Praying Away the Problem?

August 14, 2014

Senator Rand Paul wrote about the tragic and disturbing ongoing events in Ferguson, Missouri, for Time magazine.

Throughout the essay, he writes about the militarization of local police forces, decrying it as big government run amok. He’s right that this is a problem. But he’s wrong about the solution. At the end of the piece, Paul concludes, “Let us continue to pray for Michael Brown’s family, the people of Ferguson, police, and citizens alike.”

Nope. Don’t pray for change – you’re a senator. The quote is, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” right? It isn’t, “Pray for the change you want to see in the world.” 

On a much more trivial level, this is like when Clive Davis complained that today’s musical theatre does not spawn pop hits. He blamed the musicals but he’s a record producer. Produce records. There are amazing songs in today’s musical theatre oeuvre; has he ever tried to make one of them a pop hit?

But I digress. Paul writes thoughtfully about what’s happening in Ferguson but he’s chickening out when it comes to doing something about it. You can’t pray away this problem. It takes action.


Maybe I was always liberal and socially progressive; maybe I was too young to comprehend that being gay would be seen by some as wrong; maybe I hadn’t been taught to hate.

I remember watching The Real World: San Francisco. (I still watch each season, and all the Challenges. They’re all awful; San Francisco was maybe the last good season, but I can’t look away.) What I don’t remember is thinking that Pedro being gay was a big deal. I don’t remember his marriage to Sean being a big deal. I just remember seeing two people in love committing to one another.

That season aired 19 years ago. Thinking about that time span—nearly a generation—makes it seem like we’ve made little progress. But when you think about 19 years in the context of our country’s age, it seems like we’ve made mountains of progress in no time at all.

The San Francisco season also aired nine years after Larry Kramer wrote his masterpiece, The Normal Heart, which chronicled the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Rent, another theatre piece that dealt with AIDS and all the people—gay, straight, addicts—who had it, would explode on the scene two years after the seminal season of The Real World. Do you think any or all of these cultural offerings helped move the discussion forward?

Since the early 80s until now, society has made respectable progress but we have a long way to go. We have a long way to go until everyone watching a Pedro and a Sean marrying is thoroughly unfazed and when people living with AIDS (as Pedro always said of himself) are no more infirmed than people with a common cold.

My condolences to Sean Sasser’s family and friends.

Read more on BuzzFeed.

Let Obama Be Obama

August 26, 2009

If ever there was a how about leadership it was The West Wing.  There is an episode at the end of season one called Let Bartlet Be Bartletin which Josh, Toby, Sam and CJ spend the day dangling their feet “in the water of whatever the hell it is [they] dangle [their] feet in when [they] want to make it look like [they’re] trying without pissing too many people off!” (Two waters they’re dangling their feet in throughout this episode are FEC appointees and repealing the appalling don’t ask don’t tell policy.) It’s a rather slow moving episode, though it makes strong arguments for all the waters, but the last act is really where it’s at.

President Bartlet and Leo get into an argument over some polling numbers and fear they’re losing what little political capital they have – and, more importantly, losing hold of their ideals.  Leo tells the president: “Everything you do says, ‘For God’s sake, Leo.  I don’t want to be a one-term president.’” The argument continues:

Bartlet: You brought me in on teacher.  You brought me in on capital gains.  You brought me in on China.  And you brought me in on guns.

Leo: Brought you in from where? You’ve never been out there on guns.  You’ve never been out there on teachers.  You dangle your feet, and I’m the hall monitor around here.  It’s my job to make sure nobody runs too fast or goes off too far. …

Bartlet: Leo, if I ever told you to get aggressive about campaign finance or gays in the military, you would tell me, “Don’t run too fast or go too far.”

Leo: If you ever told me to get aggressive about anything, I’d say “I serve at the pleasure of the President.’ …You want to see me orchestrate this right now? You want to see me mobilize these people? These people who would walk into fire if you told them to.  These people who showed up to lead.  …

Bartlet: This is more important than reelection.  I want to speak now.

Leo: Now we’re in business. 

Leo then scribbles something on a pad of paper; Bartlet asks him if there’s a strategy and Leo says he has the beginning of one, showing him the pad of paper.  Written on it in bold letters is “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.” Leo then goes back into his office where Josh, Toby, Sam and CJ are waiting for him.  He says to his young and eager staff: 

If we want to walk into walls, I’d want us running into them full speed.  …And we’re gonna lose some of these battles, and we might even lose the White House, but we’re not gonna be threatened by issues.  We’re gonna put them front and center.  We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy.

Leo’s sentiment is simple:  Let Bartlet Be Bartlet; let the president be the leader he is, eschewing political pressure and instead leading from a place of honesty, integrity and sincerity.  The plan was to champion the sides of issues Bartlet truly believed in, rather than what he and his staff concluded would score him political points.  Fast forward two episodes and, with this strategy in place, their approval rating shot up nine points (an astounding feat for anyone who knows numbers!)

