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Tag Archives: Mitt Romney

How Can We Work Together?

Photo courtesy of Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

The presidential election is over, and one of my enormous stressors has gone with it. We are all relieved, whether our candidate won or not, though I’m sure those of us who supported President Obama are more relieved than Romney-ites. Even now that the election is past, however, there’s been a lot of talk about the “two Americas” we now live in, how divided we remain.

I have searched my mind for a way to extend an olive branch to the many people I know and care about who don’t see eye to eye with me on politics—or who don’t seem to look even in the same direction. While I continue to think very ill of those in power in the Republican Party, and while I do believe that there are many in it who are out-and-out bigots of various sorts, I also know some people who are not this way. It’s hard for me to understand them, but I wish we could find ways to come together somehow. Naïve, perhaps, but sometimes our most naïve hopes are the most necessary.

What I want to say right now to anyone who might have voted for Romney is this: Take heart. No, not because the House remains largely Republican and grid-lock remains a real possibility. Take heart because the Dems’ goal is not to personally harm you.

* You will still benefit from the economic recovery underway now due to changes in policy introduced under the Obama administration.

* You will still be able to worship as you see fit.

* You will still be able to counsel pregnant women. You will still be able to adopt children that might otherwise be unwanted or born to those unable to care for them.

* You will still be able to rest assured that should you develop a chronic health condition (such as the diabetes that I’ve had since age 11), you’ll be able to get or keep health insurance and receive the care that you need all the more.

* You will still be able to hope for a secure retirement through the continued existence of Social Security and Medicare. No one will be expecting you to become your own investment expert or to risk the security of your elder years on vouchers.

* In the next election, the Democrats will still be trying to convince you that their policies are better for the nation than Republican ones, but no one will be trying to keep you from voting based on your demographic profile.

* You will still be able to marry whoever you want to marry. And to divorce legally should you desire to do so, no matter your religion, even though that’s frowned upon in the Bible and by the Pope and many other religions. You’ll still have the ability to remain in a less-than-happy marriage should you so choose.

* You will still be able to join the military and serve our country and receive opportunities for high-level technical training that may support you after you leave the military. You won’t be thrown out of the military because of who you love.

* Even so, you will likely benefit from a foreign policy based on diplomacy that is more likely to keep us out of wars that you or your children or your neighbors would otherwise have to fight and our taxes would have to pay for. You will benefit from the extraction of the U.S. from its current involvements in war where that is possible. You will still be able to welcome our soldiers home, as more of them finally come home.

* Your children will still have educational opportunities that, while not equal across the board by any means, will be supported as a right and need of our citizenry. You will be likely to continue to receive correct change in your transactions at the grocery store because the young man or woman working there will more likely have received well-funded schooling and something to eat to fuel his or her brain for learning when a developing child.

* You might even still have the opportunity to hear a symphony or view great works of art or receive in-depth information through NPR or PBS or work supported by the NEH, NEH, and NIH.

* You will still have access to some of the most reasonably priced, safest, and cleanest publically provided water in the world.

* You will still benefit from all the clean-air, clean-water, and other environmental regulations that protect our basic health and protect the future of our planet. You will benefit from clean energy policies that will combat the global warming that endangers us all.

* And when disaster strikes, FEMA will be there to make sure that you get help as soon as possible in a nationally coordinated effort. FEMA will not be privatized into some crazy quilt of corporations worried about making a profit on your misfortune.

We will keep taking care of you. The thing is that more of the rest of us will be more likely to be taken care of, too.

Democrats aren’t interested in taking anything away from most American citizens (though perhaps some more tax money from the wealthiest). We are interested in making sure that we all have basic care and opportunities. That even includes you, even though you might not return all of us the favor if you had won.

Yesterday, as I did my brief volunteer stint at the Obama volunteer coordination office in Casselberry, I really enjoyed myself. Because of my arthritic foot, I no longer feel it possible to torture myself with canvassing (which I have found utterly depleting when I’ve done it in the past), so I was doing data updates, keeping the various files organized, helping prep and send out the canvassers, providing snacks and water bottles, and generally helping out around the office.

