Where Responsibility Lies

Most of us, as adults, have many responsibilities.  We have a responsibility to our communities, locally, nationally and globally, and although we view those responsibilities in varying ways, we must share the responsibility to co-exist.

FB_IMG_1448492742310-1We have a responsibility to family, friends, and employers to be the best person we can be in the different ways that they may depend on us.  And, like every parent, my paramount responsibility is to my children; to be strong, wise, fair, and to imbue the principles of character.

I have a responsibility to be honest as I write this blog and as a columnist for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. I’ve also run for public office which, at its best, is a responsible endeavor.

Those credits, however, have exposed me to a few surprising confrontations that challenged that resolve.

On one occasion a couple years ago, I was enjoying the company of friends at a restaurant Angry_Santa_BN8KAA_3141801bwhen someone from another group called me out as a “stupid liberal.”  No reason to bait me except that they felt a need to vent because liberalism, they said, was “the undoing of America” and apparently that was on their mind at Christmastime.

Last year I was dining with friends and a person I’d never met before passed our table and said without provocation, “I can’t stand your politics.”

My friends were aghast that anyone would be so rude, but were particularly floored since, as one friend put it:  “Your politics are about civil rights and helping people.  How is someone against that?”

I’m a grown up, I can take it, and these encounters don’t rattle my cage or cause me consternation; what they did, however, was make me aware of a societal knot that is getting tighter and tighter. A knot that could unravel at such a velocity that “the undoing of America” will be a very real possibility.

Civil discourse is being replaced by the language of fear; an extreme rhetoric, rooted in a fear of egalitarianism, a fear of secularism, the fear of Islam, in particular, the fear of government, and a fear of change to the status quo.

It is amped and fanned by media, by unchallenged web information and communication cells that share only the most extreme perspectives. Those perspectives are turning into actions; sometimes violent actions to counter those fears.

Recently I went to a friendly bar to relax when an old friend appeared.untitled This fellow and I are on opposite sides of the political fence, but we’ve always enjoyed each other’s company.  On this particular evening he was with a friend of his own and I was introduced.

After a few pleasantries I was left alone which is what I hoped for that evening.  I saw the two of them converse quietly for a minute and then the young man, to whom I was introduced, came over to me.

“I just have to ask,” he intoned.  “Why are you a Democrat?”

I really wanted to be left alone, but I have a responsibility since I’ve chosen to be in the political arena to, at least, be respectful of any inquiry.

“I have a lot of reasons, “I replied, “and they would take up the rest of this evening, but I will give you this.  Social justice.  Whatever I do relates to finding the respect and opportunity that I believe all people deserve.”

He laughed.  “That’s the biggest load of horse s#!t I’ve ever heard. Explain yourself.”

“Oh boy” I thought to myself.  “But this comes with the territory…here goes….”

(Not to myself: ) “Let’s start with the history of systemic racism and sexism in America.  It is a fundamental flaw in a presumably free society, predicated on justice, and we must continually examine justice and equality until we can transcend prejudice.”

That was too much for this fellow.  He bellowed:  “I can’t believe what I’m hearing.  You’re saying that government will take care of everything.  I believe in individual liberties and your Big Government is telling me what and who I have to believe!”

“I said nothing of the kind, “I replied. “You are putting words in my mouth and answering a false premise.”

“Are you saying I’m stupid?” came his response.  His brow was now furled and he was in my face.  I should point out that this young man was probably over 6’ 2” and clearly a body builder.

“Not at all. Why don’t we just let this be and we’ll get together to talk at another time?”

“I will knock those f*@#in glasses off your face!”

The rest of the bar was very aware of this situation and my friend came over to take him away.  The angry young man marched out the front door and didn’t returned.

“He gets that way around Democrats.  That’s happened before” was my friend’s conciliation.

“Not a problem” I said, but in reality it was.  The problem wasn’t the disagreement itself, but the intensity of the anger that came with it.  The same anger I had witnessed before that stepped outside of the realm of respect, but this time there was a physical threat from an intimidating source.  It wasn’t the thought that I could be nursing a broken nose that bothered me as much as the senselessness if I had.

What is happening in America when a man in Michigan robs a convenience store and calls an Indian American employee a “terrorist” as he shoots him in the face? That was not an anomalous reveal of violence and anger, it is indicative of an epidemic of irrational behavior in bars, restaurants, churches, mosques, schools, clinics, stores and city streets.  They are the acts of people inflamed by fear.

But this kind of fear is not rational. Not to such an extreme that uncontrollable rage should strike out at a distortion of reality.  Where is this insanity coming from?

INSANITY2The noun “insanity” is quite possibly the most overused, misappropriated and misunderstood word in the English language.  It is used to define everything from serious mental illness to simply making a subjectively questionable judgment.

There is a wide berth in terms of what insanity implies, but a definition can be refined to this:  A mental illness of such a nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.

