Popular Posts

Monday, February 28, 2011

Great news from new poll on Wisconsin

The first major national poll is out and it shows strong support for the right to collectively bargain. Exactly what people have been saying—Walker overreached by using a budget crisis to justify an attack on unions. The poll showed “Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one: 60 percent to 33 percent.” More surprising, and encouraging from my perspective, was this:
Those surveyed said they opposed, 56 percent to 37 percent, cutting the pay or benefits of public employees to reduce deficits, breaking down along similar party lines. A majority of respondents who have no union members living in their households opposed both cuts in pay or benefits and taking away the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Governors in both parties have been making the case that public workers are either overpaid or have overly generous health and pension benefits. But 61 percent of those polled — including just over half of Republicans — said they thought the salaries and benefits of most public employees were either “about right” or “too low” for the work they do.
In other words, a clear majority understands that pay cuts and health and pension cuts are not necessary to reduce deficits. That this is true is especially encouraging amid reports now coming out detailing the years of planning and plotting that went into this effort in Wisconsin. Politico has the best article I have yet seen on the millions of dollars that have been spent in recent years by major Republican operatives on how best to exploit the issue of public sector unions. It clearly demonstrates that
The conservative assault on public sector unions that seemed to explode out of nowhere in Wisconsin and spread across the Midwest was in fact months – if not years – in the making, the result of methodical polling, lobbying, messaging, grassroots organizing and policy crafting by a coterie of well-funded conservative groups.

Even the focus on Wisconsin seems to have been a deliberately provocative choice by the conservative groups that have been itching for a fight for years. The article includes a quote from Ned Ryun, head of a group called American Majority, in which he claims “The 100-year-old Progressive experiment can be stopped and buried in the very place (Wisconsin) where it was born.” But as I argued in an earlier blog, and as the New York Times/CBS News poll shows, Wisconsin is once again breathing life into the Progressive movement and backbone into the Democratic Party.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Inside Job

Wonderful to see that Inside Job not only won the Oscar, but afforded the producers a great opportunity to remind us all that not a single Wall Street criminal from the financial crisis has spent a day in jail. As I said on earlier blogs, this is one of the great failures of Obama's administration and I can think of no way to defend it. He has failed to connect the legitimate rage at our economic collapse with the truest causes of it and now we are seeing unions of all things getting blamed and demonized. Maybe if we all see this movie with a few friends it will help change things a little bit.

Governor Walker, Meet Lech Walesa

In the annals of historical amnesia few cases can compete with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recent comments, and few cases of historical error have been so immediately linked to an historic policy decision. In his now famous phone call with a blogger posing as conservative industrialist David Koch, the governor offers an extraordinary window into the operation of his administration and the ideological reading of history that drives it.  Here is the money quote:

“Monday night I had all my cabinet over to the residence for dinner, talked about what we were going to do, how we were going to do it, we'd already kind of built plans up but it was kind of the last hurrah before we dropped the bomb. And I stood up and I pulled out a picture of Ronald Reagan, and I said, you know, this may seem a little melodramatic, but 30 years ago Ronald Reagan, whose 100th birthday we just celebrated the day before, had one of the most defining moments of his political career, not just his presidency, when he fired the air traffic controllers. And I said, to me that moment was more important than just for labor relations or even the federal budget. That was the first crack in the Berlin Wall in the fall of Communism because from that point forward the Soviets and the Communists knew that Ronald Reagan wasn't a pushover.”

Have you ever read anything like it? Whole books could be written about the significance of these words and the historical realities that lay behind these thoughts. For now, here are three things worth noting:

1.     This quote clearly puts to rest the idea that the Governor saw himself doing something just to “balance the budget.” Anyone who still believed that Walker was motivated by a simple desire to avert a financial crisis needs to read this quote again and do a reality check. It is clear as a bell that Walker and his entire cabinet were completely aware that they were embarking on an historic effort at union busting in Wisconsin and beyond. “The bomb” being dropped was not pension cuts, but the evisceration of collective bargaining, and the sense that this was part of a broader strategy with national implications is completely backed up by the Reagan analogy.
2.     By evoking the history of the “first crack in the Berlin Wall” Walker has gone where right wing union-busters dare not tread, for the true history of the fatal weakening of the Soviet Union runs right through the true history of unions and their power. Not to put to fine a point on it, but anyone with even a shred of awareness of the true nature of the Cold War knows that the first fissure in the Iron Curtain happened in Poland, before and then during Reagan’s presidency, and because of the power of unions. Surely Walker is old enough to remember Gdansk, Walesa, Solidarity, Jaruzelski—the people and places that were on the lips of every freedom loving person around the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Poland was the proving ground of a radical idea—that communism was a fraud at its core because precisely the working people who communism claimed to most deeply represent were the ones seeking to protest communist policies. The working men and women of Poland spoke truth to power by doing what? By demanding the right to form free and independent unions!! The communist pretension to moral authority was stripped of the thin veil of legitimacy when they busted the union that represented the true aspirations of workers. It was the willingness of simple Polish workers like Lech Walesa to suffer, and in some cases die, for the right to collectively bargain that provoked the crisis in legitimacy within the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, and eventually within Russia herself. And guess which group of Americans gave covert support to the burgeoning Solidarity movement in Poland? Which group secretly shipped money and personnel to help nurture this strike at the heart of communism? The great unions of America’s working men and women, that is who. In fact, they worked in coordination with President Carter and President Reagan so that the union movement in Poland would know that they were not alone—that their struggle for rights as workers was linked to the unions of the free world. Lane Kirkland, who was the president of the AFLCIO from 1979-1995, was a member of the leading anticommunist group of the Cold War, the Committee on the Present Danger.  Because of his extraordinary support for Solidarity, a free Poland awarded Kirkland their highest national honor, the Order of the White Eagle. Republicans used to understand the central role of the labor movement to the collapse of communism. George H. W. Bush awarded Kirkland the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1989 and, with Lech Walesa in attendance at the White House, President Bush said these words:

“For over a decade, under your leadership, you and the union have been path breakers for freedom, continuing the support for free trade unions around the world…And you were there--you personally were there, in the hour of greatest need, helping to keep alive the dream of freedom in Poland.”