As I greeted returning canvassers, I was touched by the reports from the field. We had men and women who came back from neighborhoods with stories of residents who had hugged them and thanked them for still being out there getting the vote out. I knew that my own brother still pounded the pavement in Massachusetts, working hard to re-elect State Representative Carolyn Dykema and helping to support Elizabeth Warren in her senatorial bid. My brother has been passionate about politics for as long as I can remember, and he’s an inspiration to me in his ability to withstand the confrontational nature of it all. I hoped that he was getting as friendly a reception in his last-minute forays as our volunteers were in Orlando.

My father before him maintained long years of involvement in politics—I remember him working at the polls in South Knox County back in Tennessee all those years ago. I remember him working long hours and coming home exhausted. At first I didn’t understand why he felt compelled to do it. But he provided a great example for my brother and me—we both find our ways to participate and to care about the future of our country. Everyone in my family has always felt compelled to understand the issues and to vote at the very least.

Late in the afternoon, I went to drive one voter to the polls who’d had knee surgery and couldn’t get there on her own. She was a funny lady—she was perhaps 65 years old, but it was hard to tell because her face had been altered by too many cosmetic surgeries and her hair dyed a brassy blonde. She was dressed to the nines to make the short foray around the corner to the polling station and had managed to pull on high-heeled black boots. I teased her that they might not be good for her knee as she limped into line, and we hoped together it wouldn’t be too long. With me in my jeans and sneakers, my hair in a frazzled mess, we couldn’t have looked more different. There was one car in her driveway and another sitting on the front lawn, but she told me that her roommate’s car wasn’t working and she didn’t want him to drive hers. The lawn had turned scrubby and long spikes grew up around one car’s wheels. I thought about all the tensions in her life and her dedication nonetheless to voting, and to voting for a candidate who respects the middle-class and the diversity of our country. At least superficially, it didn’t look as though we had much else in common, but we had that. (Well, maybe our poor yard care, too.)

When I got back from this errand, I stood in the office doorway watching the hub-bub and suddenly felt moved by what had surrounded me all day. I tried to imagine the same excitement and camaraderie at the Romney headquarters, and I knew it would be missing a crucial ingredient for me, even if I believed somehow in Romney’s policies (which I don’t). We’ve all seen the photos—at the convention, at the various rallies, at the headquarters around the country, at the concession speech—and The Daily Show has long ago made fun of this—but the uniformity of Romney supporters always stuns me nonetheless.

On the other hand, as I stood in the doorway of the Casselberry Obama office, I felt like a citizen of a great nation built on diversity, built on multiple backgrounds and a celebration of this broad range of humanity. Even in this single small office, we had volunteers young and old, white, Latina and Latino, African-American, East Indian, and various other shades of the human rainbow. We had one lady who swooped in in her Mercedes and others, like me, who showed up in ordinary or beat-up old cars. One woman came without a car at all, and I drove her over to a nearby neighborhood to canvas on foot. One woman sported a large “LGBT Community for Obama” pin on her T-shirt. An older black gentleman loaded provisions to take to those standing in the long lines expected after five p.m. One young mother brought her five-year-old daughter, who filled in with the hi-lighter all the columns that her mother checked off. Then I gave her some paper and she drew us all pictures of little girls beaming from the pages, the sun beaming above them. I taped them on the wall with the pictures of Obama and teased her that maybe one day she would be running for president.

The voter rolls we were updating were filled with names indicating all kinds of origins—plenty of Johnsons and Joneses mixed in with Rodriguezes and Garcias. I noticed names that were Greek, Arab, Indian, Russian, French, and African. I felt glad that immigrants to the U.S. no longer feel a need to Anglicize their names, and glad that I couldn’t even assume that these names were those of first-generation Americans. Decades ago, the country was conceived of as a melting pot, where we all were to blend in—that was the time when my ancestors came here from Scotland, Ireland, England, Germany, and France. That was one kind of diversity, but also the time when people tended to change their names to something more “American” soon after they landed here in order to “fit in.” I wondered about names that might hide negative parts of our history—slavery and Native American displacement. Nowadays, however, instead of the melting pot, we use the metaphor of the salad bowl—in which we mix but don’t have to blend to the point of disappearance or uniformity. And this is the country I love—one based on a mixture of people, both those who came before and those who continue to come as well as to be born into this rich amalgam.

