Sunday, August 31, 2008

Obama Kids

If you read Barack Obama’s website, you’ll note that there are frequent refer- ences to “The Movement.” For Obama’s earliest supporters, many of them in their teens, 20s and 30s, their involvement to date has not been in a political campaign, but in a social movement for progressive change; Obama is not their candidate so much as their hero. So it was not surprising to read the article in today’s New York Times, “Political Realities May Pose a Test to Obama’s Appeal to Young Voters,” which explains that some of these young folks felt “marginalized” in Denver and, in general, are feeling uncomfortable about their hero’s behaving like a politician. “We understand the politics of compromise…,” says 19-year-old Ian Bowman-Henderson, “…but we picked him because we didn’t want the same kind of politics – that’s what set him apart.”

Just the other night, I was talking to a friend about the Democratic Convention, and I said that I was happy for these kids that they had a movement to be part of, recalling how connected and productive and grown-up I felt as part of the movements of the 60s and 70s. But as I learned when I volunteered for the McCarthy for President campaign, the rules change once you start working the big room, the White House. That’s just how it is. Working within the system means just that.

I sincerely believe three things: (1) Obama is a politician who is also a genuine leader, one of the first we’ve had in a long time; (2) Obama indeed wants to bring a fresh approach to American governance, but he has to get elected first; (3) Obama cannot win without the efforts of his young, brave army for change. He needs his Movement to hang in with him in order to make it. Let me say that again: Obama cannot win without the efforts of his young, brave army for change. He needs his Movement to hang in with him in order to make it.

If you’re serious about wanting to effect meaningful change in this country, you cannot afford to be impatient or over-sensitive or self-involved, let alone petulant. Being truly connected, productive and grown-up requires drawing strength from within yourself and from each other, as well as the object of your adoration. And you have to trust your leader to know what’s necessary as well as what’s good, and stick with him for the entire process.

It’s much easier, much less frustrating, to not care and to not be involved in making change. It’s hard work and the fun part is small – but the larger, ultimate victory can be thrilling. Can you imagine how differently the country might have developed if, in the wake of the King and Kennedy assassinations in 1968, people had engaged in unprecedented mass expressions of non-violence and commitment to peaceful change, instead of rioting or walking away, and letting McGovern lose to Nixon?

You must register everyone you can, convince the unconvinced and undecided, rouse the politically lethargic and soothe the politically enraged. You must remember that the disciplined, committed conservatives will be working very hard to defeat you. Nothing can change, or be repaired, or be achieved, unless Obama gets elected first. Mahatma Gandhi told his followers, “Even if what you do is of little significance, it is of vital importance that you do it.” Play whatever part you can, no matter how small. Don’t lose heart, don’t lose sight, don’t let go. The weary veterans of past campaigns are depending on you.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Savoring the Moment

This is a picture of my parents, an inter- racial couple who were married for over 45 years. These lifelong Democrats did not live to see an African-American accept their party’s nomination for President, or to vote for him this coming November. They were great fans of the Clintons and I often wondered during the primary epoch who they would have been rooting for leading up to the convention, and if they would have been in agreement on their choices. But I have no doubt that after hearing Obama’s acceptance speech, they would have answered the call for Democratic unity and gotten behind Barack. They would have enjoyed this convention, and been deeply moved by the historic milestone of the first black candidate of a major party officially launching his full campaign on the 45th anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And they’d have gotten a special kick out of the fact that Obama is actually biracial, just like their own sole offspring. We shared many conventions together. I’ve missed my folks a lot this week.

I’m securely on board the change train. Obama spoke very well, talked very straight, and said the things that needed saying. I liked the way he took John McCain head on without being insulting or mean; that he warned against the Republicans’ tendency to “make a big campaign about small things”; that he referred unflinchingly to long-contentious hot-button issues: abortion, gun control and gay rights, among them, and called for sensible compromise in an imaginative approach that is undeniably new in American politics. He cited more than two dozen specifics of his strategy for change and, overall, succeeded in looking forceful and presidential.

I’ve absorbed just a little of the Republican commentary on the Democratic convention and have been absolutely stunned by their nastiness, outright lies, deliberate misinterpretations, and playing all the other cards of obfuscation and fear in the political deck. I imagine that John McCain watched Barack Obama’s acceptance and went into a swoon of fury and surprise; what else could explain his selection of a conservative hockey-mom for vice president? I think Obama will make chopped meat out of him in the debates, and that, much like Humphrey Bogart as the uber-paranoid Capt. Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, McCain will unintentionally show his anger and lack of qualification and be felled by them.

