Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bearding the Lion

There was supposed to be a demonstration.

Over the weekend, I received an email from a national organization asking me to join a protest action at noon on Tuesday outside Congressman Bill Flores's Waco office. My new Congressman—my failed attempts to contact whom I have documented repeatedly on this blog—is one of the 87 Tea Party freshman Republicans whose unwillingness to compromise even the tiniest little bit has been driving the increasingly desperate standoff over the debt ceiling. I was so frustrated over the whole situation that this sounded positively cathartic. I said yes, and promptly received a packet of instructions and posters to print out. I figured I could even take pictures—maybe even videos—and post them here as part of my continuing documentation of my Congressman's lack of responsiveness to his liberal constituents.

On Monday I escaped with my family to Schlitterbahn, the huge water park in New Braunfels, and succeeded in not thinking much about the crisis that is threatening to bring our country to its knees. While stopping for dinner on the way home, I realized that President Obama was addressing the nation, asking Americans to contact their Congresspersons and insist that something be done. How appropriate, I thought; the demonstration tomorrow will be mobbed.

At 11:30 on Tuesday, I slogged on sunblock, got in my car and drove to 400 Austin Avenue in downtown Waco, the site of the large building that contains the Congressman's local office. I found a place to park and walked over to join the crowd. There wasn't one.

When I say there wasn't one, I don't mean there was a small crowd, or only a few demonstrators ready to chant extra loud. There was nobody there. I pulled out my phone and double-checked to make sure I had the right place. Sure enough, there was the address on the Congressman's website, along with an array of leading questions seeking his constituents' "opinions." ("Do you think President Obama will really use the money from his job-killing tax increases to pay down the debt, or will he just use it for further spending?") There was the address, and my GPS confirmed that I was in the exact spot where that address was located. I and nobody else.

I walked around the building a few times, hoping to see signs that other activists might be arriving. Every side was equally deserted. I sat down on a bench and waited. If nobody showed up by 12:20, I figured, I could probably assume the demonstration wasn't going to happen. I would drive home feeling disappointed and foolish, but at least I would have the rest of the afternoon free, and wouldn't have to spend it outside, where the temperature had already surpassed 100 degrees.

Stupid conscience. It wouldn't let me settle for that. I had driven all the way up there, and something inside me knew I was going to need to have an Amos and Amaziah moment of speaking truth to power before I left. With some trepidation, I entered the building, pushed the button for the elevator, and rode it up to the third floor.

The Congressman's office was the first door on the left. The door was large and made of glass, so it was perfectly obvious to the man and woman inside that I was looking for them and wanted to come in. No more dawdling. I opened the door and walked into the lion's den.

The woman was actually quite friendly, and wrote down everything I had to say. I, in turn, was polite, and spoke with quiet determination rather than anger. The man went off and sat on a couch and never said anything. After I'd said my piece, I shook her hand (which was still busy taking notes on what I'd said) and left. I had gotten one step closer to communicating with my Congressman.

Later that day I received a phone call from one of his field representatives, apologizing for not being there when I dropped by. We talked for a while. I offered to get together a group of local liberal Democrats for a conference to discuss our frustration with our lack of representation in Washington. I pointed out that the way that job-killing tax increases question is phrased pretty much trumpets the fact that the Congresman is only interested in hearing one kind of answer, and expressed my hope that we can break outside of that box.

The meeting won't take place for a few weeks, since I'm going on vacation soon. By the time it happens, the debt-limit nonsense might even be resolved. You can be assured, though, that I will find something to talk about, and that I will write about it here.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Now I'm ANGRY!!

Last night the bad news wouldn't stop coming. Right now, two images are haunting my mind and weighing down my heart. On an island off of Norway, a "right-wing extremist" carrying a metallic piece of evil guns down fleeing children as though they were flies to be swatted out of existence. Their crime was that their parents were liberals. In Washington, the President of the United States, showing more anger than I am used to seeing him express - but not nearly as much as was called for - still seems baffled that his implacable opponents, acting like a pack of spoiled children, have once again walked out of the increasingly desperate negotiations to save the country.

My comparison of these two events is deliberate. In both cases, people who do not belong in a civilized society have managed to obtain power that such a society should give to no-one. In both cases, they have used it to shoot down their opponents: in one case literally, in the other metaphorically. A metaphor, though, is just another way of expressing reality. If the Congressional extremists get their way, people will die in this country just as surely as they did in Norway. They will starve or be turned away for medical care they desperately need so that the corporations can keep every single one of their obscene tax breaks.

