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2020 Foresight: Looking Beyond Our Dysfunctional Government

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For now, at least, 35 days after it was foisted upon us, what’s been called “the Seinfeld shutdown—it’s about nothing”—is over. That would be amusing if it hadn’t wreaked such terrible damage on so many people. It will take a while to understand the larger impacts on our economy, national security, and more, but we may never know the devastation it caused some of the most vulnerable government workers and private contractors.

Both Republican Senator Rob Portman and Democratic Senator Mark Warner have introduced bills to ensure that there are no more government shutdowns. Warner’s bill is being called the “Stop Shutdowns Inflicting Damage in the Coming Years, otherwise known as the Stop Stupidity Act,“ reports The New York Times. I’m for that.

I want to reiterate what I’ve said previously: I would not be taking such a clearly partisan stance if I didn’t feel our democracy demands it now. We do not have a functioning two-party system. We have a chaotic President who has captured the GOP with little obvious opposition from its leaders and most of its elected officials, and has forced many of the more thoughtful people in that party either to leave it quietly or to denounce it and him—loudly and often. 

(If you disagree, please feel free to express your views. I would love to hear from Republicans–those who continue to support the President and those who don’t but have other thoughts about how the party can revitalize itself.)

February 15 is the next deadline. The Democrats appear united in viewing the wall (as I do), as an attempt to demonize immigrants of color, a huge waste of money, a clear disruption to the people and businesses on both sides of the border, and a woefully ineffective response to a problem that has actually lessened, and is remediable by other, less expensive methods. 

(Remember the Caravan? We were all supposedly threatened by that poor bedraggled group of people fleeing for their lives and hoping for a better future. And don’t get me started on the families torn apart—a national disgrace that is continuing, and may well rank with the internment of Japanese-Americans in our history books.) 

If the Democrats introduce a bill that is widely viewed as a rational method for strengthening border security, but doesn’t include any money for the wall (as they have previously), will the President withstand the drumbeat of the rightwing media? He’s hinted at another shutdown or other ways to get what he wants. Call a national emergency? Send the army to the border? 

The key will be Senate Majority Leader McConnell, and whether the public’s distaste for this shutdown has impressed enough Republican Senators to override a potential veto.

If you feel as I do, here’s where we must all do our jobs as citizens: to persuade our legislators to vote for immigration reform that, while providing some funds for realistic border security, also addresses the crisis the President has created and the need for orderly, humane treatment for those seeking asylum or simply a better life.

And that must set the stage for true, lasting immigration reform that upholds the values of our nation, which is—after all—a Nation of Immigrants.

OK. Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I’d like to update an exploration of an issue I first raised in “Here’s Why I’ve No Intention of Discussing the Elephant in Our National Room”: What are we looking for in leadership in 2020? It’s going to be a wild ride as more than a score of Democrats seek the party’s nomination. 

I invite you to don your citizen-pundit hats and tell me what you think. Feel free to name names: those you either like or don’t like at this point, but please tell me why. (A couple of people offered Mitch Landrieu and John Hickenlooper in that earlier post—two thoughtful potential candidates who don’t get much publicity.) 

But I’m equally interested in the issues you think are paramount and the qualities you’re looking for in a President—and whether you think that type of person/persons would be viable in the general election.

In these hyper-partisan times, are you looking for someone who expresses commitment to reach across the aisle? How do you think such a person would fare in the primaries?

I’d also like to refer you back to my post “OK; The Dems Won the House, Now What?,” in which I quote the very astute Michael Tomasky, who emphasizes that the Democrats need “to construct a story about how the economy works and grows and spreads prosperity, a story that competes with—and defeats—the Republicans’ own narrative.” He stresses that this story must unite the various factions of the party. (That’s always a concern. Remember Will Rogers’ quotation? “I am not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”)

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Will the Dems agree on workable programs to promote economic equality?

Another important question is which voters may decide this election. Many say we need a candidate who appeals to the “Rust Belt”—a term that Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown finds demeaning, as it connotes deterioration. (He is seriously considering a run, and he has some compelling qualities, including his longheld emphasis on “the dignity of work.”)

Based on the 2018 election results, there’s reason to pay careful attention to the views that former Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards expressed in a Washington Post Op-Ed: “The 2020 election will be decided in my hair salon. Here’s why.”

“For Democrats, the quest to win the 2020 primary and general election flows through the vibrant conversations of black women on a Saturday morning—a time and place of unvarnished truth among women of all classes and life experiences.”

“Since the 2016 defeat, it has been the strength of the black women’s vote that has driven victories in statewide and down-ballot races for Democrats—including the much-celebrated record number of diverse women in the new Congress.”

“Why are these facts so important for a crowded 2020 Democratic presidential primary field? Simple—the numbers clearly show the real juice for Democrats rests with women of color. No candidate can ignore black women in the primary season and still hope to engage them after winning the party nomination—that won’t fly. Black women are the most reliable base of the Democratic Party. To win this base in the primary, and then fully mobilize it in a general election, the candidates will need to listen to the women in the hair salons.”

Noting that “some may write off identity politics,” Edwards writes: “but for many women/women of color/black women, identity is politics.” She cites the wage gap, health care disparities, far greater college debt, etc. “Those are the politics of a black woman’s identity.”

Does Senator Kamala Harris have a formidable advantage? Harris wowed the Iowa Democrats attending CNN’s recent Town Hall. Here’s an interesting video of her conversation with a man who asked how he could “mansplain” to other men who tell him a man would be a better candidate than a woman in 2020. (There’s a brief ad first.) And conservative columnist David Brooks practically endorsed Harris in this New York Times Op-Ed.

Edwards is quick to state that it would be a mistake to think that Harris has already sewn up the votes of black women. “These voters are listening,” Edwards writes. And “Women/women of color/black women are not a monolith—they are individuals, and they want to be fought for. Every candidate must wage that battle.”

I think Edwards is right, but clearly the rest of us, as the saying goes, are not chopped liver. If we learned anything from 2016, it was that every vote, in every precinct, matters. Young people will also be a crucial factor in the outcome. We’ve seen their power in those remarkable, brave Parkland shooting survivors.

Speaking of the young, how important are fresh faces? If Joe Biden decided to run, would he have a chance? Or Bernie?

On the other extreme, does the charismatic but inexperienced and not yet obviously knowledgeable Beto O’Rourke have viability—assuming he softens his propensity to pepper his speech with sturdy Anglo-Saxon verbiage—which some voters might find a needless distraction?

Then there’s Amy Klobuchar, who speaks quietly but was known as a tough prosecutor. (And, according to some reports, is even funnier than her former Minnesota Senate colleague Al Franken;  a good sense of humor could be a valuable asset in today’s environment.) Conservative columnist and former Republican George Will believes Klobuchar “is perhaps the person best equipped to send the current President packing,” as he discusses here.