At the Obama volunteer office, we were not all the same, and yet there we were, all working together. The challenges remain enormous, in spite of Obama’s fortuitous reelection and some fabulous wins in the Senate. I hope we can meet these challenges all together as a nation, even though we are not all the same. There’s a model for doing so in the Democratic party, and I hope the Republicans can join us in that.

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The Presidential Character Issue

I attended a small dinner party last Friday evening, and politics came up. One young man at the party commented about the recent Washington Post/ABC News poll that determined just six percent of Americans are undecided about which presidential candidate they will vote for in November. Other news venues, including The New Yorker, have discussed how these are the very voters who don’t follow politics or make much effort to understand the issues. They are no doubt what we might call emotional voters, and they will play a huge part this year.

I am, quite frankly, hoping that Barack Obama can win the larger portion of those voters, even if it isn’t on a sophisticated understanding of the issues. I usually like to focus on issues, but today I want to talk about “character.”

Both of the presidential candidates this year are, of course, highly successful men. Both of them attended elite private preparatory schools, and both of them have degrees from the Harvard University Law School. Both of them have been involved in government for some time—Romney as governor of Massachusetts and Obama as a senator from Illinois.

Both Romney and Obama are also tall, stately men with pleasant demeanors. Many studies have shown that good looks are correlated with various types of success. More recent reports have noted that it’s a little more complicated than that, but that appearance does have an outsize effect. One of the most important factors, mentioned at the end of this Slate article, is that people prefer those who look like themselves. This may be one of the reasons Obama has encountered so much subtle as well as the not-so-subtle racism. A friend who (by strange circumstance) lives in the notoriously right-wing Villages recently created a satirical poster that said “Vote Romney. He’s the white guy,” based on the “totally racist vibe” he’d gotten from overhearing a neighbor at the mailbox complex near his home. But unless someone demonstrates that kind of fear of skin color, Romney and Obama are a toss-up looks-wise.

The other main component for emotional voters is, of course, “the character issue.” I can’t change someone’s incipient racism, but I do believe that Obama wins on character hands down. I believe he is a better fit with the American people in terms of both experience and values. Here’s why.

Wealth and Privilege

Mitt Romney was raised wealthy. His father was a CEO and governor of Michigan, and his mother was a housewife (though she did run for governor herself once, unsuccessfully). In other words, Romney’s life of expensive prep school and Ivy League grad school was taken for granted. He was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, was raised by a single mother with a career as an anthropologist, partly by a step-father, and by his grandparents. His absent father did not provide major financial support. His family believed in education (his mother continued to study and earn degrees through much of her short life), and so they made the necessary sacrifices for him to attend expensive schools. But Obama is much more like you and me when it comes to his background.

Both men may have worked for their accomplishments, but Romney started out with important connections in government and business, whereas Obama is a self-made man.

On Modern Women

Obama and Romney both appear to have solid marriages and to be devoted family men. But it is enormously important that Obama both had a working mother and has a wife with a career of her own. Romney’s mother was a lifelong housewife, and his wife is the same. He has no experience in a household where both partners work, where family and work have to find a balance. He has no experience in his intimate life of women who are his professional equal. In this day and age, when more than 70% of women are in the work force, Romney is out of touch. He has little understanding of the importance of women in the American workforce or the issues that families face when both partners work.

Multi-cultural vs. Insular

Obama, as everyone is well aware, is mixed race as opposed to the supposedly pure white of Romney. By 2008, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. had fallen to 66%, and it is predicted that this demographic shift will continue. Soon, “minorities” will not be minorities at all, and this is a valuable understanding for our leader to have.

Of course, a white president could very well be attuned to these demographic changes and understand them well. I certainly don’t want to say that a white person could not possibly lead the nation. But Romney is from a background of exclusive white privilege in which he has had little exposure to people different from himself. Even when he did a missionary stint for the Mormon church, he spent that time in France, not in Africa or Asia or a culturally or racially more distinct location.

Obama, on the other hand, not only had a black father, but one who was Kenyan. Though his father did not play much of a role in his life before dying, and he was brought up by his white mother and grandparents, Obama has spent time with his relatives in Kenya and has always been motivated to take an international perspective. His step-father was Indonesian, and Obama spent several years there as a child.

