On President Obama’s State of the Union address

Candidate Obama is back. In his State of the Union address, he was more forceful, eloquent and shrewdly misdirecting than he has been since 2008.

In the history of the American political cycles, President/candidate Obama may have more successfully evaded accountability for a failed economy than any president in history. Perhaps we should finally acknowledge as a nation that a president cannot work magic on an economy. Perhaps we should finally grant to this president, for the first time in American history, a pass for an abysmal economy and kudos for good intentions. Perhaps we should, for the first time in American history, give a sitting president credit for the excuse that it would have been a lot worse.

I admire much of what the president said. I love his eloquence. I admire particularly the very shrewd focus on all that can be done. But I wonder where the leadership to do all of those things was when it mattered. President Obama had enormous political capital in his first two years and chose to squander it on health care reform, without even exercising genuine leadership in that raucous debate and deliberately capitulating to the congressional circus for all of the particulars of that misbegotten bill. All of these wonderful ideas to stimulate the economy, retrain America, get rid of bad teachers, help businesses upgrade their plants, stop illegal immigration (by means other than there being no jobs in America for illegal immigrants to cross the border for), get jobs for veterans — if he was serious about these ideas, he’d have proposed them in 2009. He didn’t. He pursued health care reform.

And health care reform has been a palpable drag on the economy. And so we have a president running on great ideas for America who didn’t actively pursue them when he could, and instead pursued, sort of, health care reform, to the detriment of the economy, with an abysmal economy, saying “vote for me” (and, by the way, conveniently never mentioning health care reform).

But lots of bold ideas. How many times did the president say in his SOTU address send me a bill and I will sign it? That is preposterous. His time to say that was two years ago if he was a leader. Saying it only now is cynical. He knows it won’t happen. And that’s why he’s proposing it now instead of two years ago when it might have been viable. That is a deeply cynical presidency trying to do something no incumbent has ever achieved before with such a bad economy: evade accountability for a terrible economy.

I don’t think Barack Obama is a bad president. Like every president, he has priorities. I question his priorities. But I credit some of them — like getting Osama bin Laden (truly, kudos Mr. President), like taking out much of the al Qaeda leadership, like realistically keeping open Guantanamo, like insisting that “America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs” and he intends to keep it that way as long as he is president. In short, I like some of President Obama’s foreign policy because it is George W. Bush’s foreign policy against which he campaigned vociferously. I like that mature transformation of Barack Obama. I feel safer because President Obama is actually doing what President Bush did (notwithstanding the rhetoric of apology and capitulation that were words only and not deeds).

I just don’t like Barack Obama for what he was in 2008 geopolitically (and now chastened) or what he is in 2012 domestically. It’s still, for candidate Obama, about “fairshareism.” As if President Obama and members of Congress “paying their fair share” would put the slightest dent in the deficit. What a grandiose gesture — please tax me and members of Congress more! — and what a useless and transparently cynical sop that has nothing whatever to do with the deficit. Simply taxing rich people would do virtually nothing to reduce the deficit. Yet virtually no rich person in America would object to higher taxes if it were coupled with serious deficit reduction measures.

That’s a failure of presidential leadership.

And this is what candidate/President Obama poses for America: the rich aren’t paying their “fair share,” and that’s the conversation we need to have as a nation, and that’s his campaign mantra. Damn the rich, like me, he says coyly. That’s a serious shame because that squanders an opportunity to institute deep deficit reduction measures, coupled with sensible tax increases, and fiscal measures that promise financial health for America.

None of that matters if making rich people bad people makes for a good talking point. Like “the Buffett Rule.” Camera to Warren Buffett’s “secretary.” Can’t have Warren Buffet’s “secretary” paying more in taxes than Warren Buffett. First, she doesn’t. Not even close. Second, her income tax rate is higher than his capital gains tax rate (but not his income tax rate) because Congress treats capital gains and dividend income differently than income, and for a reason. Third, reasonable minds can differ on what the rate for income tax, capital gains tax, and dividends tax should be, but it is silly to compare the tax on Warren Buffett and Warren Buffett’s secretary. It’s comparing different taxes. But the president knew this.