I recently had a discussion with a friend who holds a concealed weapons permit. She needed it, she said, to defend herself. She seemed truly baffled by my response that I would not use violence under any circumstances, so the entire issue was moot for me. She's been smiling at me lately, though, so I guess she has at least accepted my point of view. Let me get a jump on the discussion of the events in Norway by saying that no, it wouldn't have been better if some of those children had been armed. A civilized society (and in my view, Norway has more right to be called civilized than the vast majority of other countries) does not make itself more civilized by allowing more people to have more weapons. It simply buckles under to evil.

By the same token, a civilized society does not make itself more civilized by trading away a century's worth of social progress in order to appease a bunch of grown-up spoiled children whose political careers are bankrolled by the very corporations whose "rights" they claim to be upholding. If President Obama has the makings of a truly great president, he will now recognize that he has no other option but to raise the debt ceiling on his own. Like Lincoln, FDR, and a handful of other presidents who have had greatness thrust upon them, he will venture into uncharted territory in order to save the country. Or he can also buckle under to evil, in which case everybody loses but the billionaires (and even many of them have pleaded with the president to raise their taxes).

This seems the appropriate place to record the fact that Congressman Bill Flores and his staff have so far rebuffed every attempt I have made to communicate with them about my beliefs. Since both of my senators did that a long time ago, I now know conclusively that I don't have a voice in Washington. That's why I'm raising it here.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


I have written some reactive posts lately. Things are spinning out of control, and it is satisfying to point fingers and say what is wrong. It is also tempting to tell the other side of what has become the official story, as did Howard Zinn, since he knew there was never a lack of apologists for the Establishment version of history.

I have realized this week, though, that the reason extreme-to-crazy right-wingers are dominating the conversation, while the world watches with its jaw agape [http://www.businessinsider​.com/its-official-the-whol​e-world-thinks-republicans​-are-dangerous-maniacs-201​1-7], is that there is a severe shortage of positive voices being heard. Those of us who are horrified by current events can feel helpless, not because we're unable to act or speak, but because we simply don't know what to do or say. I don't mind revealing that I have prayed about this, because the emptiness I've felt as an American liberal at this moment has left a spiritual void.

It is probably not coincidence, therefore, that the other night I stumbled across an unusually important podcast of Krista Tippett's "On Being" that had been sitting on my ipod since the week before July 4. "The Inward Work of Democracy" explores the thinking of American philosopher Jacob Needleman, whose book The American Soul has now joined my required reading list.

It takes some careful listening to realize how significant Needleman's ideas about American history are. For someone like me who has always loved this country and what it is supposed to represent, they offered a welcome balm to the spiritual sore delivered by my recent encounter with Zinn's writings, chronicled here earlier this month.

America, Needleman says, is necessary: not for the usually cited reasons - the glibly assumed exceptionalism that we have heard so often evoked - but because at its best it makes an appeal to human conscience that resonates with the deepest, timeless spiritual truths. Yes, America was new in the 18th century, but the responses it offered then were answers to eternal questions. Thomas Jefferson's evocation of "the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle" us was not just a formulaic appeal to an impersonal, deistic godhead. It was a statement that the answers to these eternal questions could be found outside of the traditional dogmatic frames of inquiry, and that looking for them there was a fulfillment of our deeper nature: the same nature that sages have always sought.

What Needleman calls the "inward work of democracy" is very different from the push and shove of public debate. It is the far more important process that goes on within the intimate souls of democratic citizens. It was their private musings - which Needleman admits no-one else can thoroughly understand - that led George Washington to renounce unlimited power and Lincoln to seek reconciliation at the end of a long and bitter war. As Walt Whitman said in an essay written at the end of that same war (see the "Particulars" on the website for this and other passages quoted by Needleman):

"I say the notion of government, henceforth in civilized lands, is not repression alone and not authority alone, not even of law, nor the rule of the best men, but higher than the highest arbitrary rule, to train communities through all their grades beginning with individuals and ending there again to rule themselves. To be a voter with the rest is not so much. And this, like every institute, will have its imperfections. But to become an enfranchised man and now, impediments removed, to stand and start without humiliation and equal with the rest, to commence the grand experiment whose end may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman—that is something."

Needleman insightfully points out that the greatest reformers are always those who speak from within the system they are struggling to reform, and who thus knowingly share its imperfections. Thomas Jefferson never freed his slaves, but if not for the words he penned, the later effort to abolish slavery might not have had the intellectual foundation to succeed. Likewise, Frederick Douglass, who Needleman insists should be equally honored as a Founder, shamed America from within for its failure to live up to its ideals. He was able to do this because he too thought of himself as an American and loved those ideals enough to be willing to speak as he did.

