This Is What Change Looks Like

Soon after the healthcare bill passed Congress, President Obama stood before the American people and explained the historic importance of this legislation. What struck me most about his comments was that after explaining the historic importance, after setting forth the long term and short term benefits, after noting for the record that there was much more progress that was needed, he said “……this is what change looks like”.
With those six words he nailed down the importance of the passage of the healthcare bill. He also highlighted the accelerant that fuels the white-hot rage of the tea baggers, the tea partiers, and the right wing of the right wing. Because even the appearance of transcendent change is enough to send the right wing of the right wing into paroxysms of inchoate rage – rage that is simultaneously homicidal and suicidal and pathetic.
The healthcare legislation may be many things but it is not revolutionary. The fact is that for too long the United States has been the only industrialized nation on the planet Earth that does not have some form of universal healthcare for its citizens. The bill that just passed leaves much to be desired by even the most moderate advocates of change, but it is change. It is different. And it is presages auspicious and audacious steps in the right direction. This is what change looks like.
Change looks like the members of the United States House of Representatives chanting “Yes we can!” after the passage of the bill. It was a sight that would have been unimaginable even one month ago. But the august Members of Congress have been engaged in so many increments and resemblances of progress that the being in the presence of true and substantive change must have been intoxicating. This is what change looks like.
The United States has a history of boldness and hypocrisy. This country is a land of exceptional vision and unbelievable lunacy. This country is the source of a Declaration of Independence that excluded women, yet that Declaration has for centuries served as a guide for aspiring freedom fighters throughout the world. This is a country that brought forth a Constitution that countenanced slavery and had the ghastly provision of counting slaves as 3/5 of a human being. And yet this Constitution has had the resiliency and vitality to correct the spiritually bankrupt notion of slavery and continues to evolve in accord with the moral progression of the population, evolution clearly being a very slow process.
This is a country born of change. The sheer physical landscape of this land has been the subject of change – not always for the better, but change nevertheless. The people who have come to America from all over the world have sought change; change in their lives and in the lives and future of their children. The face and fabric of this country has always been about change which is why it is so preposterous when so-called “conservatives” seek to preserve this country’s traditions, except for the tradition which gave birth to the United States in the first place – change. The Declaration of Independence was all about change. The American Revolution was all about change. The Constitution of the United States has had an amendment process from its very first draft thereby ensuring that change would always be a part of the governing process.
But there are those who do not care for change because it means that the mythology of a predictable future is no more. Those who do not want change are satisfied with their comforts and rights realizing that in the process of obstructing change there are others who will not share in their comforts or rights. And while we saw what change looks like last Sunday night, we also saw what the opposition to change looks like.
It is small and ugly and winks and cries crocodile tears and walks around in crowds that are one flaming torch and a noose short of a lynch mob and hangs President Obama and Speaker Pelosi in effigy and hurls epithets like “baby killer” and “nigger” and “faggot” at proponents of progressive change because they have nothing else left in their paltry arsenal of obstruction. The opposition to change speaks of the need to avoid change for the sake of change while it engages in obstruction for the sake of obstruction. And all the while this country’s ability to be better is bound and shackled to a millstone negativity and selfishness.
The great legacy of this country is a continually shared belief among many that this country can be better. The great legacy of this country is that it can be better. The voices of opposition and negativity and obstruction are muted for the moment but just as Sunday evening showed what change looks like, we have also been shown again what opposition to change looks like.


