All I want for Christmas…

…is not to have to defend my desire to wish you “Happy Holidays” this year.

In this respect, I’m something like Charlie Brown to the Moral Majority’s Lucy, punting endlessly at that wonderful football.  Every year, come January, the furor ends, and I think, it’s  not 2000 anymore.  The culture wars are over.  We have more on our national plate than fussing over whether singing “S’vivon” is going to corrupt your children’s souls.

This year, surely, we’ll put up our non-denominational decorations, bake sugar cookies and gingerbread, and join hands in unity over how ridiculous it is that the Christmas music starts the day after Thanskgiving.

But now, it’s mid-December once again, and if you’ll excuse the turn of phrase, Jesus Christ, you guys.  Sometimes it feels like this:

Look, as a general rule, I don’t have a problem with being wished a merry Christmas.  It’s rarely done with malicious intent – the wisher is simply attempting to spread some good cheer.

But I’m mystified by the looks I get – as though I’d kicked a puppy – when I wish you a Happy  Chanukah.  Apparently, that makes people uncomfortable.

And this is why I say “Happy Holidays,” and roll my eyes at people who would call that “too PC.”  What is political correctness but trying to show sensitivity and courtesy to people who come from diverse cultures and ways of life?  I’m not denying you your holiday – I’m simply trying to include others as well.  Jesus may be the reason for the season for you.  That’s nice.  Not everyone.

And yet, I don’t see the fundamentalist blowhards as the real problem here, anywhere.  The fact is, they’re loud, but there aren’t that many of them.  Most people I know aren’t fanatically committed to the idea that December should be renamed to something more Christ-y.  In fact, they’re more likely to think of Christmas as a secular time for gifts and fun.

And in a way, this is even worse.  Because, guess what?  The nuts are right in one way – it’s still a Christian holiday, and it’s still not inclusive, whether or not there’s a manger included.

I’m not saying I’m thrilled with the solutions that have been offered to this, many of which strike me as almost hilarious tokenistic.   I once say a tiny menorah crammed into a Christmas display, Santa Claus standing right behind it.  And there’s the simple fact that Chanukah simply isn’t all that major of a holiday.  In the rest of the world, it’s a tiny festival.  It’s only been drummed up in the US to give Jewish kids a way of fitting in.

But, you know what?  It’s still better than nothing.  Because while differences are an unavoidable part of the minority experience, there’s something to be said for finding one’s own way of joining in with the celebratory zeitgeist.  And it really does behoove that majority to,  in turn, at least make the effort to recognize others.

So, a happy holidays to all – no matter what you celebrate.  And if you’re not doing anything on Christmas, come eat Chinese food and watch a movie with me.

Is moderate the new crazy?

Imagine, if you will, a nation of reasonable men and women – one where discussions were calm and substantive, cooler heads always prevailed, and candidates were chosen based on their ability and their stances on issues.

This is a nation that has almost never existed – the Era of Good Feelings excepted. (If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I recommend the My History Can Beat Up Your Politics podcast, which recently had a great episode on the history of partisanship.)  But ever since Publius and Brutus duked it out over the benefits of federalism, antagonism has been an inevitable, and perhaps desirable, consequence of democratic government.  And it’s pretty hard to imagine anything in the last few years that points to that ever changing.

That being said, George W.  Bush’s presidency unleashed a newly vituperative partisan split in America.  And following Barack Obama’s promise of a new, more unified America, the divisions seem to only have increased.  Republican stalwarts think  Democrats are out to kill their mothers with death panels, and remake the country into a Communist, Fascist (don’t ask) state.  A terrifying number honestly believe the president is not  American.  Democratic partisans, meanwhile, think Republicans should be shut completely out of the system.

Republicans made a few mixed efforts during the last election cycle to rein this in.  Interestingly enough, they seemed to be rewarded for their successes.

It’s tricky to extrapolate national political swings from a handful of states where the results were often compounded by local issues, unpopular incumbents and weak candidates.  But in New Jersey, relative moderate Republican Chris Christie managed to finally unseat unpopular Democratic governor Jon Corzine.  In Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell managed to keep the lid on an old woman-bashing thesis (the kind of ‘macaca moment’ that probably did in George Allen) to run a solid, reasonable campaign and beat out Democrat Creigh Deeds.
Neither Christie nor Corzine is exactly Olympia Snowe here, but my point is not so much to talk about their position in the political spectrum as the way they express their opinions.  Moderate as an adjective can mean not only “in the center,” but reasonable, controlled.   Both took tones less – crazy, for a better word – than some of their more ill-fated comrades.

