Monday, July 20, 2009

The Fragility of Hope


I’ve been very sad this weekend, because of a synchronistic series of events that clarified my growing sense of dismay about Barack Obama’s approach to some major issues, and the promise of a unique, new, young president that is beginning to feel broken.

Friday afternoon, I gave a little editorial counsel to a friend in p.r. who’s working with a conservationist client, which naturally brought the many environmental problems that besiege us to the forefront of my mind. Then Friday night, I watched Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. His guests included two “radical” environmen-talists: Mary Sweeters, organizing manager of the controversial Greenpeace USA and Erich Pica, director of domestic programs at Friends of the Earth, an influential organization with 77 chapters worldwide.

Greenpeace USA recently staged a dramatic act of civil disobedience by scaling Mt. Rushmore and unfurling a massive banner from its famous presidential heads that said "America honors leaders, not politicians. Stop global warming." When asked to explain their purpose for the demonstration, Sweeters said, “Here you have four great presidents who really stepped up when they were faced with some of the biggest challenges that our nation has seen. And we felt like we wanted to send President Obama the same message. That we want him to step up in a similar manner and really lead the country the way that it needs to be led.”

Erich Pica seconded the emotion by explaining that the Waxman-Markey Climate Bill, which recently squeaked through Congress and will soon be further eviscerated in the Senate, is toothless and totally devoid of American global leadership, because it sorely lags behind the rest of the industrial world. He said: “The bill doesn't reduce global warming emissions in the United States fast enough…[and] the emission reduction targets are just inadequate… It strips away the EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions…which is a key tool that environmentalists have been using to shut down coal plants. …It gives away a tremendous amount of money. Hundreds of billions of dollars to the polluting industries that have, essentially, caused the problem of global warming. The Duke Energies, Shells, Conocos of the world. Gives a lot of free giveaways in terms of permits…and…this is kind of overwhelming the entire system: it relies on Wall Street to help solve the problem of global warming…by allowing them to manage the trading system that's created underneath this bill.”

I’ve certainly known that there was grumbling in many quarters about the inadequacy of the bill, but I didn’t know any of the specifics until I saw this program, and I didn’t realize the extent to which the president has been actively advocating for [debilitating] compromise. Indeed, in his prelude to the interview, Moyers quoted a recent piece in The Economist that said of Obama, "Rather than shaping public opinion, he is running scared of it. And so, even more, is Congress."

On Saturday, I got a panicky e-mail from Planned Parenthood explaining that the Health Care Reform Bill currently being crafted in Congress is being lobbied against by literally dozens of anti-choice groups who want to see shocking restrictions on women’s health care (not just decreased access to abortion, but a lessening of basic, routine, women’s health care, including contraception) built into the program; in other words, giving more women even less than they’re getting now. I was naturally incensed. At Planned Parenthood's request, I sent letters to my congressman and senators. And I always use my legal Reverend title on such letters and petitions, to give the appearance that this is the sound of the status quo clapping...

Then Saturday night, I saw Anderson Cooper’s pretty-good CNN report on the president’s recent trip to Africa, during which he and his family visited Cape Ghost Castle in Ghana: a fortress, a port, an underground city of indescribable slave dungeons where, over several hundred years, literally millions of Africans were brought and gruesomely imprisoned and tortured before being stacked and stored like cargo on slave ships that took them to the Caribbean and The New World.

This is not part of the president’s personal history, but it is for the First Lady, a direct descendant of slaves and slave owners. The president spoke poignantly about the eerie horror that still lingers like a mist over the place, and what a powerful impact the visit had on him, his wife and their daughters – whom he told to try and imagine what it must have been like for the millions of free humans who were captured, torn away from everything they knew, were treated like beasts and transported like inanimate objects to a life of brutal slavery in a far away land. He also told them to imagine what it was like to be in the slave business or a slave owner, to have complete and ruthless power over the lives of others -- not to sympathize with them, but to better understand the human capacity for inhuman behavior.

Barack Obama is a man who understands pain and injustice and suffering and bondage. He’s a man with affection and respect for the earth. And, I still believe he’s a very smart politician who wants to be an effective and meaningful president, to do good, to do right. I believe he wants this just as much as he wants to make history with a magnificent legacy. You can’t be a shrinking violet and become president. You have to crave power and want to use it.

Which is why I, like a growing number of other Americans, am feeling disappointed, confused, even betrayed. In his effort to transform Washington into a place where law and policy are made in a spirit of unity and cooperation, with everyone having a place at the table where they can sit with dignity and feel they’re being heard, he’s losing sight of something important: he won! He has the power to make the kinds of changes he believes in and that he made us believe in.