Can great ideas introduced by flawed candidates catch on? Did Elizabeth Warren (who has some creative and valuable ideas) ruin her chances when she took Trump’s bait and released her DNA test results, thereby feeding into the white supremacists’ touting of the false importance of blood lines? 

Actually, there probably isn’t a candidate without flaws, and I think we all have to get better at figuring out which ones matter and which ones don’t—and not let the media decide for us.

Now that Cory Booker has announced his candidacy, we’ll see how his emphasis on love plays out in today’s environment. And his performance as Mayor of Newark will justifiably receive scrutiny.

I can’t see Michael Bloomberg getting traction at this time, but I’m glad he’s in the race because he’s been emphatic that anyone running for President must have, and express, well-thought-out ideas. Let him give his (he’s especially strong on gun safety legislation and climate change), and let’s make sure that all the other candidates give theirs: solid, workable goals for what they’d bring to the office—not just platitudes or attacks on Trump. 

I’m not discussing Howard Schultz’s proposed independent run at this time, but I found Paul Krugman’s Op-Ed, “Attack of the Radical Centrists,” persuasive.

Foremost in my mind: we need someone who’s thinking and talking about how to unite a divided country, restore faith in our institutions, pursue economic equality, and try to heal the wounds after all the deliberate divisiveness that will be Donald Trump’s sorry legacy.

Please let me know your thoughts in the “Leave a reply” box below.  We’re all in this together, and it’s not too soon to be thinking about how we should approach this important decision.

And if you’re registered through WordPress, and you like this piece, please take a moment to click on “like.” I’ve learned that in the blogosphere, these things really matter. Thanks!

Annie

How Do You Train a Butterfly? The Same Way You Train an Orthopedic Surgeon!

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Photo courtesy of pixels.com

Ken Ramirez, a world-renowned animal trainer, was offered quite the challenge. In the midst of some tall buildings in London, a botanical specialty group had built a large garden—a garden that was home to thousands of butterflies of varying species, as well as many other types of flora and fauna. Its purpose: to show the “symbiotic relationship between plants and animals,” wrote Ramirez, describing the task ahead.

“The director of the project, Lucinda Bartholomew, had envisioned a fundraising gala presentation that would include an orchestra in the middle of the garden playing beautiful classical music while butterflies flew from one part of the garden to the other.”

They wouldn’t just fly willy-nilly, mind you. The idea was to design and implement a plan to train more than 10,000 butterflies to traverse the garden, on cue, in unison. Now if someone offered me an assignment that seemed like an impossibility, I’d at least think long and hard about it.

But the fact that Ramirez hadn’t ever worked with butterflies before and knew little about their sensory mechanisms didn’t deter him at all. Ensured help from the group’s butterfly experts, he enthusiastically agreed. ”What a unique training opportunity!,” he wrote.

Key to the plan’s success was knowing what and how the butterflies were fed—and how often. And who knew that butterflies could be bullies? Ramirez learned that they were highly territorial, and prone to inter-species warfare over their locales: they were already occupying three different spaces in the garden.

He determined that by using various types of food and different sounds for the three groups, he could enhance the original plan by training “different groups to fly at different times.”

For the details, please read Ramirez’s account.  He describes the breathtaking, successful dress rehearsal, as the symphonic music swelled—and first the red and orange butterflies took off and flew in unison, landing on one side of the garden.

“Then there was another swell of music and about 2,500 purple and blue butterflies fluttered in a similar manner from the far left to another location on the far right. Just as the second group settled, close to 5,000 butterflies of multiple colors…fluttered over my head, settling into their trees and bushes far behind me. There were tears in my eyes, and I was speechless…With the addition of the music, the butterflies appeared to undulate to the rhythm of the music—it was incredible!”

Though Ramirez found this an extraordinary experience, he says: “I always teach that training is the same, and works equally well, for all species, ‘whether training an earthworm or a Harvard graduate!’”

What’s the common methodology? Here I owe a debt of gratitude to my younger daughter, a highly regarded professional dog trainer who from the very start of her career has stressed that positive reinforcement—and avoiding coercion, intimidation, and physical punishment—are the most humane and most successful ways to train dogs and other living beings.

My daughter was recently telling me about the work of Karen Pryor, who revolutionized animal training, including training large animals. When I expressed interest in the topic, she graciously did a search that yielded the information in this post. (I realize the butterflies hardly qualify as large animals, but I found that story irresistible.)

I stress that both my daughter and I would rather see animals in the wild than in cages, but we also recognize that there are good zoos doing good works, including conservation education and prevention of species extinction.

We won’t be looking at earthworms here, but I’d like to introduce you to some fascinating work being done with marine mammals, nonhuman primates, tigers, river otters, and orthopedic surgeons.

You read that right: They may not all be Harvard graduates, but some orthopedic surgeons are being trained in accordance with Karen Pryor’s discoveries—the same principles that Ramirez uses.

In the 1960s, Pryor began working with those wonderful creatures, dolphins, in Sea Life Park in Hawaii, which her husband had developed. Her approach evolved from Pavlov’s work with dogs (classical conditioning), and B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning, based on rewards and punishment.

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

But importantly, Pryor found some of the training she observed abusive, so she went in a different direction.

She took the idea of food as a reward and added a sound to it: at first, a whistle. As she said in an interview on NPR’s Hidden Brain:

“The whistle is the signal that, at this very instant, you’re doing absolutely the right thing, so you’re going to get a prize…the identification for the learner…that acoustic message, whatever form it comes in, is actually a thrill.”

Pryor then employed the clicker that is now the cornerstone of a great deal of animal training. Between food rewards and clickers, the wonders take place.

We all know about the marine mammals that have been trained to perform. But thanks to Pryor, they, and their counterparts in other species, are being trained to participate in their medical care.

The positive reinforcement techniques she employed, Ken Ramirez has written,

“minimized or eliminated the use of coercion and punishment to gain the animal’s cooperation and created a trusting relationship between the keeper or trainer and the animal…As these relationships grew, the types of medical behaviors that could be trained also grew.”

So through patient and persistent training, killer whales (now verboten in marine shows), walruses, sea lions, and penguins have been taught to calmly present themselves and accept the needles necessary to take blood samples from them.

They learn to urinate on cue to provide urine samples, to exhale onto a plate to provide cultures from their airways, and even to ensure the effectiveness of eye drops and ear drops by keeping their heads above water long enough for the drugs to be absorbed.

