Sunday, November 22, 2009

A cautionary tale

Forty-six years ago today, an assassin's bullet ended the life and Presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. And thus was launched one of the most contentious periods in US history.

It's easy to forget from the distance of years that Kennedy was not universally loved, that there were those who disliked his father, and carried that dislike over to the son. There were many who were distrustful of his Roman Catholic faith, asserting that the Pope would be the de facto president. The radical right was emerging in parts of this nation, distributing right-wing literature in schools (specifically in Dallas, TX), where there was also a billboard accusing the President of selling out to the "communist United Nations." It was reported that, upon hearing that Kennedy had been murdered, a classroom of fourth-graders in a Dallas suburb burst into spontaneous applause. The John Birch Society and Patrick Henry Society, along with the Minutemen - right-wing radical organizations all - were finding new life in Texas.

The Monday before the assassination, I had the singular honor of shaking the President's hand at a rally in Tampa. I was thrilled to see him up close, and stood in the midst of many from the local Democratic Party, so the excitement was palpable. That afternoon when I clocked in at my after-school job, I asked my boss if I could take a few minutes to stand in front of the store when the presidential motorcade passed by later that day. I'll never forget what he said: "Yes, you can. Personally, I hate him and wouldn't walk across the street to shake his hand."

I was appalled, and never felt quite the same about a boss I had liked quite well up until then. Oh, I knew there were people who didn't like him, didn't like his politics - but he was the President of the United States and - to my way of thinking - deserved at least the respect accorded by his office.

Did right-wing rhetoric kill John Kennedy? We can't prove it, but we do know that hatred, an unwillingness to accept the process of government and the voice of the people certainly played a role. Whether it was the Mafia, Castro, the CIA, or whatever your favorite conspiracy might be, the climate of distrust was palpable and was encouraged and promoted by some parts of our society.


And now, once again, we find an upsurge in intolerance, in right-wing rhetoric. We have Facebook polls asking if Obama should be killed. We have posters depicting the president as a modern-day Hitler (showing not only insensitivity to those among us who survived Hitler's monstrous practices, but a woeful ignorance of what the Third Reich really was). He has been accused of being a "secret" Muslim (and so what if he were? Is the US not a place where all should be free to practice or not practice the religion of each person's choice?); of not being a US citizen; of not allowing religious ornaments on the White House Christmas tree; of not allowing it to even be called a Christmas tree; of approving a postage stamp honoring Islam; of any number of transgressions designed to stir up anger and hatred against the President of the United States.

And now, the latest we find is the proliferation of bumper stickers, t-shirts, teddy bears, and other paraphernalia sporting the message: Pray for Obama, Psalm 109:8.

For those who don't know, this verse says, "Let his days be few; Let another take his office." (New American Standard Bible) In a different translation of the Bible (Bible in Basic English), the quote is more sinister: "Let his life be short; let another take his position of authority." The next verse goes on to say, "Let his children be fatherless, And his wife a widow."

Although this has been defended as free speech (and, of course, it is), and as not really meant as a threat, just as a prayer that Obama will only serve one term, to my eyes it is a thinly-disguised call to action. And even recognizing that I am not unbiased, surely anyone with even a modicum of intelligence can recognize that there are in our society those who would see this as a call, as an excuse to take matters into their own hands, perhaps hoping for national recognition, or - in the style of extremists everywhere - as martyrs to their cause.


So, what happens when a President is assassinated? Our Constitution provides for an orderly transfer of power, and we have seen this transfer happen every time a newly elected president takes office. We also saw it happen in 1973, when Richard Nixon resigned. And, tragically, in November, 1963, when Lyndon Johnson was sworn into office on the plane that bore the body of our dead president.

But beyond the purely functional and mechanical, there is an emotional toll that cannot be over-emphasized. It is a toll on the order of the 9/11 attacks. Even though there may be only one death, it is a tear in the fabric of our national lives. On that Friday in 1963, lives were put on hold - students were dismissed, employees were sent home; football games were cancelled; and - at a time and place that television went off the air every night at 1:00 a.m. - there was round-the-clock television coverage. There was a sense of disbelief and shame. We were appalled as a nation that hatred and fear-mongering could take such a monstrous toll on our lives, and on the world in which we lived.

The anti-Obama rhetoric is not only not funny, it's dangerous. I can accept that people don't like him and don't like his political position. God knows, I wasn't a fan of our last President! But when we give ear and credence to those who would stir up the fears and prejudices of our fellow citizens, when we allow the fuse to be lighted and nurture it along its path, not knowing exactly when or where it will be detonated, then we must be willing to acknowledge that we, too, share responsibility for the damage it will cause.


So, protest, please! It is the great strength of this nation, our freedom of speech, our freedom to gather. But with that freedom comes responsibility: You cannot shout "fire" in a theater. You cannot stir others - those who are perhaps of unsound mind or with unfounded prejudices - to act on your behalf. If we treasure our freedoms then it is incumbent on us to use them wisely and well.