But he may blow it, because he’s trying to show that he can play the game better and in a new way. How he achieves what he wants to achieve seems to be as important to him as the goal itself. I think that was a marvelous idea. I don’t think it’s going to work. I think the time has come for him to do the right things by (you should excuse the expression…) any means necessary. Force it down the opposition’s throats. That’s the power of power!

I got addicted to the NBC-TV series The West Wing (pictured above) when it went into syndication on Bravo a few years back. I watched it avidly, repeatedly. It was like comfort food. In the midst of the George W. Bush administration, the idea of an educated, eloquent, caring president surrounded by a staff of bright idealists was enchanting. Interestingly, after Obama was elected, when I watched The West Wing, the dream seemed to pale against the reality.

The series’ President Bartlett was also a liberal who wanted to play the political game smartly – and as a result, as the series progressed, he didn’t accomplish most of what he wanted. In a pivotal episode, “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett,” the president is chastised by his chief of staff for playing it safe, and for being more concerned with winning a second term than getting the job done. By the end of the episode, the president confesses to being weary of a sense of pointlessness and failure, and vows to do what’s needed, even if it means he doesn’t get re-elected (which, by the way, he does, of course).

I say it’s time to Let Obama Be Obama. Be the firebrand, the shaman, the Minister of Hope you were during the campaign. Don’t sell your constituency of believers down the river in an effort to win the support of those who will never be on your side. We need new climate policy. We need new health care policy. But they have to be good, meaty, make-real-change policies. We need to put people ahead of banks and corporations, to put Main Street ahead of Wall Street.

Let Obama Be Obama. Let the revolution begin.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Rethinking Michael


Yesterday’s memorial service for Michael Jackson at the Staples Center in LA, most of which I’ve seen by now, took me by surprise – in what it said, literally and symbolically, and how it made me feel – emotionally, spiritually and politically.

Ever since Jackson’s death on June 25th at the age of 50 (apparently from cardiac arrest with some still-foggy details about drugs and negligence yet to be clarified), the mainstream media have been having a blood feast, with All-Michael-All-the-Time coverage that has been alternately honoring, exploiting, condemning and celebrating this genuinely unique entertainer and human being.

As the weeks passed and the constant Jackson coverage began to divide into two distinct categories – celebrity worship and celebrity trash – I started to get pissed off. Health care was on the Congressional table, the President went to Russia, the election in Iran turned into Tiananmen Square, Sarah Palin went underground, Al Franken finally won the title, unemployment rose to near-Depression levels, a few other significant people died, and a dozen other vital issues were on the line, including increased carnage in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet with only brief interruptions, Michael Jackson’s death was still the Top Story. It all began to feel more outrageous than usual, because we’re living in Post Economic Collapse America and we don’t have the time or the luxury to engage in this kind of tear-jerker tabloid media when real crisis, tragedy, and social/political phenomena are all around us.

But now I'm wondering if, crappy media notwithstanding, we needed this Princess Diana-style catharsis to re-awaken our sense of what's really important, particularly in this period of great social re-evaluation of our core values. And watching the memorial, I found myself (a) periodically bursting into tears and (b) having a series of epiphanies about social activism, race, and gender issues.

For starters, the always-controversial but increasingly salient Rev. Al Sharpton spoke powerfully and at length, and made important points I hadn’t really thought of before about the way Michael Jackson’s popularity and achievement significantly paved the way to success for many other black people in all spheres of endeavor, public and private. I had never thought of Jackson as a social/racial trailblazer, but he was.

Then at one point, Sharpton addressed Jackson’s children directly and said “There was nothing strange about your Daddy; what was strange was the way he was treated.” I balked at that at first, thinking, why can’t we honor him and still acknowledge that he was indeed an odd duck? But as the tribute continued and numerous photos/videos of Jackson illustrated the program, I began to think about his physical appearance in a new way.

According to which rumor mill you listen to, Michael was gay; no, he really was straight; no, he actually was a pervert who got off on kids; no, he was truly a case of arrested sexual development and more asexual than anything else. The make-up, the plastic surgery, the skin-lightening, the crotch-grabbing as an integral part of his dance style, the weird outfits, the glove, the masks: what did it amount to, what did it mean?