For example, see the strange case of the New York 23rd, a Congressional district held since the Civil War by Republicans.  Three candidates were running .  Dede Scozzafava was the definition of liberal Republican, especially on social issues.  Her Democratic opponent, Bill Owens, was in some cases even more conservative.  And then there was the spoiler – conservative Doug Hoffman.   Firebrands across the country rushed in to  bash Scozzafava and tout Hoffman, quite predictably pissing off both the candidate and many of the area’s constituents.  Then, just before the election, Scozzafava dropped out – and endorsed Owens, who won, spoiling the unanimous headlines the GOP might have liked to see the next day.

At the same time, the new big name in the House is that of Anh Cao, the Republican who won a major Democratic district in Louisiana, and recently voted for the health bill.  He’s being called a traitor, but it’s now much more likely that in two years, he’ll still be called “Congressman.”

In the end, the Republican party may not be in danger of shifting all that much to the left in the near future.  But perhaps they’ll at least be more rational about it.  The GOP lost some conservative lions recently – Bill Safire, William Buckley – and it seemed as though the party was heading toward a scary place.  But most Republicans now seem to be distancing themselves from the fringe elements – Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, for example.  If they follow the example of pols like the unassuming Christie, they may have hope.

But here’s the problem: it’s not just the politicians.  It’s the public, too.  As the excellent blog Orcinus notes, radical militias, Nazis, and other right-wing elements are coming out of the woodwork in a way not seen since Waco.  And, as the blog also points out, a lot of this has to do with the new legitimacy they’re being given in what we bloggers like to sneeringly refer to as “the mainstream media.”

By this, I mean modern-day Howard Beales like the sobbing, frog-boiling televised mess that is Glenn Beck.

(on  a side note: watch this video.  Do it now.)

<object width=’320′ height=’260′><param name=’movie’ value=’http://cloudfront.mediamatters.org/static/flash/player.swf’></param><param name=’flashvars’ value=’config=http://mediamatters.org/embed/cfg2?id=200911060002′></param><param name=’allowscriptaccess’ value=’always’></param><param name=’allownetworking’ value=’all’></param><embed src=’http://cloudfront.mediamatters.org/static/flash/player.swf&#8217; type=’application/x-shockwave-flash’ flashvars=’config=http://mediamatters.org/embed/cfg2?id=200911060002′ allowscriptaccess=’always’ allowfullscreen=’true’ width=’320′ height=’260′></embed></object>

When nutjobs like Beck are on air spouting the same conspiracy theories some people believe, they’re emboldened. If even the  mainstream, liberal-Jew-controlled media can admit to these “truths,” they feel, they must only be the tip of the iceberg.

CNN struck a blow against this mindset last week by eliminating the increasingly eliminationist rhetoric of Lou Dobbs, telling him to tone down the crazy on TV or quit.  He chose the latter.  Ding dong, the guy who claimed immigrants were bringing leprosy to the US is off cable news – for now, at least.

I’m not too worried for Dobbs’s future career.  But CNN,which is now losing not only to FOX and MSNBC but its own more sensationalistic cousin Headline News, is clearly trying  a new tack.  In a time when partisanship seems to bring in the big ratings, it’s choosing to steer its own coverage to the center.  Will it work?  Well, no matter what it does, it’ll still probably be the Communist News Network to some.  But it’s a brave idea.  And if politicians and media can both manage to moderate their tone, the nation will be much healthier for it.

How to make any story relevant…and repetitive

Bummed that your stories on bake sales and club meetings keep missing the front page?  Want the article you’ve written to seem instantly timely and relevant?  Do I have a trick for you.

It’s almost like magic. Just select one phrase from each column:

Column 1 Column 2
During these tough economic times, with ordinary Americans struggling to save money,
With the nation’s financial crisis continuing, as homeowners try to stay afloat,
With the country still troubled by recession, as unemployment figures continue to rise,
In these trying times of crisis and universal brouhaha, as we march steadily down the road to panic, misery and despair,

and then tie said economic crisis, however clumsily, to your story.

e.g. With the nation’s financial crisis continuing, as unemployment figures continue to rise, Americans are trying to save money by recycling! Or getting H1N1 shots because they don’t want to have to waste health insurance on sick days! Or making jam for their local county fair…whatever.

Seriously, open a paper, turn on your local news, and count how many times a variation of this Franken-phrase occurs. Apparently, there’s no news in the nation not overshadowed by the looming specter of our budget.