Silence of the Lambs

A movie that shows up in many “classics” lists is “Silence of the Lambs” and for good reason. Skillful acting, tremendous cinematography, mind-gripping terror and nerve-numbing suspense, transcendent direction and a climax so compelling that it would be criminal to reveal the ending to a first time viewer. But I will always remember the protagonist in the movie recalling watching lambs being led to slaughter and her recollection is that they were silent.
I am not even tempted to mime the inimitable Glen Becks and Sarah Pailins and Dick Armeys (the Tom DeLays are too busy dancing with the stars) of the planet and contend that the cause of progressivism is in danger of being slaughtered by the know nothing/teaparty/luddite/nihilist and philosophically nude right wing of the right wing of this country. It is unfortunate that extreme lunacy now masquerades as serious political discourse in too many forums.
It is, however, important to note that this lunacy is not confined to some Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas or in the warrens and bungalows of the Posse Comitatus in Idaho and points unknown. All of the major news media carry calumny upon cavil upon insult to the intelligence of the American people and it is presented as news, as valid opinion and too many times, as fact.
During this past weekend, during another interminable episode of Battle of the Talking Heads or Desperate Ideologues Senator Lindsay Graham decried the “sleazy tactics” of the Obama Administration in planning to use the budget conciliation legislative device to gain passage of the healthcare bill. Given that this is not the first time that “sleazy” and “Congress” have been used in the same breath it is perhaps understandable that Senator Graham’s interlocutor did not inquire further into the use of the term “sleazy”.
If she had, she might have inquired whether it was “sleazy” for a Republican president to sign legislation passed through a budget reconciliation process 17 times out of the 23 times that the device has been used since 1980? That would include bills signed into law by the sainted Ronald Reagan and George Bush the Elder and George Bush the Minor. Included in this “sleazy” process was the Republican Party’s passage of the largest tax cut in American history – a cataclysmic deficit-birthing event that began the steady erosion of the budget surplus that was a legacy of the Clinton Administration and presaged the greatest financial collapse in the history of this planet.
We are privileged to live in a country where spirited debate is encouraged and supported and is a right. We also live in a country where madness and mendacity lurk at the edges of that debate. It is in this borderline area that Republican tactics are termed “sleazy” when used by Democrats. It is the netherworld where terms like “death panels” are hurled by Sarah Pailin and the Department of Justice becomes the Department of Jihad in the Dada universe of Liz Cheney.
And in this country there is, thankfully, the freedom to be stupid, the freedom to lie, the freedom to mislead and misrepresent. But there is also the freedom to explain, the freedom to defend the truth, the freedom to call out the liars and the thieves who steal the truth. And while the former freedoms are being exercised in full the latter freedoms are being left to atrophy while those who should explain and defend and call out grow lax and flaccid and complacent.
And so, like the lambs being led to slaughter, the voices of progressive change are silent too often. There are momentary outcries when a truly outrageous statement seeps onto the front pages. But where were the voices to explain, defend and call out while the death panel drumbeat syncopated unopposed through the American consciousness. What happened to the Howard Deans and Jesse Jacksons and John Kerrys and Chuck Schumers and Oprah Winfreys and all the other progressive leaders of this country who have been notably muted when it comes to this explaining/defending/calling out mission.
All of these individuals and so many more supported “Change You Can Believe In” and range doorbells, raised money, spoke at rallies and generated a wave of hope that carried President Obama into the White House. But it seems as if some his supporters confuse “change” with “magic” – as if the mere election of Barack Obama was the “change” that everyone “hoped” for. As if the forces of the right wing of the right wing would not react. As if the Troglodyte regressives and the Neanderthal repressors would not come out of their caves, dragging their knuckles on the ground as they seek to turn this country into something worse than it ever was – a land without hope, a land where truth has no dignity, a land where the shameful is uttered without shame.
Politics is full of hyperbole. It has been called a full contact sport for good reason. Mudslinging and cheap shots make the political arena a place that is not hospitable to the faint of heart. Nevertheless the corrosive slime that is spewing forth in the name of political discourse does no justice to the Republic or the citizens who deserve better. And indeed, regardless of political persuasion, we all deserve better.


Mark This Day!

One need not be a particularly insightful political analyst to realize that the wave that swept Barack Obama into the White House was broad but not very deep. His support consisted in no small part of first time voters, young and not so young, who were inspired by the dream and the vision and the infinite possibilities of greatness that the Obama candidacy represented. A huge part of the Obama constituency supported his articulated vision of hope and change, but they had not been supporting him for long.
There are very few people outside of Illinois who can count themselves as supporters of Barack Obama for more than three years. The members of the two+ year club wouldn’t fill too many football stadiums around the country either. The point being that President Obama has to manage the delicate and incredibly dexterous balancing act, trying to effect a progressive policy agenda in the most toxic political climate in the history of this republic. And he has to try to accomplish this with a foundation of support that is broad but not very deep.
Indeed, this shallow but broad constituency has, by reason of its relatively recent affiliation with President Obama, entered into this supportive relationship with the expectation that change meant magic. That same cultural/spiritual/political force that swept Barack Obama from the hinterlands of public consciousness into the white hot light of the global stage would also sweep away the opposition to universal health care, meaningful financial regulation and reform, creative and institutional educational reform and meaningful course correction of this country’s energy and environmental policies.
The fact that Barack Obama is not the “magic Negro” of Republican lore has been a disappointment to no small portion of the aforementioned broad but not very deep base of support. This irrational disappointment diminishes the momentum of support for the progressive initiatives and the vicious cycle continues. The opposition, the PailinPawlentyMcCainKylMcConnell cabal continues to attack at every possible and impossible opportunity and the broad and not very deep base of President Obama’s support wavers – at exactly the wrong time.
Clearly there is a need for the current Administration to more clearly articulate its vision. Clearly, there is a need for the current Administration to seize the time and to use its diminishing political advantage before it is no longer an advantage.
Just as clearly, however, it is time for the supporters of Barack Obama to make themselves known. I have no idea where the Tea Party denizens came from, but I do know that I was one of the millions of men and women who rang doorbells and contributed money to the election of President Obama. I do know that the millions of men and women who were in the vanguard of the greatest political transition in the history of these United States have ceded the high ground of public discourse to those who would demean and diminish the goals and ideals that propelled Barack Obama to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
And here is the final reason for action. The answer to Barack Obama will not be a modification of his progressive agenda. It will be a regressive agenda that will take its place. The Tea Party advocates, close relatives of Posse Comitatus and the Know Nothings and the Luddites, will seek to erase all traces of the Obama presidency. It will not be a matter of Bill Bennett instead of Arnie Duncan. It will be a matter of Dick Cheney instead of Joe Biden or Sarah Pailin instead of Hilary Clinton. It will be a matter of Michael Steele instead of Eric Holder and Alan Keyes instead of Sonia Sotomayor.
Make no mistake. The tide of opposition is relentless and without remorse. And as this column is being written the right wing of the right wing sees an advantage that was but an ephemeral dream a year ago. A dream because the right wing of the right wing would have seized the day without hesitation or pause or even a nodding acknowledgement of ‘bipartisanship’. The only ship that the right wing of the right wing sails is the one that is headed on a permanent course to perdition.
The good news is that there is still plenty of time between now and November 2nd. Plenty of time, that is, but only if the shallow but broad constituency that elected Barack Obama, and President Obama himself, seizes the time and the moment to begin to bring about the change that we can believe in.
The dithering about utilizing the Republican tool of budget reconciliation to pass the health care bill should have stopped being an issue before Halloween. The sideshows of location for the trial of Khalid Sheik Mohamed should have been resolved at the desk of political expediency without a second thought. The Wall Street bonuses, in the wake of the Wall Street bailout, should have been the bloody shirt that the Administration waved at every possible opportunity. Senator Bunning’s stonewall of unemployment benefits for millions of Americans should have been a daily talking point before and after the passage of that desperately needed enabling legislation.
The battle lines are clearly drawn. November 2, 2010 represents the temporal line in the sand in the arena of political discourse in this country. Between now and then those who declare themselves progressives need to transform vision into reality, beginning at the White House and ending with each and every one of us who support that vision. The energy and passion has brought the people of the United States so close to the threshold of “change we can believe in” has to be sustained if it is to become a reality. Mark this day. November 2, 2010. The right wing of the right wing has already done so.