Meanwhile, Obama has to get elected, which I’m now more hopeful will happen, thanks to the army of 85,000 campaign workers who were energized by the convention and its history-making candidate. Peggy Noonan, the brilliant political writer with seriously wrong-headed views, said in today’s Wall Street Journal that “Mr. Obama left a lot of space for Mr. McCain to play the happy warrior next week. He left the Republicans a big opportunity to wield against him, in contrast [to Obama’s seriousness], humor, and wit, and even something approximating joy.” Joy? If the Republicans are joyful, all that feeling reflects is the contentment and sheltered reality of the nation’s upper crust. That any working and middle class persons connect with those people never ceases to amaze me.

I’m giving myself the privilege of ignoring McCain and his minions for the weekend, so I can just enjoy the extraordinary fact that an African-American with a world-class mind and an innovative biracial understanding of polarizing issues is running for President of the United States. My parents would have wanted it that way.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Audacity of Defiance

After I watched the third night of the Democratic Convention, I saw the film The Defiant Ones, Stanley Kramer’s 1958 classic tale of racism and redemption starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. For those of you under 50 or just not a fan of old movies: The Defiant Ones tells the story of two prisoners escaped from a chain gang, one black, one white, neither enamored of the other, forced to work together to survive because they’re chained together. Animosity gives way to cooperation, but they are ultimately overwhelmed by the powers that be, and betrayed by someone who could have been an ally but is corrupted by a desperate need to escape her circumstances, too. In the end, by the time the men are caught, they’re unchained, but united by friendship. It occurred to me that the movie could be viewed as an interesting and disturbing metaphor for the 2008 election.

Those who believe that racial prejudice and social division in America – still the unconfronted elephant in the room of this campaign – have been largely overcome by law and time, are (a) mistaken and (b) not understanding the true process of unity. Whites and non-whites will never band together because of social dictates to do so, but rather, because everyone will finally recognize that our mutual survival depends on our ability to cooperate. And our ability to cooperate will inevitably arise out of our capacity for dealing with confrontation, then rising above it. Both our unspoken woundedness and our politeness are keeping us apart.

I’ve long believed that our country would never unite unless there was some massive calamity, like California breaking off and floating out to sea, or we were visited by aliens from another world; not until we were faced with the little green men would we be able to accept the black, white, brown, yellow and red of our shared humanity. The task ahead for the Obama/Biden team is to effectively convince White America that the Iraq War and the national debt are a massive calamity and we’ve already been visited by aliens: the Bush Administration and its neo-con devotees who live in a rarified other world and are green with greed and self-interest.

During his acceptance speech tonight, I hope Barack Obama can find a compelling and appealing way to explain that we are indeed chained together by recession, inflation, oil-dependency, corporate outsourcing, the cost of war mongering, the burden of debt and the stress of insecurity. I hope he’ll say that if we unite to survive, we can overcome the powers that be before they destroy us. I hope that argument can convince enough white people to vote for a black man. Otherwise, it’s back to the chain gang for us all.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Portrait of a Lady

The much-anticipated speech by Michelle Obama on the first night of the 2008 Democratic National Convention was preceded by a folksy speech by her brother and a biographical film produced by Ken Burns and narrated by her mother. It all left me feeling good, but very subdued. She looked lovely in a light green dress against the stage’s blue background (enough color differential to stand out but not look too bold...) with a broad expanse of décolletage (not revealing, just enough to subliminally say I’m Open...).

She spoke beautifully and her accomplishments, detailed in the film, were undeniably impressive. So I found it discomfitting that she had to do what she was there to do: make herself and her husband seem less scary to White America. The reason she had to do this was, of course, never acknowledged, let alone addressed: the fact that there are millions of Americans who have had no first-hand experience of middle-class blacks – and that’s really what they’re revealing when they say they don’t yet know who Obama is.

White society has been programmed by pop culture and the news media to think that the black underclass and its hip-hop/pimps & hos ethos are what define African-American perspective and experience. They don’t understand that Michelle Obama’s deliberately Mom-and-apple-pie performance was born not of political artifice, but of the genuine and demanding values of the black middle-class, which is historically rooted in church, family, community, education, and a stringent work ethic. As a group, they are very private, proper, focused, and firmly cognizant of the fact that to be black and successful in America still requires that one be ten times better (more disciplined, more proficient, more accomplished) than the white competition. And it’s always competitive, always, and exhausting, because you can never let your guard down.