We are all capable of shades of fantasy and impulsiveness, but it is clear when someone steps over the line into the fog of genuine insanity.  The trouble is that an overt act of insanity is not the only measure of its existence; insanity is being created right before our eyes.

The extreme fear that is cornering our socio-political reality is being trumped up (pun intended) and fanned by irresponsible, irrational, demagoguery.

What I hear, instead, are unfounded claims:  “You liberals care more about the rights of Islamic terrorists than Christians.”  Or I hear a justification:  “That’s how upset people are with liberal policies.”

Or:  “Liberal protesters are just as bad.”

I didn’t condone the violence in Seattle when thugs emerged from the Occupy Movement and broke628x471 windows, nor did I turn a blind eye to violent riots that resulted from protests against racism in cities all over the country.  I may even agree with the fundamental causes in those cases, but violence, destruction, or harm to anyone, is not justifiable in any context.

I didn’t consider the protests in Baltimore, Ferguson and elsewhere to have been party specific, but the reaction to them did fall along ideological lines; the left being sympathetic to the protesters cause and the right aligning with the status quo and a denial of the racism in question.

The crucial distinction is that the protests themselves (like the National Anthem protest) stemmed from extreme dissatisfaction with institutional or systemic failures that deny justice.  That doesn’t make a violent outcome any more justifiable, but the root issues stand on rational ground.

These extreme acts of violence like the convenience store in Michigan, the church in South Carolina, a mosque in California are clearly a manifest of ideology born from hatred construed from fear.  The root issues that lead to xenophobia, sexism or racism do not stand on rational ground; it is an emerging cultural insanity.

Insanity gives a perverse peace of mind to those who are most susceptible to being programmed by extreme rhetoric, especially when that rhetoric plays upon the very real instinct of fear.  Fear is a vital, emotional response to perceived danger, but it also triggers the most primal, non-intellectual part of our psyche.

So where does responsibility lie?

rs_1024x759-150916173506-1024_Donald-Trump-Republican-Debate_ms_091615 Policy starts at the top, but our leaders are forged from popular opinion, and so culpability for dangerous dysfunction falls to all of us. When President Trump moves to ban Muslims from entering the United States he cannot be absolved from the Islamophobia that results.  His policy is based in fear that causes many people to stop looking for truth and to settle on the most shallow and superficial reasoning.

The shallow reasoning that gives sanctuary to insanity.  For this to stop, our political rhetoric has to be held accountable to reason and facts; it has to be scrutinized by historical truths, honest reflection on our intentions, and the reality of our circumstances.

Unless we start to unravel this knot, it only gets tighter.  Another responsibility that we all must bear.

Freedom Isn’t Easy

Yesterday someone said to me: “I gave your campaign money because I thought you were going to bring people together. But, you’re just another far-out liberal.”

I asked him what turned his perception of me from favorable to unfavorable, and he offered: “Your posts lately (Facebook).”

There are only two subjects for which that might be the case and one was gun control.

“No, I agree with you on assault weapons, but the other stuff.”

The “other stuff” had to be with regard to NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem. I had written that I stand for the anthem, but also understand the protest. I wrote that I, personally, did not view the protest as disrespectful to the military, but as a call to address compelling evidence of systemic racism.

Regardless of disagreements I didn’t consider my position to be divisive. Defending the First Amendment and taking a stand against social injustice isn’t….far-out….is it?

I trust this fellow and I know without question that his repulsion of my view is rooted in his own beliefs about patriotism and national pride. I wasn’t going to dismiss him. I’m also passionate about America and I cannot pretend that I don’t see the issue of injustice as critical, and the denial of it as – dangerous.

Except….

Arguments are often less about what started them, than what they become. The sides drawn from the debate/controversy surrounding the National Anthem; what it means and the issues of justice, now stand in different contexts from the statement that was made in protest. That exchange with a friend (I hope that he still is) was not idle chat to me and looking for a platform to understand all sides of this issue is something I’ve been doing since the controversy began. And I had somewhat of an epiphany.

The tradition of the anthem at professional games isn’t that longstanding, and the inclusion of our military is really only since 9/11, but it was cut from the same ideological cloth as Old Glory herself and to separate pride from our symbol of freedom…well…maybe that’s dangerous, too.

The rituals that bind us, especially if they include the honor of military sacrifice, serve a purpose to strengthen our resolve to retain our patriotic values.The ceremony has now become, for many Americans, inextricable from reverence for our military who pay the price for our exercise of freedom. Perhaps, the ceremonial pledge offered in our National Anthem includes freedom yet to be realized.

I haven’t changed my mind about the First Amendment, or the reality of systemic racism and how that betrays our values, but the issue of participation in our national ceremony is not about those things to those who are angry at kneeling. They aren’t going to change their minds either. I can argue ‘til I’m red, white, and blue in the face, and not one person is going to move from their position.