Nonhuman primates have been similarly trained to accept such medical procedures, thereby reducing the incidence of injuries to handlers and stress on the animals by encouraging “a human-animal relationship that is based on trust rather than fear,” according to an article published by the Animal Welfare Institute.

This is, indeed, true of all animals so trained. Studies have actually shown a drop in the animals’ blood cortisol levels, indicating reduced anxiety.

Picture a baboon calmly offering his arm through a porthole in his cage to receive an injection. Or a female gorilla who has been providing urine samples for years while sitting on a potty. “She is so committed,” the author wrote,” that occasionally, she would go and get a drink of water when asked for a sample at a time when her bladder was empty.”

Now that’s commitment! Makes you question the phrase “dumb animals,” doesn’t it?

It’s clear that such techniques improve the animals’ welfare. And it should also be clear that they make the lives of the trainers and handlers much more interesting, safer, and less tense.

Here are links to several videos I really enjoyed; I think you will too.

River otter preps for ultrasounds. (Cincinnati Zoo.) “It may look like the trainer in this video is just having fun giving high fives and belly rubs, but there is a good reason that the otters have been taught these and other behaviors.” (You can skip the ad and go right to the starring cutie.)

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Photo courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Dental care for gorillas. “Dental care is just as important for gorillas as it is for humans!” (Santa Barbara Zoo.)

The tiger-turned-pussy cat, or what I imagine might be called: “Do you need this for some reason?” (Copenhagen Zoo) To learn what “this” is, you must watch the brief video to the end!

And now we turn to training the species known as homo sapiens, specifically, that subgroup called orthopedic surgeons. For years, Martin Levy, MD, who directs the residency program for orthopedic surgery at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, has successfully used clickers in agility training his border collies.

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“Over time,” he told Scientific American writer Lindsey Konkel, “I started to realize that we had better tools for training our dogs than our residents.” So, Konkel writes, “Levy decided to use these tools to help new doctors learn the tricks of the trade.”

The “tricks’ were the basic skills that orthopedic surgeons needed: “tying knots, positioning surgical instruments, and handling power tools.”

Levy sought out Karen Pryor to help him develop a program leading to mastery of these techniques. As the residents accomplished tasks that had been broken down step by step, their performance was noted by the instructor’s marking the event with “a click, the flick of a flashlight, or simply the word ‘good’ spoken in a neutral tone,” Konkel observes.

Others have pointed out that this kind of training removes the emotional component, so the effort is strictly on task mastery, not worries about approval, failure, or other complicating factors. This has upended what Levy said was a traditional teaching method of criticizing residents for mistakes, rather than noting their success.

“It’s true that a clicker cannot inspire or play the role of a mentor,” says Shankar Vedantam, host of NPR’s Hidden Brain. “…And yet the clicker, when it is the right tool, can fix one of the most detrimental parts of the teacher-student relationship—when students start to care more about getting praise and avoiding criticism than learning.”

(This Hidden Brain episode, “When Everything Clicks: The Power of Judgment-Free Learning,” is accessible in both audio and transcript.)

From all the above—from butterflies to baboons to otters to tigers to orthopedic surgeons—it seems obvious that positive reinforcement and patient attention to marking tasks reap large benefits. Equally important, physical punishment and harsh treatment appear to be counterproductive.

To bring all of this closer to home, I’ll quote my daughter’s emphasis on the positive, as she describes “dog-friendly” training:

“‘Dog-Friendly'” is sometimes confused with permissive, but that is inaccurate. It means focusing on how to teach our dogs how to get it right, instead of focusing on how to punish them for making mistakes.

It also means being aware of our dogs’ limits, so that we can do our best to set them up for success. We often unwittingly put our dogs in situations they don’t have the skills or ability to handle, and then get angry and frustrated with them for acting out.

In my opinion, just as much–if not more–emphasis should be on adjusting what the human side of the equation is doing.”

And, notably,  positive reinforcement also works in training children, especially those with learning or behavioral difficulties.

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As always, I’m eager for your comments—your reactions, opinions, stories. (You can also let me know your opinion about this post by clicking on the stars below: from left to right, click star 1 for awful; star 5 for excellent. WordPress folks have the option to “like” this post further below.)

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I dedicate this post to the memory of my sister, who died on December 29th, 2018—just 43 days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her stoicism and bravery in the face of the devastating diagnosis, and her determination to live each day well, were extraordinary. She loved nature, reveled in identifying the birds in the vicinity of her Florida home, worried about the fate of the Manatees off the Florida coast, and cared gently and lovingly for her little Shih Tzu. She was very supportive of my blog, and I like to think she would have especially enjoyed this post. The loss is profound.
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Annie

How Do We Talk About Race in America? A Serendipitous Part 3

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Greetings, welcome back, and best wishes to everyone for a very happy and healthy New Year.

I hadn’t planned this additional post on race, but I came across what I feel is a wonderful piece of Op-Art on the topic in The New York Times. Some of you may recall it, but even if you do, I hope you’ll use the link above to revisit it. It’s worth several readings, I believe.

And it’s followed by another serendipitous example that I find enriches the topic.

Writer and illustrator Henry James Garrett has created a wise and amusing morality tail/tale that’s titled “The Kernel of Human (or Rodent) Kindness.” I’m pretty sure the fair use police will prevent me from reprinting the piece in its entirety, as I would love to do, so I’m including a few screen shots (if they work–I’m getting better at this technical stuff, but each new challenge is fraught with the fear of mishap).

Please keep in mind that this is just a sampling, probably unfair to the creator because it doesn’t capture the richness of the artwork and messaging in its entirety. But here we go…

 

 

 

 

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Please do click on the green New York Times link above to see Garrett’s entire work. It will just take you a minute, and I really think you’ll enjoy it.


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Before we leave the topic of race for now, I’d like to add the second serendipitous piece. One of a number of special friends I’ve reconnected with as a result of this blog is a Master Gardener. I was unfamiliar with this term, but I’ve learned that Master Gardeners are volunteers who have undertaken considerable training in the science and art of gardening. They, in turn, share their expertise by educating the public on gardening and horticulture.

My friend had the additional responsibilities involved in serving on the Board of Directors of the Master Gardeners organization in the area in which he lived. He had a lot of experience in organizational work as well, having had a long and successful career as a Manufacturing Manager for a major US corporation, where his responsibilities included diversity training.

But my friend, who is African-American, grew tired of his fellow board members’ failure to listen to his ideas (as well as impatient with their lack of organization).

He was comfortable with what he had to offer but felt his presence on the board was that of a “token”: he was there for show, but not for substance. So he resigned his position–and received a very gracious letter from one of the few board members who clearly recognized that his absence would be felt.