I don’t know, and I don’t know if the public at large will ever know. But I do know that it bears noting that it’s only in relatively recent years that the LGB community has acknowledged, accepted and championed the “T” population in their ranks, the transsexuals. I’m not saying Michael Jackson was a transsexual or even a transvestite (although, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, “not that there’s anything wrong with that…”). But I do think that one might consider that he was a “trans-gender” person in a literal sense, that he sought, creatively and perhaps personally, to literally transcend gender, to be neither and both in an effort, maybe conscious, maybe not, to be a person with no particular (or particularly clear) sexual identity in order to embody/personify humanity as a whole. Was he really that “deep”? Who knows? But now, in supposedly more-enlightened, educated, and broadminded 2009, might it not be time to re-examine his persona/appearance and consider him as original, ahead of his time, legitimate on his own terms, and purposeful?

Purposeful to what end? To spread a message of universal love and an acceptance/celebration of our one-ness. I should explain at this point that I was working full-time in entertainment p.r. when We Are the World was created and released – and as such I was cynical and dismissive of it as both a musical and social/political endeavor. I thought it was musically banal and I knew more than I needed to about why some celebrities were, and others were not, invited to “leave their egos at the door” for that mass super-star recording. Now, I think it’s entirely possible that Jackson was the only one who even tried to genuinely make his own fame secondary to a message he truly believed in. But at the time, who knew?

People in New York have been leaving floral tributes to Jackson on the John Lennon “Imagine” mandala in Central Park. Lennon’s song Imagine defined the credo of a generation and stands as an eternal anthem for the unity of humankind in every way, shape and form. Especially now, as a part of his legacy, can/will Jackson’s We Are the World and Heal the World, among some of his other songs, have the same power? Indeed, was Michael Jackson unfairly not recognized as the John Lennon of his genre? I loved Lennon and enjoyed much of his music, but Imagine, despite its impact and extant symbolism, ain’t Cole Porter in the category of sophisticated songwriting, it doesn't even have the raw melodic edge and poetry of Bob Dylan. It’s John Lennon at his sweet, hopeful, somewhat-na├»ve, and really rather "pop" best. So really, what’s the difference, since their message and the level of their celebrity were the same: love is all we need? And if there is no difference, isn’t that culturally and socially important – and heartening?

Which brings us back to race and politics, and leaves us at spirituality. There was a lot of God-talk at yesterday’s memorial, much of it specifically Christian, but with continual, deliberate efforts to be religiously inclusive. Surely this irritated the anti-religionists among us, but it seems Michael Jackson was a deeply and sincerely Christian man, and his belief in the importance of spirituality in any and all of its forms was apparently a central part of his creative message, as well as his personal ideals. To be honest, I hadn’t picked up on that years ago in the midst of all his sequined moon walking, but maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. The very diverse crowd of thousands at the Staples Center yesterday certainly were, and I think that’s a good thing.

So, what I'm thinking now is that between the impact of Michael Jackson’s life, work, philanthropy, gender-defiance and death, along with the impact of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and now his presidency, White America is seeing more black people who are not poor, ignorant, or stereotypically dangerous, than it ever has before. It is also witnessing a blending of races and an aspect of racial transcendence (there’s that “trans” word again) that it either feared or never imagined would come to be - but one way or another, some people are starting to think differently in racially-positive ways.

And the rest of the world – a world of many colors – is watching. A lot of the world is mourning Michael Jackson as much as it is celebrating Barack Obama (who, not incidentally, is now heading for Africa). In some important respects, it’s a whole new ballgame. Which is a good reason to rethink who, what, why and how Michael Jackson was and may continue to be a powerful reinforcement of some very interesting change and understanding, currently in progress.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Civics of Health Care


I am a fat smoker – and according to the arguments currently (hell, traditionally) being made to define what citizens most need to do to greatly lower the costs of health care is to combat obesity (it’s an epidemic!) and continue to tax, coerce and harass smokers into quitting – which makes me and those like me Bad Americans. I take objection to this Nanny State posture disguised as concern for the greater good, to being made to feel like a social pariah because, in today’s everything-must-be-politically-correct environment, one’s personal “bad habits” have become a legitimate public concern. This doesn’t face or solve the real health care problems and it’s neo-fascist bullshit – and here’s why.

First, according to the National Coalition on Health Care, the cost of health care in the U.S. in 2007 was $2.4 trillion, representing $7,900 per person and 17% of the GDP. Unchecked, this figure will reach $4.3 trillion and 20% of GDP by 2017. The Coalition notes that “Experts agree that our health care system is riddled with inefficiencies, excessive administrative expenses, inflated prices, poor management, and inappropriate care, waste and fraud. These problems significantly increase the cost of medical care and health insurance for employers and workers and affect the security of families.” My being a fat smoker – or not – does not and will not affect the gross deficiencies of the health care industrial complex.