Needleman also says that it is vitally important that we remythologize our founders by remembering the importance of this inner life. This is imperative because it is possible to speak about democracy, to honor its ideals - to "talk the talk," as it were - and still have absolutely no idea why this country is important and why the world still desperately needs what we have to give. That gift is what Needleman describes simply as "conscience." As a nation of self-determining individuals, we possess and always have possessed the ability to understand and accept the obligations that go with the rights we take for granted. We then have the moral responbility to challenge all that is wrong with the way society currently functions - and to do so precisely in the name of the ideals that freedom and democracy represent. That is conscience, and it is what American liberals need to articulate in order to recover our voice within this country, before - as I very much fear - the "slow motion coup d'état" by corporate power that Chris Hedges and others have eloquently discerned becomes complete and we are a fascist country in all but name. That point, I fear, is very close - and when it arrives, the familiar shibboleths about freedom, rights, and democracy will continue to be repeated without challenge by those who truly no longer understand the prodigious spiritual foundation on which those things must depend in order to be more than meaningless platitudes.

So here is the positive statement that I wish to make: I acknowledge that, like Jefferson, I am an imperfect reformer. I benefit from the work of the corporations that have made us progressively more unequal. I drive their cars and buy their food and watch their entertainment, and I do so because I have little choice if I am to participate in American society rather than withdrawing from it. That participation is my right, and with it I accept the responsibility of acting to expose the abuses that corporate power has increasingly wrought. I do this not because I hate America, but because I love it. When I speak for greater equality, and seek to shame America into not abandoning the poor and marginalized who no longer benefit from the corporate bonanza, I do so as an American first. I seek to help my country regain what has always made it necessary to the world: its conscience.

Whatever happens over the next few weeks and months as the tragi-comedy over the debt ceiling plays to its conclusion, that conscience is likely to be a victim. For America's sake, and for the world's, I declare that I will continue the inward work for as long as necessary, until I can join together with enough other full-grown men and women to remake the America of which Walt Whitman dreamed. It wasn't easy then either, which is why Whitman wrote as he did. It isn't easy now. Acting by one's conscience never is. This, though, is the inward work of democracy. Unless it is done, courageously and unstintingly, everything else is just for show.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A People's History of the New Millennium

Like many of us born well back in the past century, I spent a great deal of my life knowing I would have an opportunity given to few in human history: that of living into a new millennium. Since we tend to endow round numbers with enormous symbolic significance, I did a lot of wondering about what things would be like once the magical year 2000 arrived. I am not the late Howard Zinn, nor do I possess even a fraction of his knowledge or passion. For the benefit of those younger than I, though, I am going to try to write an accurate account of the way I and many other people in America have experienced the past eleven and a half years. It has certainly not been what I or we expected, or hoped.

During this long decade I have moved into late middle age and have had my share of personal triumphs and setbacks. In this summer of 2011, though, I have been finding my sleep troubled by dire forebodings of things I never thought I would live to see, and have been following the news cycle in a state of numb disbelief. Events unfolding in the public realm seem to me to threaten our very survival as a society. How did we get here?

In the year 2000 we lived through the most extraordinary presidential election in American history. The result was, to say the least, disputed, but the candidate who clearly lost the popular vote nevertheless managed to seize power. He was aided in this coup by the fact that his brother controlled the pivotal state of Florida, but his success was sealed by the most extraordinary act of judicial activism I have ever witnessed. Instead of allowing the democratic process to continue, the partisan Supreme Court stopped the gears of democracy and arbitrarily anointed a winner.

This unelected president then proceeded to act with the arrogant self-confidence of a leader who believes he has received a ringing electoral mandate. Having inherited the soundest economy in living memory, he began his term with an array of tax cuts that virtually guaranteed huge deficits in the near future. The result was not the creation of more jobs or of a more robust economy. It was, rather, an ever-widening gap between rich and poor that has now made the United States one of the most manifestly unequal countries on earth.

A devastating and unparalleled attack on our nation then led to one of the most misguided responses ever undertaken by a sovereign state. Letting the man responsible for the attack go free, our country proceeded to wage vicious war on a country that had nothing whatsoever to do with the events of 9/11/01. We waged that war - which has turned out to be one of the longest in our history - entirely on credit. No attempt was made to raise money or to ask anybody outside of the military to sacrifice anything.