In an email explaining to me what had happened, he wrote of the other board members: “I really don’t think they know the difference between Affirmative Action and Diversity. Gardeners generally practice diversity every time they plant a flower, but they probably wouldn’t make the connection. There are a number of reasons we plant a diverse garden.”

I found his words both poetic and a fine metaphor for why our society is strengthened by our growing diversity.

So from rodents to gardens, I feel we’re surrounded by lessons about how much we have to gain by being empathetic toward one another and celebrating both our differences and our commonality as human beings.

I hope to hear from you about whether my serendipitous finds resonate. As always, I depend upon your thoughts, experiences, and stories…For those of you who are new to this blog, you must go way down the page to find the comment box in which I hope you’ll enter your response. Thank you!

Annie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zen and the Art of Vacuuming: A Near-Fable

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Introductory Note:

I have been practicing mindfulness meditation for quite a while, and I am very serious about it; it’s had a beneficial effect on my life. But in my description of my blog, I speak of “seeking dialogue to inform, enlighten, and/or amuse you and me.” The emphasis here is on “amuse.” I realize things have been pretty heavy in Annie’s blog world, with focus on climate change, the political scene, and race relations, so I thought it was time to lighten up a bit in this holiday season.

What follows is a piece I wrote some years back, which was published in a now-defunct humor magazine. It still amuses me, and I hope it will elicit a smile from you as well. Perhaps it will also evoke feelings in concert with my desire to find common ground…

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Joyce Carol Oates, it seems, is positively nuts about housework. She claims if she were to let someone else do her housework for her, she would feel alienated from her own life. Cleaning one’s house, she says, is like “Zen meditation.”

Because I, too, would like a clean house, inner serenity, and best-selling novels, I decided to apply Ms. Oates’s philosophy to my own life. I first endeavored to wash the kitchen floor while seated in the middle of it meditating in the zazen, or cross-legged, position. As one might imagine, this was a rigorous exercise, requiring great self-discipline and flexibility. I felt myself stretched beyond what I had earlier assumed to be my limits. After fifteen minutes, I had grasped a Higher Truth, which I quite willingly share: Life Must Provide Us With a Longer-Handled Mop.

One of the foci of Zen is the koan, an unsolvable riddle or nonsensical proposition. Surely, housework provides us with the ultimate koan: Why Dust? Why devote time and energy to casting motes into the air, only to watch them reconvene above one’s head tauntingly in anticipation of their certain descent?

Vacuuming, on the other hand, puts one in touch with the Cosmos. It is the practice of piecing together disparate elements of nature in one location as a cohesive whole. However, the vacuum cleaner is an artificial device, separating the true Zen student from the kind of self-reliance necessary to approach enlightenment.

The serious Zen-cleaner uses masking tape wrapped around the fingers to effect the same essential unity. This process, painstaking as it is, leads to contemplation at close range of the complexity inherent in what had appeared to be a superficial layer of carpet debris. William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower. The Zen-cleaner sees contemporary civilization in a piece of sticky tape.

Sorting clothes provides another koan, elegant in its simplicity but profound in its implications. Whither the Other Sock? I leave the reader time now to meditate on this Universal Question…

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 Like Zen, housework poses the kind of paradoxical problems that will shock the student out of dependence upon ordinary logic. No other human accomplishment is apparent only when it is not accomplished. All is process. The devoted Zen-cleaner knows never to seek the sense of satisfaction other mortals derive from their work when the job is done. One operates with constant awareness of an Eternal Verity: The Cleaning of a House Will Lead, With the Passage of Time, to a House That Must Be Cleaned.

The practitioner of Zen incorporates a love of nature into one’s life. It is important, then, that the house be properly aired and smell of the great outdoors. When I had completed my tasks and felt myself approaching Nirvana, I flung open the windows, inviting the world into my home. A small brown sparrow accepted my invitation. It flew across the living room, swept into the kitchen, and lighted briefly in the middle of the freshly waxed floor, almost precisely on the spot where I had meditated not long before. It then departed, leaving behind a tiny organic reminder of our transcendental experience.

With that symbol, I had reached satori, the ultimate insight. I now had a penetrating vision of the value of housework. Thank you, little brown sparrow. Thank you, Joyce Carol Oates.

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Happy holidays, everybody! See you in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, please feel free to browse through the posts you may not have seen yet. Backstage in My Blog World, written immediately after I experienced a frenzy resulting from an early technical snafu, may also make you smile.

I hope 2019 brings us a calmer, more unified, and democratic nation in a more peaceful world. And, in the mindfulness tradition, I offer this message, which I learned from renowned mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield:

May you be filled with lovingkindness;

May you be safe and protected;

Well in body and mind;

Strong and healed;

May you be happy.

Annie

Navigating “The Wild West” Marketplace of Consumer Genetic Testing–and Other Needed Information About Our DNA

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In an article in The New York Times Sunday Review, genetics counselor Laura Hercher described a man named Matthew Fender, who—after searching for heredity data through 23andMe—had placed his genetic test results into Promethease, a DNA search engine that probes such data for variants cited in the medical literature. 

Fender had sought to learn his risk for developing a pulmonary embolism, the condition that had killed his sister, a seemingly healthy young woman of 23. The report didn’t mention that, but it did provide the alarming news that he carried a mutation (PSEN1) strongly associated with early onset Alzheimer’s, as well as two copies of a gene variant (ApoE4) that indicates greatly increased chances of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s.

After getting no satisfactory guidance from his primary care doctor and other professionals, Fender checked out a competing genetics company, Ancestry DNA,  to see what his results there would say about the PSEN1 variant. They said nothing. He then persuaded his doctor to order the test, which proved negative.

End of story for Fender, although he said the experience led him to improve his diet and to consider using his technological skills to develop an app to assist people with dementia through voice-activated devices such as Siri and Alexa.

It’s worth noting that both companies claimed their tests were 99.9% accurate. Yet a 23andMe representative told Hercher that “a 99.9% accuracy can still mean errors.” And apparently, not every variant in their chip is even validated for 99.9% accuracy.

“The direct-to-consumer genetic testing marketplace is a regulatory Wild West,” wrote Hercher, who is the director of research at the Sarah Lawrence College Graduate Program in Human Genetics.

She’s also the host of an informative and entertaining podcast, “The Beagle Has Landed,” (named after Charles Darwin’s ship—not Charles Schulz’s Snoopy), designed for both professionals and “curious patients,” according to its introductory press release. One of her interviewees was Matt Fender.

Hercher explained that FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced in November a new regulatory approach that will allow companies like 23andMe to market some tests to determine health risks without premarket review. That change, Hercher observes, “is expected to usher in a rapid expansion of the consumer genetics industry.”