Understanding this demographic profile helps explain why the Obamas can seem aloof and elite, a little stiff, a little humorless, somehow insincere. A few years ago, I worked closely with a middle-aged black woman who was the president of a long-established non-profit organization. She confided to me that, as was once expressed by writer Toni Morrison, she does not entirely trust white people. She has many valued white colleagues and good white friends, but there is a part of her that is always waiting for the other shoe to drop. If Mrs. Obama privately feels much the same, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, nor could I fault her.

The best part of Michelle Obama’s appearance was the very fact of it. You could see the pride in the expressions on black faces throughout the hall, young and old alike. Here was this poised, pretty, black woman, a successful lawyer, a loving wife, a devoted mother, a loyal daughter, standing before them preparing to be First Lady. First Lady! It was a triumph a long time comin’. But this is politically correct 2008 and we’re not allowed to use the “R” word, so nobody could give voice to the miracle.

Who would have thought that when we finally had a black presidential candidate we’d have to pretend not to notice? Race, its mysteries and its miseries in our divided America, will continue to rear its pointed little head as the campaign continues. I wish this convention could crack it open, like a piñata filled with spiders and stars.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Conventional Wisdom

In past presidential election years, I’ve always looked forward to the conventions. The Republicans consistently offer constructive aggravation: enough bullshit, self-righteousness, heartlessness, cluelessness and corn to inspire sputtering rage and get my heart racing. Conservatives are my cardio. I’m confident I’ll get my work-out again this year.

The Democrats are a dramatic comedy, it’s always a mixed emotional bag with them. They engage me as I look at the delegates who, despite all their silly campaign “flair,” radiate with a fair amount of intelligence/literacy, a refreshing quantity of diversity, and a few gratifying moments of grace. I’m happy to see the old warriors and the new hopefuls and the treasured icons. I still remember with teary fondness JFK Jr.’s appearance at the 1988 Democratic Convention: John-John, the toddler who saluted his slain father’s coffin, all grown up into a smart, dashing young man not yet a media rock star. And I remember the pride and hope and exhilaration I felt hearing Barack Obama speak for the first time at the 2004 Convention. A friend called me right after and said “We’ve just heard the first black President of the United States.” A lot of blood and politics under the bridge since then.

This year, I feel like I’m about to tune in to the finals of American Idol – only in this case, the eventual outcome really matters. There were times over the past 18 months that I thought we’d never get here and it’s still three more months to Election Day. So it’s essential that the Democrats put on a really good show, since it seems that’s what politics is in 21st century America, where the cashiers at fast-food restaurants press register keys with pictures of food instead of numbers. And they shouldn’t worry that the TV ratings for the Convention won’t come anywhere near those of the actual American Idol (neither may the subsequent votes), it must still be spectacular. It has to have the power to wash away the heavy crusts of cynicism, bitterness, indifference and distrust that coat so many Americans. Like George Burns said when they asked him what was the secret to great acting, “The thing about acting is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you got it made.”

We need some creative liberal artifice to combat complacent affluence, war mongering, profiteering and oppression. The conservatives cry “Class warfare!” like it’s a bad thing, but we are in the midst of a most desperate class war and the poor, working class and middle class are losing, big time. The Democratic Convention must be a splendid kick-off to the battle royal ahead.

The mainstream media has done and is doing a piss-poor job of covering this campaign with any real measure of gravitas and humor, intelligence, and insight. I hope they shape up for the Convention and the remainder of the campaign – but I also hope I win the lottery; I’m not getting my hopes up. But hope springs eternal.

This is some of what I’m not hearing anyone say:

Because nobody wants to discuss race forthrightly and intelligently, no one has explained that Barack Obama may occupy the social category of African-American, but he is inherently biracial; I’m biracial and I know how this works. He is, by every fiber of his being, a conciliator. He has not been equivocating about his views and positions, he has been seeking common ground with the opposition. George Bush has no concept of the Loyal Opposition. Have his ignorance and arrogance made everyone forget what negotiation and compromise look like? Is our microwave impatience so all consuming that we don’t understand you can’t effect significant change quickly, or all at once, or before you get into power? Obama is not a revolutionary, he’s a change agent, there’s a difference.