Admittedly, I’ve been guilty of this myself, and probably more than a few times. Sometimes it’s forgivable – stories about worried business students about to graduate, for example. Other times, it really isn’t. Sure, the lousy economy is one reason people like buying street food, but it’s probably not the predominant one.

But the economy is on everyone’s minds – and it’s a good way to make nearly any issue, however obscure, seem timely and relatable. “They’re struggling,” we want readers to think, “just like me.”

Maybe it’s lazy writing. But it’s a window onto an important question: when the standard news cycle is a day long, how do you hold the public’s attention on issues that are there for the long haul?

The economy is easier than most, in that most people are feeling its effects. And when the recession first started to hit, unmasking the struggles of “everyday” (read: middle-class, largely white) people was a big seller. But now, it’s been more than a year since Lehman Brothers collapsed. And even as a consummate news junkie, I don’t know how many more renditions of stoic American Gothic families (“We’ve lost everything. We have no house, no jobs. My husband can’t afford his medication. [muffled sob] But we know other people have it worse; we still have each other”) I can take.

Other issues are even tougher sells. Take global warming. It has all the ingredients for a blockbuster movie – the planet is in danger! Only you can help! – but despite its urgency, it’s a slow-moving issue, with changes gradual and possible fixes incremental. And the public just doesn’t like that. When Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” came out, it was met with reasonable interest, and followed by slews of specials, features, and in-depth looks. No one wants to let a sad polar bear drown.

Except sad panda bears are now so yesterday, replaced in the mass imagination by Balloon Boy, Octo-Mom and Susan Boyle; ACORN fraud, healthcare reform, and “trips to Argentina.” Al Gore’s come out with a new book, but no one – well, not many people – care anymore. We’re too overloaded.

The war effort should be closer to home. But again, we’ve hit the point of saturation. It’s Award-Winning Feature Reporting 101 to start off with an anecdote, and some of them have been brilliant. But we’ve read a million times about the commander who’s lost his men, the veteran battling PTSD, the mother of the young soldier who perished. We’ve lived vicariously through every barrack and bunker in the Middle East, heard from every injured soldier who wants to return to fight. What’s next?

The shooting at Ft. Hood has brought on a new rash of stories about re-deployment, and the stress it places on the military. Now, there’s a new boilerplate lead for that, too – a way to connect an ongoing, deeply serious problem with the news du jour. “Why did this psychiatrist snap? Our special report on the strain our troops are under…”

And it may be working. But long after Nidal Malik Hasan’s name has faded into irrelevance with a million other murderers, the underlying problem will still exist.

Will anyone be around to listen?

BREAKING: It’s an Opt-Out Plan

Mouse of the Senate Harry Reid turns aside the trigger option (speculated by some to be the WH’s choice) for an opt-out clause.  Will the White House now throw public support behind the opt-out, or try to keep the executive branch – an easy target – out of the debate?

You would certainly assume that the Obama White House (that bastion of socialism) would be thrilled to have this more liberal-than-expected plan, but behind the scenes buzz in the past several days has suggested that the White House was pushing for a more conservative trigger option, out of a desire to get something – anything, done,  rather than seeing a bill continue to languish in committee.  Obama knows that this is a potential third rail for his political career – if he fails in the way the Clinton plan did, it’s entirely possible that he won’t get the second term that Clinton received.

It’s also worth noting that health care never particularly defined his campaign during the election season.  While Hillary Clinton nobly championed mandatory health insurance, Obama held back.  Now that he’s chosen it as his signature issue, he seems reasonably fire up about it, but there’s reason to suspect he doesn’t bring with it the same zeal as, say, a Howard Dean.  (Perhaps that’s a rather good thing, actually).

Remains to be seen whether it can get to a vote (probably) and win that vote (we’ll see).  Watch for Olympia Snowe, whose vote could give conservative Dems like Mary Landrieu, Evan Bayh and Blanche Lincoln cover – but also whether these Blue Dogs may vote as a bloc.  Snowe is going to be angry that her trigger plan was overlooked, and could drop out entirely of the discussion – but that total absence of Republicans would ironically give the Democrats more power.  While she was the only one willing to negotiate, she possessed immense leverage.  But once an entire party has sworn off efforts to compromise, there’s no real incentive for the Dems to deal with them.

And this is an effort at compromise, despite what fringe types would have you believe.  It’s not even a STRONG government plan, let alone an effective, workable system like single-payer health care.  And, polling has shown time and time again, it’s almost exactly in line with what the majority of Americans have said they would like to see in a health care plan.

