Monday, October 27, 2008

An Obama T-shirt In Argentina

I had an opportunity last week to travel to San Carlos de Bariloche in Argentina. I was in the company of people from several different countries including Argentina, Sweden, the U.S., Portugal and Pakistan. I did not know the social norms for talking politics with people from these different cultures, so I brought my Obama t-shirt featuring Obama's face on the front. When language fails, we always have symbols. My non-verbal attempt to start up dialogue with people from other cultures was successful a couple times. The most notable was a conversation I was able to have with a small group of Argentinian scientists (I was able to have this conversation because of their language acumen, not my own).

Over lunch a middle aged Argentinian man asked me what I thought about the American elections and noted my t-shirt. What unfolded was a conversation where I worked to be open to any questions he had, and to answer them with honesty and veracity (to the best of my ability, anyway). He seemed most interested in how EXACTLY the housing market fell apart. Understanding the love for detail scientists seem to have across cultural and geographic divides, I summoned the most technical explanation I could manage, which was not particularly technical I admit. I explained the use of physicists and mathematicians on Wall Street to conjure algorithms of pay schedules and magical concoctions of diced mortgages that would somehow solve the tediously human problem of loan defaults.

I felt a need to defend most of my fellow Americans and pointed out that 94% of home mortgages were being paid on time. The Argentines seemed particularly impressed by this data. I likened the mess to poisoning an apple, though most of the apple is good, the poison spreads and ruins the whole fruit. My analogy seemed to go over well. I was proud of myself, like a little girl winning a spelling bee where I was able to spell all the words, including the ones I didn't know the meaning of.

I hope my explanations were accurate enough to be truthful. It was clear the Argentinians and others were very interested in how someone inside the country perceives what is going on, even if that person fails to meet expert status. I was also very interested in hearing what other people were hearing in their country about this mess. The same Argentinian man said his government was trying to tell the people the economic implosion of its northern neighbor would not effect them, but he and the other Argentinians at the table shook their heads at this. Not for a moment, it seemed, would they believe that fairy tale.

I went on to caution this is a much larger problem than a banking problem, that our economy has been deteriorating for decades. I pointed out the crushing expenses to the middle class, housing, education and health care, and that we haven't seen any corresponding increase in wages. I told them the poison economic policies began in earnest with Reagan nearly thirty years ago and would take a long time to correct. The seemingly naturally serious Argentinians appeared to become more solemn when they heard my opinion, but nodded their heads if not in agreement then not in disagreement.

I learned later the Argentinian economy was taking some significant hits that week and the people, who quite recently survived a complete economic meltdown, may be vulnerable to another.

We are in a fine mess and it was clear by my interactions abroad that this is not lost on our neighbors. The only politician I've heard tie this odious economic trend to Reagan is Obama. Only he, from what I've heard, is clear on the natural results of letting large corporations decide tax law, government regulations and trade agreements. This has been a long time coming folks. With a good leader we have a lot of hard work in front of us. Without a good leader, we may be at the end of the line with our status as world leader.

The difference between a first and second or third world country is not wealth, but how this wealth is developed, managed and distributed. It is time our childish ideas about perfect freedom leading to perfect economic justice be shed. We need to wise up and get serious about ourselves and our prospects. No more illusions about easy money and no more fantasies of quick fixes. We're in this for the long run and we are all of us, Argentinians included, in this together.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Some Minnesotans Boo McCain's Call To Reason: Angry Racism Afoot

The weather was beautiful yesterday with a bright blue sky set dramatically against the bold golds and yellows of the Midwest autumn leaves. I was paired by our district organizer with a young dad who brought along a beautiful, little girl and his incisive sense of humor.While driving to our canvasing neighborhood, a new development of town homes (1/4 of which were for auction or sale), we laughed and joked about the absurdity of the television adds being launched by the GOP in our state.

I talked about my apprehension about a possible Bradly effect, where White voters polled say they will vote for Obama, but behind the curtain, will not follow through with voting for an African American. My co-canvaser insisted this will not be a significant phenomenon, and easily overwhelmed by the enthusiastic new voters.