Right now I wish Rahm would Let Obama Be Obama.

Bill Maher wishes that too.  The final New Rule of his August 14th show pleaded with the president to “Be who you are… a basketball-playing, Jay-Z-listening, arugula-eating hipster.” Excellent rule.  One that should not be broken.

It seems to me that between the health care tailspin, weak-ass and industry favorable environmental laws and gross inaction on equality (with particular regard to gay issues), Obama is whussing out on many of his campaign promises.

For example, during the campaign he was a big proponent of a single-payer health care system, really the only system that makes sense.  Now, there’s nary a public-option in the watered down bills being bandied about, one of the most egregious of which is from the unfortunately name Group of Six. (For a terrific analysis of the genesis of these ill-formed health care bills, read Matt Taibbi’s latest treasure in the current issue of Rolling Stone – the one with the boys from Liverpool on the cover. And check out the online video in which Taibbi breaks down his argument.  Here’s a brilliant excerpt from the article to whet your palate: “Last spring, when [Obama] met with Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the co-chair of the Congressional progressive Caucus, Obama openly said [he wanted a single payer system]. ‘He said if he were starting from scratch, he would have a single-payer system,’ says Woolsey.  ‘But he thought it wasn’t possible, because it would disrupt the health care industry.’ Huh? This isn’t a small point:  The president and the Democrats decided not to press for the only plan that makes sense for everyone, in order to preserve an industry that is not only cruel and stupid and dysfunctional, but through its rank inefficiency has necessitated the very reforms now being debated.” Seriously – go read the article!)

Obama has embarrassingly back-peddled on gay rights.  (Stop pandering to religious fanatics; you’re not one and the people who worked so hard to elect you aren’t them either; furthermore, just as Aristotle claimed the law is reason free from passion, our founding fathers ensured that the law is also reason free from religious doctrine.) Fortunately, supporters of logic, I mean equality, won’t let POTUS or Congress off the hook so easily.  Spearheaded by Cleve Jones, October 11, 2009 will see passionate people marching on Washington to demand equality. The Broadway community is rallying the troops, with the producers of Hair going so far as to cancel that day’s matinee performance so the beautiful hippies can be a part of the march.  Visit Broadway Impact for more details.

And the compromises made in the attempt to curb the climate crisis have fallen short of what many experts say is needed.  In issue 1085 of Rolling Stone, NASA’s director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and leading environmentalist James Hansen offered criticism of the administration’s lackluster efforts.  The interviewer says of Obama, “He seems to be saying, ’The current climate bill is the best we can get, given the political realities’.” Hansen sharply replies, “That wouldn’t be true if he took a stronger position.” Amen.

Obama is a leader.  He certainly acted like one in the campaign.  That was what was so inspiring about him as a candidate.  He seemed like he was going to change the ballgame.  And now, when he’s actually in a position to make the changes we want to see, he’s appearing spineless. 

In the same issue of Rolling Stone, Michael Moore was part of a three person panel assembled to discuss the administration along with Paul Krugman and David Gergen.  The biggest surprise of all was that Moore came off as the optimist of the group.  Seriously.  Michael Moore sounded like Pollyanna. It was bizarre.  But, he made a point which could quiet my aspersions, cast above.  Moore seems to think that this is Obama’s plan; he’s lulling the “defense’ into a false sense of security and then just when the moment is right, he’ll unleash his arsenal of leadership and executive power and put all the dunces in time-out. And put us on a better track. I hope he’s right.

This isn’t to say that Obama isn’t a good president.  Surely, it’s much too early to tell.  He has made strides and leaps; he’s helped to restore (most) of the world’s goodwill toward us; he has showed grace under fire; and he speaks to us like we’re intelligent people.  Thank you, POTUS.  As an intelligent person, I appreciate that.  It’s a shame that the bar was left so low by W that a man who can put together a cogent sentence is seen as such a vast improvement – we really must demand more and better of the people we choose to represent us.  I’m glad we have an executive who values intelligence and thought and care and analysis and science.

But President Obama is lagging on his campaign promises.  In Wicked, the wonderfully schmaltzy and touching musical juggernaut that teaches us to love who we are, green gal Elphaba warns us, “Don’t lose sight of who you are.”  Mr. President, take it from a colored girl – don’t lose sight of who you are.  Let Obama Be Obama.