I know that some people have tried to use Obama’s international background against him, to claim it indicates he is not really American. But to me, Obama’s background reflects precisely the melting pot of American society and the complexities of many contemporary American families—families who have immigrated, as well as those who have “blended” through divorce and remarriage, those where the bond of family extends across distance and even borders.

We live in complex times where an understanding of international issues is key, and Obama has had an international perspective his entire life.

Early Work and Faith

There’s controversy over Romney’s time at Bain Capital, both in terms of his support for a financial system that is rigged and his continued involvement after he now claims to have resigned. That’s been discussed far and wide, and I will leave it be.

For me, it’s simpler than that. Mitt Romney’s main focus in his adult life has been on enriching himself. Period. Though he served as the governor of Massachusetts, he established his financial power well before that. He could turn to government because he had so many millions that he could quite easily live a lavish life on his overseas investments. Now he is focused on keeping laws and policies in place that will allow him and his super-rich cronies to amass more and more wealth unhindered by any semblance of fairness. His net worth is estimated at $190-250 million.

Obama, by contrast, is estimated to have a net worth around $3-11 million (information given at both Celebrity Net Worth and The Richest; update summer 2013: both estimates have since gone up). Still a lot more than you or I have, but it is clear that his major goal in life is not to amass a personal fortune: When he won the Nobel Prize of $1.4 million in 2010, he donated it to various educational and cultural charities, hardly the behavior of someone trying to pad his accounts as much as possible. (Yes, Romney donates considerably to charity as well, but, again, that is in the context of his enormous existing wealth.)

In addition, if we compare Romney’s and Obama’s efforts in their formative years, Romney went to France as a missionary. Now, much missionary work is highly valuable—think, for instance, of the ways in which many religious organizations feed the hungry in drought- and war-torn sections of Africa or tend to hurricane victims in Haiti. But Romney’s missionary time was spent in a comfortable country primarily proselytizing. Even if you read a sympathetic account of the hard work, modest living conditions, and accident injuries of his time there, you can read between the lines to see that Romney’s focus on the poor was likely simply as potential converts, not as people who deserved material assistance.

A few things about this experience bother me. First, I don’t appreciate proselytizers. I do respect that it is a part of some faiths to do so, but that focus in life seems to me wrong for the leader of a religiously diverse nation. I would prefer to have a president who respects a variety of religions and doesn’t think that pushing one’s own on unreceptive people is a good choice. Second of all, if this represents Romney’s full exposure to social justice issues, as the sympathetic Washington Post article linked above implies, it’s woefully inadequate. During that time, Romney wasn’t necessarily trying to understand people’s problems; he was just trying to convert them to Mormonism.

In addition, contrary to stepping up and volunteering to enter the military, he even used his missionary work to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. He actively sought (and received) deferments based on his missionary service. This implies to me that even though he makes this out to be a tough time that faced him with life’s realities, it was actually a way to skirt what could have been much worse for him personally.

And then, Romney’s professional career in the finance industry was clearly focused on amassing wealth.

Obama, of course, was a child when Vietnam raged, and he has also not served in the military, but the choices that he made as a young man were all about helping people on their own terms. Between college and law school, Obama worked for two public interest organizations, including New York PIRG. After relocating to Chicago, he worked as a community organizer for the Developing Communities Project (DCP), a Catholic-based (but non-proselytizing) organization that worked to set up job training programs, college-prep tutoring services, and to foster an understanding of tenants’ rights. Obama is not a Catholic, but has been a member of the Church of Christ and characterizes himself as a “progressive Christian,” yet he could cross denominational boundaries to work for shared values. He worked for the benefit of the poor in Chicago very directly for three years.

When Obama returned to school to earn his law degree, he maintained an involvement in organizing and even conceived of his degree as an avenue for more effectively doing so. After his graduation, he taught law on issues such as due process and voting rights. He also grew increasingly active in local politics.

Clearly, Obama was ambitious from the beginning, and clearly he was ambitious because he wanted to help people less fortunate than he had become. It is this generosity of spirit and public-mindedness that I so respect in Obama, even when I don’t agree with particular decisions he makes. I know that some people see in Mitt Romney’s financial success something they hope to emulate, a sign that he can balance the books and manage the money. I might give that some credence, except that Romney doesn’t seem particularly interested in anyone’s bottom line but his own. He seems to me dedicated only to the benefit of himself and those very similar to him.