I want to believe this young man. But I have seen first hand that there is angry racism among many white voters here in Minnesota and the Republicans are drill-baby-drillin' into the deep wells of this hatred with their stump speeches and advertisements. I fear they will be successful in bringing this poison to the surface and unexpected outcomes will follow.

Senator McCain did "tone down" the rhetoric here in Minnesota yesterday during a rally, with a few moments of it being picked up by the mainstream media. A young white man told McCain he was afraid for his unborn child if Obama becomes president. Another rally participant, an apparently older, white woman (her back was to the camera) told McCain she was afraid because Obama was an "Arab," by which she apparently also meant terrorist. In both cases, McCain acted like a reasonable human being and told the audience Obama is a decent, family man and there is nothing to fear. The Minnesotan audience booed his call to reason.

Most of the days I canvased for the DFL over the last several weeks, I have run into at least one openly angry, white, male Minnesotan who made an active point of communicating this anger to me and at me for supporting Obama. I have not written about this before in part because I don't want to mischaracterize Minnesotans. Indeed, it is highly likely Obama will win here because of cross socio/cultural/economic support he is enjoying in the twin cities. But here in the suburbs it is different. I have run across several who were only barely able to contain their anger, with huffy voices, tense faces and defensive body postures, they have told me, in no uncertain terms, they did not support my ticket and I was not welcome on their property.

One many even followed me around his neighborhood in a car. When I approached a home across the street from his, he jumped out and yelled at me, "No one is home!"

I said loudly back, "There are some people home."

He then said, "There's no one home at my house!"

I popped back quite annoyed, "I'm not going to your home, sir." I added in the "sir" because it often calms highly agitated people down when someone makes an extra effort to be polite. I felt I was dealing with someone who may be mentally ill and instinctively moved into my therapist mode.

"Good." He got the last word in.

Yesterday, the man I was canvasing with got an address wrong and approached a home not on the list. People identifying themselves as Republican on the state voting records are not on our DFL lists. Only people who are not identified as supporing a particular party or Independents are on our lists. People who tell us they are Republican are noted and the newer lists will drop them. Most of us have no intention of changing people from one political party to another.

At any rate, a man at the house we approached did not answer the door, but watched us through a window. Apparently, he figured out we were DFL supporters as evidenced by the fistfuls of Obama and other DFL candidate pamphlets we carried. He opened his window and shouted out that he did not want us leaving any of our information and was not a supporter of us. We smiled and readily agreed.

The man in the window had that same contorted, angry expression on his face and tense voice I have seen and heard many times in the last few weeks. My fellow canvaser did not seem the least bothered by any of this and continued on his way. I was disturbed as I have been in the past. In my training as a therapist, I have fine tuned my skills at reading people, and it certainly wouldn't take a therapist to read the anger I have seen among some. These people, I'm sure not in any way a majority of Republicans, but a significant popluation nonetheless, seem to have extremely emotional, even aggressive reactions to political discussion. Political strategists on all sides need to take this seriously.

Although McCain himself did not support the angry ignorance of those in his crowd of fans, he has continued to allow his campaign to make hateful, insincere statements designed to inflame the Republican base. Considering how angry and threatened many in their base already are, this tactic of the McCain campaign is extremely irresponsible. They do not understand there is a tremendous distance between the elite and academic Republicans and the Republicans in the rural and suburbans areas.

Many of the every-day-man Republicans of the rural and suburban neighborhoods do not take these hate tactics with a grain of salt. This is not politics as usual for them. McCain's campaign isn't inspiring doubt in the electorate, they are tapping into deep rage and prejudice. And some of these every-day-man Republicans are capable of violence.

