Money in politics, in particular the bedeviled influence of the Koch Brothers. Apparently most people don’t know who they are or care. And many people don’t connect the dots between their own hard times and Big Money, its key reactionary donors, and the ever-increasing wealth of the 1% (there are now twice as many billionaires as there were before the 2008 crash).

Indeed, virtually all of the pundits I heard today agreed that what most people care about is that they’re increasingly broke; unemployed or under-employed; can’t handle their debt, especially education debt; and fear for their future and their children’s future. In other words, most people are concerned with their own lives and don’t see how their own circumstances fit into the larger, total picture. I hate to imagine that most people are that stupid, that narrow in their perspective, but nothing else explains 2/3 of eligible voters not voting, and the 1/3 that did largely casting their lot with the party that the President doesn’t belong to, because they believe Daddy President should make things better for them and he hasn’t so he’s a bad Daddy President. As the radicals I hung out with in my 20s used to say, “Gimme a break, gimme a gun.” 

If I thought a well conceived and efficiently organized Liberal Revolution were possible, I’d advocate for one. Alas, I don’t think it is, so I don’t. Instead, under the heading “Now What?” I advocate the following: (1) pay closer attention to the news, get your news from more than one source, and start connecting the dots (2) write to everyone in your political world: Mayor, City Council President, State Senator & Assembly-person, U.S. Congress-person & Senators, and the President. Tell them what issues you care about, both the ones that affect you directly and the rest that you recognize affect us all as a nation and as citizens of the world, and (3) remember that democracy is a living, breathing thing made up of all of us thinking critically and participating in the political process. Use the next two years to get ready and in 2016 be fully aware of what’s what and what’s right and vote accordingly. It’s the only real shot we’ve got.

Monday, November 03, 2014

I Know, But PLEASE Vote Anyway!

When I think of the brave efforts made and terrible horrors endured by both the Suffragists of the early 20th century and the Civil Rights activists of the 50s and 60s so that women and blacks could secure the right to vote, it makes me very sad that so many people today have come to view voting as pointless.

I do understand why. Our governments – locally, statewide and federally – have become completely co-opted by Big Money: corporations, lobbyists for various industries, and rich individuals, whose only concerns are maintaining and furthering their own interests. In both houses of Congress, the vast majority of Representatives and Senators are (1) male, (2) white and (3) millionaires, multi-millionaires and a few billionaires. Their concern seems to be getting elected (and re-elected) to their cushy jobs with good salaries (everyone needs pin money), extraordinary benefits & perks, and very brief actual-work periods.

The Republicans, once a stodgy party interested primarily in minimal government spending and low taxes for the upper middle class and rich (when rich wasn’t yet obscenely ├╝ber wealthy), has moved so far to the Lunatic Fringe Right and Ultra Conservative that they have zero concern for anybody’s human rights, civil rights, health & well-being, education, or anything else that should accompany citizenship for all citizens. In the name of Christianity (which shouldn’t even be in the picture!), they’ve decided that they and they alone hold the moral high ground on every conceivable issue. And ever since the election of America’s first black President, all that has been transparent is their racism and determination to prevent him from functioning – and they’ve made a good job of it!

But perhaps even more disappointing are the Democrats. We know who and what the Republicans are. But who and what are the Democrats? They’re disconnected from each other; generally cowardly when it comes to speaking to and acting against any sort of formidable, oppositional power; they have been unsupportive of their own President; and as a result of all this, have failed utterly to combat the 1% on behalf of the rest of us. They appear to be a bit more willing and able to rise to the occasion for this critical mid-term election and the endless campaign for the 2016 Presidency that will immediately follow, but still, it is indeed hard to work up a whole lot of enthusiasm for them. 