“Avatar” – Seeing Tomorrow

Taking a respite from the unrelenting snow assaults in New York – the multiple “snowmaggedons” and “snowicanes” and “snownamis”, my thirteen-year old son and I went to see “Avatar” last Friday. Friends and critics and multiple reviewers had prepared me for an excellent cinematic experience. Indeed, my son had seen the movie already (of course) and he had already proclaimed it as “amazing”.
But no one and nothing had prepared me for “Avatar”. To say that “Avatar” was a great movie is akin to saying that Duke Ellington was a pretty good bandleader or that Fred Astaire was a dancer or that Michael Jordan could play a little basketball. For me, “Avatar” (in IMAX, in 3-D, with total surround sound of a gazillion watts) was a transcendent experience. The combination of technology and story line conspired to create another place in time and space, a place that could only be visited through the portals of this movie.
One day people will compare the appearance of this movie with the epiphany that audiences experienced when first viewing “The Jazz Singer” (the first feature film with sound and the spoken word) and “The Wizard of Oz” (the first full color feature film). Both of those movies, released within a decade of each other, transformed the experience of watching a movie. There has been a gradual evolution of cinema since then. But evolution is a slow process, and sometimes change is barely discernible. And then sometimes the four-footed primate stands on two legs and walks and then talks and then the change inspires awe.
After the movie, after saying “Wow!” over and over again, I tried to explain my perspective to my son, a young man who has never seen a rotary dial phone or heard a phonograph record or known a world without a computer screen. I told him that this was what it must have felt like when viewers heard the actors speak in a movie. His puzzlement required me to explain that there was a time when movies were black and white and silent – he refused to believe that there had ever been such a thing. Dad was joking again, trying to pull his teenage leg.
And that is what the next generation of moviegoers will think – that someone is trying to be funny in explaining that there was a time when movies did not completely draw you into the cinematic presentation. That there was a time before when visual and auditory senses produced tactile sensations cued by the technology-driven sights and sounds on the screen and in the speakers.
But “Avatar” is not simply techno-bells and new age whistles. The movie tells a story that is both an adventure and a cautionary tale. It teaches the eternal lesson of the price of hubris and too much pride and too much prejudice. We see the recurring theme of humanity not understanding or respecting that which is different. Instead, the story of human civilization is full of too many sad stories of one culture encountering a different culture, deeming it inferior because it is different and then seeking to destroy it.
There is the eternal lesson of the connectivity of all living things – a theme that is found in the Bible, in the Torah, in the Koran and in any reasonable presentation of environmental care and concern. Certainly these are neither new nor fanatical notions, but the response of some critics would have us think otherwise.
The director James Cameron has been accused by rightwing nihilists of subverting the global movie-viewing public with a subliminal tree-hugging, neo-environmentalist gospel that is anti-industry, anti-business, and anti-progress. And for good measure these self-same wizards of bedlam also perceive an anti-colonialist/anti-American theme (the irony is tantalizing and delicious) which morphs into support for all the “forces of evil” in the world including the Taliban and the Bloods and Crips and who knows what.
In the final analysis, it is my view that there is no contest for Best Picture at the upcoming Oscars ceremony. There are other good and great motion pictures. “Avatar” is transformative. It is beyond just being and good and great movie. It is tomorrow – today.