When McCain looses this election, and he will, he will have exhausted the capital he built over his political career on this dubious failure of a campaign. I only hope his legacy is the only casualty of this idiocy. I hope very much African Americans, immigrants, and other people in historically vulnerable positions in our country will not become the targets of the tapped hatred McCain's campaign and Palin have been drill baby drillin' for.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Lets Be Reasonable As Well As Moral On The Economy

I watched expectantly last night the second presidential debate between Obama and McCain. I worked to view the debate as my Minnesotan friends and neighbors might see it. Were their concerns, spoken aloud or privately guarded, addressed last night? I would guess there were words spoken by both candidates that, if true and preceding effective action, would be a great comfort. Obama spoke extensively and thoroughly about the need to change focus from top-down tax policy where very wealthy people and corporations are taxed at disproportionately low rates to a tax policy that promotes economic prosperity in the middle class. McCain had an unexpected moment where he advocated the use of the federal government as watch dog and negotiator with the banks on behalf of Americans in home foreclosure. Both men had some ideas about reforming government and the economy, I would argue Obama had more ideas and was more thorough in communicating them. But I doubt if many of my fellow Minnesotans were comforted much by either candidate. Further, I doubt if it was humanly possible for either candidate to allay their fears in a presidential debate.

Last week I went out canvasing for the DFL the evening after the senate passed the bailout. It seems a long time ago now. My partner in street-pounding was the Obama organizer for my district, a friendly young woman just out of college. We had several minutes to talk when walking the several blocks from where we parked our cars to the addresses on our list. She told me the canvasing the previous night had been a veritable Demo love fest. She told me she personally spoke with four Republicans-turned-Democrats who were happy in their transition and willing to talk, a remarkable thing among many tight-lipped Minnesotans. For some reason, I doubted we would have the same reception this night, though this feeling was vague and not connected to a particular line of reasoning.

What happened, or rather didn't happen, over the next hour and a half was eerie and deeply uncomfortable: no one would talk to us. And by no one, I mean no one. The young woman and I worked our list up one side of the street and down the other. Many people were either not home or refused to answer the door. Most of those who we were able to get to the door refused flatly to talk. One woman who was mowing her lawn seemed to be trying to avoid eye contact with me as I approached her home with a clipboard and donning an Obama sticker on my shirt. Unable to avoid me finally as I stood on her doorstep and stared at her for some time, she turned off the mower and looked at me. No matter my coaxing, which included extensive use of my training as a mental health counselor, I was unable to disarm this woman. With a pained and grim grin pulled across her thin face, she said she could not tell me who she supported.

This encounter was uncomfortable but the one I had shortly afterward was a bit scary. I knocked on the front door of an aging, modest home in adequate repair and could see and hear the TV going in the window immediately beside the door. An older man with pure fury contorting the aging features of his pale face came angrily out of a side door. He spoke to me sharply from behind where I was standing and startled me. I was taken aback as he told me to get off his property. I quickly left and mercifully, had only a few more houses to stop at before the list was complete. Whether my fellow Minnesotans liked it or not, it is completely legal to go door to door and talk about politics in this democracy (for now anyway), and so I proceeded though hesitantly as it is also a right to be rude as long as it's not openly threatening.

The young organizer and I were utterly relieved to be done with our canvasing for the evening. On the walk back I wondered aloud what had happened since the night before when she enjoyed the deeply satisfying experience of having people happy to see her and willing to talk politics. Then it occurred to me, of course, the vote. The senate vote passed for the $700 billion bailout. These Minnesotans were likely furious about the vote. Being Minnesotans, they apparently were too polite to be honest and forthright with their feelings about the matter with us, but the logic flows. The only thing that had changed in politics since the night before was that vote.

And, as I mentioned in my previous blog, Minnesotan's contacting their legislators were mostly of one opinion: do not vote for that damn bill! Knowing this and strongly suspecting this opinion was the motivator behind the behavior of the citizens I approached that night, I am still surprised by how angry people were. Don't they realize our economy is diving to depths unknown? Of course the bailout isn't fair, but what about supporting lesser forms of evil? But that's not how many Minnesotans think about these things, at least apparently not in my neighborhood.

I suspect the reaction to the bailout has to do with the strong belief among many Americans generally, and Minnesotans specifically, in doing the morally right thing, whether it is politically expedient or economically sound thing to do or not. Many seem to look at these issues with moral absolutism,perhaps even religious absolutism, whereas I tend to try to see these things from a more secular idea of "the overall good."

