Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Tyranny of Protests

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak recently announced that he won't be seeking a fourth term in office.  After I read the news I headed over to the troll capital of Minneapolis politics (the Minneapolis Issues Forum) to see how people reacted and was of course greeted with the typical trolling you'd expect by people who have never liked R.T.  One "thread," of one post, struck a chord in me when a fellow named Dean E. Carlson announced the upcoming press conference and said "If you hurry, you can go down there are heckle him."  So that's it, after 12 years of non-stop rage and anger at a very popular mayor his political opponents are reduced to posting on message boards inviting people to go to a press conference and yell.  That is all the greens and anti-Rybak leftists have left in them, going to a press conference and yelling at strangers they disagree with.  I came to a realization today while driving to target to buy some consumer goods at knock down prices: far from becoming a revolutionary way of enacting social change for progressives, the tradition of public protest has become a terrible trap that limits progressives ability to achieve their political goals.

Political protests in this country go back to the Boston Massacre and beyond.  Indeed you can trace the idea of complaining to public officials as being both a sacred right and a political tool to enact change back in our political lineage all the way to the Middle Ages and the Magna Carta.  But here's the rub, public protests have never been a substitute for politics of a more traditional sort.  They have always been simply a political tool in an organizer's toolbox that can be used to do things.  Things like get your cause publicity or build public pressure against decision makers.  At the same time, they have limitations and drawbacks.  Mass protests can drain organization's or movement's resources as they take a lot of planning and organizing to pull off.  It took hundreds of thousands of sandwiches to feel the attendees of the famous March on Washington (it probably cost a lot to rent the sound system).  Imagine what else it cost and took.  Protests can also be very difficult to control, just as a big march can show your movement has power a small march shows you to be weak, irrelevant or the worse of all political afflictions: ridiculous.  In addition, as you see over and over again anyone can attach themselves to a protest and if they behave badly they make your whole movement look bad.  Even if they had nothing to do with you.

I'd argue, something changed during and after the 60's and since then public protesting has become to be seen by many progressives as a means unto itself.  With the questioning of power and authority in the 1960's protesting seemed to become a replacement for all politics.  The British film maker Adam Curtis found a great documentary made about the elections in Britain in 1966 where you see this new style of politics emerging.  But it was a funny and strange kind of politics, people were mad, and so they yelled at their political leaders, but they were increasingly mad in a strange disorganized fashion.  Curtis points out that:
In the film you can see both an old Britain and fragments of the new Britain that was emerging side by side in the audiences.  Empire Loyalists shout about the betrayal of Rhodesia and the loss of the last bits of the empire, while in the same audience - towards the end of the film - you can see early examples of British counter-culture. Long hair - but still beatnik, not hippie, fashion - with the slogan "Anarchy - don't vote, Anarchy don't vote". 
It's rather strange to look back at these sorts of events, shouldn't the beatniks and Empire Loyalists be yelling at each other not their MP's?  Joseph Strick, the man who made the film, introduces the film and takes the typical view of the 1960's (the same type of view that would make baby boomers Time's Man of the Year in 1966) where he sees it as an invigorating new form of democracy.  Looking back I can only see confusion.  In addition, looking at this film I am stuck by how the chaos in the audience doesn't weaken the politician at the podium, in this case Labour Party leader Harold Wilson, it only makes him look like the only reasonable person in the room.  Richard Nixon would use this kind of dynamic to get all the way to the White House two years from when this was filmed.

You can see the same dynamic at work in the whole short lived Occupy movement.  For a brief shining hour a lot of progressives saw the whole Occupy thing as a great liberal hope to change America, but it of course failed (not to rub it in but the Occupy MN website hasn't been updated since May).  It failed because the people that made it up consistently opposed any sort of political decision making.  They refused to make choices, refused to build organization and demanded everything operate by consensus.  Which means nothing got decided on, indeed for all the publicity it got I still don't know what they really wanted.  In short they imagined a sort of anti-politics, a politics that wouldn't have to deal with things like compromise, or collective decision making in a timely fashion.  But it's not possible to have an unpolitical politics at all.  In fact in Minneapolis the place of the "occupation" and the targets of their wrath seemed just plain strange to me.  They occupied Hennepin County Government Plaza which meant their main target was an organization that had no control over what they were mad about (Hennepin County doesn't control the political economy or monetary policies of the Unites States).  Matt Yglesias pointed out:
The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has, along with the Federal Reserve Banks of Dallas and Philadelphia, been one of the major centers of damaging hard money politics in the United States. These are the people loudly arguing against Ben Bernanke from the right, pushing for a slower economic recovery and a policy dynamic that’s even more favorable to creditors and more hostile to debtors and the unemployed. I don’t really know anything about the Hennepin County government, but it’s just not possible that they’re at the root of any major national or international problems.
Exactly.  Even the people that were being protesting couldn't have helped even if they wanted to, while the people who were causing the problems were spared public protest.  Such is the strange logic of protesting.   

