Tuesday, February 2, 2010

We are the Ordinary People of Our Time

"[Howard Zinn's] fame and popularity came from helping us see America from the ground up - as ordinary people struggling to gain and hold their place in it. When no history book told that story as it should be told, he wrote the book himself -- A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. It became a perennial best seller."
Bill Moyers Journal, 1/29/10

Think of those who joined in — and in many cases became leaders of — the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the feminist revolution, the gay rights movement, and so on.  Think of what this country would have been like if those ordinary people had never bothered to fight and sometimes die for what they believed in.
Bob Herbert, "A Radical Treasure",  1/29/10

As the woes of this country escalate instead of dissipate, as millions of us go to bed each night knowing that we won't stop thinking about tomorrow, it's a pretty safe bet we're eventually going to work up to, and beyond, the point of just edgy. (I think we saw it in Massachusetts last week.  Yes, Martha Coakley had to be dragged kicking and screaming onto the campaign trail, and probably deserved to lose, but why was she the candidate in the first place?  That was the best the Massachusetts Dems could do?)

In millions and millions and MILLIONS of households, every day is a new calamity.  Some if not most of these calamities are fixable with a little help from Those who Have--including the government, whose holdings are largely OURS anyway.  If they were seriously working on the jobs situation--creating them, bringing them back to America, being honest about what constitutes a livable wage--people would be seriously working.

If people were working, they would be living in their homes, not standing on the outside looking in. They would be buying groceries and trying on clothes and sitting for family portraits again.  They might even be turning up their thermostats.

If banks were making low-, or even reasonable-interest loans, the people with jobs would be purchasers again, entrepreneurs would be building small businesses again, and all who were honest enough would be paying their fair share of taxes again.

If some of those billionaires would stop worrying about how they'd survive if they suddenly became millionaires again, and see themselves less as the privileged few and more as the instigators of this mess, we might get out of this mess quicker.

If the U.S (as in United States) Chamber of Commerce became less the foul foreign-interest chamber pot and more the cheerleaders for true American commerce, those meaningless slogans about "jobs, jobs, jobs" might actually morph into jobs, jobs, American-made jobs.

But so far, none of those things are happening, and we're left with a conundrum:  How do we--that's WE, as in we, the citizens, the hoi polloi, the common people,  the teeming masses, the heedless multitudes--build up the strength to fix this?

The truth is, I don't know.  I've spent months thinking about this, ever since Barack Obama became president, and it all comes down to--I don't know.  So if you're still with me and you're waiting breathlessly for an answer, you might as well exhale. I'm just one lone person here, same as you, thinking hard, talking my head off, working up the energy to march to and against and for. . .without even a hint of a plan taking shape.

Frank Rich gave me a real eye-opener on Sunday when he wrote:  "The historian Alan Brinkley has observed that we will soon enter the fourth decade in which Congress — and therefore government as a whole — has failed to deal with any major national problem, from infrastructure to education. The gridlock isn’t only a function of polarized politics and special interests. There’s also been a gaping leadership deficit."

It's true.  The Democrats, my party for better or. . .dammit. . .bounce between lethargy and stupidity.  Harry "public option is too HARD" Reid was so riled up over what's happening around here, he merely yawned during the SOTU speech but didn't actually fall asleep.  Nancy Pelosi seems to think that grinning is the solution to everything.  And the Blue Dog Democrats take pride in being the infiltrators from the enemy camp.  The few who actually see some urgency in saving the country--damn the torpedoes--say all the right things but in voices so weak everybody gets away with pretending they can't hear them.
If you count the 535 house and senate members in Congress, plus the president, the vice president and the entire West Wing, plus the deputies and the assistants to the deputies, plus a whole slew of pundits who claim to know everything, that's a lot of people wandering around in a fog looking for answers to what ails us.

So a year later, here they are, bragging about unemployment numbers in the tens of thousands per month instead of hundreds of thousands,  still without a WPA-like emergency jobs program that would immediately put people to work rebuilding America, still without any hope of a health care reform bill that first and foremost addresses health.  And those are just the big things.

