Saturday, September 18, 2010

Beyond one-dimensional politics

Politics in this country consists of well-fingered beads strung along a thin, frayed thread.

It is a short thread indeed. It stretches mere inches from liberal-centrist to conservative. We aren’t even sure what those terms mean beyond slogans. Most slogans in this political season come from the Right. “Big” government, "tax cuts," and “nanny state” dominate a campaign notable for its lack of serious, civil and thoughtful debate.

There’s plenty of reason for voters to be frustrated and angry. I’m one of them, but my frustration and anger are over this campaign season's lack of substance and solutions.

I’m also frustrated that the extreme political Right has managed to capture the support of my fellow frustrated and angry Americans by using bogus bromides that will only make matters worse. How do you lower the deficit by cutting taxes and fighting costly wars?

And I’m frustrated with the liberal centrists for their failure to stand for anything beyond tinkering with "fiscal mechanisms" and throwing gobs of our money at banks and insurance companies.

Our narrow, one-dimensional way of viewing politics doesn’t allow us to even frame the problems, let alone find solutions.

Where, for instance, does global warming and destruction of the planet fit along the spectrum? The oil interests would like to tar climate change as a “liberal” issue, and so, with large infusions of oil money, it has become politicized — to the peril of us all.

What about inequity in everything from schools to health care to income. Why isn’t the Tea Party taking on inequity? Instead of attacking reforms, it should be calling for more of them. Could the answer be that the Tea Party is paid for by the self-serving rich with their private schools, their platinum health care plans, their gated third homes, and their grotesque compensation packages?

The Tea Party folks need to ask who the real beneficiaries will be if the Tea Party wins in November?

(Full disclosure: I'm hardly rich but I've benefited from a private school education. I've used that education and my experience to teach at community colleges and state universities.)

With a former community organizer in the White House you might expect some discussion about community. This country was once seen as a nation of vibrant barn-raising communities. But what does it mean to be a community in today's Wal-Mart world? If communities really exist, how can they solve their own problems?

What about corporate control of communication? Is the control of media by corporations destructive of our society and its values? Have media brainwashed us into our narrow, dumbed-down thinking — political and otherwise? And I'm not just talking about FOX News.

The answers are clearly yes. but what can be done about it?

We need to get down to non-partisan basics.

Let's ask what would it take to make people in this country truly free. Free of poverty, free of ignorance, free from prejudice, free of war, free of debt, free of homelessness? What would it take to make this truly a land of equal opportunity?

Does government have a role in achieving these ends? If so, what should it be? And at what cost — to freedom and to our pocket books?

In this frenzied election season of frustration and anger, I haven’t heard a single political voice that is fresh and independent, that addresses my own frustration and anger. I haven't heard a single voice that poses basic questions offers innovative answers to the colossal problems we face.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Amsterdam overwhelmed with bicycles

A bicycle can be a thing of beauty, as seen in the above photo from Denmark. And when a society makes bicycling safe and easy, as in Denmark and the Netherlands — countries I recently visited — hordes of folks use bikes.

They are, as more and more Portlanders are discovering, cheap, non-polluting and beneficial to your health.

That’s all to the good. But in Amsterdam, where the bike rules the right of way, I noticed what Amsterdam residents no longer apparently see. Bicycles in vast numbers clutter the otherwise gorgeous city. They are locked in tangled rows along the canals. Many seem abandoned. They litter the sidewalks. They seem to propagate over night in a maze of tubing and spokes.

They say that Amsterdam has one bicycle per resident. Don’t believe it. My unofficial count found that it has at least 10 per resident.

No bicyclist wears a helmet. Children ride on fenders and cross bars. And while pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists manage to mingle gingerly and make way for each other, all are on constant alert for mayhem. Among the jumble of bikes are the unrideable, crippled by tell-tale twisted wheels and bent frames.

A pedestrian trying to cross a major thoroughfare in Amsterdam must first negotiate the busy, red-paved bike lane, then scramble across the motor lane, then the trolley tracks.

That gets you half way across the street, where you may or may not find a safety island.

Then it’s back across the trolley right of way, the motorway, and the bike way until you find yourself on the sidewalk, where you often compete for space with a jumble of parked bikes.

I do believe that Amsterdam has reached and perhaps exceeded some kind of critical mass regarding the bike.

Then again, only a foreigner may notice.

It’s a little like our not seeing the blight of overhead utility wires in our own city. Amsterdam, like the other European cities and towns I visited, has buried them all. Likewise, billboards on highways are out of the question. Obviously the culture cares enough about the public space to protect it from blight — except for when it comes to bicycles.

One other cultural observation worth noting but apropos of I’m not sure what: famously free-wheeling Amsterdam also has made prostitution and pot legal.

Despite its chaotic jumble of bikes, the city thrives on its choices and freedoms.

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