A political strategy that focuses on heckling or protesting as ends in an of themselves, rather than means to an end, won't work.  To make matters worse, if you go down this path you will only exhaust yourself and your allies with little if not nothing to show for it.  Rather than being a way to transcend the boring and difficult work of having lots and lots of meetings, building a political structure or making decision that not everyone will love the protest has become a terrible trap that keeps progressives from enacting real social change and we progressives would do well to remember it.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Gone and then Forgotten

Back in the dawn of time, the spring of 2012, noted conservative commenter, "activist" and person-who-yelled-on-cable-news-alot Andrew Briebart died while taking a stroll in his posh neighborhood in LA.  The internets went aflame, especially that most profound tool of logical argument since St. Thomas Aquinas sat down with quill and parchment: Twitter.  Matt Ygelsias, the liberal blogger and author whose great blog on Slate you can find on the right side of this page, wrote something that perhaps was not of the highest order of expressing sympathy for the dearly departed.  He tweeted:  “Conventions around dead people are ridiculous. The world outlook is slightly improved with @AndrewBreitbart dead.”  That might sounds a little harsh, but Matt explained why he said this later on blogging heads.

The argument I think Matt makes is that  Briebart might have had a private life where he was (by all accounts) a loving husband and father of four children, but he also had a public life where he was a very mean person, and he made a lot of money by being mean and hurting other people.  I'm not going to go through all of the bad things Briebart did, but if you don't know about them, here's one.  In addition to ruining people's lives for fun and profit, Briebart contributed nothing to our national debate, indeed for someone who was displayed as a symbol of mean people on the "left" saying mean things about him he wasn't exactly a nice guy in public.  He divided Americans against other Americans, again for fun and profit, and said things much worse that anything Matt Yglesias said.  I didn't have to describe what he looked like for you to know who I was talking about in that video, it was rather apparent.  I would also say that while it might be a personal tragedy for people who knew him personally that he died, the public figure that left the stage should be held accountable for what he did.

This week we had another death of a once major political figure and it looks like it is being overshadowed by a sense of important national loss.  Any debate about what he did, why he did it and why that might be wrong is being stifled by a sense that it is wrong to speak ill of the dead.  But I'm going to speak ill of him.

The one who actually died was Robert Bork.  If you don't know who Bork is that's okay, but you probably should read more.  The great journalist Jeff Toobin wrote what I would say is a pretty even handed review of Bork's life (okay that isn't very fair but recently a friend of mine got a job at Planned Parenthood so I bet Bork wouldn't think to highly of me either, also I know single mothers so I guess I am twice damned in Bork's book)  Toobin writes:
Robert Bork, who died Wednesday, was an unrepentant reactionary who was on the wrong side of every major legal controversy of the twentieth century. The fifty-eight senators who voted against Bork for confirmation to the Supreme Court in 1987 honored themselves, and the Constitution. In the subsequent quarter-century, Bork devoted himself to proving that his critics were right about him all along.
Yeah, that's kinda harsh, but it's also true.  Bork has two great claims to fame, number one he was the number three man in the Justice Department in 1973 when Richard Nixon ordered the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, because Cox was linking Nixon to the Watergate break ins.  Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox, Richardson said no, so Nixon fired Richardson.  President Nixon then ordered Richardson's deputy, a fellow named William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox, and the Ruck-master also said no, so Nixon axed him too.  So the President of the United States of America was essentially removing anyone from the Department of Justice who might seek to pursue the chain of evidence in the Watergate Burglary to it's ultimate genesis, that is President Nixon.  NOT TO FEAR DICK, BORK IS NOW AT THE HELM!  Bork of course immediately fired Cox.  Bork always said he did this because otherwise Justice would be "leaderless" or something, umm okay, Mr. Morality punts big time (we'll get to that latter.) 

Later Bork would climb the ladder of the Federal Judiciary until his next great moment of history in 1987 when ole Dutch Regan nominated him for the Supreme Court.  This began an epic battle that involved many factors.  Remember Regan had shocked the Democrats in 1980 when he won the biggest landslide against a incumbent President in decades AND the GOP won a majority in the Senate.  By the late 80's the situtaiton had turned.  Democrats won a huge victory in the 1986 mid-terms and many were working to try and push back against the GOP conservative agenda that had made headway in the early 80's.  Into this Bork comes, according to many of his peers a Judicial genius, at the same time Bork would say things on national televison that showed him to be a radically out of touch with American society of the the 80's, let alone today.  Which implies to a dumb as shit field organizer like me he wasn't that bright at all.  Again Toobin:
Bork gave honest and forthright answers to the questions posed by the senators on the Judiciary Committee, which was led admirably by then Senator Joseph Biden. Much of the questioning focussed on Bork’s long-held belief that the Constitution does not include a right to privacy. As one of the creators of the “originalist” school of constitutional interpretation, Bork asserted that since the framers did not use the word “privacy,” that value was not reflected in our founding document. Accordingly, he opposed such decisions as Griswold v. Connecticut, which said states could not ban married couples from buying birth control, and Roe v. Wade, which prohibits states from banning abortion. He promised the senators he would reflect those views as a Supreme Court Justice.
Indeed, while Bork was talking about Griswold-which was a case in the 60's about a then decades old law in Connecticut which made all forms of contraceptives illegal in the state, even those used by a married couple under the advice of a physician (just think about that)-he argued these types of laws were no different from laws regulating pollution from factories.  This of course was massively unpopular with the American public and so Bork went down in flames.