Of course, even if this passes, there’s still the House to deal with, and that won’t be easy.  Nancy Pelosi has a much easier road than Harry Reid, as she can afford to lose a few Democrats and still get the bill out (arguably, she also has somewhat more of a spine, but we won’t go there today).  But liberals in the House and Senate prove as great a threat as their ideological opponents – some have threatened NOT to vote for the bill unless it’s liberal enough.  The House and Senate versions will likely look very different, and reconciling the two will be a frustrating exercise in political chess.  Stay tuned!

Snails and puppydog tails in the Oval Office?

[Looking for this week’s op-ed? It was posted last week, but is temporarily offline. Today’s post is a return to your regularly scheduled e-jeremiads.]

The word of the day is “ambivalent.”

That’s my feelings upon reading a new, obviously well-researched story in The New York Times that tries to tackle subtle sexism in the White House, and ends up making no one, themselves included, look too good.  Which, I suppose, is maybe to be expected of any article beginning with the rhetorical question: Does the White House feel like a frat house?

Of course, the White House, in my experience, tends to be somewhat more orderly and with less of a tendency to  beer pong, although not beer summits.  The latter event, though, is among those listed in the article, which also features the all-male composition of a recent presidential  basketball game, as well as Obama’s well-documented mania for sports, and his preference for adopting a dog that was rambunctious instead of “girly.”  (Think he’s regretting that last one yet?  And who knew he had a bit of the Governator in him?)  There’s also the matter of the lack of women in the president’s golf games (actual quote: “Ben Finkenbinder, a junior press aide and scratch golfer, was recently invited into a foursome with Mr. Obama”), although that is soon to be rectified.

In short, the premise of the story is to raise the question of whether institutional sexism is still present in the White House, and whether it’s particularly perpetuated by a love for ESPN.  (My short answers to this: Duh.  No.)  Despite its mockability, though, it’s  a worthwhile question – does  a team of close-knit, testerone-fueled men crowd out women in the executive branch?

If you’re looking for answers, you’re not going to find them here.  Like I said, nobody comes out of the story looking good, including both:

1. The White House

Truth is, there’s probably some validity to the story, especially when it scales back from its most aggrieved to talk about a perceived gap in comfort, and female  staffers who “described the culture with more of a collective eye-roll than any real sense of grievance or discomfort” – although even this boils down to irritation with too much sports talk.

But the White House doesn’t help its case with its responses to the article, which largely boil down to pointing out that he’s the only “non-canine male” in his immediate family, and has a few high-profile female advisers, as well as an even gender split.  While this is laudable, and would serve nicely to rebut the charge, say, that he’s engaging in discriminatory hiring practices, in context sounds a little like the “some of my best friends are…” argument.

This juxtaposes nicely with communications director Anita Dunn’s quote that the administration is “refreshingly un-self-conscious” about matters of equality, maybe to a point where they neglected the “optics” of the all-male basketball game” – which is to say, many of their best staffers are probably women, but they wouldn’t know, because they’re gender blind!  To a fault!

It’s possible that the White House  simply didn’t want to dignify this line of questioning with much of a response, but that would be an odd about-face for a press office that seems to pride itself on responding quickly to even the smallest of accusations.

2. The Reporter

One of the basic rules of journalism is to go into a story open-minded, and to work your writing around the truth of the situation, rather than vice versa.  When the most compelling quotes in support of White House sexism are unnamed and unquoted “women’s advocates and liberal bloggers,” a handful of unnamed female sources who seem, mostly, irritated, and notably, people associated with the Clinton White House or Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it’s time to do some rethinking.  Either address head-on the harshest criticisms, or stick to the supportable sense of disconnect, which is newsworthy in itself.

This still, however, wouldn’t solve the larger problem in the story – that is, the inherent assumptions made about what behavior constitutes “male” and “female.”  Inviting only men to a series of events is troubling.  So, however, is creating  a strict dichotomy of genders are allowed to like.  To sum up, if you’re curious:

MALE THINGS, ACCORDING TO THE ARTICLE

  • Beer
  • Liking sports
  • Calling people “dude”
  • Fistbumping [as long as you’re not Michelle?]
  • Swearing
  • Brashness
  • Sports metaphors
  • Towel-snapping and crude jokes
  • Comic books
  • Star Trek
  • Playing horseshoes
  • Eating pork rinds or big macs
  • Cigars
  • Being from Texas

FEMALE THINGS, ACCORDING TO THE ARTICLE

  • Consensus building
  • Cookies

Continue reading

Whither the youth vote?