This is a president digging out of a hole that may not matter. Watching Gingrich and Romney duke it out, this president may very well get a pass. He already knows he has a leg up because any challenge to him is wounded. Barack Obama is looking like the superior candidate. No Republican can challenge him, thanks to the circular firing squad. And there are so many reasons why challenging President Obama matters.

 

On Envy and American Culture

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the envious have their eyes sewn shut with wire because they have gained sinful pleasure from seeing others brought low.

We typically think of Lady Justice as blind so that that she can do justice without regard to who is before her. But perhaps she is blind so that there is no possibility of pleasure in what happens to a sinner. Her blessed blindness is not to achieve justice, but to prevent the ugliness of any pleasure at human torment, even to one deserving it.

But this is a form of envy for which a German word is necessary, Schadenfreude, and for which no precise English equivalent is available. It is one thing to hate the fortune of another — that is envy — and a step further to celebrate the misfortune of another — that is Schadenfreude.

The strength of a culture can be measured by its indulgence of envy and Schadenfreude. A predominance of the former is alarming. A predominance of the latter is corrosive and fatal.

“But it is Schadenfreude,” says Arthur Schopenhauer, “a mischievous delight in the misfortunes of others, which remains the worst trait in human nature. It is a feeling which is closely akin to cruelty, and differs from it, to say the truth, only as theory from practice.”

When certain European intellectuals expressed perverse pleasure at the toppling of the towers on 9-11, that was Schadenfreude in its quintessentially corrupt European and disgusting form. Its finest spokesman was French philosopher Jean Beaudrillard:

That we dreamed of this event, that everyone without exception dreamed of it, because no one can fail to dream of the destruction of a power exercising such a hegemony – that is unacceptable for the Western moral conscience. And yet it is a fact, which can be measured by the pathetic violence of all the discourses that try to cover it up. In the end, they did it, but we wanted it.

Envy, says Kant, is a propensity to view the well-being of others with distress, even though it does not detract from one’s own. In the Russian version of the game, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, “Ask the Audience” was deleted as a life-line because Russian audiences deliberately gave the wrong answer. They didn’t want to help the player. That is deep cultural cynicism.

I tee this up to insist that the character of a person matters and the character of a culture matters, to insist further that making excuses for the bad character of persons and cultures invites decline, and finally to ask where are we as a nation. Envy in American culture has historically been an isolated vice. Our narrative has tended more toward the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story, the steadfast belief in opportunity, the admiration — rather than envy — of success.

If there is anything to the notion of American exceptionalism, it is rooted in three qualities: (1) a steadfast belief in our culture of freedom, opportunity and hard work; (2) a sincere desire for everyone’s liberty and success — from the Germans and Japanese after World War II to the Iraqis and Afghanis in 2012, with a host of American helping projects in between; and (3) the belief that extraordinary power, contrary to centuries of terrible lessons about power, can in fact be exercised sacrificially and fairly and without demand for real estate, on behalf of global stability. No other country in human history has ever combined these qualities.

Key to our American self-understanding — to whatever it may be that makes us exceptional — is rejection of envy and its corrosive power. Envy is always a net negative. Nothing good comes from it and it shrivels the soul of the envier. It makes him permanently less than he could be because he is fixated on the fortune of another, convinced it is ill-gotten, and no longer productive himself, except as a victim, because his guiding mantra is now the “unfairness” of it all. And the moment a man, or a culture, shifts primarily to a victim narrative, the cynical rot of decline sets in.

We’re confronted now with competing narratives in America. The 1% narrative seems clever — all that solidarity — but it is predicated on envy and demonization of the rich, and demand for free stuff (like forgiveness of student loans) — and why?

Is class warfare good for America? Do we solve anything — seriously anything – by encouraging the middle and lower classes to envy and despise the rich? Is Warren Buffet evil? Is Bill Gates evil?

To be sure, we’ve been fascinated and repulsed by the super-rich. They can be ostentatious and stupid — typically because they’re folks just like you and me who got suddenly rich and behaved hideously. And just as typically, they squandered their wealth and toppled to something like you and me. Life chastens most people. By the time they have a little bit of wisdom, they’ve been whacked.