What credibility do I have to reframe the context of this debate? Very little, probably. I am not a black man in America. It has never been assumed that I stole a nice car just because I’m driving it. I have never seen eyes scan nervously when walking past them down a side street. I cannot and will not pretend that I speak for people who endure suspicion and suffer the sometimes deadly consequences of judgment and fear, just because of the color of their skin. And I will not ever say that the protest to call attention to profiling and social injustice is unwarranted or misplaced.

I can, however, call attention to the conversations we should be having by giving the conflict that has arisen a platform to acknowledge the differences drawn from the battle lines. “We can agree to disagree” isn’t going to work here. We’ve tried that. But, one side succumbing to the other isn’t going to happen, either. People don’t easily surrender the deep rooted beliefs from which they identify themselves.

So….what do I say to my friend?

This, perhaps: “Freedom isn’t free and it isn’t easy. It comes with a price that can exact struggle even among friends and family. And that price also demands that we never become complacent toward our promise of liberty, and justice for all. Our traditions to recognize our pride in this great endeavor, and to honor the sacrifice of those who have been willing to die to protect the cause of freedom, can make us stronger in that pursuit.”

And like I’ve written many times: “I stand for the National Anthem to acknowledge the Brave and to renew my commitment to them to make the “Land of the Free” a reality and not just a lyric in a song.”

I’ll take “Patriotism” for the win, please

Let’s be very clear. What President Trump is calling for, particularly with respect to our flag and standing during the National Anthem, is not “patriotism” but “nationalism.” Both are concerned with individual relationships towards nations, but nationalism is defined as our interest in the unification of a nation based on cultural and linguistic equanimity. Patriotism is experienced as our love for our nation’s values and beliefs.

For several months there has been controversy around some NFL players taking a knee, as a form of protest, during the playing of our National Anthem. A paradoxical situation immediately developed. Standing for the national anthem should be an expression of upholding our national values since it is, essentially, a pledge to recognize America as the “land of the free.” As is our Pledge of Allegiance (to the flag) which commits us to “liberty and justice for all.” Those are America’s values and to support them is patriotic.

However, to protest the National Anthem or America’s symbol (the flag), does not necessarily debase those values. As an expression of our First Amendment, protest can be a patriotic premise to scrutinize (or criticize) our commitment to those values. While nationalism can hold us together, it cannot supplant our value of freedom and justice. Forced nationalism is, in fact, contrary to true patriotism.

At the same time the ceremony in which we express national pride is cultural….and therein lies a paradox that demands we drill down into the issues at the center of the protest.

If a minority race in America is being profiled, and if there is evidence that such profiling is leading to being killed for an offense (or alleged offense) for which a white person would likely be incarcerated (and not killed), then the pledge to American values becomes false to those subjected to such systemic racism. And it cannot be unfathomable that at some point a black person (as in the case of Colin Kaepernick) will not be willing to participate in a cultural tradition that celebrates a different reality.

The other part of this controversial equation is respect for military sacrifice. Our military is essential to securing our founding premise of liberty and justice and to secure our way of life by protecting our national interests. They will always deserve our honor and respect. The ceremonial pageantry of honoring the military at sporting events was heightened after 9/11 when we, as a nation, needed to be in touch with our strength and the spirit of nationalism was an essential bond (in my opinion). But that fusion of the equanimity of nationalism and patriotic values came at a cost; that being a necessary understanding between the character of America today and our commitment to the freedom and justice that conspired to create America in the first place.

The latter cannot be ignored, swept under the carpet, or absorbed by a ceremony; it must remain a relevant and vigilant pursuit. The freedom to protest, along with Constitutional respect and transparent democracy, is what holds our preeminent values to the light and in the highest regard. That is what men and women have died to protect. What they didn’t put themselves in harm’s way for was to defend pageantry; they sacrificed their lives, or were willing to, for the principles that forward our most sacred values.

Personally, I stand for our National Anthem because I am stating my commitment to those values and to honor the brave men and women who have fought for them. But….if you don’t stand, that doesn’t mean you are dishonoring those soldiers. You may be challenging the systemic injustice that betrays their honor and sacrifice. You may be calling into the light our citizenry who do not hold freedom, liberty and justice in the highest regard, and the cultural malfunction of a status quo blinding itself with nationalism that can compromise our patriotic values.

We may have different ways of expressing these points of view – but that is a true American value.

Support Our Troops

support_our_troops1What does it mean, specifically, to “support our troops”?

Everybody says it, and I believe that everyone sincerely means it, but since every color on the political spectrum uses the phrase, even when foreign policy ideologies are diametrically opposed, I wonder what it really means.

It was originally branded political-bumper-stickers during the Gulf War to emphasize conservative values that supported the military actions of the United States. It found more traction at the start of the Iraq War. Originally, it was more about the duty our troops were called to serve than about individualizing the troops themselves. But, that position was blurred pretty dramatically when Barack Obama was President.  Did it only mean any military action a Republican President takes?

I ask that somewhat facetiously, but there were clearly conflicting standards. There is, however, a meaning to the phrase that everyone can agree with.  It can mean that we support the lives of men and women in uniform who represent the United States of America and we unconditionally admire their service and sacrifice.  There is nothing party-specific about that.  Sadly, however, even though the sentiment is sincere, it can become a mere platitude when held up to serious cross examination.