Bork never really recovered from this defeat.  While constantly praised as a Judicial genius by his peers, he neither taught nor wrote any thing of significance about the law for the next 20 odd years (he resigned his Court of Appeals seat in 1987 after he lost his confirmation).  Instead he started writing books in which he would condem everything about modern American society from working mothers to pre-maritial sex.  In short the political lackey from 1973 turned himself into some sort of great moral voice, or something and stuff.  Too bad their was none of that culture warrior steel to stand up for the Constitution back in'73.  Toobin again sums up what happened:
One of his last books may have summed up his views best. Thanks in part to decisions of the Supreme Court—decisions that, for the most part, Bork abhorred—the United States became a more tolerant and inclusive place, with greater freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination than any society in history. Bork called the book, accurately, “A Country I Do Not Recognize.”
Yeah I don't imagine he did either.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Alex Pareene, who writes for Salon, just wrote a great piece about his experience going on a six day cruise in the Caribbean.  It's largely about how its kinda fun, but not really that fun to do one of these things.  Pareene specifically wrote the piece to be about his own experience, he wanted to ignore the whole "what does it mean" thing:
Here is what I’m trying to avoid: smug condescension at those ugly, fat Americans who are totally unable to appreciate foreign travel unless it’s wrapped in as comfortably American a package as possible. And also: bleeding-heart liberal hand-wringing over the poor lot of the ship’s crew, the overwhelming majority of whom are from very poor nations. Both of those themes are well-worn and boring. I will, though, complain about the food.
And I'd agree that those themes are pretty boring, but I do think his experience illustrates a lot about our own society, something that is hard to notice in our daily lives but through the lens of a cruise it becomes quite visible, if you look right.

The modern ships that cruise lines operate are more than just very big boats (and they are very big, the ship Parneene was on had over 6,000 people on board, more than a Nimitz-class suppercarrier).  They are actually little floating societies that come together for a brief period of time and strangely enough mirror our own society.  The entire experience of being immersed in a pleasure bubble is only possible by the huge (hundreds or thousands) of boat employees, often from developing countries, that work in poor conditions for very little pay.  At the same time the passengers are all sold on the idea that they are equally experiencing a life of luxury but as in American society while everyone may style themselves as being equal their is still a rigid hierarchy with some people getting a even better experience.  It didn't take Pareene long at all before this set in "I envied the passengers with stateroom balconies overlooking the ocean..."  All the while the cruise companies are massively profitable and often pay little or no taxes.

The British film maker Adam Curtis wrote a great history of how this strange industry came into being, and how it's development mirrors that of modern capitalism since the 60's.  Where he points out:
As the cruise-world developed and mutated over the next forty odd years it mirrored the changes in modern capitalism - from a naive utopian belief in transforming the world - to a harsh, narrow utilitarian vision of the free market where everyone above and below decks is expected to behave as "rational utility maximizers"

And today the world of the modern cruise liners also mirrors the present structure of our global society. Millions of people live in a world where they expect the luxuries which were previously only offered to the few. At the same time millions of others around the world struggle daily to create the platform that holds that fake luxury world together.

Meanwhile the small elite who are genuinely rich and powerful float off into the distance on their own boat - and kick anyone off who dares to get drunk and call it a cruise.
It's a very good piece and you should read it.  But I realized it's not just the economics of the cruise that mirrors that of our own society.  Our own reaction to disaster looks a lot like how the elites on the Costa Concordia acted when they got in trouble.  In case you didn't hear, because you were in Antartica with your head in a block of ice, the Costa Concordia was a Italian cruise ship that sank in early 2012 of the coast of Tuscany and the whole disaster was largely caused by the Captain of this ship Francesco Schettino.  Schettino took the ship off course to "buzz" (sail close to) a town on the Tuscan coast and hit a reef, while said buzzing was going on Schettino was wining and dining a Moldovan blonde in her 20s, he then delayed reporting the fact that his ship was sinking and finally he left the ship on a life boat before the evacuation was complete leaving hundreds passengers to fend for themselves.  A more perfect allegory for how our elites behaved before, during and after the 2008 financial crisis (Paul Krugman has taken to calling the "Lesser Depression) I don't think could be written.