Meanwhile, the unelected president took advantage of the huge surge in his personal popularity that followed the disaster, not to further the common good, but to systematically dismantle the regulatory net painstakingly constructed since the Great Depression. Thus, he made it inevitable that we would see a repeat of that experience. When the catastrophe struck late in his second term, the unelected president gamely proposed a huge "bailout" scheme that would save those most responsible for it from any adverse personal or financial effects. Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor reached epic proportions, and a huge group of permanently unemployed citizens solidified into a permanent underclass. The national debt, brought on by the enormous tax cuts and the two wars, reached unimaginable proportions.

The successor to the unelected president accomplished extraordinary things during his first two years in office, including what I believe to be the most important achievement by the US government in nearly 50 years. If that achievement is allowed to reach fruition, we will no longer be the only advanced country on earth that does not provide health care for all its citizens. A huge blot of shame will have been removed from our national conscience.

It is not humanly possible, though, to undo eight years of damage in a mere two. Since we elect our Congress every two years and have short memories, 2010 saw the party responsible for the damage swept back into power in Congress. It is at this point that events went from bizarre to surreal. The huge national debt brought on by the unelected president and his policies was now blamed on his successor and his party. More tax cuts were proposed, even though the wealthy corporations who had benefited from the last round were still sitting on huge chunks of uninvested capital. Drastic cuts in social programs were demanded: cuts so severe as to virtually guarantee that the permanent underclass we have created will live out their lives in abject degradation. Any attempt to stimulate the economy or create jobs was simply abandoned, in the hopes that the national economy could lift itself up by its own bootstraps: something that the history of the past century had clearly shown to be impossible. The one course of action that could actually solve the crisis - raising taxes, even on the obscenely wealthy - was rejected a priori.

It is at this point that the current Congressional temper tantrum over the national debt ceiling began its chilling, devastating course. The party in charge of Congress seems actually willing to default on the nation's debt - not the hypothetical future debt, but the debt that we have already incurred - in order to bully the president into beginning to dismantle a century's worth of social progress. The realization that this could actually happen is what has been keeping me awake at nights, gripped by foreboding. As someone who grew up to love this country and what it represents, I very much fear that I am witnessing its death throes.

This has been the most heartfelt post I have written in a long time, but it is the honest, unadorned truth. Barely over a decade in, this is how I see the events of the new millennium. As this long, hot summer of 2011 drags on, I am watching my country progressively lose its sanity and its soul.

While I am currently disgusted with the government, though, I still think there's a chance the American people are better than this. If we can remember that this illustrious nation consists of individuals, bound together in community, and that we do more than serve the giant corporations and the billionaires who run them, there may still be hope. I am on the lookout for signs that there are still others who believe this as well.

Friday, July 8, 2011

On good health, and how much it costs

A few years ago I thought I was having a heart attack. I looked up the symptoms I was experiencing on several reliable websites, and they all told me I should go to the emergency room immediately. Tim Russert had just died and I was taking this pretty seriously. I went.

What happened next could serve as a parable illustrating what is wrong with our health care system. When I reported my symptoms, they snapped a plastic band on my left wrist and immediately asked me - if I had my insurance card. Fortunately, I did, and my bank debit card as well. A $50 copay properly disposed of, I was then asked to describe my symptoms in detail.

What I said apparently concerned the docs enough that they whisked me back for a CT scan. After waiting anxiously for a few hours and trying in vain to contact my family (my cell phone didn't work in the ER), I learned that the CT scan showed nothing wrong with my heart. Just to be sure, though, I was told to come back in a few days for a nuclear stress test. I also passed that with flying colors. The conclusion was that I have absolutely no cardiac problems whatsoever. The symptoms I was experiencing were diagnosed as acid reflux, and I was able to get them under control with a relatively inexpensive over-the-counter medication. By now they've completely disappeared.

Happy ending? Yes - except for the bill, which eventually came to about 30 times the amount of my initial copay. Those tests were expensive. And then there was the obligatory followup with my family physician.

The first thing he asked me was whether I had ever smoked. I was pretty sure he knew I hadn't, and since I already knew the results of the CT and the stress test, I couldn't imagine why he was asking. I soon found out. The CT, while finding nothing whatsoever wrong with my heart, had detected a small nodule in the upper lobe of my left lung. It was impossible to tell at this point, but there were two possibilities: It was either completely benign and nothing to worry about, or it was the beginning of lung cancer. As a result, the doctor wanted me to come back for repeat CT scans after three months and one year.

Needless to say, I was a bit anxious for the first three months. It was extremely gratifying when the CT scan results came back showing that the nodule was completely unchanged, meaning that it was not growing, meaning that it was not cancerous, meaning that it was nothing to worry about. I wasn't particularly surprised when the one-year CT scan showed the same thing and I was given the all-clear.