From my perspective, an utterly gutted economy needs a rescue whether it's fair or not. Sociologists and Psychologists have noted for decades the trends of jumping rates of child, spousal and substance abuse during difficult economic times. There are many forms of right and wrong, good and evil. As I noted in a previous blog, certain conditions exacerbate profoundly evil behavior. I strongly believe there were many, executives on down to homeowners, who acted greedily and stupidly and there needs to be natural and very uncomfortable consequences for these behaviors. But we also need to work as a nation to keep things from getting worse for everyone.

I wonder if many of my fellow citizens feel that all of this is very simple, that if people who have done bad to our economy are punished, and what is "right" is reestablished, a more stable economy will naturally follow. Well, I doubt it. One of the criticisms of the Congress acting at the time of the first Great Depression was that they allowed the banking system to fall apart without intervention. When they chose to act it was too late.

Again, I argue for reason and responsibility. I completely agree with Obama on the issue of the executives from AIG being required to give back the $400,000 of tax payer money they spent on spas for themselves last week then fired. But I also believe it was the responsibility of Congress to make an attempt to keep AIG, the largest insurer in this country, from collapsing and leaving millions of Americans potentially without the insurance protection they paid for.

We have seen over the last eight years the utter failure of the "good and bad," or "right and wrong," dichotomous thinking. Because here's the rub folks, human beings are often wrong about things they were certain they were right about. For example, the Bush administration's concrete belief in the justification of the war in Iraq, the efficacy of trickle down economics, even the adherence to abstinence only sex education for youth (the teen pregnancy rate has jumped more than 25% since Bush took office and gave in to the right wing's position on this). It seems that people most likely to believe absolutely that they are absolutely right are so often wrong.

We need flexible leadership and a citizenry able to bend with their leadership. As the Buddhists have noted for thousands of years, the pliable reed bends with the wind and the stiff stick snaps.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

We Are Our Brother's Keeper

Tomorrow the House will vote on the revised economic bailout plan. It is designed to be an emergency lane for our careening semi truck of an economy apparently gaining speed as it roars down the mountainside. Somewhere along its downward trajectory, the semi hit a pig, because there is pork all over the sides of our safety lane. But that's okay. The presence of pork is how we know for certain that the emergency lane was constructed in the United States of America. (Of course the tax breaks to corporations included therein is just total bullshit!).

This bailout plan is not a scenic route and it will not get us going in the right direction, but most economists and I (for what it's worth) agree allowing the economy to tear down the mountainside will take out far too many people, businesses and yes, financial institutions, along the way.

What surprises me is how few Americans seem to agree with me. I saw on the local news that 100 to 1 constituents were faxing in messages to their representatives arguing against the bailout. I heard that phone calls in this area were running at a ratio of 1,000 to 1 against the bailout. Though I understand this reticence of the average American to bailout poorly run financial institutions and the foolish folks who got in over their heads with unreasonably large mortgages and second and third mortgages off the original, this is no time for "I told you so." We're in trouble here, folks.

We are our brother's keeper if not morally, than literally. And he is ours. Though my family and I work to live within our means and have good credit, we may not be able to get a home or car loan. We most certainly wouldn't be able to refinance in the case of an emergency. Though we didn't directly participate in this mess, we, like all Americans and millions abroad, are experiencing the ramifications of this financial situation.

In that we live in a participatory democracy, I do have to take exception to those who say they have no culpability in this situation. As I noted above, my family did not directly contribute to this situation, but I was aware of its presence for years. I predicted several years ago this bubble would pop and millions would be homeless because of it. I didn't once contact my representative during this time. For millions of Americans, they were simply not paying attention at all, and therefore couldn't predict a burst bubble or even an election day, for that matter. I believe most Americans could have done more than we did to protest the abuses of Wall Street and the inept policies of our ELECTED government.

It is easy to say "I told you so." It is easy to call a congressperson and protest a controversial bill. It is a more difficult thing to be a disciplined citizen aware of the political and economic goings on in one's city, county, state and country. I have not been the best citizen I could have been. I'm sure most of us, if we're honest, would say the same. And when we fail to insist that our interests be fairly represented, the policies of a few that serve only the few reign. Once that happens, as we have seen, it is a dear, dear price that has to be paid to get our interests back on the bill in any form other than pork.