3. Ronald Reagan did manage to convince many union Democrats that the Democratic Party was out of touch with them, that it had fallen captive to a cultural elite who did not share the values of common people. Whether that was true or not, those words can truly now be spoken of the Republican Party under the leadership of the likes of Governor Walker. They are ideologically committed to a view of unions deeply at odds with both the historical record and the values of common people, be they in unions or not.  Walker has misread history and misread the present. Thirty years after the busting of PATCO, Walker’s attempt to launch a national crusade against unions has instead reawakened in the Labor movement and the Democratic Party the fight and passion and determination worthy of the man who made the first crack in the Berlin Wall, Lech Walesa.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Atlantic flows

The Atlantic website, probably my favorite spot for stimulating debate, has some great blog posts today.

Andrew Sullivan writes what I would write on the debate over the credit W. Bush should receive for the Arab revolution if I had the time (skill?).

Derek Thompson helpfully complicates the question “Who Killed the Unions?”

And Kiran Moodley shows why the phrase “Obamacare” is so bogus yet popular.

Whiny teacher, ctd.

I have really appreciated the feedback on my last post. Almost all of it has been positive and I know many of you passed it onto friends. I wanted to do a shorter post responding to some of the feedback.

1)   I am not blindly loyal to teachers unions. Like most teachers, I recognize the flaws in many teachers unions, particularly the support for unwieldy bureaucracies too far removed from the daily interaction of student and teacher. My main point was to give voice to the underlying motivation behind collective bargaining and union protections. I feel, together with thousands of others, that the attempt to weaken that linchpin of unions under the guise of a budget/economic crisis in no way caused by collective bargaining, is wrong. Reform unions? Yes. Gut them? Now you are talkin’ fighting words.
2)   Unions as a percentage of the national work force have been steadily declining, yet union bashing as a percentage of conservative political speech has stayed steady. Why is that? Why does the scapegoating continue while obvious culprits of the economic meltdown continue to get a free pass?
3)   I hold President Obama and many of the leaders of the Democratic Party partly responsible for the scapegoating of unions and federal workers. By failing to tap into the justifiable rage over the economic meltdown, and failing to effectively connect that rage to the true sources of our collapse, he has given that rage continued life.
4)   If you are looking for a clear, concise article to share with friends that challenges some of the reigning myths about federal employees in particular, you can’t do better than this article from last December.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

From Your Whiny Teacher Married to a Spoiled Public Sector Employee

This is a longer post than usual, but it has been a rather bracing thing to read what so many Americans “really think about you” as I have visited blogs and websites defending Governor Walker. I thought I would take some time to share “from the heart” about my journey as a teacher and a husband of a government employee.

Almost eleven years ago, at the age of 32, I decided to become a teacher. I had been working on my master’s degree in international relations but was not sure what exactly I was going to do with it. Then came September 11. I was living in Boston when that event occurred and was therefore personally touched by the event in a way that many in other parts of the country were not.  Seeing the extraordinary resolve and community spirit on display in the days and weeks following the attacks drove into me a desire to serve my country and teach young people about the history and meaning of our form of government. I decided to become a teacher of social studies.

My teaching career began in 2002 in southern California. Because I did not have a teaching credential, my choice of schools was limited. Non-public schools are allowed to hire non-credentialed teachers, and because I had a masters degree Catholic schools in our diocese were allowed to hire me to teach at the middle school level. I was hired at Saint John the Baptist Catholic School and signed a contract to begin working at $36,000 a year, plus health benefits.

One of the things you are told early on as a non-public school teacher is that you are what is called an “at-will” employee, meaning that you can be fired at any time with or without cause. You are also quite conscious of the fact that you are not a part of union and that you are most certainly not going to make anywhere near as much as a public school teacher—about 25% less on average. But, I wanted to teach, I was active in my faith, and I loved being at the school that my daughter was attending. I was grateful for the work, and with my wife working as a doctor at the University of California (more on her later) we were able to afford my low salary.