Monday, November 9, 2009

This is the Republican Party

I've spent the past several days cruising the internet and visiting a number of conservative websites and blogs to try to get a handle on just why some of our fellow citizens have clung to the Republican Party despite recent events. What I've most often found is that there is still a belief - misplaced, in my opinion - that the Republican Party is the party of fiscal conservatism and of less government involvement in our lives. Except for some who cling to far right relgious beliefs, few are as socially conservative as Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin would have you believe - although there are some.

In 1981, when Reagan took office, the federal debt was about $700 billion. in 1988, it was over $2 trillion. After Bush, it was over $4 trillion. Bill Clinton not only managed to pay down some of the Reagan debt, he actually balanced the budget. So when the Republican Party and its adherents claim to be "fiscally conservative," there's a disconnect between what they say and what they do.

Sure, the debt has increased even more during the 10 months Obama has been in office, but remember, much of what is costing us money is a hangover from the Bush II Administration. Something had to be done, and that "something" actually started late last year, during the waning days of the Bush Administration, with the bailouts of banks and automakers.

After 10 months in office, the most memorable thing George W. Bush had done was ignore a memo that Al Quaeda was planning an air strike against the US, and start a war in Afghanistan, ostensibly to capture Osama bin Laden. Instead, four months later, he invaded Iraq.

How much do you think that cost?

So, the Republican fiscal conservatism claim is a bit shaky, I think.

Let's reflect on the Republican claim to smaller government, and keeping government out of our lives.

If Republicans really want smaller government, let's start by keeping government out of our bedrooms and off of our bodies. Up until four years ago, 27 states had laws prohibiting sodomy. (That includes oral sex, folks.) Today, we still fight the battle for the rights of LGBT men and women to be full participants in the American Dream. We forbid them to marry, we penalize them in the tax code (because they can't marry), some places deny them the right to adopt children, and cases abound where child custody was awarded to a "straight" parent because the other parent was gay or Lesbian.

Now we have a passed a health care "reform" bill in the House that invades women's bodies even further. Not only does the Stupak-Pitts Amendment forbid government money being used for an abortion, it also forbids anyone who receives any kind of Federal subsidy from purchasing insurance with their own money to cover abortion - this, despite the fact that access to abortion has been guaranteed by the Supreme Court! So a legal medical procedure is now unavailable to all but the wealthy. How much more intimately involved in our lives can government get? And what woman would want to buy an "abortion rider"? Those who plan to get pregnant just so they can abort, I guess. Forget those who are victims of rape, incest, whose lives are in danger, or whose fetuses are hopelessly deformed!

If that weren't insult enough, Republican Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX) has compared being a woman to being a smoker, thus justifying higher health care premiums for women. Frankly, I think his mother should charge him retroactive rent, plus interest, for the time he took up in her uterus, with added charges for stretch marks, incontinence, and for growing up to be an idiot.

And today, Dick Army came out from under his rock to say Americans who eat like a pig and get diabetes "don't deserve" insurance coverage.

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who last week proclaimed loudly and for all to hear that she was organizing the "Tea Party" march on the House last week, the next day insisted she really hadn't organized it, that it was a "grass roots" event. This, despite the fact that she told people to be sure to attend while appearing on Fox "News."

This is the Republican Party today. It's a party that in recent years has had no compunction about trying to move the US further to the right, claiming "family values," and that we are a Christian nation. Now that their tactics have cost them both Congress and the White House, they're crying foul.

The voters have rejected Republican fiscal and social mores, for the most part. If the Party continues to allow itself to led around by the nose by the likes of Limbaugh, Palin, Bachmann, Boehner, and company, it will either cease to exist or become a third party. If that happens, it will be a sad day for a party that attracted the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and even Susan B. Anthony.

I daresay none of them would even recognize it as their party in 2009.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Death and Politics

Over the past several years, we've seen what I consider an odd phenomenon in this country when tragedy visits private citizens. I'm sure you've seen it in your community: a sudden outpouring of grief, usually in the form of teddy bears, flowers from the local Safeway, and poster-sized messages of condolence from people who are complete strangers to the victim(s) and the families. This is often accompanied by candlelight vigils and live interviews of teary-eyed women (usually; sometimes men) with their small children in tow.

In early 2002, two young teen-aged girls went missing just a few miles from where I live. Their bodies were eventually found, buried in the backyard of a man who had long been a suspect, and who had been accused previously by one of the girls of attempted rape. For nearly a year, our daily newspaper and local news stations covered the case almost nonstop, frequently relegating the war in Afghanistan to a lower status. Yes, it was local news, and yes, we do have provincial media in this part of the country, but we were also sending hometown soldiers off to war, and many of them weren't much older than these girls.