Separate and Unequal

May 14, 2009

Good job, Assembly.  Now it’s up to the Senate to do the right thing.  I must point out, though, some egregious hypocrisies mentioned in this article.  Two different examples of religion dictating legal policy are noted.  One even comes from a reverend who fronts an organization called NYers for Constitutional Freedoms.  What? That’s antithetical to the First Amendment, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” W/r/t the second part, it appears that folks in conservative religious enclaves are concerned that marriage equality would infringe on the free exercise of their religious beliefs.  I don’t know the specific wording of the NY bill, but in other states there are specific provisions for religious institution wherein they (the churches and clergy, etc.,) are not obligated to officiate over same sex marriages, which protects their free exercise.  W/r/t the first part:  To enact a discriminatory law that legislates hate, bigotry and inequality, all based on a religious argument, is anathema to the meaning of “congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”  What that means is that no national religion should be established and that, by extension, no one religion (or two or three…) should be dictating policy – when it does, it forces one religion’s beliefs on an entire people, those people representing a mélange of religious points of view, varying from Catholic to Jewish to Agnostic to Deist to Atheist to None of Your Damn Business and so on. 

 I fully understand the fact that some people, based on their religious beliefs, practices and observances, believe that marriage equality, (read: same-sex marriage) is an abomination.  I do not agree with them but I understand that is what they believe.  (I understand that the bible reflects the wisdom of the time and of the men who wrote it so to take each and every word to heart (by the way – are you wearing clothes made from two kinds of cloth? That’s also a sin, according to the bible,) is to miss the mark completely, but that’s an argument for another time.)  I also understand that politicians are politicians, not leaders, and therefore are always thinking about reelection so the threat of an uprising from religious fanatics fundamentalists is daunting to say the least. I understand that their oath of office, while taken on a bible, (a practice that we know is simply S.O.P., not codified rule or law,) says nothing about upholding one particular religious point of view.  It does require them to say that they will uphold the Constitution (or whatever document governs their municipality) and the rule of law.  Finally, I understand that under the Fourteenth Amendment, any “persons born or naturalized in the United States…are citizen of the United States and the State wherein they reside.  No State shall…deny any person with its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”  This means that any right available to one citizen in the State must be available to every citizen in the State.  I do not understand the legal argument against marriage equality. 

On the eve of the 55th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Ed., (decided on May 17, 1954,) let us remember that not only is separate but equal not okay, but separate and unequal, as is the case with most current marriage and civil union laws, is disgraceful.

Mandatory Minimums

May 14, 2009

Justice and compassion: “A system of ‘law and order’ is the means by which Torah seeks to address this imbalance of power. The underlying goal, however, is not simply to ensure justice, but also to create within us a deeper sense of compassion. …[We] also grapple with how to pursue justice in the most compassionate manner possible. …It may be that justice has to be ‘blind,’ but this does not mean that justice should not have a heart. As we seek justice for those who wrong us – personally, communally, even nationally – it is important to seek a fair and equitable judgment, but sometimes justice is even better served with a healthy dose of forgiveness, flexibility, generosity and gentleness.”

This makes me think of Mandatory Minimums, the great West Wing episode (immediately following “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett” and preceding “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics”!) and the policy therein. Mandatory minimums are sentencing guidelines for crack users. They consist, to put it simply, of a grid or matrix in which you find your offender and the mandatory punishment. (i.e., a first-time offender is caught with a gram of crack; find first time and gram of crack on the chart then follow the line to its pre-designated punishment.) This is what the episode focuses on, making the claim that mandatory minimums are racist because most crack users are black and most cocaine users are white; the amount of crack that necessitates harsh punishment is far less than the amount of cocaine (Andy argues to Toby.) Throughout the episode, Bartlett and others hint at and bemoan the lack of judicial discretion in such cases; such grievances are raised in a later episode, this time with a much louder voice. The episode involves Donna reviewing the pardon applicants; she comes across one man who, in his youth, was arrested for and charged with drug possession. In between the time of his arrest and the time of his trial (several months, maybe even years – I don’t remember) the defendant cleaned up his act: He successfully completed rehab and made several other positive improvements. He was a first time offender and after his arrest was never again in trouble with the law – not even so much as a parking ticket. When recounting this story, Donna says that unfortunately the strict sentencing guidelines precluded the judge from considering any of these positive steps taken and was forced to sentence the young man to jail. Bartlett and the staff go on to curse the fact that we appoint judges to use their judgment and then we don’t allow them to do the very thing they were appointed for. Indeed.

Perhaps the next time this issue comes up, or when someone makes it come up by raising the issue in front of Congress or the President, religious groups will consider supporting ridding the judicial system of mandatory minimums and other such strict sentencing guidelines which do not allow for true judicial oversight. They do not allow for compassion in the justice. This, seemingly, goes against a fundamental religious tenant. “Abraham asks God, ‘Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?’ …Execute true justice; deal loyally and compassionately with one another.’” I hope in the future organizations of faith and compassion will take up this cause and not be blinded by false political advertising.