Here I Stand

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So now the time has come to answer the $64 million dollar (inflation has been a bit steep of late) question: at the end of all this thinking, listening, and empathizing…where do you stand?

While it would be difficult to create a comprehensive laundry list of my position on every single issue — and acknowledging that some of my perspectives are still evolving — here are a few places where my point of view has been affected in the last year.

Healthcare
There was a point in time when I thought that our healthcare system was pretty good and only needed a few tweaks or a little updating in order to make it work for everybody. After having been the care-giver and bill-payer for a chronically ill woman for the past nine years I can say definitively that the system is not working for anybody but those who are independently wealthy, inordinately healthy, or have taxpayers footing the bill. The middle class is only one major illness away from a choice between bankruptcy and death — or at least wishing they were dead. Costs are out of control. Insurance is a nightmare.

I also think that in general the Afordable Care Act is doomed to failure as a means to helping people who are now in trouble. The reasons for this are many but the tl;dr version is that our current political system of pitched battles and posturing will prevent Washington from coming up with a decent solution of any kind in the foreseeable future.

Marriage Equality
I still stand where I did when I asked my seven questions allowing same-sex couples the same privileges in our secular society as any other couple. The sooner conservatives can stop fighting this completely losing political battle the sooner they’ll be able to start talking about things that most of the country actually cares about.

Abortion
I’m still pro-life. I still believe that abortion is a great tragedy and I believe that it’s an outcome nobody wishes for. I grieve for those who have felt compelled to make this heartbreaking choice. I grieve for them and I do not hate them nor do I judge them or want them prosecuted. Life is hard. Sometimes we find ourselves in unthinkable positions.

I still believe, however, that if we could simply tone down the political rhetoric surrounding abortion that both sides have plenty of common ground that they can find on reducing the number of abortions. If the goal is really to save life then lets save it by whatever means we can both in and out of the womb.

The Poor
Here is probably the most unpopular position I’m going to take in this entire list. I believe that as a country we are guilty of exploiting our working poor for profit in ways that would make any robber baron or sweatshop owner proud. Consuming has become our national religion. Being wealthy is the greatest sign of devoutness, poverty is a sure sign of sin.

Most people when starting this conversation throw out this exception clause: “…not that it’s wrong to have things…” But I’m here to tell you that sometimes it is wrong. Sometimes we’re literally robbing other people of their lives in order to have the things we do. But unless we can somehow decide as a nation that a never-ending supply of cheap goods is not our birthright then this will never change.

The reality is that we as a country cannot sustain our comfortable and opulent lifestyle without standing on the backs of many, many people who do the uncomfortable, back-breaking, and mind-numbing tasks required to make it possible. Somebody has to make the hotel beds and clean the bathrooms. Somebody has to serve food and pour drinks. Somebody has to make our change at the register and put our groceries in a bag. And if you look closely you’ll realize that these aren’t all the teenagers of myth who are just making some extra cash while living at home with mom and dad. The person behind the cash register or in the maid’s uniform is mom or dad. Or grandpa and grandma. The mythology of the working poor just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

This isn’t about socialism or communism. This is about the greatest rule of all: do unto others. If you wouldn’t want to work in horrible conditions for little pay then don’t express disgust that others don’t like it either. The natural human condition is to want to do and be rewarded for meaningful work. Simple empathy goes a long way.

President Obama
On a personal level I still like him. On a political level he has turned out to be more or less a politician like every other politician. This should surprise nobody.

The Political Process
I now firmly believe that our country is in trouble. Common sense compromises exist on just about any issue I have talked about here and many of the ones I have not but those compromises cannot happen in a system where scoring political points is always more important to our leaders than actually doing the business of the people. Both sides are guilty. The right and left are nothing more than the two arms of the same gluttonous giant that exists only to serve itself.

So I’ve decided to quit. I’ll watch. I’ll consider. From time to time I may even comment. But for now I’ll owe no allegiance to any major player in this theater of politics. Perhaps sacrificing a label will help somehow to save my soul.

I’m registering as an Independent. And so ends My Obama Year.

Everybody Has a Story

People in small discussion group meeting

Something I’ve learned this year is that how a person views any given topic depends largely on how they fit that viewpoint into the story they tell themselves about how the world works. For most people when you start talking to them about politics they don’t cite economic data or scholarly works. Most of them don’t even quote the talking heads of radio or television. Instead they’ll tell you a story…

“I was at the grocery store yesterday and the woman in front of me was buying steak with food stamps…”

“I’ve been looking for a job for a year and can barely make the rent…”

“My son’s best friend got killed in this damn war. I nearly lost him too…”

“I waited for three hours at the free clinic just to be told they couldn’t help me…”

“I just want my brother and his husband to get the same rights that my daughter and her husband have…”

“My grandfather came up from nothing by hard work and determination so it makes me sick when I see these freeloaders…”

“If it weren’t for free meals at school my kids would go hungry…”

One of the things that I’ve learned is to stop and listen when somebody else is telling their story. There’s something in a personal tale that helps to humanize issues in a way that raw data simply can’t do. What looks good on paper doesn’t always translate into the reality of human experience.