The school that I taught at was run by a nun who had been the principal at the school for forty years. She was an extraordinary woman, as tough as they come and yet able to show compassion and loyalty to her students and parents. She had developed a legendary following and was running a very successful school in sharp contrast to many struggling Catholic schools. But even after all her years of service, she was an at-will employee and after a particularly tough year the pastor of the parish decided he would not renew her contract. After all of her years of service and all of the students and parents whose lives she had touched, she still served at the whim of her administrator and had no union recourse in the event that he wanted her removed. As it turned out, the faculty and parents of the school revolted at the decision and managed to force the hand of the pastor to keep her on staff. But this struggle had damaged the spirit of the school and those of us that had worked hard to keep her on had a target on our back. I decided that after five years of teaching in non public schools I wanted to get my credential and teach in a public school and I left Saint Johns for a one year credential program at the University of California, Irvine. 
At the age of 36 I was back in school because I wanted to teach in public schools.  Little did I know that the economy of California was about to go over the cliff. By the time I finished my year of credential training, the likelihood of finding a public school teaching job was slim and none. Teachers were being laid off by the thousands in California due to decreased tax revenue because of the collapse of the housing market. It was quite common in districts for all teachers with five years of service or less to receive pink slips in March indicating that they would in all likelihood be losing their jobs in June. Needless to say, principals were not doing a lot of interviewing of student teachers, regardless of the fact that I already had years of experience teaching. No one was going to be hired when there were already thousands of experienced public school teachers looking for work. I had one principal tell me that it was the worst situation for teachers that he had seen in 40 years. This was all happening in the fall of 2008. With thousands of teachers looking for whatever work they could find it was nearly impossible to find work at private schools and many of my younger classmates in the credential program resigned themselves to not becoming teachers. I used some veteran savvy and eventually landed a teaching job at a private, nonreligious school. With my five years of teaching experience and my UCI credential I was making a salary of $45,000.
After a year of teaching at this middle school I was given in May of 2009n a contract for the next year. I was glad to not have to be looking for a teaching job because things were, if possible, even worse than they were in the spring of 2008, since by now what had begun in California had spread nationwide and we were in the midst of the most severe economic recession since the Great Depression. Teachers across the state of California were again losing jobs and either collecting unemployment checks or leaving teaching for some other profession like making coffee at Starbucks. So I felt fortunate until the last day of school. A cloud had descended over the school in the form of decreased enrollment. This pricey private school was suddenly beyond the reach of many of the parents and the fear among teachers was palpable. I was called in after school, after having just told all my students that I would see them next fall, and told that I would not be returning. The contract was terminated and I had no recourse. It was already the second week of June and what would have been an extremely hard job search in May when I was told I had my job the next year, was now impossible in June.
As I mentioned earlier, I am fortunate to have a wife who is a doctor. I probably would not have gone into teaching as a second career if that were not the case.  Although my salary was necessary to the life style we were living, it was definitely not the primary source of income for us and our, by now, three children. But though a doctor, my wife had chosen a path of research medicine. After completing her residency at the University of Chicago, she had paid back a public health scholarship from the state of Illinois by serving at a clinic in an underserved part of Chicago. After doing that for three years, she had received a fellowship at Harvard’s School of Public Health. This had led to a position at Harvard and, after our move, a position at UC Irvine. She was in academic medicine and earning less than half, in some cases 1/3, what her colleagues in private practice were making. But we were happy because she had a more flexible schedule and was doing research into health care for the poor, which we both found meaningful.  As the economy of our state and country continued to collapse, however, her position as a state of California employee dependent on federal grants for her research put her in an increasingly precarious position. During our last year in California she was furloughed numerous times, as were all state employees. Grant proposals that in other years would almost certainly have received federal funds were turned down in the face of stiff federal spending cuts. I had only been able to find a part-time teaching job at a small, private high school for the 2009-2010 school year and my wife, although she had been rewarded tenure, was struggling to earn funding that would maintain her salary.
In the spring of 2009 President Obama signed into law a stimulus package designed to spur job growth in light of the deep recession the country found itself in. Then in 2010 he signed the health care bill into law designed in part to address the needs of under- and un-insured Americans. These two bills led to funds for many new positions in the federal government. My wife was hired in the fall of 2010 and we moved out to Maryland. It was fascinating during the time of our move to hear speech after speech declaring the stimulus a failure. Republican after Republican declared that the stimulus had “led to no new jobs.” Yet here I was, grateful for the job my wife had been offered, and ready to join thousands of others across the country with good jobs, serving vulnerable populations, because of the stimulus and the health care law. Why were these jobs being ignored and treated as if they did not exist? To me, it seemed as if the federal government was doing exactly what it needed to do in a time of economic distress—creating jobs that would perform a national service to communities that would otherwise have been placed at even greater risk because of the collapse of the private sector. It seemed the height of political duplicity to equate what even Obama admitted was disappointing unemployment figures with a failure of the stimulus to create any jobs at all.

Little did I know that the duplicity was only just beginning. Over the last two weeks, Republicans at the state and federal level have turned the reality of my wife and my last ten years on its head. We have heard a steady drumbeat of rhetoric that ignores the reality of our lives and the lives of thousands of others.
For starters, lets look at the federal level. Before we join Speaker Boehner in his declaration that if proposed cuts lead to job loss “so be it”, lets linger a bit. First, lets congratulate the Speaker for at last acknowledging that there actually were jobs created by the public sector. Of course, this little progress is undercut by the fact that the jobs he acknowledges were created seem to him to be second-class jobs, not true American, private sector jobs. This ridiculous splitting of the economy into self-contained circles marked private and public ignores the reality of how our economy’s jobs are actually lived. People like my wife and I are testament to the complexity of our economy and to its fragility. When politicians allow ideology to trump lived experience they threaten the overall health of our economy. I would challenge anyone to click on this link and see the meaningful jobs that exist all across our country that would be lost as a direct result of the draconian cuts proposed by the House. Picture the individuals that would not only lose their jobs, but also the individuals who rely on these people for their health care and the individuals who rely on the money spent by these people for their jobs.  Don’t let yourself be desensitized into thinking that these are not real jobs, and that their loss would not affect you or the communities you live in.
As for teacher unions, do not be easily fooled by the rhetoric of the Right. Teachers unions, while anything but perfect, are extremely important to the stability of our public schools. I have seen the alternative and it is not pretty. And teachers themselves are hardly the fat cats portrayed by union critics. We have been at the forefront of economic suffering during the recession. Tens of thousands of us are without teaching jobs because of the deep cuts states have had to make. We are not out of work because of our union and our union is not blind to the suffering of people in this economy because teachers have wept over the loss of work that their many colleagues have faced. They know the fragility of our economy as much as any group because they have seen the cost of the downturn on their friends. They know the impact this has had on their students. They do not call in sick to protest out of spite for their students, but out of a deep fear that their students and schools will suffer even more if their ability to unite as workers is diminished. And do not think they are not grateful for the work they have. They know people like me are missing the smiles of their students. They know their fellow brothers and sisters in the teaching fraternity are hurting financially through no fault of their own. I do not resent them for what they have and neither should you. I am glad that they have a union to protect them and help them and I believe that they are afraid of losing that.