That means we consumers will need to better prepare ourselves to function in this new ”Wild West” by getting a better education on the important topic of genetics and the role it plays in our health—even as the field itself is changing all the time.

With that backdrop,  I spoke with Hercher to elicit her opinions on how to view all these genetic data at this stage. 

First, to her, the quest for information about one’s heritage, which she calls the “ancestry craze,” is a “mixed bag.” The positives she underscores are that people enjoy and are intrigued by learning about their forebears, and the process brings science and genetics into people’s lives.

But when people ask her if these quests yield legitimate information, she responds: “It’s accurate-ish. People think of this as their genealogy, but once you get past Mom and Dad, there’s a lot of randomness—you could inherit something important, or not.”

“People like to tell a story they can understand, a narrative that can explain why people turned out certain ways. Genetics also tells a story, but the risk we run is that when hearing it, we put aside other stories—involving culture and heritage, for example.  It’s very hard to weave it all together.”

If we’re interested in our predecessors’ story, then their story is ours, she notes, and that’s valuable to us. “Genes are a part of that, but not all of it. Even among siblings: one person could have 34% Southern European heritage, while his brother registered 15%. Would that make sense? No. The tests don’t gather with that level of precision.”

Hercher analogizes a swimming pool, with some blue substance for African ancestry, red for Chinese, etc. “The testers scoop a sampling from a spot of genomes into a net, and they’ll get red, green, yellow,” she says.  “Different tests reach down and get the same mix, but it’s not identical.”

To Hercher, the ancestry tests also tend to encourage a kind of tribal thinking and ignore the overriding message: 99% of our DNA identifies us as human and is genetically shared among us. “The DNA story is our commonality as a people—as well as with other living things. I wish these companies presented the data in a way that made that clear.”

And this commonality has great implications for the subject of race. “No quality geneticist will tell you that the concept of race does a good job of describing our shared genetic ancestry. Race isn’t a scientific grouping; it’s defined culturally. There’s more mixture within groups than between groups.” In a point that is probably obvious to all but the most rabid white supremacists, she says: “Racial purity is a myth.”

Those in the genetics field are disturbed by the current efforts to bring back eugenics, or “scientific racism,” which was once believed even by serious scientists who felt they could, by controlled breeding, create an increase in desirable heritable traits and a decrease in undesirable ones, thereby improving the human race. 

The concept was easily manipulated and became discredited after its use by the Nazis in Germany. “Now all these things are widely talked about,” Hercher laments. “The white nationalist movement has adopted the language of hate ideology and put a scientific gloss on it.”

This is the background for the hot water that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has gotten herself into by taking a DNA test to prove her Native American ancestry. With this action, critics say, the possible 2020 Presidential candidate has played into the concept of “racial science”–validating the alleged link between blood and race, which The New York Times calls “a bedrock principle for white supremacists and others who believe in racial hierarchies.”

That’s not, I trust, the way most of us view genetics. We may remember how we were introduced to the subject in school: with Gregor Mendel and the 29,000 pea plants he cultivated that formed the foundation of the field. But even among the experts, “we never knew how complicated heredity is,” Hercher says. Single gene inheritance, such as blood type, is fairly straightforward and rare—as are diseases attributed to a single gene, the so-called “Mendelian diseases,” which include sickle cell disease, as well as cystic fibrosis, Huntington disease, muscular dystrophy, and a few others. 

Most of genetics, Hercher stresses, is more multi-layered. Heredity, and the traits and illnesses that are in our DNA, involve the interaction of genes with both our external environment and the internal environment comprised of our hormones, metabolism, and other factors. So when we find out we have certain genes—and their variants and mutations—there’s no straight line to determining how our bodies will deal with their existence.

One important issue that stirs debates among geneticists involves ApoE4—the gene that denotes a higher risk for Alzheimer’s and carries both individual and societal implications—for care and economics—as our population ages. Approximately 25% of Caucasians carry this gene, but Hercher points out that an individual at somewhat increased risk may not develop the disease; while someone with decreased risk may still get it. 

And currently, without a cure, that raises questions. “There’s a faction in the genetics counseling community that says we have no business giving out that information,” says Hercher. Indeed, when Matt Fender initially sought guidance from his primary care doctor, Hercher reported in her Times article, the doctor responded: “What the heck do we do about it, once we know, other than create high anxiety?” However, says Hercher, “a growing faction says that whether or not to provide the information is not really our call.” In other words, it’s the patient’s decision.

So if we’re deciding to search out our ancestry–or to be tested for a possible disease– the important thing for us, the consumer/patient, is to seek education before we even consider being tested. 

How will we regard the potential results? Do we need the information to inform our choices about health decisions that must be made—before a pregnancy, for example, or to assess our odds of developing certain cancers?

On such matters, Hercher stresses, both factions in the genetics counseling community agree: if the information is to be given, good counseling should be involved to help patients think through the implications—and then to support them once they’ve decided whether or not to act on the findings.

What do you think? Have you had any experiences you’d like to share? Please enter them in the Comment box near the bottom of this post.

Annie

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How Do We Talk About Race in America? Meet Doug Glanville (Part 2 of 2)

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As soon as I determined to address this topic in my blog, I knew the person I should turn to for guidance. Doug Glanville, who’s been a friend of my daughter’s since childhood, is one of those all-around amazing people. It was evident when he was young:  academically gifted, terrifically athletic, warm, funny, and friendly, he was clearly destined to make his mark in the world.

And so he has. After graduating as an engineering student from the University of Pennsylvania, he had an illustrious nine-year career as a major league baseball player—a center fielder for the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. From there he became a commentator for ESPN. He wrote a book, The Game From Where I Stand, contributes frequently to The New York Times, and has written for The Atlantic.

Recently, he’s added “college professor” to his personal biography. Returning to Penn, he researched, developed, and taught a course on Communication, Sports, and Social Justice. He’s now refining the course to teach it at Yale in a combined political science and African American Studies effort that may also involve Women’s Studies and Yale Law School.

And yet…and yet. In the winter of 2014, shoveling the walk of his home in Hartford, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife Tiffany, an attorney and Hartford Board of Education member, and their four children, Glanville was stunned to be approached by a police officer from the next town. 

A woman had complained that a man who had shoveled her walk had been menacing her for money, and Glanville fit the description: a black man in his 40s with a shovel, wearing a brown coat (though his coat was black). The officer approached Glanville with the words: “So, you trying to make a few extra bucks, shoveling people’s driveways around here?”