His recent selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate means that most surely, Romney’s intentions as president are to work for a very narrow and selective public good. When Ryan released his proposed budget in March, numerous religious leaders from a variety of faiths weighed in that is “immoral” in its abandonment of the poor. This is the one of numerous candidates that Romney has chosen as running mate.

This issue, of course, borders on policy whereas I promised to focus on character, but it is a clear indicator of how character does in fact often affect policy. Romney is a man who values his own personal wealth first and foremost; Obama is a man of the people who works to help them.

“Youthful” Indiscretions

Both Obama and Romney have been criticized for certain personal behavior in their youths. To me their indiscretions and their own later commentary reveal men of two very different moral capacities.

Obama smoked pot, drank in excess, and even tried cocaine while he was in high school and college. As NORML points out, it is difficult to get any accurate information about drug use in this country, but even the probably way underestimated numbers indicate that 41% of the population has smoked pot in their lifetimes. I can say with certainty that there were very few students I went to college with who didn’t try it. So, Obama is quite average in this regard.

He has also gone on to state his regret for his behavior and to give a self-aware analysis of what drove his use of drugs. Clearly, as with the case of Olympic champion Michael Phelps, he moved on from that phase in his life, did not become addicted, and went on to achieve a great deal.

It is important to me that Obama disclosed this himself, very early on in his own books, and that he has made it clear that such drug use was a “mistake” and no longer part of his life. No one had to uncover it in an expose because Obama humbly recognized it as an issue.

Romney has not so clearly disavowed his personal indiscretions, which came in the form of bullying during high school and animal abuse as an adult. Assault and animal cruelty are both also currently illegal, but Romney has not admitted any real problem with his behavior in either case. When a conservative publication like Forbes notes that Romney’s response shows a lack of empathy even today, then you know that it is indeed a problem. That Romney claims not to remember the bullying incident when it was cruel enough that five others remember it clearly, and then characterizes it as part of his pattern of high school “hijinks,” there’s an indication that Romney is a man who breezes through life with no idea of the consequences of his actions and decisions on other people.

Much less other creatures. Even those he has taken into his family as pets and that he would ostensibly have some affection or sense of responsibility for. On the Dogs Against Romney website, there is an extensive archive of commentary about the most notorious cases and other issues involved with how the Romneys have abused their animals. Unforgettable is the one in which the Romneys strapped their Irish Setter’s open kennel to the roof of their car for a 12-hour drive. The dog became sick and defecated all over itself and the roof of the car—Romney’s reaction was to hose the dog and the car down, and to continue on in the same mode. As the Rachel Maddow video below points out, this is both cruel and illegal. Romney doesn’t care.

This article on Politicker gives an overview of the case, noting that the Romneys have been added to two national animal abuser databases, and this one reveals even more about their lies and attitudes. First, the Romneys seem to go through dogs like caviar—they give them away, they don’t responsibly fence them, and they seem to have no regrets. Romney’s only reason for saying that he would not strap a dog to the roof of the car again is because the episode has received so much attention. In other words, he still insists that he did nothing wrong whatsoever in torturing the family pet rather than allowing it to ride in the car along with the children.

In a more recent incident, Ann Romney was sued for fraud after selling an over-drugged horse. The case was settled out of court, but indications are that the Romneys knew the horse was lame, and that Ann Romney continued to ride it for years with a debilitating and painful condition.

These animal abuse stories move into Romney’s adult years. He can’t even excuse them with claims of youthful ignorance, and so he doesn’t bother to even apologize. He is not the least bit regretful for breaking laws or causing pain and distress to living beings.

The Rachel Maddow video moves from the bullying and dog issues on to Romney’s laughing about his father’s decision to move jobs from Michigan to Wisconsin. She points out very well that Romney seems completely oblivious to the pain of these lost jobs. But that is getting into policy issues, and I’ll stop on that border again.

* * *

All I ask is that if you know anyone who is undecided in terms of this election, give them some information. If you can talk policy with them, great. But if you can’t, go right ahead and talk about character. Obama wins hands down.

Bloody Thursday

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Bloody Thursday memorial at the ULWU office, Mason & Beach streets, San Francisco, 2009. Photo by Liz Allardyce.