The abduction and murder of these two children was tragic, but had people cared about them in life, perhaps they wouldn't have been living in circumstances that led to the joint tragedy. At the risk of sounding callous and uncaring (neither of which I am) we were witnesses to what I think of as cheap grief. People were openly crying and wailing, getting their air time (one local television reporter became so personally involved with the families that she spoke at one of the funerals), and then going home to resume their daily routines.

Overlapping this local tragedy and the media and community involvement and exploitation of it, was the Florida case of Terri Schaivo. For 15 years, Mrs. Schaivo was on life support in what was characterized as a "persistent vegetative state," meaning there was no hope of recovery. When her husband petitioned to have her removed from life support, the largely Republican Florida State Legislature and then-Governor Jeb Bush intervened to prevent it. Once all legal avenues had been pursued in the State, the US Congress got involved, led by then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and joined by others in the Republican Party, along with pro-life and right-to-life groups. President George W. Bush returned from vacation to sign a bill into law in an attempt to prevent Mrs. Schaivo's husband from removing her life support. Eventually all options were exhausted and Mrs. Schaivo's life support was removed and she was allowed to die.

(In the interest of full disclosure, one of the senators who voted for the bill that Bush signed was Sen. Barack Obama, D-IL. During two presidential primary debates, he admitted that it was his biggest professional mistake and "...allowed Congress to intrude where it shouldn't have.")

Today, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) led a group of "teabaggers" to protest the Democratic health care plan now before Congress. Those who grieved so publicly and left signs, flowers, teddy bears and expressions of love for two girls they didn't know, live in prime "teabagger" territory, and are vocal in their opposition to health care reform.

Yesterday, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) released the Republican Party's health care plan. The proposed plan has been  reviewed by the Congressional Budget Office and the CBO found that not only would it cut the deficit by about $36 billion less than the Democratic plan, but that it would also leave more people (52 million) uninsured in 2019 than are uninsured today (46 million); this contrasts with CBO's estimate of 19 million uninsured in 2019 under the Democratic plan. Where is the outpouring of interference that was accorded Terri Schaivo? Why are Congressional Republicans now so determined to "keep government out of our lives"?

I invite you, Dear Readers, to visit YouTube and watch and listen to all eight segments of Rep. Alan Grayson's (D-FL) reading of the numbers of people who have died in Republican Congressional Districts.  Listen to the individual stories that he recounts. Listen to hear Republican Congressmen try to cut him off.

Then ask yourself what relationship these seemingly disparate events I've related here have to each other. And ask yourself as well why there are those in this country who are so willing to indulge in "cheap grief" and so unwilling to make a difference.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Marriage and equality

Maine's rejection of gay marriage is more than just a disappointment to me; it's a travesty. From the hands of the voters, yet another minority has had its rights rescinded. Although the group that supported so-called "gay marriage" had better funding and should have prevailed, there persists in this nation a segment of society gullible enough, willing enough, careless enough, to buy into the scare tactics that emanate from the political right wing.

"They'll teach our children about homosexual marriage in schools," was one particularly pervasive and disgusting argument. First of all, I don't recall being taught much about marriage at all in school, except in biology as a 9th grader and "marriage and family" in my home ec classes. What I do recall is that every family in the books was different from mine. No, my parents weren't gay, but they were divorced, and in the 50s that was only spoken of - if at all - as an aberrant paradigm. So what about the kids in today's school who do have two moms or two dads? Will ignoring their non-traditional families make them feel as alone and "different" as I felt?

"Homosexuals will recruit your children to their 'lifestyle'." Oh, really? When a person makes that statement to me, I love it because it gives me the opportunity to ask them if they're so insecure in their own sexuality that they could have been "recruited" as a child?

"It will undermine the institution of marriage." No; Britney Spears, Elizabeth Taylor, and Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina undermine the "institution of marriage," and they're heterosexuals, every one. Even I, a practicing heterosexual, have two divorces under my belt. So I, too, am guilty of undermining.

"It's against God's/Allah's/Yahweh's (insert your favorite deity here) word." Well, I'm really sorry, but none of them is a registered voter here in the U.S., and there are a whole lot of people who subscribe to no religion, or to less restrictive ideologies than are assumed by that statement. I am, however, a Christian (but an Episcopalian, so maybe my ideas count for less!) and the God I know is accepting of us all. The God I worship is not a god of hate and marginalization, but of love and acceptance. I don't know who those other guys are talking about. Besides, the last time I looked, we aren't a theocracy, and our founding documents don't include the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran.

What I propose - and have espoused (if you'll pardon the terminology) for some time - is to get the government at all levels out of the business of marriage. Since some among us are so devoted to the word, marriage, let's call for the Federal, State, and Local governments to abandon it and issue Domestic Partnership licenses. Let all tax laws and other regulations apply equally to people who enter into DPs, and anyone who wants Marriage can have it blessed in their local church or other religious institution.

I'm old enough to remember that when Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco, their civil union was a separate funcion from their religious union. Performed at different places, on different days, thereby fulfilling both their State and religious regulations.

Would that be so hard?