Except for the super-rich, who do some of the finest things that human beings are capable of doing on this planet. If I had to gauge the good that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have done with their billions, I’d say the 1% fare very favorably as good human beings compared to the 99%.

We should be on our knees thanking that 1%. They’re, on average, better than us.

To whatever extent we wish to be focused on the rich, we’re indulging envy and missing the larger point. There isn’t anything the rich could do to save our economy. Screaming about the rich paying their fair share = envy. It’s not a solution. It’s a political talking point. The rich could fork over all of their fortune and put only a tiny dent in our massive deficit.

Stop the envy. Give no quarter to Schadenfreude. Our nation powers forward on the strength of people believing in themselves, never as victims, always resolved to succeed, and admiring success. Make it a little less, make it about blaming, and we are a culture in decline.

 

On Voter ID laws in a “post-racial” America

Voter ID laws are controversial — bizarrely — so controversial in fact that our first post-racial presidency (as promised and aborted) steps in yet again to attack a state on ridiculous racial grounds. South Carolina enacted a voter ID law, and the Department of Justice invalidated it because the Attorney General claimed — against the facts and several Democrats — it would discriminate against minorities.

What is a voter ID law? It says when you show up to vote, you have to produce some identification that shows you are who you say you are so that you’re actually eligible to vote. Like they do in Canada. As opposed to showing up to vote and pretending you’re eligible when you’re not. Much like you produce an ID to get on a airplane, or you produce an ID when you’re driving and the police pull you over, or you produce an ID when you want to cash a check, or you produce an ID when you apply for a Social Security card, or you produce an ID when you use a credit card and there’s a question about whether you’re the actual owner of the credit card (to prevent credit card fraud).

This should be obvious. This should be a basic requirement around which everyone rallies because it contributes to the integrity of elections. And the integrity of elections matters enormously because democracy is fragile and turns precisely on the integrity of elections. We respect democracy only because we elect the people for whom we actually vote. We respect democracy only because we have good reason to believe that eligible voters choose our elected representatives.

South Carolina passed a voter ID law that requires a voter to present a South Carolina driver’s license or other photo ID — a passport, military ID, or a voter registration card with a photo issued by South Carolina election officials (issued for free). Even if a voter shows up at a polling place without an acceptable ID, he can still vote a provisional ballot that will be counted if he brings an ID to election officials before the results are certified. If a voter has a religious objection or a “reasonable impediment” that prevents him from getting a free photo ID, then the voter can simply fill out an affidavit in which he outlines his objection or impediment and swears that he is who he says he is. His provisional ballot will then be automatically counted unless local election officials have evidence that “the affidavit is false.”

In other words, the South Carolina law makes it as easy as possible to vote — whether or not you have a valid ID — but simply tries to ensure a threshold requirement that you are who you say you are. To which the Department of Justice objects. Using Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice squashed the South Carolina law as “discriminatory,” even though the Department of Justice approved a virtually identical Georgia law in 2005, and the Supreme Court approved a virtually identical Indiana law in 2008.

Why? In Austin, Texas, Attorney General Eric Holder said, “Are we willing to allow this era – our era – to be remembered as the age when our nation’s proud tradition of expanding the franchise ended?” Then the NAACP’s Ben Jealous made it plain: “You saw it after the Civil War. You see it now after the election of the first black president.” The race card, the very cynical very-not-post-racial race card. And the race card in contempt of the facts.

Voter ID laws do not suppress minority turnout — quite the opposite. University of Missouri professor Jeffrey Milyo discovered that after voter ID, turnout increased in Democrat-majority districts. University of Delaware professor Jason Mycoff found that voter ID did not decrease turnout.

Rhode Island enacted a voter ID law, which is to say, Democrats did it. Rhode Island Democratic Representative Jon Brien said, “those who are opposed to voter ID never let the facts get in the way of a really good emotional argument.”

African-American Democrat Artur Davis in Alabama apologized for opposing voter ID laws: by claiming that voter fraud wasn’t an issue, and that anti-fraud laws were racist, “I took the path of least resistance on this subject for an African American politician.” And then he said:

Voting the names of the dead, and the nonexistent, and the too-mentally-impaired to function, cancels out the votes of citizens who are exercising their rights — that’s suppression by any light. If you doubt it exists, I don’t; I’ve heard the peddlers of these ballots brag about it, I’ve been asked to provide the funds for it, and I am confident it has changed at least a few close local election results.