Today is the anniversary of Bloody Thursday, a dark day of San Francisco’s Maritime Strike in 1934. In yesterday’s many noisy proclamations of gratitude for our freedom in the U.S.A., few probably remembered Bloody Thursday. (I myself had barely heard of it.)

On that day, in the midst of a long-term strike, two men were shot and killed by police as the police attempted to break up strike barricades that prevented the flow of goods to and from the port via the Embarcadero. Later that night, the strikers were forced to withdraw by the use of the California National Guard, but sympathy generated by the funerals of the two dead men changed the general tenor in San Francisco, and soon the International Longshoremen’s Association (now the International Longshore and Warehouse Union) was joined in a general strike by dozens of area unions. Although the ultimate settling of the series of strikes all up and down the West Coast did not grant unions every concession they sought, and though there was violence well beyond Bloody Thursday, it is often credited as being a turning point that helped to establish the power of labor.

The ILWU’s “Why We Continue to Honor Bloody Thursday”
A Washington State history site on the overall West Coast strikes of 1934
Trailer for a PBS film on Bloody Thursday

When I was growing up, my parents both belonged to the National Education Association, but to me it was indistinguishable from the many other professional organizations to which they belonged. It was a time when what unions had accomplished in the previous decades was taken for granted, and I was hardly aware that my parents were union members. No more. Unions are now under attack again in our country, and those of us who rely on them to assure our minimally fair treatment and compensation have cause to be worried.

It is also one of those things that makes my jaw drop with disbelief that anyone who is a working person today can speak out against unions. Not that unions are perfect—they are subject to the same kind of corruption and mis-management as any other kind of human organization—but they are indeed a prime support of the so-called “freedom” that we celebrate, unless, that is, we only celebrate the freedom of the wealthy. More and more, it seems that large segments of our population somehow believe that wealth is justification for anything.

The implication of this, of course, is that the wealthy are actually better than the rest of us and deserve what they have. This is part and parcel of the acceptance of Mitt Romney noting that he “won’t apologize for being successful.” But what does it mean that millions of working-class Americans buy this line of reasoning, at least when it comes along with largely fake “conservative” emotional appeals. (See here for a more thorough analysis of Romney’s finances, just out from Vanity Fair.)

I am stumped by this phenomenon, but I also believe it is related to the positive psychology movement that indicates we have a “choice” about everything that happens to us. And it is in this way that I believe that Oprah, who is a big Obama supporter, nonetheless undermines reality-based politics and policies with her incessant, wealthy-woman insistence on the legitimacy of positive psychology. I guess she needs to believe that she deserves all of her wealth and that the rest of us could have it, too, if we only believed in ourselves. She retains one foot in the real-person world based on her modest beginnings, and therefore she can show some sympathy to others, but still… she’s forgotten too much.

In a recent conversation with an old friend, an incident from my past came up. Once, when I was helping to register voters in a poor neighborhood, one older black woman collapsed wearily into a chair as I went over to help her fill out the form. I gave her a pen and asked if she had any questions about anything the form said or asked. She sat back for a moment and eyed me up and down with clear suspicion on her face. “How is it that you here?” she asked me. “A nice, white lady like you—how is it that you on our side?”

Without hesitating, or even really thinking, I answered her. “Ever since I was twelve years old and diagnosed with diabetes, I have known that people don’t always get what they deserve.”

She nodded and turned back to filling out the form, gripping the pen and bearing down hard.

Truly, though, I don’t know. I had parents and a brother who understood this without having had diabetes, and grandparents who did, too. It was an answer, at least, that the black lady filling out the form could believe in, and that has often made me think about how she needed a reason to trust me. Comprehension of her situation without a bridge was inconceivable to her.

Yet, I remain flabbergasted that people buy into the story that everyone gets what they deserve. I want to start a new mantra:

If you are dumb enough to believe that everyone gets what they deserve, then I can’t wait for you to get what you deserve.

Of course, I know that it’s just as likely that you won’t.

Does anyone understand this belief better than I do? Is there any explanation for people who resent their own lot in life but who are willing to point to the even more downtrodden and say they must deserve it? Is there any effective way to point out the delusion inherent in this line of thought?

