Meaningless words — politics today

I try to confine my political posts to Fridays, but due to user error, my Friday blog posted yesterday. I was just going to link to it again today but then I came across a Vox article about how the current political climate has become a collection of meaningless words.

“Republicans’ Obamacare repeal drive has revealed a political system where words have no meaning”

That’s a helluva headline. And the subhed isn’t any sunnier:

This is not normal, and it is not sustainable.

Writer Ezra Klein doesn’t pull any punches

“This has been a policymaking process built, from the beginning, atop lies. Lies about what the bills do and don’t do. Lies about what is wrong with Obamacare and lies about what the GOP’s legislation would do to fix it. Lies about what Republicans are trying to achieve and lies about which problems they seek to solve.”

Lying is immoral, of course. Think about that the next time these lawmakers piously try to restrict women’s access to abortion and defund programs designed to prevent teen pregnancy. But a bigger challenge than the havoc their policies are wreaking is the havoc created by their policy-making.

meaningless wordsAs Klein notes, the political system

“…is built around the idea that the signals sent by the central players are meaningful, even if the rhetoric is often slippery.”

Politicians may spin but we can generally count on them to do something approximating what they say they will do. Klein again:

“That is not the case here.”

McConnell’s meaningless words

Klein offers some choice selections from “Restoring the Senate,” a speech Mitch McConnell gave in 2014. It includes gems like:

“…if you approach legislation without regard for the views of the other side. Without some meaningful buy-in, you guarantee a food fight. You guarantee instability and strife.”

He also bemoaned the demise of the Senate’s “vigorous committee process,” and promised he would restore it, if given the chance:

“There’s a lot of empty talk around here about the corrosive influence of partisanship. Well, if you really want to do something about it, you should support a more robust committee process. That’s the best way to end the permanent shirts against skins contest the Senate’s become. Bills should go through committee. And if Republicans are fortunate enough to gain the majority next year, they would.”

If the Democrats got the opportunity to filibuster this healthcare bill, forged “in the Majority Leader’s conference room” (a practice McConnell decried just three years ago)—if we had the opportunity to filibuster, I think they should take the floor, one after the other, and read McConnell’s words into the record. Because the things he spoke out against are a blueprint for everything he is now doing.

Meaningless words, empty gestures

John McCain, former American hero, returned early from his taxpayer-funded brain surgery and spoke passionately on the floor of the Senate about returning to the “normal order” of things—the committee process, bipartisan cooperation—the kind of utopia McConnell laid out in his 2014 speech.

Opponents of the bill needed just one vote to stop McConnell’s Motion to Proceed. McCain’s vote. In an alternate reality, we might expect him to vote against the motion. Sadly, we’re living in the reality where words have no meaning. Of course he voted Aye.
UPDATE: Except to John McCain, whose 11th hour No vote struck the final blow. Had he signaled his intention to vote No earlier, his Republican colleagues might have had time to retrench and try again. “Wait for the show,” he told a Democratic colleague as they headed to the Senate floor.

Klein concludes:

“Skepticism is healthy in politics. But this era requires more than skepticism. This is a total collapse of the credibility of all the key policymakers in the American government. Our political system is built on the assumption that words have some meaning, that the statements policymakers make have some rough correlation to the actions they will take. But here, in the era of bullshit politics, they don’t. If this becomes the new normal in policymaking, it will be disastrous.”

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No wicked people necessary—history repeats itself

James Baldwin understood the difference betweeen spineless and wicked people
James Baldwin in London, 1969 Photo by Allan Warren – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I’ve been rereading James Baldwin lately; I highly recommend it.

I still remember the shivers that went down my spine the first time I read The Fire Next Time, probably more than 30 years ago. Of course, I didn’t understand it—not the way I do today. And probably not the way I will, if nuclear holocaust or some other kind of holocaust doesn’t take us all, 30 years from now.

If you think of the Civil Rights Movement as ranks of orderly marchers singing “We Shall Overcome,” punctuated by the occasional Southern sheriff wielding water cannons and police dogs; if the Black Lives Matter movement came as a surprise to you; if you don’t understand how deep the roots of inequality are in this country, and how widely its noxious flower still blooms—then it may be time for you to reread James Baldwin, too.

History repeats itself, damn it

Why am I writing about James Baldwin when there’s so much else—so many other horrifying things—going on right now? Because it’s true what they say about history repeating itself. And although Baldwin wrote in another time about another subject, a lot of what I found in his 1962 essay “Letter from a Region in My Mind” could apply to what we’re dealing with today.

The demise of “the American experiment” seems imminent. Russia seems to have affected the outcome of our most recent election—perhaps even with the encouragement, if not assistance, of the man who now sits in the White House. At any other time in my life, the idea that a foreign power had interfered in the election would have set alarm bells ringing; the fact that it was Russia—the erstwhile “Evil Empire” in Ronald Reagan’s phrase—would have sparked a bipartisan effort to prosecute the offenders and restore trust in our democracy.