Second, more specifically, according to Pub Med, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, “Recent estimates suggest that obesity accounts for 5.7% of US total direct health care costs, but these estimates have not accounted for the increased death rate among obese people. …Direct health care costs from 20 to 85 years of age were estimated to be approximately 25% lower when differential mortality was taken into account. Sensitivity analyses suggested that direct health care costs of obesity are unlikely to exceed 4.32% or to be lower than 0.89%. Conclusions: Increased mortality among obese people should be accounted for in order not to overestimate health care costs.”

Third, according to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, “Methods: We used three life tables to examine the effect of smoking on health care costs – one for a mixed population of smokers and nonsmokers, one for a population of smokers, and one for a population of nonsmokers. We also used a dynamic method to estimate the effects of smoking cessation on health care costs over time. Results: Health care costs for smokers at a given age are as much as 40% higher than those for nonsmokers, but in a population in which no one smoked the costs would be 7% higher among men and 4% higher among women than the costs in the current mixed population of smokers and nonsmokers. If all smokers quit, health care costs would be lower at first, but after 15 years they would become higher than at present. In the long term, complete smoking cessation would produce a net increase in health care costs, but it could still be seen as economically favorable under reasonable assumptions of discount rate and evaluation period. Conclusions: If people stopped smoking, there would be a savings in health care costs, but only in the short term. Eventually, smoking cessation would lead to increased health care costs.”

No honest, reasonable person will deny that there are frequently health problems associated with both obesity and smoking – but it bears noting that because of the physiological dynamics of obesity (such as the development of weight set-points and the fact that one may lose hundreds of pounds but one never loses a single fat cell), there are many fat people who are fat and healthy because of “good” eating and exercise habits.

Similarly, according to Health Clinic: Life Management Health Systems, “New research shows that even among long-term, heavy smokers, the risk of getting lung cancer can vary dramatically – from less than 1% to a whopping 15%. The risk of getting lung cancer was most heavily influenced by age, duration of smoking and how much a person smoked, says Dr. Peter Bach, lead author of the study and an epidemiologist and pulmonary physician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. `Before this study, anyone who smoked for 25 or 30 years thought that they were at extra high risk of lung cancer when, in fact, there is lots of difference in risk,’ Bach says. …Researchers then applied the model to a sample of 300 people who had undergone cancer screening at the Mayo Clinic and came up with these sample profiles:

-- A 51-year-old woman who smoked a pack a day for 28 years and then quit has only a 0.8% chance of getting lung cancer in the next decade.
-- A 52-year-old woman who smoked a pack a day for 35 years and who continues to smoke has a 2.8% chance of getting lung cancer in the next decade.
-- A 58-year-old man who smoked 25 cigarettes a day for 40 years but quit three years ago had a 4.1% chance of getting lung cancer in the next decade.
-- A 56-year-old woman who smoked two packs a day for 44 years and continued to smoke had a 8.4% chance of getting lung cancer in the next decade.
-- A 68-year-old man who smoked two packs a day for 50 years and refused to stop smoking had a 15% chance of getting lung cancer in the next decade. His risk would drop to 10.8% if he quit.
`At the high end, you're talking about one in seven people,’ he says.”

I’m glad that our smart, skinny, cigarette-battling president is doing all he can to create a sane, workable, economically and medically sound health care system for America, which presently ranks way, way below the fiscal efficiency and medical effectiveness of every other industrial nation in the world. But please, let’s not turn this into a simplistic, finger-pointing process that demonizes fat people and smokers, yet gives short shrift to the cost/care facts associated with extremely advanced age; end-of-life care that regards death as a defeat, rather than a natural and inevitable part of life; the unwanted births of hundreds of thousands of babies who are often doomed to poor pre-natal and childhood medical care and poor nutrition stemming from poverty (not an undisciplined craving for junk food).

Indeed, let’s not ignore the enormous role of poverty (or close to it) in health and health care. It’s easy to sneer at fat people and smokers and say “You’re the reason medical care and health insurance costs are so high!” It’s much harder to take a more honest, detailed, comprehensive look at the problem as a whole and devise a system that cares for everyone, whatever their lifestyle choices may be. Some of us are fat and/or smoke. Others of us breed like farm animals, engage in dangerous sports, or just live longer than humans ever have before. And all of us are victimized by insurance and pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, doctors, and the support services they work with. Let’s keep this a medical and financial issue – and not create a false and mean-spirited social/moral divide.