There was once a site on Facebook called “We Support Our Troops” and circulating from the page was a picture of an African-American soldier.  The headline read:  If Obama had a son, he wouldn’t look like this.stock-photo-3597987-isolated-portraits-african-american-soldier

Clearly, the implication was that (then) President Obama would not have allowed his own child to be a soldier and in a twisted logic construed that conjecture as “supporting our troops.” I was frustrated because there is no depth of thinking in a post like that. Yet, that warped-view is a strong voice in the public discourse.

I wrote in the message box:  This is quite possibly the stupidest post I’ve ever seen.

Floodgates opened with Obama-hating, liberal-despising, name calling (insert the noun-adjective of your choice), to let me have it.  The nicest one said, “You’re a pacifist liberal!”…although I’m sure the intent was to insult, and not to praise me.

Actually, I call myself a “Realist-Pacifist.”  While I promote peaceful solutions and wish for a world without war, I also believe that we must have a powerful military if we are to achieve that end.  And let me be perfectly clear:  I support our troops.

I support them by hammering in posts, emails and conversations with representatives or anyone who will listen, that American foreign policy needs to define its purpose and have an exit strategy before engagement so that more men and women can come home alive.

I support our troops by demanding from our leaders that America follows moral directives that are clear before sending troops in harm’s way.support_our_troops_yellow_ribbon_bumper_sticker-p128639558653299365en8ys_400

I support them by petitioning Congress to give our military the equipment and armor necessary to better protect their lives. (http://sftt.org/)

I support them by voting for legislators who believe that American military men and women should have better benefits upon returning home and receive superior health care. (http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/29/veterans-need-jobs-better-health-care-leading-military-official-says/)

That means prioritizing the lives of the men and women on the battlefield above the margins of defense contractors who get rich off of military conflicts.(http://thinkprogress.org/security/2012/08/13/680481/defense-contractors-profits-cuts/)

Here’s the sticker I would like to have:  I Support Our Troops and That’s Why I Want to Bring Them Home Alive, as Soon as Possible, and to Receive the Care and Benefits They Deserve When They Get Here!

Supporting our troops is a vital responsibility in our democracy. Thinking about what that really means is essential, because our best support will come from what we agree upon.

“Press Two for Hmoob”

Several months ago I was traveling on business with an associate and we were in the Minneapolis airport looking for our terminal.  We stood at a large sign that contained directions with instructions in Chinese, followed by Spanish, French, then Arabic and finally after, perhaps, even Serbian, was English.  My friend was exasperated and turned to me.

“Doesn’t it piss you off that we are in the United States and we can’t find directions in English?”

I quickly responded: “Actually, I love it. I think it’s great that this airport shows that respect.”

Knowing that I was being contrary to his position, I then said: “What did that take us?  All of three extra seconds to find English?  Are we that impatient that we feel inconvenienced because we had to make a tiny effort?”

He got my point.  He may not have agreed with me entirely, but maybe he will have more patience in the future.

Previous to this I had returned from Italy where I was on business with two other American colleagues and on our first evening in Turin we stopped in a little café. It was immediately clear to the Italian staff that we were American as the young hostess approached us.

She said: “I…sorry….My English-a no good.”

Being gracious we replied: “Don’t be sorry, we are in your country, we should speak some Italian.”

She then surprised us by saying: “No. English…is…uni-ver-sal language.  I should know better.”

That hit me like a ton of terracotta tiles.  Is it because our economy has dominated the world for over a century and the dollar is still the standard measure for trade?  Or do we have an arrogant culture that assumes the rest of the world will meet our needs with the least amount of effort from us?  Could it be that our professed exceptionalism can limit our ability to become more worldly?  Or could it be all of the above?

A problem we are facing in American trade liaisons was evidenced by the work that I actually had to do with the Italian company.  While we three Americans spoke, everyone understood what we were saying, but when the Italians spoke, we had no idea what they were sharing.   In a strictly business sense they had the clear upper hand.

At times, the Italians (gracious, by the way) laughed amongst themselves, leaving me and my two associates wondering, with a little bit of insecurity, if we were being laughed at.

Our insecurity was exacerbated when a Chinese business partner joined the group.  The partner from China and the Italians spoke enough Italian or Chinese to communicate clearly, but the three Americans, the professionals putting this project together, were lost in translation.

I asked our Italian cameraman, who was fluent in English how many languages he spoke.  He said, in addition to Italian and English, “Spanish, French, some German.  We are taught all of these in school. Everything is pretty easy because we are so close to these countries, but we are made to learn English because it is so important for business.”

Because it is so important to business…”  Hmmmmm….I had the choice to learn Spanish or French in high school, and my teachers were excellent, but to be honest, there was little to no expectation that we would need to be fluent.