In my musings on the anniversary of Bloody Thursday, I wonder why so many want to strip away protections from others rather than extending them to more. I wonder why if they don’t feel they have what they deserve in terms of job security and working conditions, they think that others shouldn’t have it either. I wonder that those who have health insurance want it denied to anyone else, and I wonder even more at those without it who don’t want to be “forced” to share the financial consequences of their health risks. I wonder at working people’s susceptibility these days to being divided and conquered by the wealthiest of the wealthy, whose only interest is in maintaining their own power, their freedom to do to the rest of us what they will and to use us for their own ends, their freedom to take away ours.

Freedom in this country at least theoretically means that people have the opportunities to pursue health and happiness. The growing income inequity impinges on that, as does a lack of basic healthcare provisions for all citizens. We need to make sure that we all have those opportunities, not just a select, self-appointed few.

I think in the future, I will celebrate July 5 right along with July 4. They seem to me two sides to the same coin of freedom–freedom to rise a little bit as much as the freedom to accumulate vast wealth unimpeded.

Faking Authenticity

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German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, by Leandro Gonzalez de Leon.

In my continuing effort to bring a variety of voices to this blog, I give you another guest post, this one a philosophical contemplation about “authenticity.” This post dovetails nicely with the one I did a couple of weeks ago on “Devious Discretion.” Bruce always makes sure I take a more careful look at things than I ordinarily might. That’s one of the reasons I married him.

–L

* * *

Faking Authenticity

by Bruce B. Janz

The raison d’etre oft this blog is not just to chronicle the ways that we cry, title notwithstanding. The point is to think about genuine emotion in an ersatz world. Put more succinctly, the point is authenticity.

Now, this is an idea that’s come under a lot of scrutiny. Put simply, a lot of people aren’t sure that such a thing is possible. Others aren’t sure it’s desirable. And still others aren’t sure that we’d even be able to know it if we saw it. It seems like an idea from a different time, one where we had a clear sense of what was real and what wasn’t, and the ability to have faith that some things are true and others aren’t.

I guess the slide started in philosophy. Theodor Adorno wrote The Jargon of Authenticity, a critical work on the philosophy of existentialists like Martin Buber, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and others (and, for you philosophical purists, I’m aware that it’s debatable that any of those figures can be called existentialists). Adorno was a critical theorist, steeped in Western Marxist thought, and he was troubled by any philosophy that would short-circuit the search for the social causes of problems. He thought that the term was used to abstract away from the material conditions of the world, and make us think that the solution to our problems came from introspection. To be “authentic”, after all, meant to be true to yourself, and a psychological interpretation of that might suggest that you just have to look inside (or, appeal to a higher power), to figure out who that self was, and you could then be true to it. Any thought that you are the product of your world was lost with this talk.

That took hold, for a lot of people. Culturally, you can see both of these trends side by side. We are regularly encouraged to know ourselves, to unleash the true self within, to put ourselves in situations that will show our real selves. We look for the windows into our souls. Emotion is, in fact, a major candidate for such a window. Intellect is suspect, but your feelings won’t lead you wrong. Just get in touch with those, and you’ll know who you are.

At the same time, in philosophy and elsewhere in culture, there’s also suspicion about this real, true “self”. Adorno’s skepticism took hold, or maybe it was his sense that our problems needed something more than that old version of authenticity, the search for the true self that ignored our material and social world. He was not an old-style Marxist who thought that all we had to do was come to class consciousness by understanding our material alienation, and all would be well. Like the other critical theorists, he recognized that a great deal of our alienation came symbolically and culturally. He and the other critical theorists wanted to account for the problem of Nazi Germany, specifically, the question of why people who had clearly been under great economic stress since WWI, but who also had great art and culture during that time, could have turned to Hitler as an answer to their problems. Hitler offered authenticity – Blut und Boden, blood and soil, that captured the imagination and gave Germans a birthright in a place. The trouble was, this was all a sham, and authenticity just got manipulated, to disastrous ends. Adorno and the others saw that propaganda and culture had been used effectively to create a compelling but false version of reality. Authenticity, it turned out, could be faked.

