Friday, October 29, 2010

The "ands," "buts" and "becauses" of politics

The front page of today’s New York Times carries a 19-word caption that says volumes about our values and our civic life.

The caption runs under a photo of Meg Whitman, the multi-millionaire former corporate executive who is running for governor of California. She is exhorting a crowd of rural supporters.

Here’s the caption:

“Meg Whitman, in Spreckels, Calif., on Thursday, has spent $141 million on her campaign, but is still viewed unfavorably.”

The word that jumps out off the page is “but.”

Why not “and” (and delete the “still”)?

“Meg Whitman, in Spreckels, Calif., on Thursday, has spent $141 million on her campaign, AND is viewed unfavorably.”

Or better yet, why not, “BECAUSE Meg Whitman, shown here in Spreckels, Calif. Thursday, has spent $141 million on her campaign, she is still viewed unfavorably”?

The story under the photo notes that the $141 million was Whitman’s own money.

And therein, reports the Times, is part of Ms. Whitman’s problem. As a CEO of eBay, she amassed millions in bonuses and she is now using that largesse to buy public office.

Polls show that California voters are hardly celebrating her goodly fortune or her attempted electoral purchase. She’s expected to lose on Tuesday.

But that caption reflects political conventional wisdom: Whitman’s deep pocketbook would be expected to buy success at the polls.

This campaign surprises me because analysts have been quick to call the influential Tea Party movement “populist.” If it were truly populist, it would be running from the Meg Whitmans of the world as well as corporations (the ones who send jobs overseas, or hide profits off-shore from taxes — we make up the loss — or purveyed quickie mortgages that brought the economy to its knees.)

Ironically, these are the very interests powering the Tea Party and the anticipated Republican tsunami on Tuesday.

The good news, reported in this story, is that most voters in California seem to be “getting it.”

But why aren’t “populist” voters elsewhere? Could it be prejudice, fear of the unknown, impatience, amnesia (who, after all, made this mess?), ignorance or just plain scapegoating?

Or perhaps it’s all about frustration over a lack of real political choices. The Democrats are only marginally better on these issues than the Republicans. Both parties feed at the same money trough. Those executives whose compensation packages are in the stratosphere make out like bandits no matter which party is in power.

What we need is a real populist movement coupled with a real populist party that attacks inequity, injustice and militarism, whose soldier/victims are the poor, uneducated and unemployed.

Above all, a different kind of populism would tear down and reform a political system rigged by the privileged rich and a corporate Darwinian culture.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Friends without enemies

The proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” came to mind with the news that Iran (our “enemy”?) is giving bags full of money to Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan (our “friend”?)

First, let’s note that the terms “enemies” and “friends,” as applied to countries (which include land, animals, insects and people in addition to governments) is political short-hand and should not be taken at face value.

But if we accept these labels for the purposes of political discussion, what happens when an “enemy” (Iran) becomes the “friend” of a “friend” (Afghanistan)?

Could this be good news? Could this make our “enemy” less of an enemy? Would this not provide some kind of opening to friendship through a mutual “friend”?

Apparently not. Instead, the revelation seems to be having the effect of transforming Afghanistan into “the enemy.”

Perhaps this has always been the case and our government has simply refused to recognize it for geopolitical reasons, not the least of which has to do with natural resources.

The Karzai government (not “Afghanistan”) has always been duplicitous at best. Our own “bags of money” haven’t done much good, at least not for us.

I’m no expert but it seems to me that relationships in the Middle East and Central Asia aren’t defined in terms of “enemies” and “friends,” which are static, two-dimensional concepts. I’d go so far as to call them “Western.”

Relationships in Afghanistan and Iran are grounded in religion, culture, history and — opportunity. Those are things you can’t buy with bags of cash, weapons or boots on the ground.

To try to apply “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” or, in this case, “the friend of my friend is my friend,” simply doesn’t compute.

What’s needed throughout the world is a shared ethical culture and perspective. As long as we seek solutions through military force or bags of cash we will lose as a planetary people. We aren’t going to learn the values we share. To the contrary, we will ensure that we remain dangerously divided. For sale to highest bidder.

The good news is that all peoples know we share universal values. He have a “human perspective.” We need to start by naming, extolling and, finally, living by what we share. Doing so needs to extend consistently and rigorously from individual relationships to governmental relationships.

If we succeed, we will all be “friends” and the word “enemy” will disappear from our languages. Then, and only then, will absurd proverbs like “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” become, literally, meaningless.

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