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Wit and Wisdom

Political Philosophy

Pondering Patriotism

Except for the outraged reaction to Barack Obama’s suggestion that “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everyone,” no response to a 2008 campaign statement surprised me more than the vitriol directed at Michelle Obama for telling an audience that because of the positive response to her husband’s candidacy “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.”  Not only did I strenuously object to the strenuous objections lodged against the couple, I couldn’t even understand the opprobrium directed at the Obamas for what seemed to me commonplace observations.  

As we celebrate our national independence this weekend,  I am reminded of both inexplicable uproars, now framed against a popular claim among the Republican candidates hoping to face and defeat President Obama next year: that the President doesn’t believe in “American exceptionalism.” Although it garnered less attention than the two campaign statements, an answer by President Obama to an interview question early in his administration has apparently stuck in the craw of these GOP presidential hopefuls: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

The ancient, healthy, sociable inclination to spread wealth around offers obvious guidance in the current tax and spending debates. But the other two statements deserve particular pondering this holiday weekend, since they go to the question of patriotism, often a fraught subject for liberals.

Comedian and senator Al Franken once compared unthinking, “love it or leave it” patriots to the kind of friends who don’t care enough to offer constructive criticism; he thought a more discerning affection for one’s nation actually took more effort and displayed more respect. I agree.  I would add that when it comes to love of country, one size doesn’t fit all--the nature and degree depend on your experience.  Returning to Michelle Obama’s campaign confession: that anyone would be angrily surprised that an African-American woman would be pleasantly surprised to feel pride in a country that spent most of its history physically and emotionally assaulting people just like her is...well, surprising.

And that Barack Obama wants to tone down the American exceptionalism talk while trying to repair international relations damaged through too much jingoistic chest-thumping in previous administrations just seems like good sense.   The U.S. fills a unique place in the world, stands for important principles, has done and does much good.  But there’s too broad a shadow over our record to justify the kind of religious idolatry the right wing apparently demands. Instead of worshipers, let’s be--on this 4th of July and always--good friends to our country, as ready to help correct her faults as celebrate her greatness.

Same Song, Different Words

Sitting in a former chapel of the National Labor College in Silver Spring, MD, recently, enthusiastically participating in the free-for-all opening night of the annual Great Labor Arts Exchange, singing along to stories of triumphant faith, feeling the fellowship of fellow activists--I was struck not for the first time, but more strongly, by how much we had in common with those we are supposed to be least like...and least like.

It was Friday night, not Sunday morning; the walls were bare of religious insignia; there was no (or only discrete) mention of God-- but there was no doubt we were in church.  We felt the warmth of the gathering, we contemplated a power greater than ourselves, we were inspired to believe and act in better ways.  I think an evangelical Christian would have immediately recognized the mood even if confused or offended by the message.

The goal should certainly be familiar: a happier world of justice and peace.  Differences only arise in identifying the obstacle to that worthy end.  Among politicized religious conservatives, it is big government and a bureaucratic culture that stands in the way of moral and economic progress. My fellow labor singers and I place the blame on big business and unfeeling, unrestrained capitalism.

In both cases, though, the cure concocted is the same:  educate, organize, mobilize.  I think the focus of the Tea Partiers and religious rightists is way off-target, and that many of them have nasty (racist, xenophobic, homophobic) agendas.  But many others, I’m convinced, are motivated by a sincere desire to do right, and to do it with others.  So they gather, and share, and sing.  Just like us.  And that gives me hope that one day we can all sing the same songs, together.

Tough Luck

The anguished complaint by liberals that Democrats don’t know how to bargain-- that they start at the middle instead of the left, and thus wind up too far right-- was effectively addressed by the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein on Bill Maher’s show “Real Time” March 4.  

Maher was expressing grudging respect for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for staking out an extreme position on public employee unions, one that would eventually yield in compromise everything he really wanted in the first place.  Maher wondered why  President Obama didn’t do something similar with health care reform: initially demand Medicare for all, in order to wind up with a public insurance option as part of a market-based system.