But there is one difference between how our elites responded to a situation they had a big hand in creating and how elites responded during the Costa Concordia disaster.  In one radio call from the Italian Coast Guard to Schettino, the Coast Guard ordered Schettino to get back on the ship and finish the  evacuation. At one point in the call, the Coast Gaurd captain, a fellow named De Falco, got so angry at Schettino's stalling that he screamed, "Vada a bordo, cazzo!"  It is difficult to translate angry Italian curse words into English, but it more or less meant "Get the fuck [back] on board!" or "Get [back] on board, for fuck's sake!"  You of course never could say something like that to Jamie Diamond, then you'd be criticizing job creators.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How to Think About the Upcoming Election

Upcoming election?  You better believe it, the City of Minneapolis will be having it's municipal elections for Mayor, City Council and Park Board in less that one year.  In fact, DFL Caucuses in the endorsing process will be happening on April 16th and I know of four confirmed candidates in my ward alone.  Even beyond the boring old realm of Minneapolis politics things are already underway as Political Scientist Jonathan Bernstein pointed out earlier with his helpful points on how to think about 2016.  So if you live in Minneapolis here are some help points to think about when thinking about 2013, if you don't these principles will still help you think about who to support when in comes to primaries for the 2014 cycle and beyond.

1. The Ethic of Responsibility.
I've written before about how I think one of the things that goes wrong with progressive politics in Minneapolis is a refusal to adopt an ethic of responsibility in politics. And I think this is very important to remember when looking at who wants to be your next member of the City Council or Mayor.  Effective political leaders need to be responsible not just strive to be on "the right side" of an issue in some maximum way as their choices will have consequences that can be bad, even if their intentions were good.  Under Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton the City's bond rating was downgraded by one of the rating agencies in response to, among other things, a deficit in an internal city fund.  When running against her in 2001 R.T. Rybak pointed this out as a big problem for the City (as it increased borrowing costs for all of the City's debt) and evidence of financial mismanagement.  Belton defended herself by pointing out the arbitrary nature and unfairness of the downgrade.  The problem here is that while in some ways her defense was correct, it also was irrelevant.  Bond rating agencies have always been unfair to American cities.  The fact that this downgrade was done in a unfair manner doesn't make the consequences any less real.  Nor does it excuse the responsibility of the people who made the decisions that led to the downgrade.  Just as the fact that you wishing the way American society funds professional sports stadiums in the beginning of the 21st Century was different doesn't make the consequences of the Vikings leaving any less severe for the city, even if it's unfair.  Look for politicians who will be responsible, not ones that will try to be "right" in some maximum way. 

2. "Values" can be Vague.
It's common to ask politicians about "values" in an attempt to see the "real them."  Minneapolis ward conventions are no different with few questions about substantive policy and lots that are chalk full of vague terminology like "support" or "fair."  The result is that even any politician can get through the "candidate forum" of a convention by agreeing with broad (and popular) principles while taking few definitive stands on the issues they will actually be tackling.  The result is that there is little hard evidence to go on when trying to asses if a politician will support your priorities and the result can look a lot like this:
In 2009, Council Member [Meg] Tuthill claimed that she supported strong city services. She then voted against Mayor R.T. Rybak’s budget, claiming that the budget “didn’t cut enough.” She never specified what she would cut. I wonder if she would prefer more potholes or fewer firefighters? Or maybe longer waits for inspections or fewer cops on the street...

In 2009, Councilmember Tuthill promised to work to help the people in Ward 10 thrive and she assured voters that she would not be distracted by “personal vendettas and tangents.” Until recently, she has been pushing an ill-conceived ordinance that would limit one of the great business assets of our community: our restaurants’ outdoor patios.

In 2009, she promised to be an advocate for women and against the exploitation of women, earning the endorsement of the DFL Feminist caucus. Last year, Hustler opened a storefront on Hennepin Avenue and Councilmember Tuthill hid behind a misunderstanding of the U.S. Constitution. Instead of actively working to stop this store from locating in our ward, she claimed that the "First Amendment protects this kind of store" and argued that there was “nothing” she could do about it....
That's from an op-ed by Matt Filner a Ward 10 resident who ran against Tuthill in 2009 that was recently published in the Southwest Journal.  Now I get that Matt is upset with many of the policy choices Tuthill has made in the last four years, but the problem here is that the statements that were made were so vague that the whole "broken promises" meme doesn't work very well.  Supporting "strong city services" doesn't necessarily translate into a yes vote on a particular budget or even mean no cuts.  A hypothetical candidate could say they "support strong city services" then agree with cuts and say "they were too strong, now they are just the right kind of strong" or "these cuts won't effect services we are just getting rid of waste" or even "we can do less with more."  You could disagree with this policy choice but this is an argument about what "strong" means, not about what services should be prioritized.  Likewise being an "advocate for women" doesn't necessarily translate into working to stop one store from opening on Hennepin Avenue.  I could name lots of people who might see themselves as an "advocate for women" but don't agree with the policy preferences of the DFL Feminist Caucus. 