Glanville has written about the experience in The Atlantic, (“I Was Racially Profiled in My Own Driveway”), and it’s well worth reading the entire article. Here’s a bit of it: 

Instead of providing the officer with his impressive personal and family background,

“I tried to take his question at face value, explaining that the Old Tudor house behind me was my own. The more I talked, the more senseless it seemed that I was even answering the question…After a few minutes, he headed back to his vehicle. He offered no apology, just an empty encouragement to enjoy my shoveling. And then he was gone.”

That episode eventually led to the passage of a new Connecticut law that prevents local police from crossing into another jurisdiction to pursue what they believe are violations of local ordinances. (A good description of the law’s broad impact appears in The Huffington Post.) At the signing ceremony, the Governor issued Glanville an apology.

Glanville explains his motivation for shepherding the legislation through to passage:

If I hadn’t been careful and deferential—if I’d expressed any kind of justifiable outrage—I couldn’t have been sure of the officer’s next question, or his next move. But the problem went even deeper than that. I found myself thinking of the many times I had hired a man who looked like me to shovel my driveway. Would the officer have been any more justified in questioning that man without offering an explanation? I also couldn’t help projecting into the future and imagining my son as a teenager, shoveling our driveway in my place. How could I be sure he would have responded to the officer in the same conciliatory way?

He has since been appointed by the Governor to the Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council, where they deal with accreditation issues, certify and decertify police officers, and develop and adopt “a comprehensive standards program for local law enforcement units.” Glanville says: “I am proud to serve on the curriculum committee.”

And although he never received an apology from the police officer, rather than demonizing him, he saw him as presenting an opportunity—to help build bridges between communities of color and law enforcement through open engagement about the pitfalls of bias in community policing.

“We all have bias,” Glanville says, “but the stakes are exceptionally high in law enforcement. It is critical that we all invest in managing bias in our policing.” 

He attributes his ability to work with police—and his broad social vision—to his upbringing in Teaneck, New Jersey, the first community in the United States to voluntarily integrate its schools. “It was such a validating experience to live in a community where people from all walks of life saw each other in a united camp.” He went to plenty of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, he recalls. “In Teaneck, you had real embedded experiences.”

A white police officer, with whom he became close, was his summer league baseball coach, and his father, a psychiatrist who was well-loved in the community, often treated police in various places for the stresses of their jobs. When his father died, “They paid their respects to him as if he was one of them.”

 A large contingent of police, in uniform, did a walkthrough at his funeral to greet his family, waiting in line to pay their respects. Three police cars accompanied the hearse to the cemetery, where they stopped traffic to allow the procession to enter.

Those experiences enabled Glanville to be “caring and collaborative” in working with the police in Connecticut to formulate the legislation.

As a result of those formative years, as well as his close relationships with his fellow baseball players, he says, “As a black man, I see the power in the “#Me Too” movement,” for example. “We all want to be validated, treated fairly, given opportunities, have our pain recognized—to overcome generation after generation in the land of opportunity.”

But achieving social justice takes effort. “It’s easy to want to take your ball and go home,” he acknowledges. “That’s concerning: how can we grow when we’re in our own echo chambers? We need to be brave and step across the aisle and realize we have common work to do.”

In getting the Connecticut legislation through, “I took lemons and made lemonade. But that requires patience, and where is patience? It goes hand in hand with the way we digest information. There’s not a lot of patience to digest the long form. It’s more like: ‘If I didn’t see it, it isn’t real.’”

He has criticisms of social media for creating more doubt and manipulation, and he wishes there were greater balance in the television commentary programs. Bias is profitable, he notes.

“Where is the show with people who have different suggestions talking with one another? I do think at times the media business is not helpful; it just reinforces opinions.”

Referring to the current political divide, he observes: “For starters, I’m not a fan of the blanket political labels, conservative/liberal. We all can be better.

“In the realm of social justice, conservatives get wholly painted as intolerant, just as we tend to overlook the arrogance in people who consider themselves liberal and believe they are completely right. Guess what? No one gets a hall pass here. Holier than thou is not effective in this climate. When the only counter-argument is ‘I’m right,’ we get nowhere.”

When he teaches his course, he stresses the importance of communication. “How you say things and present things matters. You have to have a message and tell stories to engage the listeners.”

For example, he discusses the impact of newspaper racial bias, citing a Huffington Post article that underscored how “white suspects and killers often get positive media spins, while black victims get more negative spins. Words truly matter,” he emphasizes. He also brings in both conservative and liberal views because he feels we all need more measured perspectives.

Is it ever helpful to call someone a racist? “Probably not,” he says. “Some people may be beyond repair. But there are ways to approach others.” When he hailed a cab in Washington, DC, to go to the Washington Nationals Stadium and the driver said, “I don’t know where that is,” he responded: “It’s 2018; you have a GPS.” But, he acknowledges, you have to assess the threat. “I do dive into things that aren’t comfortable—when I’m in a safe space.“

Glanville speaks of the different types of energy required to make the societal changes we need: marching, organizing, people working on policy—all of which he calls “slow work.”

We need both community development and social action, he stresses—“to understand how the game is played, how the system works, at the same time that we challenge the systemic issues needing bold change.”

And then, “It starts at the ballot box,” finding leadership that help us heal as a people and address hate, “but not with armed guards.” He underscores the importance of legislatively backing up the words on those pieces of paper with action.

Acknowledging the abuses in our history concerning the vote—the disenfranchisement, marginalization, and lack of follow-through in behalf of people of color—he points hopefully to the newly elected class of Congress: “There is something to be said about having people more representative of our country. It matters to get into the room, to be engaged in the process to make the system more fair and representative.”

If there’s one thing Americans agree on, it’s that we’re in challenging times. To Glanville, the challenges provide everyone with “the opportunity to be their better self for the collective good. We must think about the positive things and organize around them. We must find ways to be constructive.”

Please let me know your response to Doug Glanville’s challenging ideas and hopeful message. Can you relate to them? Do they encourage you to act? Do they generate stories or ideas from your own life? I am eager to hear from you.

Annie

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How Do We Talk About Race in America? (Part 1 of 2)

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Photo credit: Circle Hands Teamwork, Pixabay

“Being a human being is a really hard job.”

I heard this comment from the neurologist who treats me for migraines—a prominent researcher and a wonderful, compassionate man. He was quoting an observation that his mother often made when he was growing up.  “I didn’t realize how wise she was when I was young,” he told me, but over the years, his mother’s words have come to resonate. Fortunately for me and his other patients, they appear to form part of the empathy that makes him both an exceptional physician and a lovely person.

“Forget about race; it’s hard enough just to be a human being.” During the same week that my neurologist repeated his mother’s words, I heard a white comedian quoting Richard Pryor, the brilliant African-American comedian and social commentator who died in 2005.