Joe Biden may in some ways be the epitome of traditional Washington, but he’s also a decent guy with working/middle class sensibilities who is well-known, well-respected, and knows how the system works. Since dismantling the system before you have something concrete and effective to replace it with is, to say the least, counter-productive, it’s important to have a senior associate who’s got your back. Obama and Biden don’t make a good show-biz team and that’s unfortunate; that’s what Barack/Hillary would have been. But they make a good leadership team. Do we remember leadership?

This country is in astonishingly serious trouble and four more years of Bush-style governance could destroy us. Obama/Biden are not a panacea, but they are a viable alternative to genuine disaster. We should try not to make the Ancient Mayan prediction of the end of the world in 2012 a self-fulfilled prophecy.

I’m polishing up my non-flat, non-high-definition, TV screen. I have to remember to buy popcorn.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The President is Screwing Women Who Screw

An infuriatingly underreported action was taken yesterday by President Bush and his henchman at the Department of Health and Human Services. The August 21st press release issued by the HHS, headlined Regulation Proposed to Help Protect Health Care Providers from Discrimination, describes a new regulation, now formally and officially “proposed,” that would “…increase awareness of, and compliance with, three separate laws protecting federally funded health care providers’ right of conscience… ‘This proposed regulation is about the legal right of a health care professional to practice according to their conscience,’ HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said. ‘Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience. Freedom of expression and action should not be surrendered upon the issuance of a health care degree’.”

As someone who has written countless press releases and practiced the delicate art of The Spin for a living, I am humbled by the audacity of the double-speak of this announcement and outraged by the insidious implications of the proposal. What it means in plain English, as the Boston Globe pointed out in a July 30th editorial warning against this measure (“A New Attack On Birth Control”), is that the “…proposed new regulation would expand the definition of abortion to include any form of contraception that can work by stopping implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus. This can include common birth-control pills, emergency contraception, and the intra-uterine device, or IUD… The potential impact of this new rule on the more than 500,000 hospitals, family planning clinics, and medical offices that receive any form of federal funding could be dramatic… The proposed rule, while claiming to protect the rights of nurses and doctors, would interfere with patients’ rights. A woman seeking treatment could be denied birth control and not even be aware that the service was available – only denied to her because of the unexpressed personal beliefs of the practitioner…”

Why are the anti-choice zealots – including the one who heads the HHS – opposed to birth control, the very practice that prevents unwanted pregnancies and therefore decreases the incidence of abortion? Because the anti-abortion movement has always been less about abortion itself and more about punishing women who are sexually active. They are, first and foremost, anti-sex and anti-woman as an autonomous being. And most dangerous of all, these fanatics feel completely justified in imposing their views of morality and proper sexual behavior on everyone else.

Here in America, we officially claim shock and disapproval of the treatment of women in other cultures, particularly countries where the strictures of Islam and other socially conservative beliefs hold sway. Yet through indifference, ignorance and a complete lack of appreciation of the seriousness of the situation, most Americans – including women – behave as if the reproductive health and freedom of women are secured and unchallenged. That ain’t so, as this proposal demonstrates. President Self-Righteous promised the Religious Right a going-away-present and this is it. And despite vociferous opposition from Congress, clergy and the medical establishment, this proposal is set to become law in 30 days. Planned Parenthood regards this as one of the most outrageous assaults on the personal rights of women ever proposed and is launching an all-out campaign to defeat it. I urge you to visit their site and do whatever you can to support their efforts. The right to sexual freedom you save could be your own.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

What's Going On?

The awkward progress of the Campaign Without End knocked the wind out of me this week. I’m dismayed by how feeble Obama has seemed since his triumphant return from overseas and the out-of-the-limelight status produced by his ill-timed vacation, while McCain has started looking and sounding stronger. The usually-eloquent Obama essentially stuttered through the faith-themed town hall shindig, making a wincingly uncomfortable proclamation about Jesus as his personal savior that rang hollow (and obligatory) juxtaposed against McCain’s more straightforward story about his encounter with a Vietnamese prison guard who turned out to be a compassionate fellow Christian. Then Obama equivocated through a clumsy definition of wealth that would justify a tax increase, while McCain’s classic tax-and-spend assault sounded friendlier than Obama’s sensible objection to a $10-billion-a-month bill for the Iraq War. McCain’s objection to a few-million-dollar study of the DNA of bears seemed more on the mark. How is this possible?!