Better questions could have included "Do you support using the zoning laws to stop entire classes of business from opening in the ward?  If so what types would you exclude?" or "What parts of the City's budget should be open to cuts and what parts shouldn't be?"  Look at Grover Norquists' pledge as a guide, it's very effective at forcing politicians into a corner.

3. Be Honest About Consequences
So much about Minneapolis progressive politics is about publicly expressing support for a concept and ignoring the ways that the policies you support impact this issue.  This is true for all politics to some degree, after all a lot of politics is about groups and identity.  However, in Minneapolis I feel like the disconnect between public expressions of support for an abstract concept and how we judge politicians based on how their policies impact that very same issue has gotten so big it it leads to perverse policy outcomes.  Take the issue of affordable housing, it seems to me that one of the main strategies of some Minneapolis progressives is to stand in the center of the public bull ring and shout about how they "support affordable housing" and this is what they are judged on regarding the issue of the availability of housing.  What isn't talked about is how their policies had made housing more or less available.  One of the big reasons we have rising rents (and less affordable housing) in Minneapolis is we have a rental vacancy rate below 2%, a historic low.  This causes landlords to raises prices as demand for housing is greater than supply.  You don't need a PHD in economics to know that building more housing units, that is creating a greater supply of housing, would lessen the rise in rents and might even reverse it, that is create more affordable housing.  But this isn't how we judge political actors in our city, we don't ask if they've made the process to build new housing easier or harder or if they allow the construction of multi-unit housing or only single family homes, instead we ask if they "support it."  And so a policy maker can make it hard to build apartments or new construction at all and still win credit for supporting affordable housing even though their policy has decreased availability and thus made all housing more expensive.

I think this needs to end.  We should hold elected officials and candidates responsible for what they do, not just what they say they "support."  If you support restricting new construction you support less affordable housing, a smaller tax base for our schools and city services and higher property taxes.  If you support allowing apartment buildings to be built in places like Ward 10 not just single family homes you are supporting more affordable housing, a bigger tax base for schools and city services and lower property taxes.  Just as when Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio say: "a greater emphasis should be placed on improving the lives of the middle class if Republicans hoped to expand their appeal and confront the nation’s changing demographics"  while failing to mention a new policy we should acknowledge that's not their agenda at all.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Andrew Sullivan, Relationships, James Bond and Why Rich Cohen is Awful

Let me start by saying I like reading Andrew Sullivan.  I like reading him not because I agree with him, but because he's just a great thing to read.  I think he's good to read because he's been writing the same kind of thing since the 1980's, and its turned into blog posts, and he's gotten really, really good at writing them, regardless of the subject matter.  And as some one trying to make my writing better its very helpful to read.  But more importantly, how could you not want to read this guy?  He's a public intellectual British ex-pat, who is gay, shaves his head, has a a silly beard, stiles himself as a "conservative", sees the guiding force in life as the writing's of the British Enlightenment, was a huge proponents of Bush's war with Iraq but now spends a lot of time criticizing Israel and he's also a devout Catholic.  Whatever he writes it's guaranteed to be more interesting than whatever stupid copy about white men not being manly enough David Brooks wrote last night.

So anyway, it's all fun and games until Andrew Sullivan starts writing about relationships.  Then we really start going down hill.  The whole thing began as a reference to a column by the Washington Posts' Richard Cohen.  In it Cohen complains about how the new James Bond is too muscle bound and sexy looking in his British swim suit.  This all come's to a head as Sully declares war.  And by that I mean starts talking about steroids.

The male body changed on screen because of steroids. Arnold started it all, essentially requiring men to be as physically ravishing in movies as women generally are. Advertizing took the baton, with Marky Mark leading the charge, followed by Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber filling the airwaves and magazine ad pages (remember them?) with physically enthralling super-men. Over three decades, the increasingly sophisticated results are everywhere. Not so long ago, you'd be able to point out the guys in the gym who were obviously on roids. Now, you're lucky to spot a body that hasn't been transformed by steroids.
Ummm okay, but then it get's worse, now we learn about how steroids and free weights will get you women, and is a good thing for some reason:

But how are you going to stop vain and competitive and sexually driven young men from trying that out? Their movie stars are now all ripped muscle comic book characters. Why would they not want to preen more around their peers, get more attention from women, more street respect from men and far more sex? The phenomenon is global, huge in places like Afghanistan and Turkey, and buttressed by Hollywood's ancient desire to sell sex on screen.