Be bigger than the name-calling of teachers and public sector workers. Be smarter than the simplistic rhetoric of private vs. public. Be above the call to resent and think the worst about people you do not know. And never, ever assume you know the stories of whiney teachers and spoiled government workers without remembering my wife’s and mine. Our choices are not better than yours, but they deserve respect and understanding. Remember that we have suffered too, and that we have made choices not to gain more comfort and money for ourselves but to try and be of service to the common good. We are thankful for the success we have had, and realize the debt we owe to our country for the opportunities we have had. But we will not act as if our choices are selfish or that our jobs count less. And we will never, ever surrender our right to join with others in solidarity and collective bargaining.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Calm, clear critique of Wisconsin governor

Ezra Klein has turned his attention, wit and brains onto the situation in Wisconsin and produced the best, clearest take on it by a national journalist. Here is the bottom line quote, but check out the whole article:

"[Governor Walker] is attacking the right to bargain collectively -- which is to say, he's attacking the very foundation of labor unions, and of worker power -- and using an economic crisis unions didn't cause, and a budget reversal that Walker himself helped create, to justify it."

I emphasized the words in bold because that is what I know for me, and I think for many, most infuriates me about this action by the governor. 30 months ago our country faced a financial crisis unlike anything since the Great Depression and it has caused untold problems for state and local government's budgets. This financial crisis had absolutely no connection to unions, and in a calculated attack Republican governors are turning to scapegoating unions just months after they handed the wealthiest 2% a huge tax cut and at a time in which Wall Street is booming again. It is an outrage and the pent up anger over this has awakened the Progressive Movement and given backbone to the Democratic Party.

Obama "gets it"

The progressive base of the Democratic Party has been at odds with President Obama for months, if not years. From health care, to tax cuts, to trade deals, progressives have felt undercut by the president. People like me have always felt the president is doing his best to promote the progressive agenda, but his strong response to the situation in Wisconsin is reaching progressives at the gut level. According to this story in the Washington Post, Obama and his political organization Organizing for America have been at the forefront of protests over the governor's attempt to weaken collective bargaining power. He even took the unusual step of inviting a Milwaukee TV station into the White House for an interview on the matter. He is there when it most matters for the progressive movement and we won't forget it this time.

Bipartisan response to union bashing

As I have been arguing at this blog, the situation in Wisconsin is clearly part of a broader Republican strategy on a national level to use the budget crisis in state and federal government to weaken unions.
How else can you explain a GOP amendment proposed yesterday in the House to specifically defund the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Are you kidding me? Did they do that to save budget money? Anyone who believes that is blind to the symbolism intended in the amendment. The NLRB was created by FDR during the New Deal and is the epicenter of historic efforts by workers to organize themselves. By targeting this line item in the budget the Republican leadership was cynically trying to weaken unions and flex their muscles. Fortunately, this overreach was met with bipartisan resistance as 80 Republicans joined with Democrats to defeat the measure. The radicalization of the Republican Party will force more and more votes that will divide Republicans and awaken Democrats.

Sooner or later large numbers of Americans will begin asking "is this what we intended to vote for in November? What does Planned Parenthood funding, union busting and eagerly cutting public sector jobs have to do with the stated goal of Republicans in November to be all about 'job creation'?"

Wisconsin--the logical result of the demeaning of public sector jobs

The reason that the situation in Wisconsin matter nationally is because it is of a piece with the broader strategy that Republican leaders clearly have of demeaning the significance of public sector/government jobs. Remember, that just this week, when asked how he felt about jobs being cut due to budget cuts, Speaker of the House Boehner said "so be it." 

Of course, this is the logical consequence of the Republican myth, hammered home with endless repetition, that Obama's stimulus package "did not create a single job", when in fact it has created thousands.

All of this rhetoric finds its end result in the Wisconsin governor's effort to eliminate the right to collective bargaining under the guise of "cutting the deficit."

Lets be clear once and for all, public sector workers are working Americans, too. Public sector workers have children, pay taxes, go to churches, sacrifice their children in military service. Public sector unions arose because of legitimate grievances. Public sector employees who lose their jobs have to receive unemployment aid from the government like everyone else. Public sector employees are not all lazy, incompetent people. Having been subjected to the indignity of these labels for years, we are with the people in Wisconsin saying "Enough is Enough." We will not allow your bogus rhetoric and twisted logic to reach into our right to collectively bargain.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Dam Has Burst--In Wisconsin and Across the Country

Like it has in past generations, the Progressive Movement in America has found its voice in the streets of Madison, Wisconsin. The years of demonization of unions and of public workers is finally hearing an organized, passionate response from the thousands of hard-working, tax-paying, church-going, flag-saluting employees who teach our children, protect our streets and fight our fires. The question is why has this resolve and fighting spirit finally been ignited?

It is clear that the budget crisis facing states across the country is being manipulated and distorted to justify not only cuts of pensions and salaries, but the right to collectively bargain. This is an extraordinary overreach on the part of the Republican Party. They have turned a financial crisis into an excuse to do something they have always wanted to do but don’t have the votes to do—attack and weaken public sector/union workers by taking away the hard-earned right to collectively bargain.  It is this decision that has awakened resistance in Wisconsin and it is an extraordinary moment in the history of labor in America.