But the Republicans in Congress are too busy trying to take healthcare away from 20 million or more Americans so they can enact an unprecedented tax cut for billionaires. And they’re working under a strict deadline—they need to effect this massive transfer of wealth before the president who vowed to sign the bill has been removed from office.

If just three Republicans cling to their humanity and vote No, the bill will die. If not, millions of Americans will die. Possibly even me—so, yes, don’t expect me to be objective about this.

Wicked people not necessary

But I find Baldwin had the same thoughts in 1962 that I have today. To wit:

“…a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.”

I don’t want to co-opt Baldwin’s argument. He was writing about the scourges of racism and segregation; I’m thinking about the scourge of ultra-Conservative donors buying off key Congressional leaders. Paul Ryan just booked a donation from the Mercer family of about half a million dollars. Half. A. Million. Dollars. (I can’t find the citation for that, but here’s an article from The New Yorker about Robert Mercer.)

And I’m thinking about the scourge of ultra-partisanship—to the point that the Republicans blocked an effort to revoke Jared Kushner’s security clearance, even though we now have proof that he lied on his clearance application about meeting with a Kremlin-connected operative during the campaign.

Are these wicked people? That’s for God, not me, to judge. But they sure as hell seem spineless.

“I sometimes think, with despair, that Americans will swallow whole any political speech whatsoever…”

I despair about that too, Mr. Baldwin. Fifty-five years after you wrote those words, too little has changed. Will it ever?

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“Bring enough for everybody” — healthcare and chewing gum

“Did you bring enough for everybody?”

I can still hear the disappointment in my first grade teacher’s voice when she caught someone chewing gum in class. Of course the offender didn’t have 20 sticks of gum, just a pack. But we all knew the rules: either everyone had it or no one did.

The Republicans in Congress apparently never learned that lesson. They voted yesterday to take  healthcare away from millions of currently ensured Americans. And even to gut the provisions requiring employers to provide healthcare. But they kept their own plan intact. Members of Congress and their staffers will remain safely insured, pre-existing conditions and all.

They certainly brought enough hypocrisy for everyone.

I could point to about a dozen abominations in the new bill: the “Pro-Life” party cutting insurance for babies who need care in a neo-natal intensive care unit—and insurance coverage for pregnancy, too. Domestic violence and rape become pre-existing conditions—which will no doubt result in fewer women reporting them.

How, exactly, does that make America “greater”?

Apologies for the short blog today, but you don’t want to hear the words I have in my head today.

Curses? Oh yeah, I’ve got more than enough for everybody.

America divided against itself — Mark Twain’s vision

America divided
Big River’s album art, (c) Decca Records

It may seem hard to believe, but once upon a time we lived in an America divided against itself and its citizens. I revisited that time on Wednesday night, by way of a Missouri native-turned-New Englander, Mark Twain and a good ol’ country tunesmith named Roger Williams. Yes, it was the New York City Center Encores! production of Big River.

I’d never seen the show before—and it’s been decades since I read the novel it’s based on, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But the rollicking title song was still lodged in my brain, hammered there by the original production’s endless TV commercials. And of course I remembered the image on the poster: a white boy and a black man, floating in solidarity down the river.

Okay, in my memory they had equal weight in the graphic. I see that’s not so. But it’s a fair representation of the show, which I expect might have seemed a lot more funny in 1985 than it does today.

Huckleberry Finn: A time capsule of America divided

For those of you struggling to recall the story: Huck Finn is a scamp of a schoolboy living with two spinster ladies who try to give him some religion. In a world in which piety was not incompatible with slavery, the spinsters’ household also includes their very own enslaved person, Jim.

Huck and Jim escape separately from the spinsters’ house, run into and help each other, and embark on their rafting trip down the Mississippi. Huck is of course an ingratiating character, and the actor playing him sings and dances up a storm—he’s hard not to like. But every time we in the audience start to warm up to Huck, he calls Jim the N-word or considers giving him up to bounty hunters, or goes along with some con artists who convince him to chain Jim up, for the optics. He is indeed no angel and he knows it. Of course, he and the audience have different views about just what his misdeeds consist of: several times, Huck berates himself for being—oh yes, this is a direct quote—”a low-down, dirty Abolitionist.”

At one point, Huck returns to the raft and finds Jim chained and with a blanket over his head. Does he remove the blanket and comfort his friend? Reader, he does not. He assesses the situation and giggles with glee because Jim’s defenselessness allows Huck to play a trick on him. He disguises his voice and pretends to be a slave-hunter come to capture Jim. Naturally alarmed, Jim jumps up to defend himself, and almost attacks Huck.

Perhaps this scene provided comic relief when Twain wrote it in the 1880s. I don’t know, maybe audiences even laughed in the 1980s. But you could have heard a pin drop at City Center this week. That’s progress of a sort, I guess.

White privilege, then and now

Of course, musicals aren’t life. (Not even when they’re written by Stephen Sondheim.) But they can give us a glimpse into life. Twain’s novel—written in 1884 but set in the years before the Civil War—offers a commentary on the politics of Reconstruction in the South.