The new male is here to stay. And that is largely because it's hotter. Get used to it.

First of all this seems to be an example of a big Sullivan failure.  That is he makes a good point but makes it for the totally wrong reason.  Richard Cohen has been writing this kind of terrible stuff for years, the fact that you need Daniel Craig with his shirt of to get this is less than satisfying.  You should disagree with Cohen because he's wrong about everything, not because you think the new more beefy nitty gritty Bond is better that fashionable secret agent man of the Connery years or the suave gentleman Bond of the Roger Moore era of the action packed Bond that Brosnan played.  At the same time Ta-nehisi Coates wrote a giant thing about how the hard boiled private eye's of the 30's were bad about gender relations for some reason and even Alyssa Rosenberg piled in to make an epic case about how heterosexual men can be weird, or something, and stuff.  Alyssa wrote a good piece except she uses as a model of about how men and women should interact, wait for it, characters from David Lynch's "Twin Peaks".  Umm I don't think that is a good example and I think anyone whose been to the Black Lodge might make poor relationship material in general.

The problem here is that people are demanding that their ideals be ascribed to everyone's relationships.  So the key to getting women is doing steroids andlifting free weights for four hours a day.  Because you're interested in people with pumped up muscles.  Or you want someone who thinks pulp fiction from the 50's is bad in someway, because of how the characters talk to women and flirt with their secretaries.  But there are lots of reasons people get in relationships.  Oh I'm sure that some people think that steroids and free weights will get get you women and make prime relationship material.  Just like being a rich jackass probably works for other dudes. But it's not universal.  Every relationship is different, that's because every single relationship is composed of different human beings.  Who will be different.  To some people religion is a deal breaker in a relationship, to others it's no big deal.  To some people inter-racial marriage is a big deal, to others it's irrelevant and to others it's a hurdle to overcome.  This is because people are different, your view of culture is in no way universal.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Results Matter

I recently gotten into an inadvertent internet dispute with acclaimed author Rick Perlstein who i respect immensely.  He wrote a brief post about the late, great Mayor of Chicago Harold Washington.
He wasn't just Chicago's first black mayor. He was also probably the furthest left big-city mayor perhaps since Altgeld. And he got reelected. He died today in 1987. Read this, and don't believe the hype that Obama was paying all that much attention. If he were, he would have noticed that being nice doesn't really work in governing a jurisdiction on the verge of civil war.
If you're not from Chicago you probably have no idea who Harold Washington was, and if you are from there (and especially if you are a liberal activist reformer type like Perlstein) you are probably obsessed with him.  Harold Washington was a remarkable figure; he was a life long politician and reformer born in the old black neighborhoods of Chicago in the 20's, he served in World War II, worked in variety of positions and rose to serve in the Illinois State House and Senate, the US House of Representatives and finally became the first black Mayor of a major northern American city in 1983 when he was elected mayor of Chicago.  This final triumph was accomplished by a herculean effort to overthrow the last vestiges of the old Machine in Chicago that Harold put together through force of will and charisma that was composed of a new kind of political coalition of racial minorities, white liberals and disaffected people (sound familiar?) who swept him to power and then to re-election.  Tragically he died quite suddenly after that return to City Hall and the coalition that elected him would collapse into infighting and bickering to be ultimately succeeded by Richard M. Daley (Daley The Younger) son of Mayor Richard J. Daley, one of Harold's life long opponents.  He holds an honored place in the Pantheon of the social reform movements and liberal politics in Chicago and if you want to hear more about him, I'd suggest this great This American Life piece.  He then changed the city and ushered in a new era of collective action for the common good.

Right?  Well...not exactly...

Washington had spent his political life battling what he saw as a corrupt and racist political machine and while his term in office may have ultimately changed Chicago forever, it certainly didn't change it overnight for him.  In fact, many scholars and professional observes of the Chicago Machine saw its high point as probably 1960, with a steady decline afterwards that truly went downhill during the 70's.  In addition, his election was hardly some Roman triumph, he won a complicated three way primary against then incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley with only 37% of the vote.  Traditionally the Democratic primary is the determiner of who is mayor in Chicago, but a huge number of white Democrats and powerful politicians revolted to back a Republican in the general election.  It was an ugly and racially charged race that saw Harold win, but with only 3.7%, something unheard of in general elections in Chicago for generations.  

And that was just the beginning.  Next came "The Council Wars."