Republicans/conservatives love to talk about the “cultural elite” and the way that liberals are out of touch with ordinary people. They have taken the language of populism and owned it for years and some of that has been correct and justified, but now it is being turned on them. I know those men and women marching in the capitol of Wisconsin. I have worked with them at schools in California for years. They are middle class America, they are jeans wearing, beer drinking, NASCAR watching people. They are those that the Tea Party has claimed to be representing. But now we have been provoked, our pride has been challenged and our hard earned rights are being threatened. We are educated people, aware people, connected people. We are going to fight this and we are going to make politicians hear us and be accountable to us. Why on earth, just weeks after the wealthiest 2% of our country received breathtaking tax cuts, are the teachers and firefighters of our country being asked to sacrifice rights that we have struggled years to achieve for ourselves? Its not going to happen, it’s not going to stand.

2 cheers for Gates

My frustration over Defense Secretary Gates’ inability to come up with deeper budget cuts is tempered by four things:

1.     The dude has absolutely no problem staring John McCain in the face and speaking to him as an equal. He is not intimidated by McCain in hearings or in policy and it is a good thing for the country.
2.     He is standing by the commitment to begin lowering troop levels in Afghanistan.
3.     He has at least turned the arrow on defense spending in a downward direction.
4.     He is a genuine bipartisan leader and gives hope for a sane future for the Republican Party.

frederick douglass and today's GOP

My oldest child is 13, entering the time period where you are never quite sure what to say or not to say. If I get excited about something she mentions will it encourage or discourage her from continuing it?? So last night when she casually mentioned that her English class would be starting to read Frederick Douglass next month, I turned from her and silently did a fist pump.

There is still hope for memory and magnificence in America if Frederick Douglass is still required reading in schools. I am especially excited because being in Maryland now puts us so close to sites related to Douglass.

I used to show my middle school students a great Biography Channel video about Douglass that was basic enough for them to grasp, but thoughtful enough that I did not mind seeing it a bunch of times. I even had times where I would make them memorize portions of his famous "4th of July to a slave" speech. If you have never read the text of that speech, check it out.

I wish Michelle Bachmann had a teacher that had made her do that. Did you hear how the other day she gave a speech praising the founders of our country and the writers of the Constitution because they “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States"? The Republican Party has come a long way from Lincoln and Douglass to now having a leading spokesperson unaware that her party was founded well after all the founders were dead and buried in order to stop the spread of slavery. I mean really, some of this stuff you just can’t make up.
I was iming (a word?)with a fellow former conservative/Republican about the state of things in the movement and party. William Buckley established the modern day conservative movement as a counter to the John Birch society wackos who had hijacked it. He must be rolling in his grave.  

Anabaptists rejoice!!

Anabaptists Awake!!

Oh, glorious day. The New York Times has a wonderful feature detailing the influence of nonviolent resistance on the Egyptian movement. This is a must read in particular for Anabaptist/Mennonite/pacifist Christians needing encouragement about the relevance of their ideas. It turns out that the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and its 83-year old leader Gene Sharp, not the Bush Freedom Agenda or Obama’s Cairo Speech, is probably the most significant American connection to the protests that erupted in Egypt. This fascinating story demonstrates the enduring relevance of Gandhi and MLK. It also gives further evidence of the internal rift and transformation within the Muslim Brotherhood that Lawrence Wright and Bob Kubinec have been pointing to.

If you needed any more reasons to feel hopeful about the purpose and power of the Egyptian protesters, this will provide it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I'm with you EJ!!

Which far more eloquence and research to back it up, the wonderful EJ Dionne takes the same position on Obama's prudence in the budget debate as little old me did.

pro-life, anti-criminalization

I sit somewhere in that unclear world of pro-life but anti-criminalization of abortion. It is not a comfortable place to be, but it is where I think most Americans are. Defending Obama will be a sight that highlights similar voices. Two of my favorite bloggers at The Atlantic are involved in this discussion and I hope you will take a look.

Profiles in ..... Prudence

The New York Times has a good piece explaining the principled attacks on Obama from some of his usual allies over his decidedly cautious steps to trim the deficit and tackle entitlement reform. But the article also explains some of the factors behind the decision. In my opinion, the president is wise to ignore those who want a “profile in courage” moment. These are issues that Republicans have claimed the high ground on, so let them take the lead.

The president showed extraordinary leadership in his first two years. In the face of a the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression the president had to go against the grain of 30 years of political indoctrination to get even the minimal amount of financial regulatory reform that was passed. He had to try and stimulate the economy with a massive Keynesian burst of government spending that has proved helpful, but insufficient to lower unemployment rates significantly. And in the midst of it all, he would not abandon the reform that had bedeviled Democrats since Harry Truman—health care reform.

In appreciation for his attempts to save capitalism from its worst crisis in 80 years, he has been decried as a socialist from a conservative media with a louder megaphone than at any time in our history. His Keynesian stimulus plan has been pilloried by leading economists on the left. And his signature health care bill is only now, after the midterm elections,  getting the kind of robust support and defense from his core Democratic base that it should have received at the beginning. All of this left him defeated in the congressional elections and forced to make a compromise on taxes that caused a mini-revolt among his democratic congressional leaders.

In other words, he has shown political courage that has our economy back on its feet and poised for growth, our financial institutions more sufficiently regulated and health care on a path to sustainability. He needs now a heavy dose of political prudence. He must get long-term deficits under control and that will require higher taxes, lower discretionary spending, tax reform and entitlement reforms. The only way those have any chance of happening is through bipartisan work, and the only way Republicans will see it in their interest to negotiate with him is if he is politically strong and respected. His outstanding leadership during the Arizona tragedy, combined with the natural support Americans give their president during international crises like that in Egypt and improving economic reports, have him politically strong again. Respect from Republicans will come not by him stepping out in front of them and asking them to follow, but him essentially calling Republicans out to put a plan together that matches their heated rhetoric. Some are calling this “setting a trap” for Republicans, but I call it prudential governing and I support it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A prayer for John Lewis

I was so moved today by the poignancy of seeing John Lewis receive the Medal of Freedom. I wrote a prayer about it if you are interested.