And—hey—look what I found on the website for the Mark Twain House & Museum:

“By 1877‚ neither the Republican nor Democratic Party were willing to continue their standoff concerning Reconstruction‚ and in order to secure the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president‚ his party”s leadership pledged that Hayes would remove the troops and restore full state sovereignty in the South if the Democrats pledged to accept the fraudulent result of the recent election that denied Samuel Tilden‚ their party’s nominee‚ his rightful place in the White House. The deal was struck‚ and Reconstruction came to an end.”

Imagine that! Democrats rolling over—to the detriment of their supporters—after having had the presidential election stolen by Republicans. Hard to believe something like that could ever happen today.

But to my point: Neither musicals nor novels are life, but they can hold a mirror up to life. Twain dramatized the moral dilemma of people coming to understand that the law they were told to follow, the laws that would keep them on the side of Right, were themselves very wrong. When breaking the law is the only way to maintain your moral compass, well, the choice may be clear. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Big River ends with Huck’s narcissism and white privilege on full display. When he invites the newly freed Jim to accompany him on further adventures, it may sound like an interracial olive branch. But Jim looks at him quizzically. He reminds Huck of what he’d said earlier: that his first order of business on becoming free would be to raise enough money to buy the freedom for the wife and children he hadn’t seen in years. Perhaps the 1985 production played this scene differently, but at Encores I heard hurt, dismay, and resignation in Jim’s response: How could Huck have forgotten such an important detail of my humanity? Then again, how could I have expected him to remember?

It’s a time capsule America divided then—and reflection of America divided today. We don’t pay attention to the humanity of the “other”—whoever the “other” du jour may be.

We call it “white privilege” when white people ignore or minimize the challenges and experiences of people of color. Of course that’s an ironic use of the word. The privilege we should exercise is listening to each other.

So let’s climb back on Jim’s raft—together. Because we’ve still got a ways to go. Talking, listening, hanging onto our moral compass when our leaders seem to have dropped theirs in the nearest swamp. Over 130 years after Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a lot has changed about the world. And too much remains the same.

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How can we convince anyone of anything? The great divide

Will the massive marches across the country and around the world this weekend convince anyone of anything? Or will they just scare the bejeezus out of people who don’t quite understand what’s going on?

will this convince anyone?
42nd Street, looking East from Grand Central, photo by my friend Liz

Saturday I marched through the concrete canyons of New York with 300,000 of my closest friends. We made a lot of noise as we inched (literally) along the streets of Midtown. Actually “inched” may give you the wrong impression about our progress. It took me two hours to travel the 1/6th of a mile from 1st Avenue and 47th Street to 2nd Avenue and 47th Street. According to my calculations, that’s a speed of about 0.08 mph. Normal walking speed is 3-4 mph. No wonder my knees still hurt.

My favorite chant—great cadence and a perfect rhyme:

“Build a fence
Around Mike Pence”

People carried signs—too many signs, too many messages for me to remember any one clearly. But the spousal unit showed me a photo of one, maybe from the Washington, DC march, that said something like:

“It’s so bad, even INTROVERTS are out here.”

To me, one of the most striking features of the march was its demographic diversity. I saw members of at least five generations: The World War II generation—a gentleman near me identified himself as being 90 years old— Baby Boomers, who seem to have prime responsibility for this calamity of an administration; Gen X; Millennials; and the youngest ones, Gen Z. At the train station I spotted three generations of women in the same family, all of them wearing pink knitted “pussy” hats—even the baby in the stroller.

Surely if opposition to what’s going on unites us across generations, we can actually do something about it.

Can marches convince anyone?

I vividly remember seeing my first march. During the Vietnam War students from the college down the street held a candlelight vigil and processed silently down the sidewalk across from our house.

My father turned off all the lights and lowered the blinds, ordering me to keep away from the windows (naturally, I disobeyed). He saw grave danger in the very orderly procession of a couple hundred college students. Young as I was, I knew he had them all wrong.

The scale and decibel level of Saturday’s march would have frightened my father even more. Then again, he might well have decided to join it. After all, he was a Republican back when Republicans resisted Communist influence. Doesn’t that seem quaint nowadays?

Marches are great for making a statement—and I believe the millions of us who turned out made a very strong and clear statement Saturday. But, really, can marches convince anyone to change their mind?

From “social media” to social interactions

Chanting slogans—even clever ones—is no substitute for conversation. And conversation—the one-on-one exchange of information—is where we’re going to get the most lasting traction.

It’s great that we’ve gotten away from the computer and into the streets. And massive action feels so good—it’s important to know you’re not alone. But studies have long shown that people become more supportive of LGBT rights, for instance, if they know an actual LGBT person. So I think we still need to fight these battles at the holiday dinner table. In tens of millions of conversations. Exhausting? Of course. But essential. And a lot easier on the knees than marching.

And so we return to the question many people—including me—have been asking since the election:

How can we talk to each other, instead of at each other?

More tomorrow.

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