At first I was struck by the similarity of the sentiments. But then I thought: Did Richard Pryor, who was a pioneer in speaking truth to audiences black and white about the burdens of racism, really say “forget about race”? So I did a little research.

I found a clip of “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982).” Those who don’t mind his customary raw language can watch him on Youtube. Pryor did say, “It’s hard enough being a human being, decent, as a person.” But he preceded that with the words “Racism is a bitch” that screws up everybody but really takes its toll on black people. He then gave an example, and added the plaintive words, “This is a ugly thing and I hope some day they give it up.”

The fact that the white comedian could have recalled Pryor saying “forget about race” when Pryor’s entire point was about race told me a lot about our cultural chasms.

I will acknowledge that I’m probably showing some arrogance and/or naivete in thinking I can address such a vast and important topic in my little blog. But like many of my white friends, I feel there aren’t enough white voices decrying the worsening racial tenor of our times—from the comments and policies being pushed out by the leaders of our government to the documented rise in hate crimes. 

To be sure, we’ve seen rising violence against Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and gay people as well—and all of this must be resoundingly denounced as intolerable and un-American by both public officials and people like us, using many different approaches. 

But the black experience in America is unique from its roots, so I’m using the platform I have to focus on it, believing that some of what we’ll explore will be applicable to others suffering from prejudice as well—as we strive to find common ground. 

I don’t feel equipped to cover the hate-mongers here, but I know we have to talk about them as a society, and I think they’ll find less fertile ground if more of us are “woke” (to use the current jargon) to the ways that racism rears its ugly head in our daily lives. 

My efforts are intended to reinforce our abilities to listen to one another and empathize with each other. “Walking in the other person’s shoes” may be a bit trite, but I find it appropriate. If enough of us can do this, we can make life less tense and more pleasant for us all. Perhaps, just perhaps, we can help the hate-mongers crawl back into the fringes of our society from whence they came.

I’m well aware that as a white woman, I can’t begin to know what it’s like for people of color to simply go about their lives each day, suffering indignities at the very least and fearing for their safety at worst.

But as a human being, I find Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests against police violence in the very finest traditions of our democracy, and I weep with the mothers whose unarmed sons’ lives have been lost due to the actions of those police officers who, due to inadequate training, or temperament, or fear, or prejudices—or a combination thereof—led them to hasty acts with dreadful consequences.  

I have trouble understanding why the phrase “Black Lives Matter” isn’t viewed as an obvious plea for correction of a grave injustice, and instead evokes the defensive response: “All lives matter.” Well, of course, all lives matter, and if the larger society were acting as if they took that expression to heart, there would be no need for “Black Lives Matter.”

If all lives mattered, we wouldn’t have just seen the gerrymandered districts and numerous schemes to prevent people of color from voting, purportedly to rein in a voter fraud epidemic that has been repeatedly found to be essentially nonexistent.

And, if our Founding Fathers had believed that all lives mattered, would our nation have been established with an economic system that depended upon the enslavement of black people? Perhaps there never would have been the original sin of slavery, which continues to haunt our society to this day. 

I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, We Were Eight Years in Power, which is eye-opening. The book is a collection of Coates’s essays in The Atlantic, written during the Obama years, with each original essay preceded by a more recent assessment in which he is at times self-critical, at times reevaluating based on new evidence or new ideas. 

In its entirety, it’s a strong, analytical look–sometimes compassionate, often unforgiving–at our nation’s history and the lingering impact of white supremacy. Introducing the clever history-spanning title, Coates opens with a speech that South Carolina Congressman Thomas Miller made to his state’s constitutional convention in 1895, two decades after the end of Reconstruction.

“We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.”

But Miller’s attempt to show that African-Americans’ citizenship should be protected went unheeded. Their disenfranchisement was well under way, followed by horrific physical violence against them to reinstate white supremacy.

Coates calls the eight years of Obama’s Presidency “a period of Good Negro Government.” He writes:

“Obama was elected amid widespread panic and…emerged as a caretaker and measured architect. He established the framework of a national healthcare system from a conservative model. He prevented an economic collapse…His family—the charming and beautiful wife, the lovely daughters, the dogs—seemed pulled from the Brooks Brothers catalogue…He was deliberate to a fault, saw himself as the keeper of his country’s sacred legacy, and if he was bothered by his country’s sins, he ultimately believed it to be a force for good in the world. 

“In short, Obama, his family, and his administration were a walking advertisement for the case with which black people could be fully integrated into the unthreatening mainstream of American culture, politics, and myth.

“And that was always the problem.”

To Coates, the “old fear of Good Negro Government” was a significant factor in the rise of Donald Trump, who used the symbols of racism in his campaign, and does so today. Coates’s arguments are too complex and layered for me to pursue here, but along the way, he offers a great deal of the history that has shaped our society. 

For example, I hadn’t known that in order to get passage of the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt acceded to the demands of Southern senators that African Americans should not be eligible for the benefits of the New Deal. Many such decisions and legislation have had ramifications that continue today.

In discussing President Obama, whose optimism about America he admires but can’t fully share, Coates points out the differences in their upbringing: Coates’s formative years were in a largely segregated area; Obama’s being raised by loving and accepting white grandparents in Kansas and Hawaii made him far more positive about what America could be.

How do we talk about race in America? 

This is a tough subject, and I obviously have far more questions than answers. I do know that I feel a strong need for more knowledge of the relevant history. Books written by contemporary authors, like Coates’s and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which describes the Great Migration, help serve as guides. 

In addition, in Part Two on this topic, I’ll introduce you to a man whose childhood in an integrated community and nurturing by white mentors make his approach to race and the adversities he’s faced more similar to Obama’s than to Coates’s. To me, he embodies the promise of effective racial communication and reconciliation.

Please join me in this dialogue by contributing your own thoughts, suggestions, and stories. And please—if you like what I’m doing here—avail yourself of the stars or “like” button to let me know.

Annie

 

OK. The Dems Won the House. Now What?

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Well, there really was a blue wave—reportedly the greatest turnover since 1974—and a number of races remain too close to call or subject to a recount. These victories are especially impressive because of the gerrymandered districts and increased state restrictions that led to long lines at the very least and disenfranchisement of numbers of voters, mostly people of color. For a detailed look at what voters faced, read What It Takes to Win, published by the Brennan Center for Justice in October. 

As I stated in my last post, I view this not as a partisan issue—but as a critical win for our democracy. Unless/until the Republicans become better stewards of their Constitutional oaths, or are replaced by a new political force more willing to seek compromise for the good of the people, I hope Americans will continue to shun them in large numbers.

However, one of the consequences of this election was the defeat of some of the most moderate Republicans, increasing the likelihood that the party will become even more intransigent. 