ALL THAT SAID, IT IS STILL VITALLY IMPORTANT THAT EVERYONE WHO CAN VOTE MAKE IT TO THE POLLS TOMORROW. There is no same day registration/voting in NYC (I checked); I don’t know about the rest of the state, or whatever locale and state you live in. But unlike Presidential elections, during which you might legitimately feel that your blue or red state is going to go blue or red with or without you, EVERY SINGLE VOTE IN THIS ELECTION MATTERS, BECAUSE EVERYTHING IS DETERMINED BY THE POPULAR VOTE

If you don’t want to render President Obama completely impotent for the next two years, the Democrats, for all their weaknesses, must NOT lose control of the Senate. There are opportunities nationwide to get rid of some entrenched Republican Congressional representatives or avoid new ones. There are critical Governorships and State Senatorial races. There are important Propositions on the ballots of many states. There is an opportunity tomorrow to show by our numbers that we’re here and we do care about the governments we have. We may not be able to make great strides this time around, but we can rattle the status quo – perhaps just enough to enlarge Democratic balls and impact for 2016. Don’t give up yet. Please vote tomorrow and give what’s left of American democracy a fighting chance.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Working For Tips

There is presently a lot of heated social conversation about people who traditionally receive tips as part of their pay for work – namely those in the restaurant-bar, hotel, taxi-limousine, beauty service and travel service industries. They legally receive what’s known as a sub-minimum wage (apx. $5.00/hour) from their employers, because their tips, supposedly, bring them up to a living wage. That wasn’t true 30 or 40 years ago and it’s even worse now. That’s because more and more Americans, either out of ignorance or cheapness, are leaving smaller and fewer tips. So the question is: should the sub-minimum wage be increased? Would it surprise you to know that many Americans are saying no?

Tipping is a uniquely American custom, something Americans traveling abroad are delighted to discover and foreigners visiting here often learn to their embarrassment the first time they stiff a waiter or cab driver. There’s an irony here, since it appears that tipping began in the 1600s in England when men drinking in taverns gave money to servers “to insure promptitude” or T.I.P for short.

When the practice started to make its way into American bars and restaurants in the late 1890s, a movement against it rose up. Many Americans felt it was in opposition to the country’s ideals of class equality and would lead to the development of a “servile class” that would be rendered financially dependent on the rich. But the custom persisted – and grew – here, nonetheless.

Over time, tipping somehow went out of favor (in some instances out of legality) in Europe, and indeed created that “servile class” in America – which has never been a classless society, despite our delusions to the contrary. This explains why many Americans resent tipping and/or look down on people who work for tips and/or are ashamed to work in jobs that receive tips.

I was the daughter of a man who spent most of his working life first as a waiter and then as a skycap. He worked for tips. He worked very hard and put up with an assortment of indignities, but still never made enough to support a family, which is why my mother worked in the 1950s when most women were still housewives.

She worked until the 1980s, pouring her considerable intelligence into the bottomless, low-paying well of the pink ghetto, first as a bookkeeper, then as a comptroller, and finally as the manager of the subscription department of an elite specialty business newspaper – where she signed her letters “L. Browne,” lest the high-powered male subscribers suspect she was a woman. And meanwhile, my black father smiled as he allowed white people to rub his head for luck in the hope it would earn him a larger tip.

Since Ronald Reagan (whom I still blame for everything), America has been creating an economy and social mindset guided by millionaire Republican belief that the population is made up of Makers and Takers, an idea that middle class and working class Republicans buy into. That’s why so many people still think that teenagers are the ones working minimum-wage jobs, when the truth is, most teens can’t find jobs because the jobs they used to have are now held by adults trying to make a living and support their families. People working for tips are also doing the same thing.

In case you haven’t noticed, unless you (or you and your partner/spouse, if you have one) are bringing in a six-figure salary, nothing in America is affordable, anywhere – not housing, utilities, food, gas, a night at the movies, nothing – except clothing, house wares, and the smart electronic devices everyone loves so much, all of which are sold cheap because they’re made by indentured and child labor through the American “job creators” who are actually outsourcing those jobs to Third World countries. Welcome to the 21st century. 

It’s time to raise the minimum wage and the sub-minimum wage, federally. And it’s time for Americans who eat in American restaurants, stay in American hotels, ride in American taxis – etc. – to ante up and leave a decent 15-20% tip.  You’re not tipping for extraordinarily wonderful service, you’re tipping because that’s what we do here. It’s the American way.