Obama gave his State of the Union speech early last week and then, a few days later, went to see the Republicans at what was laughingly called their "retreat" (they don't "retreat", we do).   I'm always looking for signs, it's true, but last week I might have seen the first signs of a leader ready to fight.
 Some words from our president that gave me hope:

"In this new decade, it's time the American people get a government that matches their decency, that embodies their strength.

 ". . .And to encourage these and other businesses to stay within our borders, it is time to finally slash the tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas and give those tax breaks to companies that create jobs right here in the United States of America.

". . .So tonight, we set a new goal: We will double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support 2 million jobs in America.

". . .I took on health care because of the stories I've heard, from Americans with pre-existing conditions whose lives depend on getting coverage, patients who've been denied coverage, families, even those with insurance, who are just one illness away from financial ruin.
After nearly a century of trying -- Democratic administrations, Republican administrations -- we are closer than ever to bringing more security to the lives of so many Americans.
The approach we've taken would protect every American from the worst practices of the insurance industry.  (This worries me.  What about the least worst practices?)

"...To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.

"...And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, a supermajority, then the responsibility to govern is now yours, as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.  So let's show the American people that we can do it together."

Near the end of his speech, he said,  "I don't quit.  We can't quit."   I loved hearing that.  It sounded as if we had started. 

At the Republican Retreat in Baltimore, Obama did a little hand-smacking:  (He did a lot of brown-nosing, too, but I expected that.)

"I'm not suggesting that we're going to agree on everything, whether it's on health care or energy or what have you, but if the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys then don't have a lot of room to negotiate with me.

"I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party. You've given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you've been telling your constituents is, this guy is doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America."

 Well, that was on Friday, so on Monday morning I tuned in to "Morning Joe" to hear Joe and bunch's take on the dressing-down in Baltimore.   When I got there, Mika was in the middle of reading a couple of paragraphs fromWSJ about Obama's detached style and his perceived lack of irony.  Joe latched onto it and every time someone said something favorable about either the SOTU speech or the Baltimore Q&A, Joe said, in effect, "Yes, but is he ironic?"

It came from this piece entitled, "The Obama Spell is Broken", by Fouad Ajami:
"We have had stylish presidents, none more so than JFK. But Kennedy was an ironist and never fell for his own mystique. Mr. Obama's self-regard comes without irony—he himself now owns up to the "remoteness and detachment" of his governing style. We don't have in this republic the technocratic model of the European states, where a bureaucratic elite disposes of public policy with scant regard for the popular will. Mr. Obama was smitten with his own specialness.
In this extraordinary tale of hubris undone, the Europeans—more even than the people in Islamic lands—can be assigned no small share of blame. They overdid the enthusiasm for the star who had risen in America."

It takes some bodacious, mendacious audacity to write in the Wall Street Journal about hubris or ". . .a bureaucratic elite [that] disposes of public policy with scant regard for the popular will" after those not-so-long-ago (but really, really long) Bush years, but if anybody can pull it off, it's the WSJ.   Their audience has the most to lose if Obama wins his battles.

It's the ordinary people (that's us) who need to keep Obama where he is.   Underneath the "uniter" facade is a street fighter.  "Community organizer" is on his resume.  He knows what it's like to be ordinary.  So he might not have the answers, and I might not have the answers, and I might not know exactly where we're going (and he might not, either), but I'm picking sides.  That's something.


Signs that I'm getting way too immersed in this "saving the country" business:  I saw this internet bumper sticker the other day and I immediately thought of congress:  "I'm not really slapping you, I'm just high-fiving your face."


  1. I think he did a great job at the Republican retreat. Hope it results in some co-leadership going forward.

  2. Me, too, Ken. It must have been a shot in the arm to him, too. He's been out there knocking heads ever since. He talked to the Dems today but I haven't seen it or read the transcript. Here's hoping they're getting the message--get with the program!

  3. Great read, very well done.
    A refreshing and truly balanced take.

  4. Thanks, Jack. And thanks for visiting. Glad to have you here.


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