Fast forward to our time. It’s not the same time as Adorno’s. At the end of the day, in Adorno’s time, there was still a sense that there was a truth at the bottom of everything. Propaganda disguised, distorted, misdirected, and inverted reality, but there was still a reality to do all that to. And then, The Left® invented postmodernism, or so the story goes. According to most of the world, this was the view that there is no reality, everything is just what you want it to be, everything was therefore relative, and so there could be no such thing as authenticity. Never mind that that depiction has little to do with what postmodernism actually is (or was), it was the version that caught the public imagination.

Now, The Right® was initially horrified at this. To the extent that The Right® was identified with conservatism (and, that is an equation that is debatable), there was a sense that the true authentic person was exactly the thing that was to be conserved. The “traditional family” was the location of that authentic person. The authentic person had character attributes stemming from inside of him/her. The authentic person was guided by a higher hand and holy rules. The authentic person was truly free, and that person’s interactions, in the form of market activity, formed the basis of all our social institutions, our prosperity, and all that is good about the world.

And then something interesting happened. The Right® realized that postmodernism might actually be useful. Ron Suskind reported, during the Bush presidency, the quintessential statement of this view:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The “guys like me” were The Left®, who had previously been identified with postmodernism, but who were now seen as simply weak-willed. In an almost Nietzschean move, the speaker (later identified as Karl Rove) established that authenticity was a virtue of the weak, not of the strong.

So, whereas Adorno was suspicious of authenticity because he thought it disguised the real causes of people’s alienation from the world, Rove rejected authenticity because it held the empire back from creating its own reality. Adorno thought that authenticity stood in the way of truly making the world a better place, whereas Rove thought that it stood in the way of the empire asserting its power and achieving its goals.

Of course, Rove said that in 2004. And a lot has happened since then. We have a candidate in the Republican primary who latched onto authenticity as a prime virtue (Santorum), and another for whom authenticity seems to be about as deep as an Etch-A-Sketch drawing (Romney). But we also have the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, and the Ron Paul phenomenon, all of which trade in a desire for truth and reality in government (having said that, they differ deeply on what that truth and reality is, and seem differently inclined to taking empirical or scientific evidence seriously). Everyone on The Right® trips over themselves to cater to the most extreme elements of their movement, in hopes of showing their authenticity bona fides. After all, if a little capitalism is good, lots must be better. If a little military activity is good, lots must be better. More = better = truly authentic. It’s what a real Republican has come to mean.

People clearly desire something authentic, in politics, in life, everywhere. We want to know what people “really” think, what the “real” best decision is in shopping, in life, in everything. Whereas once we could tell the difference between reality and artifice or presentation, now we can’t. We can’t even buy a mattress or a piece of clothing anymore, because we can’t know how to compare anything. A lot of people feel like they are free-floating.

So, messages of authenticity are attractive. I wondered, months ago, why Santorum wasn’t doing better than he was. It was clear that he was projecting authenticity, and that he most likely really believed what he was saying. Now he’s in contention, and is the darling of the more=better=authentic crowd. But just like Adorno realized a long time ago, authenticity can be faked. The one doing the faking may even buy his own schtick, but it doesn’t make it true. There are some pretty good clues as to when it’s being faked. If it requires that we privilege some over others, it’s probably fake. If it requires that a particular group be vilified, it’s probably fake. If it means that you can willfully distort the other side, it’s fake. If it means that you can ignore science, create your own science, or pick and choose what science fits your version of the world and what doesn’t, it’s probably fake.

Is there a place for authenticity anymore? I think so, but not as a cover for the real conditions people live in, and not as a political calculation. It has to be something other than that. That impulse people feel, in both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, there’s something to it. Even though the answers may be problematic (in the Tea Party, almost invariably, and in the Occupy movement, at least sometimes), the inarticulate question of the heart is still there. What’s real? What can enable me to go forward? How can we feel ok about who we are? Do we have to live with this gut-wrenching fear that the future will be a disaster, because of what we are doing today? These are all, in one way or other, questions about authenticity. We just haven’t yet found the way to ask these so that they won’t lead opportunists and ideologues to use them against us.

A prime example of fake authenticity--the posed, costumed cowboy pic complete with ties and suit coats. (Click on the pic for further explanation.) Bruce thinks these guys look a lot like Romney, Paul, Gingrich, and Santorum. That's Mitt, Ron, Newt, and Ricky to you.