We should be beyond this. We should be beyond this as a polity even without Barack Obama and Eric Holder’s Justice Department, who promised a post-racial America and who could have delivered that promise but failed miserably and cynically.

Voter ID laws make simple sense. Opposition favors election fraud and race-baiting. And that is our post-racial presidency.

Dallas Cowboys 14, New York Giants 31

I don’t remember Eddie LeBaron, the Cowboys’ starting quarterback for whom Don Meredith was a backup. By the time I was able to form lasting memories, Don Meredith was quarterback. I’ve been a Cowboys fan since then.

Back up. I’ve never known much about sports. I peaked in 6th grade. The glorious touch, flag, and sandlot tackle football I knew as a late-blooming, short, skinny elementary school lad morphed into pads and helmets and tedious practice and bizarrely big guys in 7th grade. I chose the number 00 and figured I’d do it barefooted. I played four or five minutes as middle linebacker and my chosen number was prophetic (but always put me at the top of the roster). The game no longer made any sense to me. I sailed through the rest of my life, to this moment, pursuing matters other than sports (but always loving the Dallas Cowboys).

This background is important so that you understand why I say I don’t understand the fuss. My beloved Cowboys entered an appearance at the Meadowlands Sunday night, and they played exactly as I would have played.

First, let’s be clear, not everybody was happy when the league changed from 14 games to 16 games. I understand why the Cowboys would nurse this grievance. It’s cold in December. This whole playing-football thing, outside, in the cold, it’s not everybody’s thing.

Second, it would help if the season didn’t come down to the final game – and the stakes were whether we had to play more football in the cold, or not. What kind of incentive is that?

Third, and I truly do understand this, hurling a large determined man to the ground is overrated. There should be politer ways of signaling displeasure with forward progress.

Fourth, I get the Cowboys’ petulant preference for penalties. Who knows all this stuff? Better to play authentically and lose a turnover than play slavishly by the confounding rules.

Fifth, concerning turnovers, they’re really fundamentally unfair game-changers and shouldn’t be pursued lightly. And if there is an opportunity to toss a frikkin’ recovered fumble back to Eli Manning, who was smoking a cigarette in the backfield at the time, by all means…

Sixth, I personally live to see Tony Romo running for his life. I consider this the apex of the sport. I don’t believe the league adequately rewards this athletic part of the sport.

Seventh, look, it’s hard to get excited about playing the Atlanta Falcons next week. (Boring!) Especially if you don’t have to.

Eighth, 8-8… Call me a symmetry-freak. I just like it. You win some you lose some, carefully calibrating as you go. That’s a neat and tidy season.

Congratulations, I suppose, to all the disproportionately winning teams in the play-offs. Personally, I think you could do with a little Dallas Cowboys Zen, but I know lots of teams and fans are still stuck in the whole playing football well into deep winter thing.

 

On Gingrich’s judicial power play

Mr. Gingrich thinks well of himself – by itself, a prerequisite for the presidency. Part of the American vetting process we call caucuses, primaries and campaigns is about inquiring just how well one thinks of oneself, and just how one thinks well of oneself.

Mr. Gingrich gives us a glimpse into both by his assault on activist judges. He has ramped up the rhetoric – far beyond its traditional mooring in the importance of presidential elections, because presidents populate the judiciary. That subtle interplay between the branches – a perfect instance of what we traditionally celebrate as “checks and balances” – doesn’t satisfy Mr. Gingrich.

He wishes to make a case for the other two branches aggressively taking back power from the judiciary. He makes this case radically, as befits the bigness of his ideas. Presidents (and presumably governors) are not necessarily bound by Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution, entire courts (such as the Ninth Circuit) should be abolished, and individual judges should be held accountable for opinions that a president or a congressional committee consider unconstitutional, and subpoenaed, if necessary, to explain their decisions.