On a hot Las Vegas afternoon last fall, I spent hours standing on the grass of a slightly decrepit high school football field, waiting to hear from then-nominee Barack Obama.  If you happened to catch such an event on television, know that the enthusiasm was even more infectious in reality – the air buzzed with an almost tangible sense of anxious, long-suppressed hope.  Much of the excitement was fueled by young voters, eager to shed our cynicism and believe in a higher national purpose.
On an equally muggy day late this August, I once again joined hundreds of fellow citizens, this time for our local health care town hall.  It was nothing as dramatic as those that made the national news – less screaming and polemics, more grimly lined faces and legal minutiae.  And notably, I was one of the few attendees below the age of 30.  The youth bloc widely credited for electing the president seems to have evaporated as swiftly as it gathered.
Wedding vows traditionally promise faithfulness “in sickness and in health.”  Young voters’ allegiance to the president, however, seems limited to the latter.
It’s hardly surprising, of course, that political bedfellows seldom make stable mates.  18-to-29-year olds, especially, have been historically unreliable support – or, as James Carville once quipped, “You know what they call a candidate who’s counting on a lot of new voters? A loser.”
But this time was supposed to be different.  Youth turnout in November was the highest since 1972, showing a marked increase from previous elections. Less concretely, but more importantly, the general level of enthusiasm skyrocketed.  Many of us found, for the first time, a candidate who spoke our language – a Blackberry-addicted, idealistic young senator straight from America’s melting pot.
And across the nation, on college campuses and workplaces, we responded in kind.  We spoke, we debated, we listened.  We electioneered on Facebook, by phone and door-to-door.  We lined up to vote and volunteer in such great numbers that lines at polling places snaked around blocks, that those offering to help with the convention were turned away.
“Maybe what’s at least as significant as the actual turnout is the leadership taken by younger Americans in this election,” one political scientist told me at the time. “The young can no longer be characterized as apathetic, and I think now we all have a different view of them as people who are engaged, at least a visible segment of them.”
So what happened?  The change we could believe in, as it turned out, met with a system we don’t.
Perhaps it was inevitable, or at least unsurprising.  Campaigning is hectic and glamorous.  Governing, as a whole, is protracted, incremental and boring.
Sure, things started off well, with sweeping promises to close Guantanamo Bay and end the war in Iraq.  But even those have been bogged down in details. And then we were off to a continuous lesson in crisis management, facing ugly but necessary issues like the bailouts, the mortgage crisis and troop levels in Afghanistan.
Organizing for America, the Democratic National Committee’s online continuance of Obama’s online efforts, still dutifully sends out emails designed to recapture the momentum.  “Message for you from the President” is the title of one of their latest, a direct appeal from the president that’s full of desperately bombastic adjectives like “passionate,” “astounding,” and “bold.”  It urges readers to call their representatives to support health care reform.

I didn’t even bother opening this email until just now.  Would you?
The truth is, many of us were, perhaps illogically, expecting more.  When we thought of change, we pictured it as systemic.  We envisioned a more hopeful, united, decisive nation, the kind that recycled its trash and cared for its poor – or at least one that stopped invading other countries at will.
Instead, we find ourselves with a new captain helming essentially the same slow-moving, contentious, stalwart ship of state we’ve been sailing for the last 200-odd years.  Old white men still hold the majority of positions of power, lobbyists continue to be unduly influential, the Senate is still where bills go to die, and partisanship is – if anything – more inflamed than ever.  And we, the young voters of America, have to decide if we’re in it for the long haul.
The promise of a brighter future is much sexier than the assurance that we’ll be able to benefit from Social Security and Medicare.  Most of us are healthy and feeling invulnerable, covered under our parents’ insurance or not at all.  But unless we want to be the speakers at the next generation of town hall meetings – the worried faces of 2049, transmitted via iPhone – we need to speak up.  And we need to do so now, loudly, and with more than Tweeting or texting our support.
The college-aged, especially, should remember that our right to vote is recently granted, in no small part due to the efforts of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, a strong advocate for the disenfranchised.  That we’ve now abandoned his signature issue is a cruel irony.
Change of the type we seek is rarely as straightforward as slogans suggest, or as gratifying as the simple elation of winning an election.  But it is necessary, and not assured of happening.  If we want to fulfill our grand ambitions of a better world, we’d better start by making sure every American is insured.  Reform will come only step by step.  If we want to see it at all, we’d better start marching.

[Appropriate song of the week: <a href=”http://www.yousendit.com/download/Z01Pb2VOWkJEbUkwTVE9PQ“>MGMT – The Youth</a>]

The New Information Age

W Continue reading