Lord, today we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your goodness. We thank you that you have blessed us with a day filled with such meaning and mystery. We thank you today that your child John Lewis has lived to see the fulfillment of his dreams and to be honored by that child who is that fulfillment. As John himself has said, “Barack is what comes at the end of the bridge in Selma.” And so we thank you first for those who went across that bridge, Lord. For those like John who suffered and bled and in some cases died going across that bridge. We rejoice that today the nation that had sent its dogs upon John Lewis, the nation that had sent its hoses upon John Lewis, the nation that sent its FBI to deter and defeat John Lewis, we thank you Lord that today that nation has seen fit to honor John Lewis, to give unto him an earthly reward in advance of his heavenly reward. We thank you Lord that he did not just get any old medal, but that he got the Medal of Freedom, Lord. Never has that Medal fallen on one for whom freedom was so costly. Never has that Medal graced the neck of one more beaten and bloodied for freedom. And so we thank you Lord for John’s witness. We bear witness today to his witness and we say it is good. We say thank you Jesus for this servant of your cross. We say thank you Jesus for this bearer of your wounds. Don’t let us forget what he did for us. Don’t let us forget what so many did for us to make us a nation that could truly be a city on a hill again. To make us a nation that could call on all the talents of all its people so that at this moment we could have a leader like Barack Obama. Thank you for bringing him to this point in his life. Thank you for giving him the opportunity to honor his dear friend and mentor John Lewis. Fill him anew with your spirit. Renew in him a desire for justice that burned in the prophets of old and burned in the prophets of the movement that opened the door for him. Humble him Lord, keep him dependent on your strength. Protect him from temptation and from discouragement and help his family. And help us all, Lord, to live up to the glories of this nation. Help us all to cherish our freedoms, to protect our freedoms, to expand our freedoms and to rightly use our freedoms.

From Lewis’ website comes this moving statement:

“I accept this great honor on behalf of the countless individuals who decided to stand up, speak  up, and speak out, for those who stood in unmovable lines trying to register to vote all across the South, for all of the Freedom Riders who were beaten and jailed, for all the participants of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement who helped transform America forever, and those who could not be here today.  

            “For me this is a very long journey that began in a rural Alabama sharecropping town so remote, and so distant from the realms of power.  To have grown up the way I did, to attend segregated schools in a one-room schoolhouse and end up standing before the President today is a testament  to the capacity of this nation to empower even the least among us to play a fundamental role in this country’s evolution.  I am so grateful to everyone who helped me along the way—my two loving and devoted parents, my sisters and brothers, my colleagues and friends and my son John Miles, with special appreciation to my wife, Lillian, for her decades of support and sustenance.  Last but not least I will be eternally grateful to Martin Luther King Jr. who showed me how to speak truth to power and to Rev. Jim Lawson for imbuing me with the discipline and philosophy of non-violent action that changed my life forever.”  

Sneaky Socialist Alert

Sneaky Socialist Alert

As we all know, President Obama is a socialist who desires to ultimately eliminate a private sector and have the government at the commanding heights of the economy. Of course, he is sneaky about it and will occasionally do things to make us think that he is not a socialist but is actually a capitalist who supports a free market with sufficient government regulations.

The latest trick Obama has pulled involves Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the evil mortgage company that is run by the government. A true socialist would want to increase the power of these entities and move the country in the direction of having government connections to more and more mortgages. But in order to trick us into thinking he is not a socialist, the president has proposed eliminating these two companies. The Republican leadership has been fooled by this, and is actually welcoming this action, just as they welcomed his decision not to nationalize the banks when he had the opportunity to do so at the start of his administration. These Republicans seem to think that they can support and welcome Obama’s steps to keep the government out of the private sector, while at the same time allowing Republican congressional leaders as well as the majority of conservative media to demonize the president as a socialist. How stupid do these Republicans think their conservative base is?

Revolution 2.0

My friend Dave Wright has pointed me to a great interview with the most significant leader of the Egyptian protests. I hope that before our opinions become entrenched we will be sure to listen to the people who actually are responsible for the revolution. This is a great place to start.

I also found at youtube parts of the interview that were edited out for broadcast on 60 Minutes.

Egypt, Christians and Obama

An important aspect of the Egypt story for many of us is what the revolution there holds for minority religions in Egypt. Without a doubt, the most talked about article on the topic is a provocative piece at Christianity Today titled “The Muslim Brotherhood and the Gospel of Christ” which makes an argument that not only will Christians be better off with Mubarak gone, but also that Christians there might be safer if the Brotherhood were a part of a future coalition government. It would certainly complicate the narrative of many evangelicals, as well as others, who have speculated at length about whether Obama is a Christian and/or is intentionally aiding radical Islam with his policies, if it turns out that a major step in the protection of Christian minorities in the Arab world were to happen under his watch. 

If you want to pursue the Egypt/Christianity aspect of the story further, here are links to three other pieces that I found helpful.