I’ve traveled all over Europe and even though I’m the guy who tries his best to pick up key phrases out of respect for different cultures (and it’s fun), I haven’t had to in order to have my steak sent back or to find the men’s room.  The world came to me; I didn’t really have to come to them.

That is changing every hour of every day as we move into a Global Economy.

The truth is we are a Global Economy already and if the United States is to lead we will have to learn how to come to the rest of the world with as much knowledge as they have coming to us.  Our “We’re Number One” attitude may serve as a barrier that diminishes our ability to compete.

A personal experience comes to mind from many years ago when I lived in Los Angeles.  I was fortunate to have a once a week housekeeper from Mexico who also, occasionally, took care of my young son.  One day, when Chris was only 2, we were in a McDonalds and a little Mexican boy was complaining to his mother in Spanish.  I had no idea what they were saying but Chris turned to me and said: “The little boy is angry because his mommy won’t let him have a Happy Meal.”

My son had picked up enough Spanish from our housekeeper to understand what was going on.  I said to myself: “THIS is the world I want my son to grow up in. This is my vision for America.”  I was emboldened by what my son had done so effortlessly; he inherited an ability to communicate and that can lead to cultural respect.

Americans are the ones who will be at a disadvantage if we don’t, just as I was on an Italian soundstage.  We should (we must) value the diversity for which we claim to stand, and we should (we must) emphasize the need for young Americans to become multi-lingual in a world that is moving forward…

…and will move forward whether we know what they’re talking about or not.

What is Victory?


A few weeks ago marked 16 years since the horror of 9/11. I made a point to stop what I was doing to pay respect to the victims and to reflect on that day. I remembered how I had just risen from bed in Los Angeles and turned on The Today Show. At that very moment the first tower collapsed.

What the…?”

Shock turned to confusion, then to fear, then anger, and back to shock. Within a few hours the entire community sought emotional refuge in public spaces like churches and schools. I took my family to a church in Simi Valley and some kids were outside playing on skateboards. One of them asked: “What’s going on?”

I replied: “The world just changed.”

“I don’t know anything about it,” said another young man.

“You will,” I told him.

The impact has been immeasurable. Even my youngest son, who wasn’t even born, knows the terms now coded into our collective psyche: 9/11, Twin Towers, Ground Zero, Al-Qaeda, the War on Terrorism. The world did change. And 16 years later we can take inventory. We have seen victories. And with no intention of minimizing any act of terrorism that has occurred since, there hasn’t been one of the orchestrated magnitude of 9/11. Saddam Hussein is gone in an ancillary cause, and Osama Bin Laden is dead. Much of Al Qaida has disintegrated. ISIS rose from those ashes as the most heinous realization of such insanity, but we are seeing their money run dry and their reach diminished.

Yet no one feels that victory has been accomplished. So we must ask: What will victory look like?

Will “sand glow in the dark” from bombardment as Ted Cruz’ hyperbole suggested? Will we have vanquished the children of our enemies who hate us?

Will we have such awesome might that no one ever dares attack us again? Is that possible when it was only a small band of terrorists who altered our giant nation with box cutters? That isn’t meant as an insult to our strength or fortitude, but it serves as a reminder that a slingshot is more than a metaphor.

And what does victory look like to our enemies?

Perhaps it isn’t a victory in the battlefield, but to diminish our strength in other ways. They have changed the way we think; the way we look at one another; the way we talk to each other. They robbed us of many conveniences by tightening our security and the way we fly. They’ve made us more suspicious, more judgmental, more afraid, and sometimes less compassionate. They’ve fanned embers of racism, and religious intolerance, and made us look askance at our greatest virtue; the promise of freedom for all.

They are not winning, but they are also not defeated. We have seen victories, but we are not yet victorious.

To be truly victorious, we must decide what it will be.

“What so proudly we hail”

flagOur flag has been getting a lot of attention lately. From flag waving to burning to football players refusing to stand for it during the National Anthem.  President Trump entered into the conversation (via Twitter) to say those players should be fired.

Last year, as President-elect, he Tweeted after a burning protest:  “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”

His comments gather momentum from Americans who resoundingly agree, but it also ignites another side to a First Amendment debate.

In 1969 the US Supreme Court determined that burning a flag is protected as freedom of speech.  That never set well with a lot of th16zm4dloAmericans and in 2005 an Amendment passed in the House to make flag burning illegal.  It failed in the Senate, however, and even Republican Senator Mitch McConnell argued against it.

“The vast majority of Americans honor the flag, and rightly so. Some would go so far as to amend the Constitution to protect the flag against those who would burn it. While I share and admire their patriotism, altering our First Amendment, even for the worthy purpose of protecting the flag, is not a position I can support.

McConnell continued:  “Weakening our First Amendment could also set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the Bill of Rights. If we successfully carve out an exception to one basic freedom, perhaps those who seek to curtail our Second Amendment rights, —the right to bear arms—, will carve out another. Or the right to own private property, as expressed in the Fifth Amendment, could come under assault.”