I disagree strongly with Mr. Gingrich’s splash-play on judges – but I hasten to add, his ideas are not “crazy.” The Supreme Court’s final authority on constitutional interpretation was an unsettled and controversial question before 1803, when Chief Justice John Marshall handed down the landmark Marbury v. Madison decision. And the controversy continued simmering thereafter (emphasis on “simmering,” as we conducted judicial and political business as if the issue were finally settled).

Mr. Gingrich is correct that Congress has the technical power to abolish and add lower courts, and even to haul judges before Congress. But not all technical powers are wisely exercised, a point that should resonate with conservatives.

Curiously, Mr. Gingrich’s remedy for a “constitutional crisis” (and for the record, we are not in the midst of a “constitutional crisis,” at least not if that phrase has any of the gravity that the Constitution itself has) is to radically politicize the Constitution. If you believe we’re in the midst of a constitutional crisis now, buckle your seatbelts. Strip the Supreme Court of supremacy in constitutional interpretation (a notion, ironically, with considerable liberal support), abolish the Ninth Circuit, and subpoena judges to explain their decisions to Congress – and we’ll be awash in weekly constitutional crises.

Mr. Gingrich might have sounded sensible had he urged a more serious constitutional conversation. For example, he could have called for serious congressional inquiries into constitutional doctrines applied by the courts. He could have promoted hearings by the House and Senate Judiciary Committees featuring panels of legal experts that educated Congress and the public on the origins, justifications and consequences of various holdings. That would be a public service, and smack less of branch bullying.

But of course, Mr. Gingrich believes he is seizing upon a hot-button issue, and doing so in a radical way that could galvanize conservative support for him as the only muscular conservative in the race for the Republican nomination.

As Mr. Gingrich has very little money and very little organization, compared to Mr. Romney, he rather desperately needs a surrogate for what organization and money get a candidate: credibility and momentum. Attacking activist judges plays well with the base, but is insufficiently attention-getting by itself. So Mr. Gingrich couples it with a grand re-shuffling of the constitutional balance of powers, as befits the bigness (and the bluster) of his ideas.

It’s a long shot, but it’s Mr. Gingrich’s Hail Mary – much as John McCain, with his similarly challenged campaign, threw the Sarah Palin Hail Mary – not with conviction that he was choosing carefully, but precisely with the knowledge that choosing carefully doomed him, and that only an apparently reckless long-shot, which might, just might, open into some kind of excitement and momentum, was his only hope.

The difference is that John McCain stared at the juggernaut of history bearing down upon him, and threw a Hail Mary, while Newt Gingrich imagines himself the juggernaut of history poised to sweep civilization, and throws a Hail Mary hoping how well he thinks of himself will be contagious.

 

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

I will miss Christopher Hitchens. Perhaps no other name on a link so speedily bid me click, giddy with the anticipation of an idiosyncratic and literate delight – no matter what subject might be his current fancy. While Hitchens lived, I was very pleased not to be Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, Mother Theresa, or God.

In each of these cases, and so many more, he practiced rhetorical shock and awe – and he achieved devastation (with the exception, of course, of his one nemesis who did not, in his view, actually exist, and about whom, therefore, he borrowed entirely from other people’s biographies, and with whom, I would love to believe, he is currently arguing). In all of this polemical writing, Hitchens drew stark lines – rationally-grounded moral lines, and the verve, the chutzpah, and the integrity with which he did so was a profound 21st century repudiation of relativism and universal tolerance. He had no time for these.

Perhaps it appears on odd attraction – what with my frequent exhortations to civility and courtesy in political discourse. Hitchens could be uncivil, which makes me chuckle as I write it. Indeed, many of today’s left and right self-appointed pit bulls look like vaguely rabid poodles next to a fully-engaged Hitchens.

But that’s because so very few of these poodles have anywhere near the erudition, precision with language, and finally, ideological autonomy as Hitchens did. All of the guidelines I have suggested regarding civility still apply, unless you are Christopher Hitchens or a tiny handful of others who wield words with his grace. Perhaps the civility rules now apply more than ever because we must carefully re-learn the art of fiery polemics without the inspiration of its best practitioner.