Did I mention that CT scans are not free? Since a full year had passed by the time of the third and final one, I had a new annual deductible to meet that was not affected by the costs of the previous two visits. The total net cost of finding out that I was completely healthy in every way that medical science could determine: over $2000. That's right; that initial impulsive visit to the ER morphed into a series of experiences that ultimately cost me two grand and three months of considerable (though unnecessary) anxiety. Of that, the cost of the Prilosec to fix the GERD was a truly insignificant portion.

What lesson have I learned from this? It's hard to say, but it's quite likely that if I ever think I am having a heart attack again, I will hesitate for much longer before going to the ER. As a result, if it turns out not to be a false alarm next time, I am likely, assuming I survive, to end up incurring considerably higher expenses than I would have with a more timely appearance. I have learned, essentially, that being safe rather than sorry is expensive, often unnecessary, and likely to leave you feeling a bit foolish. And, of course, I have insurance.

I'm a little nervous about writing up this experience and sending it out into the blogosphere, because I don't want others to follow my example. If you get chest pains, get them checked out immediately. In the meantime, though, you might want to think about the implications of having a health insurance system that makes preventive actions so expensive that it can often seem more prudent to skip them and hope for the best instead.

[NB: Last week, I spoke with a staffer at Congressman Flores's Washington office and restated my earlier complaints about the budget impasse. I told her that liberals in the district were getting the message that the Congressman wasn't interested in hearing from us. She assured me that was not the case, and gave me the name of another staff member to contact. I emailed him and received a return email promising to be in touch ASAP. It hasn't happened yet.]

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Glass of Zinn

On July 4th, I finally finished reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. It took me a long time, because even as a dedicated lefty I found this book hard to read, and kept putting it aside in favor of other things. Zinn's writing is frequently engaging, and his use of extensive quotations from primary sources—the people who make up the people's history—is widely acknowledged as a strength. What he says is just so depressing.

Everybody you learned to look up to in school history and in popular legend comes out looking bad in this book. Christopher Columbus brought brutal conquest and genocide. George Washington was an elitist oligarch who distrusted the people. Theodore Roosevelt claimed the mantle of progressivism while constantly betraying the ideals it represented. The list goes on and on.

So do the accounts of common people, not mentioned in standard history books and scarcely remembered, who tried to work against the injustices perpetrated by the "Establishment" and lost. Often they lost their lives. Most of the time they lost their struggle, faded into anonymity and were forgotten. Howard Zinn was determined to tell their story.

Zinn's writing has often been called biased, and he did not deny that charge. He sought, in this book, to tell the other side, trusting (with much justification) that the standard narrative is not lacking in tellers or in apologists.

What perhaps does need to be underscored is that Zinn, throughout this book, is on the side of the people and against government, which he sees as the embodiment of the Establishment. In his chapter on the Clinton presidency, which was added to later editions of a book that the author tried to keep as up-to-date as possible, the following practically jumps off the page:

"Clinton and the Republicans, in joining against 'big government,' were aiming only at social services. The other manifestations of big government—huge contracts to military contractors and generous subsidies to corporations—continued at exorbitant levels.

"'Big government' had, in fact, begun with the Founding Fathers, who deliberately set up a strong central government to protect the interests of the bondholders, the slave owners, the land speculators, the manufacturers. For the next two hundred years, the American government continued to serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful, offering millions of acres of free land to the railroads, setting high tariffs to protect manufacturers, giving tax breaks to oil corporations, and using its armed forces to suppress strikes and rebellions.

"It was only in the twentieth century, especially in the thirties and sixties, when the government, besieged by protests and fearful of the stability of the system, passed social legislation for the poor, that political leaders and business executives complained about 'big government.'"

What Zinn has to say in these few paragraphs is so important that everybody involved in our current debased political conversation should read them, absorb them, and live with them intimately for as long as necessary for their import to be thoroughly understood. The United States has always had big government, and it has always been on the side of the rich and powerful and against the common people. The entire history of American liberalism can be written, as Zinn consistently and brilliantly demonstrates, as the history of opposition to big government and its destructive effects on the vast majority of Americans.

Those who now insist on identifying liberalism with big government are simply wrong, and don't know their history. Those who believe that liberalism seeks to coerce justice are simply wrong. Coercion, with all the evil it represents, has always belonged to the rich and powerful. The history of liberalism, which is frequently written in blood, is the history of determined and often futile opposition to that coercion.

This is so poorly understood that I would venture to suggest that every American needs to take a glass of Zinn and savor it carefully, even when it is bitter and disappointing. As Howard Zinn knew all too well, there's never any shortage of the good-tasting stuff. That's why we need to think twice before we buy it.