How ever we look at the flag, it is a flashpoint for people who feel betrayed by it, people who are inspired by it, people who are afraid of it, and people who stand by it.

flag-burnThe flag was burned three years ago in Ferguson, Missouri by people who felt America does not provide equal protection of freedom and justice and it appears to them as a betrayal of that promise.

A flag was taken down by a university where a student displayed it on his campus porch because to foreign students passing by it represented a form of nationalist patriotism that doesn’t welcome them.  It scared them and the university agreed.

untitledWhen it is either waved or desecrated, people rally to one side or the other to defend what it means, what it doesn’t mean, what it stands for, or what it stood for.  The only common thread of that upon which we do not tread is that “Our flag represents American freedom.”

So the question is:  What is American freedom?

That’s not easy to answer.  American freedom, even as it’s outlined in our Constitution, is a vague construct.  Freedom to do what, exactly?  Live free?  What if my free imposes on your free?

Freedom to worship?  What if your beliefs deny my beliefs?

Freedom of speech?  What if that speech promotes the restriction of freedom for others?

Freedom from government tyranny?  Sure…but, government was also created to keep us free from…government tyranny.

I’m not trying to be pedantic here, but there are conundrums inherent to the very concept of the freedoms we defend.  All we can actually believe in is an idea of freedom, but ideas are not always clearly defined.  What we are believing in is not a concrete set of principles, but the feeling we get when we consider our own personal identification with that idea.  Good or bad.

Which brings us back to the flag…

A national flag is a symbol of that nation.  It is visual statement to identify the temperament, history, ideology and people comprising that nation.  The US flag signifies, as stars, the 50 united-states, and has 13 stripes representing the original colonies that revolted against Britain.  The history of that revolution, democratic representation, our sovereignty, along with the constitution binding those states with unalienable rights is woven into that fabric.

But, therein lies the problem.  A symbol is as perfect as it is benign; its realization is not.

In the 1960’s a phrase entered our lexicon in answer to the protests against the$(KGrHqZHJEEFDN6t2SSZBQ6TmcfJZw~~60_3 Vietnam War:  “America, Love It Or Leave It.”  It was conservative-ideology shorthand to define American patriotism and it meant that if you don’t like the way America handles its business, you should go (or stay) elsewhere.  It was draped around our symbol; the flag.

There was a double-standard as easily revealed as its patriotic intention as those saying it usually hated any government representation that wasn’t from their own party. But it was nevertheless embraced by many because it made them feel good about their personal connection with America.

And they proudly waved their flag.

During that time, however, conservatism was in the shadow of an emerging liberalism that began after World War II and reached its zenith during the Machiavellian, ethics-defying presidency of Richard Nixon.  In the 60’s and 70’s it became more culturally relevant to be liberal.

“America, Love It Or Leave It” endured, but it was a bumper sticker confined to the more extreme right wing.  That is until a new revolution came along; an ideological revolution from 30 years of pent up conservative nationalism:  The Reagan Revolution.

President Reagan, more than any other president (or at least as much as any) galvanized a decaying nationalist spirit and he turned a disenfranchised form of patriotism into something positive.  He made a lot of Americans feel good again about being an American.

reagan2_largeEven though many of us did not believe in Reagan’s jingoistic interpretation of American exceptionalism and we bristled at the wealth-pandering, class-separation he helped create, it was undeniable that a new conservative-patriotism was sweeping America.

Being a “liberal” was now being labeled less patriotic.

The neo-cons cornered the market on such brilliant, shorthand messaging to diminish liberalism and to rally the spirit of their base.  During the George W Bush administration they found a new cry, again in support of a war, and this one no one could take exception to:  “We Support Our Troops.”

What it meant, initially, was that they supported the military action in Iraq taken by that President,support_our_troops1 but it soon transcended that limitation as it was folded into the centerpiece of the sentiment; the bravery of the men and women in uniform.  The flag was part and parcel again with every representation of that statement.

But, again, we have to ask, “What does that mean?”

It doesn’t necessarily mean support of the government (of which our military is part).  Or support of their Commander in Chief.

It doesn’t mean support of the foreign policy directives those troops have been called to establish or defend.

It doesn’t even mean domestic support of our troops with better health, job or education benefits.

It succeeds as socio-political panacea because there is no greater rapture of true patriotism than from the acknowledgment of those who are willing to stand in harm’s way to protect us, and that cannot be argued.

Which, again, brings us back to the flag…

a2929d6d1742f22c640f6a70670009a2Anyone standing next to me at a football game will know that I sing our National Anthem (loudly), and will see that my hat is in my left hand and my right hand is on my heart.  They will also see me making sure that my sons do the same.  I do this to show respect, humility and sincere love for our nation.

I do this to support our troops, and our citizens, in our joined fight for freedom.  I look at our flag as I sing “The Star Spangled Banner” (with its traditional patriotic understanding).  When I sing “The land of the free and the home of the brave” it is with the sincere belief that we really can stand as a nation in support of that ideal.