For the first time, I feel like it’s starting to look as if McCain could actually pull this thing off – not because people want more years in the Bush, but because they still don’t understand what Obama actually wants. Is this a déjà vu of Stevenson vs Eisenhower? Obama’s youth in comparison with McCain’s antiquity is starting to appear like the inexperience Obama has consistently been accused of – and little Cindy McCain’s sympathy-inspiring sprained wrist isn’t helping matters. I’d like to believe that the upcoming Democratic Convention will set things back on track, but it’s the Republicans who will have the last prime-time-gala word before the election. I’ve been thinking that ballooning costs and the obvious recession would aid the movement for change, but now I’m wondering if the fear born of hard times will overwhelm people’s anger and make playing it safe and familiar seem like the more appropriate path. Are the Democrats really going to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

There’s no doubt in my mind that Hillary, the more traditional of the two Democratic options, would have known how to beat McCain at his own game – which is why she was my candidate of choice in the first place. But I urgently, sincerely, want to see Obama free us from eight years of dangerous, expensive, damaging idiocy. I hope Obama will recognize this odd and unfortunate turn of events and battle it quickly with stronger, more direct language and descriptions of policy. I hope he will not select John Kerry as his veep, which has been rumored of late. I hope he will deign to fight a little dirtier, whatever that means, if that’s what it takes. And I hope John McCain dozes off with his head in his soup at some major public function. Political times call for desperate measures. And crazy dreams.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Year in the Tower

It was August 12th last year that I launched MizB’s Views From the Tower and in the usual manner of the computer/ Internet/digital world where one year equals seven in the speed of change, the blogosphere has gotten much larger and more powerful in its social impact. For me, this blog has been a personal catharsis, a welcome platform for my opinions, and a very happy adventure in writing for myself (as opposed to writing for hire), something I’ve done precious little of in recent decades.

It occurred to me as I was contemplating this anniversary and examining my blog with as much of an objective eye as I could ogle, that I’ve said almost nothing about myself as a writer. (If I were in therapy, I could spend a small fortune working that out.) So, for the record, here are the Cliff Notes of my credits: After writing lots of poetry and songs in my teens and with no serious focus on becoming a professional writer (I was too busy being fixated on the turmoil of the times and having fantasies of being a singing/songwriting star), I fell into my third full-time job: a junior publicist/talent coordinator for a company that produced traveling photo trade shows. For many years, p.r. was one of those professions that people fell into, like Alice going down the rabbit hole, a step down for journalists, a step up for writing wannabes. These days people go to school for it, but either you have a gift for language and the art of persuasion or you don’t.

That was the start of a 30+ year career as a p.r. and business writer/consultant that eventually included stints as a staff writer at HBO, the director of editorial services for the PBS flagship station Thirteen/WNET in New York, staff writer at a few entertainment p.r. firms (becoming vice president at one of them), running my own freelance writing business for 11 years, and teaching p.r. writing at NYU’s School of Continuing Education. I co-wrote a book on the promotion of independent film and worked on behalf of scores of A-list clients/projects in live entertainment, television, social service and civil society. I wrote hundreds of press kits and executive/ celebrity interviews, and thousands of individual press materials, as well as numerous op-eds, client proposals and campaign strategy plans. I was extensively published, often verbatim, but almost never with a byline; a well-established ghost. Then I got sick at the end of 2003 and went into hiding until I started Views From the Tower last summer.

A good friend recently said he thinks my blog is an incongruous combination of the genuinely profound and the outright crazy and I should separate them into two blogs – and, of course, I understand which subjects he feels fall into which category. This is precisely the sort of sensible counsel I myself gave to a number of difficult clients over the years. But having spent my writing life doing the bidding of others, I’m now taking great pleasure in doing my own thing and expressing the real me: an incongruous combination of the genuinely profound and the outright crazy. I’m at that liberating age where I don’t particularly care if people think I’m one or the other or both. And considering that life as a whole in 2008 is dangerously short on profound and absolutely drowning in crazy, I’m not sure it makes a whole lot of difference.

I’ve put virtually all the time I’ve spent on this blog into writing/designing it and almost none into promoting it which, given my background, is both revealing and stupid. I plan to get the word out this year. I don’t really know who my audience is, but I suspect I’m an acquired taste, like olives and sushi. No doubt the coming year will reveal who’s out there. Meanwhile, I thank those of you who have been visiting me in the Tower this past year and hope you’ll continue to stop by. And please leave comments more often, if you would; I’m eager to know your responses and to learn what’s on your mind in your tower. Anniversary greetings!