Named by a comedian after the then popular Star Wars series, much of the old political guard in City Hall began an epic battle to stop Harold from doing, well anything.  Old leaders of the machine known as "The Eddies" composed of Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, Finance Chair Edward Burke and Parks Commissioner Edmund Kelly created a united anti-Harold front.  The Eddies were supported by other powerful politician figures in Chicago including Richard M. Daley, who was now the States Attorney, and Congressman Dan Rostenkowski who as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee wielded tremendous influence in Washington.  And while Harold had the votes to become mayor, they had the votes to control the city council.  Under Vrdolyak (what a great name for a bad guy!) they assembled a block of 28 white and one hispanic Aldermen and declared war on Harold's agenda.  They voted themselves all the committee chairs and voted down all of Harold's policies and appropriations to fund his programs.  Chicago is not like New York where the Mayor has over the years and by state law accumulated considerable executive authority (Mayor Bloomberg runs the New York City Schools) or Minneapolis where it assumed that a Mayor must bargain with the City Council (as R.T. Rybak did masterfully with the Viking Stadium Deal) to get their way, it's suppose to be a place where the Mayor rules the City Council with an iron fist.  But now it wasn't.  Now it was gridlock with the Mayor having to rule through his veto powers and seeking other means of enacting his policies than the "ram it through" model that many of his predecessors and successors (including current Mayor Rahm Emmanuel) enjoyed.  Many Chicago residents and even journalists where simply baffled by this.  Doesn't the mayor always get his way?  Not from 1983 to 1986 he don't.

In the end, in his own way, Harold again triumphed over his opponents.  He and his supporters ultimately went to Federal Court to get the gerrymandered ward lines drawn after 1980 census redrawn and special elections called.  Candidates promising to support Harold beat several of The Eddies' Aldermen and others defected deciding to work with the Mayor rather than oppose him.  Harold was re-elected and got a working, although as slim as they get, majority of 25 to 25 Alderman, as he could cast then cast the tie breaking vote.  The dreaded Eddies then fell from power with Vrdolyak even becoming a Republican.  It was Harold's shinning hour.  But within one month of that glorious election night, Harold tragically died on November 25th, 1987.

The world never got to see what a Harold's second term might have been, what he might have done for the City now that he could finally implement his policies and peruse his agenda.  Unfortunately the social trends in Chicago in the mid 1980's were not pretty.  The City continued to hemorrhage population.  Jobs left and business shut down (indeed during this period the closing of steel mills on Chicago far south side forced a coalition of local churches and nonprofits to decided to hire a community organizer to help deal with the aftermath, the man they hired was named Barack Obama).  Crime increased and the second longest track system of mass transit in the nation, Chicago's L, saw a huge drop in usage.  Of course these sorts of trends happened all over the country in major cities during this period and are not direct evidence of Harold being a poor political leader, indeed his policies might have prevented them, but we will never know.  Then again Harold's City was known in the mid 80's as "Beirut on the Lake."

I tried to express this reality, and my feelings about Harold Washington to Rick Perlstein in a comment that was perhaps too glib.  I wrote:
He may have been very liberal, but in all honesty he was a total flop when it came to enacting actual policies. He fought a five year war with the city council and his great accomplishment was changing the way the city allocates bonding funds for streets and alleys. Also the coalition that elected him collapsed within weeks of his death.
In retrospect I probably shouldn't have phrased it like that.  But at the same time I think I make a very important point: he was a very nice person, and a great man, a brilliant speaker and a symbol of racial change to millions of regular people.  But he did not succeed in office.  He did institute new ethics rules and eliminated some patronage and yes he did reform how the city allocated bonding funds for streets and alleys (before then the money largely followed racial lines, Harold made the distribution fair) but there's not much more.  There are many reasons for this but in my view any politician has to be ultimately judged on what they did do, not what they could have done or even represented in an abstract sense.  Stragley enough, Perlstein seemed to conceed my point about Harold's failure to enact concrete change outside of defeating Aldermen in elections in his response but thought that was wasn't important because:

that has nothing to do with him and everything to do with a literally evil cartel that held the city hostage rather than let a black man govern it.
I'd say that's a fair description of The Eddies.  I'd also say it's irrelevant.  The reality of politics is that all political leaders make mistakes and all have failures, to not have them would be simply inhuman.  In addition, they all have their opponents who can sometimes not be nice or fair or act in accordance with the common good, indeed I'd say that many of Obama's opponents are just as mean as Vrdolyak.  What defines a successful politician is what they accomplish in spite of those odds.  What defines an unsuccessful politician is how obstacles to their agenda prove too daunting to overcome and how events overtake them.  Jimmy Carter is a very moral and religious person, and has led a model post-Presidency, but he was not successful in office by any stretch.  He passed little legislation, antagonized his own party so much that it caused a massive primary revolt in the form of Ted Kennedy's candidacy and went on to be thrown out of office by historic margins.  He was not a successful President, even if he was a nice guy.  