And I also realize that to some people that ideal has been lost or has never been realized.  They are saying that we cannot be the “land of the free and the home of the brave” if only for some.  They remind us that a flag is only cloth flapping in the wind unless the nation that flies it is true to its purpose.

We can argue either way, but the bottom line is that our flag symbolizes the idealism of a Republic and the spirit of freedom that carried our nation to sovereignty, but it can also contain the divisiveness, separation and fear that can result from exclusionary nationalism.

And so…what is that freedom it represents?

It is all of the above.  It has contradictions, vagueries, truths, triumphs, defeats, promises, shortcomings, and inspirations.  The sum of all of these gradations is the freedom to protest, even to burn a flag, and the freedom to be repulsed by that action.

Our flag is powerful because we have the freedom to interpret its symbolism in whatever way our experience compels us.  The flag belongs to all of us to wave proudly or to protest.

And that makes some people really angry.  One way or another.139405111314023385798284

Democrats….We Try Harder (we have to)

Have you noticed how Republicans rarely, if ever, ask “What went wrong?” Even when things go wrong, they say “Stick to the plan, find the real Republicans and keep moving ahead.”

23 years ago Newt Gingrich laid the foundation for winning with the “Contract with America.” There were 8 government and operational reforms listed that no one actually remembers, but the message was that government would be reduced and austerity would cut wasteful spending. There was no resolute policy, but that didn’t matter. It said to Americans: “We understand that government works for YOU, and this is our pledge to fight for YOUR values.” It was dovetailed to the Reagan dictum: Government isn’t the solution, government is the problem.

It resonated by saying (and repeating over and over) that government is too big, too invasive, is taking your liberties and your money, and not enhancing your values. Values are never defined either, but patriotism was enveloped by Christianity, imperialist doctrine, a destiny of unbridled wealth, and it was cloaked in a spirit that embraced Americans’ cherished belief that we are the Shining City on the Hill. It inspired, and inspiration doesn’t need definition or even justification; it only needs to run through our veins. Democrats have forgotten that.

When Democrats lose, we get together to figure out what went wrong, and then issue a proclamation to say that “We’re going to learn how to listen so that we can serve you better.” That might even be the most genuinely intelligent way to get better and to do better things, but it doesn’t inspire, and that’s where we fail.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look critically at ourselves, and build new alliances, use polling and collect data (and everything liberals tend to do by nature) but we cannot keep missing the bigger picture- What do we offer to voters that says “We are holding America together with the values that can make your dreams possible”?

That is not specific and detailed policy and it isn’t the result of polling to tell us what Americans want the most so we can decide where to focus. We cannot avoid policy, because that is part and parcel with what makes us Democrats- but policies are the apples on the tree, not the root system that makes them come to fruition.

Easier said than done to grow stronger roots, but we can take a page out of the history of rental cars. No, seriously.

Avis could not overcome the size of Hertz and they developed one of the most enduring tag lines in history. Avis lost millions every year until they came up with “We’re Number Two; We Try Harder.” The industry said “That will fail! You can’t advertise that you’re not number one!!” But, lo and behold! It spoke to the public and they started making money for the first time in decades. It inspired people to believe that Avis was truthful and was, in fact, going to try harder.

That’s what people want. Not necessarily the policy-equation that shows them the math and science behind why one idea is better than another or where they have been failing, but the feeling that they can believe in something, or someone, who will try harder, so that their own hard work will pay off.

The take away here should not be that Democrats have to admit defeat or be self-deprecating; the take away is that we have to show what motivates us so that we can motivate voters.

We are motivated by making America stronger, more productive, safer, and more successful across the board so that everyone feels that they have a chance again.

Here’s my volley into the slogan arena: The Democratic Party: Building a stronger, healthier America.

Then, how do we turn that into a “contract”? That is what we should be exploring. We are Democrats in the 21st century; the progeny of the Age of Enlightenment to challenge the status quo and break the molds that confine us to our lesser selves. Our order is to expand society to a greater consciousness. Good stuff. But it doesn’t serve us well on a bumper sticker.

Republican/Conservatives have so engrained patriotism into their brand that to tell a Republican that they are voting against their own interests is like trying to convince a devout Christian that Christ wasn’t the Messiah. Or to a devout Muslim that he was. It is simply their identification to their core belief. As Democrats we have a long history of believing that we can use logic and facts to make our case; to show that person at the door that we are the better fit to match their goals and that they have, in fact, been voting against their interests. It isn’t convincing.

So, is there room for us at the door if “God and Country” have already been taken?

Yes.

No party has ever actually cornered the American Dream. All we have is a vague, abstract, amorphous thought that contains feelings of security, experiencing happiness and freedom. Maybe it buys a house, puts the kids through college, takes a vacation every year; who knows what the American Dream really looks like?

Telling Americans that they are not serving their own interests is not how we can communicate our values. It will be found when our message marries better health with their dream; higher wages with that dream; safer communities with that dream; expanding opportunities for our kids and grandkids with that dream.