Klein pointed out that big opening gambits are often counterproductive.  He predicted that if Obama had unveiled a single-payer system, the next day “eight conservative Democratic Senators would have withdrawn their support,” essentially killing health care reform for another 20 years. And Klein said Walker may well have overreached with his absolutist stand, leaving him no easy way to back down.

Even though it’s true that when it comes to policies and programs, most Americans are more liberal than they realize, their reactions to language and ideas is predominately conservative.  Because politics traffics in language and ideas, liberal politicians have to tread more carefully than their conservative counterparts, lest they be quickly vilified and marginalized for good plans that “sound wrong.”

As satisfying as tough talk and non-negotiable stances are to ardent advocates, they are not the stuff of effective policy progress, especially on the left. For all it’s faults, a comprehensive health care system is finally in place, one achieved through often frustratingly moderate means. 

Gipper Gab

INTERVIEWER:  Thank you, President Reagan, for joining us posthumously as part of the overblown celebration of your 100th birthday.
REAGAN: You’re welcome. But for me it’s just another gig.
INTERVIEWER:  Are you at all surprised that after basically snoozing malevolently through the eight years of your presidency you’re now being held up as some kind of combination philosopher king, conquering hero and secular saint?
REAGAN: Not really. But you have to realize I worked in Hollywood. They made people believe Victor Mature could act.
INTERVIEWER:  So you’re not buying all the hype about you?
REAGAN: Listen, if I believed all my own press I would have cheated on my wives far more often than I actually did.
INTERVIEWER:  Did you help devise the “Reagan Naming Project”: the scheme by conservative zealots to slap your name on as many public buildings, streets and other venues as possible, in order to permanently ingrain your memory--and by extension, your ideology--into the public consciousness?
REAGAN: How old are you? Do you remember my governing style? I could barely keep awake through your question.  
INTERVIEWER:  You seem like the Reagan Conservative least excited by the Reagan Centennial.
REAGAN: Again: remember your history. Whether it was Warner Brothers, GE, or the White House, my only questions were: when’s lunch, when do I get paid, and when do I go home? Speaking of which...
INTERVIEWER:  Were almost done here.  Any final words for all your modern-day acolytes?
REAGAN:  Never share the screen with children, animals or reforming Soviet premiers.  Any idea, no matter how discredited and hurtful, can be resuscitated if you deliver it with enough ham. (Remember when they thought blaming the poor would never come back?) And no matter how much they dangle on the back end, get all your money up front.  You do know that just because I’m dead, that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to my customary speaking fee?
INTERVIEWER:  But this is a news interview!
REAGAN:  I care? I still get residuals from my press conferences. It’s all show business, baby.
INTERVIEWER:  Thank you, Mr. President.
REAGAN:  No, thank you-- and the William Morris Agency.

Responsible Liberty

At a recent Rules Committee hearing on repeal of health care reform, a Republican House member extolled the importance of not forcing a business owner to offer his employees coverage “if he doesn’t want to.”  Like a lot of recent-- especially conservative-- rhetoric, this idea went to something very basic in political thought.  Modern debate is often criticized (rightly) for being too highly-charged, but it should also be praised for engaging more directly basic philosophical differences than do more polite exchanges.  

The health care reform law enacted last year requires larger businesses (those with over 50 workers) to provide health care coverage for their employees and sets minimum benefits for that coverage.  To liberals this seems like a necessary response not only to the fear and suffering of the uninsured (or underinsured) individual, but also to the societal phenomenon of cost shifting:  of large, profitable companies allowing more conscientious businesses and taxpayers to pick up the cost of their employees’ health care.  This happens whenever an uninsured patient shows up at the emergency room, can’t pay the bill, and the resulting cost is recovered through higher premiums and government transfers.  

Personal liberty is not the only public virtue.  As a Democrat on the same committee noted, if we lived in a society that accepted the idea of denying medical care to the uninsured-- of allowing people to bleed to death just outside the ER doors-- then the conservative position on employer health-care mandates would make more sense.  But we have set higher standards for ourselves, and everyone (including that reluctant business owner) must help pay the bill for those standards.

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