The trick is to not stop with just one story. Or two stories. Or stories just from people who look like you and live in your neighborhood. Or stories that support the views you already hold.

If rich people and poor people and gay people and straight people and black people and white people and Christian people and atheist people and all the other groups of people in the world could take a little more care to listen to tales of the others came to their conclusions we might just have a lot less disagreement than we think we do. That would be quite the story indeed.

The Beginning of the End

This is how My Obama Year ends, not with some great revelation but only with more questions than I had when I began it. Some of my viewpoints have genuinely changed over the last year. Some I have tried on only to find that like a borrowed pair of shoes they just didn’t seem to ever fit quite right.

Over the next few days I’d like to spend just a couple posts wrapping up the experience and trying to make sense out of it all. My conservative friends will no doubt believe that I’ve turned into a flaming liberal. My progressive friends may well retain the impression that at my core I’m still a die-hard right-winger. So it goes.

To begin this autopsy I’ll start with the end and at the end of it all: I just don’t care about politics like I used to. The reasons for this apathy are many but the one idea that stands above the rest is that the game itself is rigged and as the climactic scene in War Games teaches us: “the only winning move is not to play.”

Watching the party leaders fight in Washington is akin to watching a pro-wrestling match on television. The entire fight is a scripted bit of pageantry for the amusement of the onlookers who will keep shelling out money to support their favorite spandex-clad gladiator’s antics. The outcomes of any given match just don’t matter as long as the spectators continue to cheer or boo for their favorite “fighter.” That’s not to say that the wrestler’s aren’t athletes who could do some damage if they wanted to, nor is it to say that people don’t sometimes genuinely get hurt in the ring through bad luck and happenstance — but in the end it just doesn’t matter because the overall goal has nothing to do with who wins or loses.

A lot of people believe that what we need in this country is more political parties to reduce the influence of the two parties currently in power. The only issue with that notion is that the parties we see are not red and blue, they share one common color: green. With the current way our political system works the only people who can get into high office are ones who have made deals with the exact same people who fund the current batch of politicians. If the same guys are paying the piper then we can’t expect a very different set of tunes.

President Obama himself acknowledged this reality in his book The Audacity of Hope when he wrote about his first campaign for Senate: “Absent great personal wealth there is basically one way of raising the kind of money involved in a U.S. Senate race. You have to ask rich people for it.” (p. 110) One funny thing I’ve noticed about rich people I’ve known is that they’re very keen on getting something in return for the the dollars they spend. There are always strings attached, votes to cast, and favors to repay. In this land of special interests common sense solutions can never prevail for common sense is no respecter of persons.

This new-found awareness of the political gamesmanship puts me in a very strange circumstance of seeing the country divided into two basic political parties: the people who finance the machinery of government and everybody else. I have no other way of explaining why no matter whether we’re having 8 years of Bush or 8 years of Obama that the one overriding factor is that the wealthiest citizens remain mostly unaffected by the things that happen to the rest of us.

The decorations and slogans change. The world moves on more or less the same. Taxes go up and down nominal amounts. The debt continues to climb unabated. More or less largess is thrown from the public coffers in order to keep the poorest citizens from outright revolt. Meanwhile those of middle class continue sitting at their kitchen table trying to figure out how to pay the bills and wondering where the safety net is that seems to care for both the rich and poor but never the working class people who are just scraping by.

I don’t have answers. I don’t know if this can be fixed. All I know is that I can no longer play the game.

Coming to America

Columbus Taking Possession

It’s Columbus Day today, the day when we celebrate the occasion of Christopher Columbus discovering arriving at some place that was vaguely in the general vicinity of America where he was greeted by sign-wielding natives chanting “Speak Arawak or Go Home!” To which Chris responded “oh, yeah?” and then gave them all smallpox.

To this day, however, the tradition remains that when new people arrive on our shores a certain contingent of our population becomes highly offended if the new arrivals continue speaking their mother tongue. Or as they put it: “Them furriners ain’t even trying to speak gooder English.”

Notwithstanding that the immigrants today are actually learning English faster than many past immigrants, it’s strange to hear such controversy over having a multi-lingual culture such as is enjoyed by most of the world. In fact according to a 1999 study from the Center for Applied Linguistics “there are many more bilingual or multilingual individuals in the world than there are monolingual.”

So why all the fervor? It’s really quite simple: very few things are more personal to us than our language. The idea that “liberals” will “force us” to have to accept a bilingual (because make no mistake, this is about one language: Spanish) society is a great way to scare people into voting against relaxed immigration policies. They can’t force me to learn that jibber-jabber! No, siree!

Yet today we celebrate an Italian who sailed here from Spain. How very unAmerican.