Not to long ago Obama had a bit of a political failure during a certain presidential debate. The great Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes for the Atlantic, gave the president some tough love.
My point is this: I am sorry that the president finds debating before the public to be annoying. And I am very sorry that more Americans don't delve into the footnotes of position papers. And I am very sorry that Mitt Romney was mean to the moderator, and lied to the viewers. And I am especially sorry that Barack Obama was evidently shocked -- shocked! -- to find the party of poll-taxing, evolution-disputing, and climate-change denying engaging in such tactics.
But this is the war we have. And this president has signed up to lead the fight. I think he understands that. Over the past four years Obama has proven to be very slow, but very deadly. I doubt that's changed.
Obama of course faced all those problems and went on to adjust his strategy and win the next two debates.  And then win re-election.  That's what political success looks like.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Don’t Get Mad Atlas Shrugged Guy, Get Involved!

Encase you missed in, James Fallows who writes for The Atlantic, has been chronicling the ongoing saga of “Atlas Shrugged Guy” a business owner that laid off all his workers in protest of Obama winning re-election.  Mr. Atlas wrote Fallows an email detailing his plans and it’s blown up into a mini internet meme, Fallows has received literally thousands of emails largely by people outraged about Atlas Shrugged Guy, but also a few brave libertarians writing for the defense.  It’s fairly hilarious, and sort of sad.   Most of the comments are about the morality of what Atlas Shrugged Guy did, or questioning if he did it at all.  These are good points but I’d say that the bigger issue is that Atlas Shrugged guy is going about it all the wrong way.  My advice would come from that ancient liberal tenant: don’t get mad, get involved!

American politics can be frustrating and awful at times, but it also rewards intense activism to a great degree.  Want an example?  Long ago, in 2003, none other than liberal icon Howard Dean would dodge questions about gay marriage by referencing Vermont’s policy on Civil Unions.  Eight years later the President would come out in support of marriage equality and a marriage equality plank would be added to the Democratic platform.  And why? Well because of a lot of hard work by a (compared to 300 million Americans) small group of activists.  Indeed, once upon a time Joe Lieberman was a contender for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, later a bunch of internet kids from Daily Kos ran him out of the party largely because of his unwavering support for the war in Iraq, the fact that a lot of his public comments were attacking his own party and the fact that he was a petty and sanctimonious jerk.   A small group of activists really can have a big effect!

So Atlas Shrugged guy can actually get involved too!  There’s lots of ways, he could get involved in Republican politics in his local area.  All you really have to do is show up to the meeting, say hello and ask how you can help.  In addition to just helping out his local party unit or county Republican club, he could also start working on various campaigns.  One of the great (or terrible) things about politics in our Democracy is no matter how much your win or lose by on Election Day, there’s always another coming, right down the pike.  It’s less than two years from Election Day 2014 already!  A third of the Senate and all of the House of Representatives will be up for re-election, if you don’t like Obama’s policies then it’s time to get your ass in gear! Atlas Shrugged Guy better get to work!  Everyday untold thousands of youngsters turn 18, you need to find them and register them to vote!  Tell them why Obama is bad and GOP policies are good, and if they disagree well thing find some more!  If you are upset that Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Obama, well you got work to do, better start explaining to them why they should support your guy!  Now this might entail some compromises, no more putting Sherriff Joe on Prime Time at your convention.  No more talking about “self-deportation.”  No more claiming that Sonia Sotomayor is a stupid and privileged affirmative action hire.  But these are political battles that you can win, because you as Atlas Shrugged guy are committed! 

If Atlas Shrugged guy doesn’t like what’s going on in his Democracy he can just ask himself, who is my member of Congress?  If it’s a Democrat well, sounds likes we just found that person’s challenger!  If a Republican well then primary the SOB to make sure he’s against Obamacare “enough.”  The history of the labormovement is full of regular people who had just about enough, and turned into history making figures.  Here in Minnesota we have a long and proud history of regular people running for office and winning.  Once upon a time the late great Paul Wellstone was a just another passionate leftist academic in Northfield Minnesota (is it possible to be more irrelevant to the Editorial Board of say the Washington Post than being from there?)  Well he got it in his mind to run for Senate and the rest, as they say, is history.  Once upon a time, in 2004, a boring high school teacher from Mankato tried to go into a Bush event with some of his students, one of which had a Kerry sticker on his wallet that became visible when he took out his ID.  The Bush Inc. security goons said no dice to Tim et al.  So he decided to run for Congress.  And the rest, as they say, is history. 

If that’s not enough Atlas Shrugged guy can always go whole hog and just move to Iowa, yup 2016 is already underway.  A lot of doors to knock, a lot of calls to be made and a lot of arguments to be had with people that Just Don’t Get It.  Your party needs your Atlas Shrugged Guy.  So do other proponents of you Ayn Randian bullshit.  Get your ass in gear. 

Forward with the Heart Guard!  Tonight we Dine in Hell!  YEEEEEE-HAW!