"Least of these"

Criticism of Obama's budget from the Left has correctly focused on the cut of heating bill aid. I heard parts of the president's news conference today while heading to and from Costco and I he was asked by an eloquent reporter who framed her question on, as she put it, the "least of these". I thought the president explained the cut well and put it in a context that I think makes it more defensible. Here is his answer:

“On the …home heating assistance program, we doubled the home heating assistance program when I first came into office in part because there was a huge energy spike, and so folks, if we just kept it at the same level, folks would have been in real trouble. Energy prices have now gone down but the cost of the program has stayed the same. So what we've said is let's go back to a more sustainable level. If it turns out that, once again, you see a huge energy spike, then we can revisit it, but let's not just assume because it's at a $5 billion level that each year we're going to sustain it at a $5 billion level regardless of what's happening on the energy front. Now, that doesn't mean that, you know, these aren't still tough cuts. Because they're always more people who could use some help across the country than we have resources. And so it's still a tough decision, and I understand people's frustrations with some of these decisions. Having said that, my goal is to make sure that we're looking after the vulnerable, we're looking after the disabled, we're looking after our seniors, we're making sure that our education system is serving our kids so that they can compete in the 21st century, we're investing in the future. And doing that in a way that's sustainable and that we're paying for.”

Monday, February 14, 2011

Why another politics blogger?

I have talked with and recieved feedback from some of you. Thanks for reading. As I’ve thought about the blog over the weekend I realize that I need to give more context for what I am trying to do on the blog.

I have titled the blog “Defending Obama” because what really got me to start writing a blog in the first place was a frustration with commentators on the left, and especially on the right, who I believe misunderstand or under-appreciate aspects of Obama’s presidency. I don’t mean this blog as a mindless, automatic defense of Obama, but I do come to this moment in history with a number of commitments and convictions that usually put me on the side of Obama given the political context today. There are three ways that I think my writings about Obama will be different from much that is being written about him.

1)   Awareness of Obama’s engagement with Niebuhr. Because there has been so much controversy over the basic question of “is Obama a Christian?”, the nature of Obama’s Christian reflections have been ignored or underappreciated. I am very much in agreement with David Brooks, who is one of the few national commentators to take seriously the influence of Richard Niebuhr on Obama. Like Obama, Niebuhr does not fit neatly into labels like realist/idealist or American exceptionalism/American decline.

2)   Awareness of Obama’s engagement with Lincoln’s style of politics. While much has been made about the superficial comparisons between Lincoln and Obama, not nearly enough work is being done to compare Obama’s style of governing with Lincoln’s.  While I am not a Lincoln scholar, I am well read in Lincoln and I see a lot more of a relationship between his prudential style of governing and at least Obama’s attempt to lead with prudence.

3)   Awareness of evangelical and Catholic social teachings and a willingness to consider how those teachings overlap with Obama’s policies.

I hope you will stick with this blog over time and give me feedback as I go along.

Medved vs. Limbaugh

Conservative culture warrior and commentator Michael Medved has written an important article in today's Wall Street Journal that adds him to the list of conservatives who see it as intellectually vacuous, morally wrong, and politically dangerous to have conservatives making ridiculous charges against Obama.

Budget games

I am not going to say much about the budget politics for now because a lot of what each side is doing at this point is gamesmanship in the lead up to the negotiations. It is going to be a long process and most Americans get bored by it or cynical about it. But this is a really important year that demands the "higher angels of our nature" if deficit reduction is to be done in a way that is for the common good.

The three things I am most concerned to see are:

  1. 1.    Cuts in military spending. While even the president’s opening position involves way less cutting than I think is right, it is significant that cuts are finally on the table. After 10 years of post 9/11 deficit creating military spending we are at least talking about it being politically plausible to propose cuts in the military. I hope that the initial Republican position of ruling out cuts in the military is political posturing on their part, because there is no way to achieve serious deficit reduction without taking out the scissors to the military budget. In fact, I don’t know if most Americans are aware that the leadership brass of the military has actually been saying for a number of years that one of the most significant challenges to the security of our country is our fiscal crisis. So I hope a significant bridge is crossed and we at least stop the upward trend and hopefully even cut. Defense Secretary Gates again called for these cuts today.

  • 2.     Protection of key liberal standards like Social Security, Medicaid/Medicare, community health centers and community block grants. Given the terrible cuts having to be done at the state level, it would be a terrible time to see the federal government pull back on key social safety net provisions.

  1. 3.     Tax reform. If there is one big issue upon which there should be bipartisan consensus it is this, but because it is complicated and messy it will take more leadership than Obama has been willing to give it so far.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Stirring words

The man who may become the next leader of Egypt wrote a beautiful reflection in today's New York Times. I especially track with his words comparing the weapons of facebook with American military power.

Jerry Sloan's midwest virtues

The news today of Jerry's Sloan resignation as coach of the Utah Jazz produces in me more than just praise for Sloan's outstanding work as Jazz coach, work that together with his great career with the Bulls earned him the Hall of Fame, but many childhood reflections. My hometown of Northbrook, IL happened to be where Sloan settled to raise his family. When I was in junior high, Jerry was the head coach of the Bulls and his son Brian was the star of my school's basketball team. I will never forget the buzz in the air in those occasional games where Jerry was able to attend. Everyone played a little harder and dived more loose balls knowing that the ultimate tough guy, Jerry Sloan, was in the house. Many of my friends and I spent a week each summer at Sloan's summer camp at the campus of Aurora College and I know I am not alone in seeing those weeks as some of the best of my childhood.

But beyond these personal memories, I want to call attention to something not mentioned in the national media reports honoring Sloan today. When I was in high school Coach Sloan was fired as the Bulls coach. It was a bitter pill to swallow for all Chicagoans who so admired his extraordinary work ethic as a player and a coach, but it was a bit more bitter for us kids at Glenbrook North because with his firing Coach Sloan decided to move back to his hometown of Mcleansboro, IL. All of a sudden our friend and star, Brian Sloan, was leaving our school. Brian would go on to be player of the year in Illinois his senior year, and later won a national championship at Indiana University. But what I most remember now about that decision to move is what it says about the character of Jerry Sloan and the virtues of small town America. For a Chicago boy, Mcleansboro is a dusty old small town in the middle of nowhere. Why did he want to take his family there? But I can see now as a parent that he wanted his children to experience the America that had shaped him. He wanted his kids to be around people that knew his daddy not for being a great coach or player, but for being the kid that lived down the street and went to their schools. He wanted his kids grounded in virtues that reached beyond fame and fortune. I admire that now even though I still wonder how good our high school team might have been with Brian Sloan at center!!