We must marry our policies to America’s preeminent values; the American dream of personal prosperity. The landscape of productive lives for our elderly, the infirmed, our children, businesses, our military men and women, working families, and those who have fallen into, or were born into poverty. And the continued prosperity of the wealthy and fortunate, as well. Every one of us falls, at one time or another, into one of those categories. The dream respects the health of every American.

That is a message for the real America.

Once again….The Democratic Party – Building a Stronger, Healthier America.

It ain’t the heat, it’s the Hume-idity

I just can’t get this series of statements from Brit Hume out of my head: http://politicer.com/brit-hume-giving-health-insurance-to-sick-people-defeats-the-core-ethic-values-of-this-country/

Hume’s comment: “Obamacare was designed to help the poorest and sickest citizens out there. However, as noble as that sounds, the consequence of such logic is the fact that it neglects the core ethic values that were embedded in our constitution.”

He goes on to define that core value as the responsibility of every American to take care of themselves without burdening others. He says: “If you’re at a point where you’re both poor and you get sick, it’s your own fault.”

As I try to wrap my mind around that arrogant and ignorant analysis, there is something being said here that illuminates a question dividing the left and the right in America: What are our American values?

The Hume/Trump/half of America-side defines our preeminent value as hard work, not burdening others, and thereby reaping the reward of the American Dream; which is ostensibly unlimited success.

The rest of us live in reality. The enduring myth that hard work and rugged individualism will result in prosperity is part of our national fabric, and does, in fact, inspire us, but it is only a chapter in our story. A chapter that is supported by rags to riches evidence, but that evidence is from a narrative written exclusively by those who won. It ignores a larger reality. The reality that contains stories of misfortune with myriad consequences that betray Hume’s “responsibility of every American to take care of themselves.”

No one asks for mental illness, a lost parent from a car accident, cancer, disabilities, or even whooping cough. No one asks to be part of corporate downsizing or to have stagnant wages. No one asked to be born into poverty or for poverty to befall them and the hurdles and challenges of environment, hunger, and limited access to education and healthcare that result.

The reality of oppression from a King, and from amongst ourselves, is what actually created the Constitution and it is embedded in our true American value; to sustain a country of, for and by the people. That is a plural concept, not a singular proposition. The “general welfare” in the Preamble was born from the understood value of the “common good.” Our government was created to support that society, from which individualism and hard work have a clearer path to success, but one cannot divorce themselves from the foundation of the community, large and small, in order to fulfill that dream.

“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” are America’s core values as eloquently expressed in our Declaration of Independence. Not margins, profit and diversified portfolios. To many Americans, today, affluence is the most important measure of success, but the spirit of rebellion that caused colonists to defy a King at the risk of treason, was born from a bigger dream than material wealth; it was the inalienable right to freedom predicated on equal justice.

Or is that just another “spiritual” pleasantry to Mr. Hume and not a real American value?

The End Of The World As We Know It!

zombie-apocalypse-from-overclockersYou know those apocalyptic movies where the world is near extinction because we are being overrun by Zombies?  They became Zombi-fied from a virus that is circumnavigating the world at an exponential rate.

The movie will go back in time, briefly, to show us the unnoticed, seemingly insignificant, event that first sent monkeybrainthe virus airborne into a lethal chain reaction.  It’s usually something as benign as a pet chimp sneezing into their new owner’s cereal bowl.  The intent is to suggest that it’s something so unforeseeable that it could be happening as we sit in this very theater.

What if we are at the beginning of one of those sequences of events right now?  Could we implode from a cacophony of conflicting nuances, divergent political agendas, contradictory rules, extended punishments, threats, insults, and misunderstandings?

I’m not an alarmist, by nature, but my interest in politics compels me to look for patterns in current events.  As a writer, I translate those observations into common analogies to grasp what is going on.  Make sense?  No?

Well…. in America, our solutions to problems, historically, are comparable to an antiquated idea Punished Boy --- Image by © Roy Morsch/CORBISof child rearing.  If there is a behavior that alarms us, punish the culprit and the problem will go away because no one likes to be punished.

So we castigate, eliminate, or incarcerate everything and everyone that had anything to do with anything or anyone who might have said, done, or listened to anything or anyone that might have misconstrued, misjudged, misappropriated or misbehaved.

What happens in reality, however, is the behavior is simply displaced and moves somewhere else or is transposed into a different, but equally poor, behavior.

We have come to a very precarious place where many people think that banishment, chastisement, punishment, censorship and walls can replace education, understanding, compassion, diplomacy and bridges; silence the protest and we eliminate the problem.  Censor the protester, politician, pundit, satirist, musician, writer, parent, teacher, or student…and the conflict is corrected.

In reality, however, we create a more frightened and more fragile society.  And I’m concerned.  We cannot silence of voices who hold our leaders accountable because they are the narrators of our story.  They are the ones who can illuminate that sequence of events before it’s too late.

Can you excuse me for a moment?  My chimpanzee has a cold.