I suppose many of the people targeted in Hitchens’ debates and polemical writings felt “bullied,” and we crave the secular certainty that “bullying” is bad. And of course it is, except when it’s really good. As when the bullies get bullied. Or the pretentious get popped. Or the powerful – whether despots or successful peddlers of very bad ideas – get surgically whacked. Which isn’t really bullying at all. Hitchens hated unchecked and brutal concentrations of power – but he also choked on the failure of power to do good, and scoffed at the craven sentimentality that saw no possibility of good in power. That is one reason this British-born brilliance loved America.

I never met Christopher Hitchens, never heard him speak, and never was in the same room with him. I simply became a voracious consumer of anything he wrote. The many tributes from the many who knew him count for so much more – but I have this personal gratitude to Christopher Hitchens, the public intellectual.

9-11 was a defining moment, a paradigm shift for Hitchens, as for me. Something clicked about the call to arms, the urgency of challenging a poisonous and murderous narrative, the obligation of the West, and particularly America with its wherewithal, to take the battle that had been horrifically exploded on our soil to its origins in theretofore much-too-comfortable violent despotism in the larger Middle East.

I supported the Afghanistan war and the more difficult (politically) Iraq war from the beginning, and Christopher Hitchens made a vastly better case for both, especially the Iraq war, than the Bush administration ever managed. If you wish a spoken taste for his eloquence on the subject, see here his debate with George Galloway in 2005.

I would deeply wish to examine and celebrate every moment of his eloquence, but my point is a narrower one. Hitchens tackled a public-relations nightmare that exceeded the talents of the Bush administration, and he did so with a passion and precision befitting the stakes. I’d have supported the Iraq war without Hitchens, but I am eternally grateful that he lent his enormity to the justice of deposing the butcher of Baghdad.

Christopher Hitchens used words artfully and drew lines brilliantly and always conveyed the importance of both. I will miss every column he might have written because I will lose a personal pleasure, and I will miss the tremendous public service of an honest master of words and lines.

What Is Tim Tebow Asking of God?

So much is interesting about Tim Tebow, or more precisely, what he exposes about our wildly conflicted culture.

For those who do not follow professional football, and do not manage to stumble into it via culture wars, I’m talking about the young Denver Broncos quarterback who prays on his knee before every game, and wears his Christianity on his sleeve.

Now there’s an image that sets fire to secular comfort. As Andrew Sullivan put it, “prayer is not supposed to be a public event, designed to display your holiness in front of the maximum number of people.” And Sullivan, to his maximum credit, followed up by posting several defenders of Mr. Tebow.

Tim Tebow, apart from being a now-winning quarterback with many now-quieter converts (irony note), is an evangelical Christian. That is, he ardently wants souls saved for Jesus. That’s his schtick. In the 2009 BCS Championship Game, he wore John 3:16 on his eye paint, and 92 million people searched “John 3:16″ on Google during or shortly after the game. The NFL doesn’t allow eye paint.

Before he became a winning quarterback (and still, in some quarters), the ugliness directed at his public prayer was astounding. You’d have thought the man flashed his penis. And this is truly a marvel.

Public displays of one’s religion, orientation and sensibility are common. Muslims are defended for engaging in their requisite prayer in public, gays are defended for being themselves in public, and Occupy Wall Street has been a massive, and massively defended, public display of in-your-face politics.

So what if Tim Tebow kneels to pray? Why the hate? Is it just that easy to hate Christians — while we defend pretty much everything else people wish to express in public? At this bizarre juncture in human history, with routine public splattering of social networking strangeness, is it really fair to criticize Tim Tebow? I’ve seen Christians and Atheists do vastly more disturbing things on Facebook.

And what is it, after all, that Tim is saying to God? Too many people imagine he’s seeking to put God on his side in a football game. I don’t think so. I think he’s saying, thank you God for this blessing and this opportunity, thank you for being you and being with me, whatever happens.

I don’t share Tim’s faith. But I respect his sincerity, his humility, and not least, his goodness. The man contributed his signing bonus to his charity, works with the W15S Foundation for children with life-threatening diseases, partners with Cure International to build a hospital in the Philippines, and works with “Drive for Education” to give back in the Denver community.

It’s easy these days to get worked up about people who make a lot of money. I’d like a lot of them to be more like Tim Tebow. And I’ve got no problem with the fact that he prays in public.

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