All the best to you in a well earned retirement, Jerry! You remain Chicago's hero!!


As former CIA director Woolsey  emerges on CNN to credit the Bush Freedom Agenda for its role in Egypt uprising, I offer a few points in the off chance that history may trump ideological commitment and actions may be considered as well as words:

1) Lets be clear about what our foreign policy elite means when they say that "Egypt has been helpful to us in the War on Terror". It means that we have relied on Egyptian security forces to do "interrogations" of terror suspects that we brought to Egypt precisely to avoid American laws against torture. That is right, the very security forces that the democracy demonstrators in Egypt have reserved their harshest language for, were the people that from 9/11 until his retirement the Bush team utilized for their "enhanced interrogation methods". It is shameful that even as we mourn for protesters killed in these weeks of protests by these security forces, we hear those who relied on these same forces try to credit themselves with a role in the protest's success.

2) It is beyond dispute that the most repressive regime in the Arab world is Saudi Arabia. Government funds from Saudi Arabia bankroll the Wahabi extremism that across the world has served, and continues to serve, as an incubator for terror. Nearly all of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. Yet with all of this reality the Bush administration, far from confronting this regime, the United States maintained its decades long partnership with this regime, even while we invaded Iraq as part of our Freedom Agenda.

3) It remains a simple fact that the clearest contribution that the United States made to the wave of protest that started in Tunisia and carried to Egypt was blunt American cables leaked by Wikileaks detailing Tunisian corruption. In other words, the most significant step towards Arab democracy was aided by what our leaders regularly describe as our worst diplomatic error.

Kristof is on

Nicholas Kristof has been a true journalistic hero over these weeks and if you haven't followed him, here is his newest post on Egypt.

Revelation or Habakkuk?

My Christian roots are among those who reach instinctually reach for the book of Revelation whenever anything happens in the Middle East. A much more relevant book of the Bible, it seems to me, are the minor prophets like Habbakuk.

"Woe to him who stores up what is not his: how long can it last! he loads himself down with debts. Shall not your creditors rise suddenly? Shall not they who make you tremble awake? You shall become their spoil!" (Habakkuk 2: 5-7)

Coptic Christians could be better off now in Egypt

This link makes a great point about Coptic Christian minority in Egypt and their terrible treatment in recent years under Mubarak.

Lawrence Wright guidance

As surely as the sun rises, we will be hearing a great deal of fear expressed about Muslim extremism increasing in the wake of Egypt's revolution. What most of us don't understand, and what was not clear at all to me, is the extent to which the extraordinary level of torture in Egyptian prisons under Mubarak's rule gave birth to the far more revolutionary violence of Al Quaeda. Dethroning Mubarak holds great promise for weakening the more unprecedented resorts to violence embodied in Al Quaeda.

The best guide for this understanding that I have read is Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower. For Americans, I can think of no more important book to read for context of Egypt, Muslim extremism and why we should celebrate this day and have hope for the future.

Not by Might, Not by Power, but By My Spirit

Hallelujah! I feel like I did when Berlin Wall fell and when Mandela was elected and when Marcos left. As a wave of commentators claim credit for their particular American who "led the way" to this, we must never forget that this has happened in spite of American aims and purposes. In marked contrast to the trillions of dollars and thousands of dead in the streets of Iraq, this was a revolution of the people and by the people of Egypt and it happened with virtually no violence. This was an internal change at the heart of the Arab Muslim world that we had virtually nothing to do with. This is a time to honor and revere the human spirit and the God-given desire that overcomes all powers and principalities.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Letters From Iwo Jima

I am late to the game on this, but I had a chance last week to finally watch Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima. Great, unique film. If you don't recall, this was the film he did as the companion to Flags of Our Fathers and it tells the story of Iwo Jima from the perspective of Japanese soldiers. The character Saigo is one of the great war movie personas, deeply human.

What Would Jesus Cut?

Jim Wallis in the same spirit as my earlier blog.

Pro life?

I have been a committed pro-lifer for probably 15 years now. I am persuaded that life in the womb should be protected. I think that Roe v. Wade was one of the worst decisions in the history of the Supreme Court and that this decision has damaged our politics and weakened our country. Having said that, I recoil at the direction that many in the pro-life movement have taken and this blog will regularly critique and challenge this movement for its sake as well as the country's.

Today, I am saddened by the decision of the Republican majority in the House to propose deep cuts to the budgets of community health centers. It sickens me that at the very same time that the Republican leadership in the House is aggressively seeking to address the issue of federally funded abortion, it is also focusing its budget cuts on programs that are proven to have helped the very people that are most at risk to get federally funded abortions. It is counterproductive at the least and deeply cynical at the worst. How does a platform of compassionate concern for the unborn square with cutting deeper gaps in the social safety net that helps women choose life instead of abortions? How does a platform that rules out any cuts to military spending, thereby necessitating deeper cuts in community health care centers, square with a pro-life platform that professes to believe in the sanctity of every human life?

The pro-life movement has opened itself up to mockery and weakened its most important asset--moral clarity. Remember this the next time you hear folk proclaim that Obama is the most  pro-abortion president in our history. It is Obama who has stood strongly on the side of community health centers that provide practical, life-changing care for those most vulnerable to choosing abortion.


I have been meaning to do this for a while and I am looking forward to having a place to express myself. Thanks for checking me out!