And so, although I’m grateful that the Democrats can put the brakes on many of President Trump’s chaotic, sometimes horrific actions, I see reason for concern that to accomplish anything on the substantive issues needed to show voters they are delivering and to hold their majority, the Democrats face an uphill battle. 

Healthcare was the most important topic to voters according to exit polls, and the primary topic for many victorious new Representatives. Will even the hyperpartisan Mitch McConnell, who will face reelection himself in 2020, get the message and be willing to compromise—even if he’s likely to face a primary opponent to his right?

In essence, the Democrats will just have to forge ahead, showing the public where they want to go. Economics must be in the forefront. On the critical issue of income inequality, Michael Tomasky’s Op-Ed, The Democrats’ Next Job, which appeared in The New York Times days before the election, provides a terrific roadmap. 

Tomasky analyzes the void in the Democrats’ overarching message over the past several decades, and his prescription for the path forward is one of the clearest, most cogent, and sensible arguments I’ve read. Here are his opening paragraphs, and I quote him further, but I recommend the entire piece.

“Win, lose or draw on Tuesday, the Democratic Party will almost immediately turn its focus to the next presidential election and the fight between the establishment center and the left wing. But while the Democrats have that argument, they must also undertake the far more important task of thinking about what they agree on, and how they can construct a story about how the economy works and grows and spreads prosperity, a story that competes with—and defeats—the Republicans’ own narrative.

“For 40 years, with a few exceptions, Democrats have utterly failed to do so. Until they fix this, they will lose economic arguments to the Republicans—even though majorities disagree with the Republicans on many questions—because every economic debate will proceed from Republican assumptions that make it all but impossible for Democrats to argue their case forcefully.”

Tomaski eviscerates supply-side economics and then provides “the affirmative case for the Democratic theory of growth.” He stresses “expanding overtime pay, raising wages, even doing something about the enormous and under-discussed problems of wage theft.” And he stresses that the Democrats should say they make these arguments not “out of fairness or compassion or some desire to punish capitalists.

“We want to address them because putting more money in working- and middle-class people’s pockets is a better way to spur on the economy than giving rich people more tax cuts.”

Democrats, he adds, “should defend this argument because it’s what more and more economists argue and because it’s what Democrats believe.”

Importantly, he points out that Democrats who vary politically, such as Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona, can agree on this issue.

 “They’re both Democrats for a reason, and presumably that reason is they think government can be a force for good in people’s lives. So, if Democrats think it, they should say it. 

He is thereby offering a unifying position that is essential if the Democrats are to avoid defeat due to factionalism.

Tomaski accurately points out that this strong Democratic response to supply-side economics needs a name. I think the name is extremely important in garnering interest and enthusiasm for the effort. However, the one he mentions in passing, “middle-out economics,” leaves me cold. 

It does have the advantage of brevity, and Democrats are always accused of failing the bumper sticker test with their lengthy explanations of positions, but it’s neither intuitively comprehensible nor catchy. A considerable effort should be made, bringing in some of the most talented wordsmiths available, to arrive at a phrase that is concise and inspiring. 

If you have suggestions, please add them to the Comments section, and I will forward them to Tomaski. You can also forward them to your own representatives, explaining the context.

Two more takes on implications of the election results, both hot-button issues.

1. The speaker. I know all the arguments against Nancy Pelosi, and though I understand them, I think this is absolutely the wrong time to replace her. She’s the most powerful woman in the US government—and she has done her job with great success. She’s a prodigious fund-raising and vote-counter whose experience is essential in these wacky times. 

Plus, health care has been the cause of her life. Reports are that she had planned to retire after Hillary Clinton’s election, so I don’t think she’s doing this for her ego. I expect her to be an effective mentor for the newly elected women in her caucus and to seriously broaden the leadership bench of the Democratic Party. 

2. Impeachment. I fully support the Democratic House committees’ investigations into all the matters that the Republicans stonewalled or distorted. But the Democrats have an important balancing act to perform between conducting investigations and trying to enact meaningful legislation. 

As much as I would love to see the President removed from the Oval Office (and VP Pence investigated for his apparent lies), I oppose impeachment efforts at this time. Unless the Mueller probe’s findings or other investigations persuade enough Republican Senators that they must act, at last, ensuring conviction by the Senate, impeachment by the House will simply play into Trump’s hands, allowing him to play the victim, making him act even more erratically, and possibly strengthening his chances of reelection.

Ultimately, these issues demand the continued and enhanced participation of all of us in our democracy by our ongoing engagement with our elected representatives on all levels. 

Please let me know your thoughts on any or all of these issues. And please don’t forget to share, award stars below my name (one awful—five excellent), or like this post (if you’ve signed on via WordPress). Knowing you’re reading and considering these posts is very important to me. Thanks so much.

Annie

The Stakes Couldn’t Be Higher: Vote to Repudiate Violence and Find Common Ground

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Those of you who have been following my blog know that I’ve been searching for common ground among us and/or stressing that we can be agreeable even when we disagree. I’ve also stated that I have strong opinions, and I’ve made no attempt to hide my concerns about climate change and gun safety, while generally avoiding the virulence of the political debates being played out in so many other arenas.

The thing is, I am perplexed that some of the most important issues we face are depicted as partisan, when, in fact, the majority of Americans agree about them. That’s certainly the case with sensible legislation to promote gun safety and with actions to address climate change.

It’s also the case with healthcare: there is now so much support for retaining preexisting conditions that Republicans who have put their names on a federal lawsuit to end this protection are insisting on the campaign trail that they favor it. 

Most people want our politicians to come together to find a reasonable approach to immigration that protects both our borders and the Dreamers. Most of us are not radical: we long for the give-and-take among our elected officials that will result in decent quality of life for ourselves and our families in a country at peace—with drinking water that won’t make our children sick, jobs that pay a living wage, and a safety net of protections when we are at our most vulnerable—unemployed, ill, disabled, or old. 

I have long felt that the Democratic party hews more closely to those views than the Republicans, so I have most often supported Democrats. While this is a midterm election, the President has made it a referendum on him–and indeed, it is. That casts a huge shadow that we dare not minimize or ignore.

The trio of recent horrors—the clearly racist murders of two African Americans in Kentucky, the numerous pipe bombs that could have resulted in the assassination of two former Presidents and multiple other leaders of the Democratic Party, and the horrific murders of eleven Jews at prayer in Pittsburgh—have made me feel that it is incumbent on each of us to do what we can to denounce the violence that threatens our democracy.

President Trump’s alternating appropriate printed statements with crowd-inciting rhetoric at his rallies—behavior that continued on the day of the Pittsburgh murders—must be firmly repudiated. But the leaders of the party he now controls have barely been heard from. 

All this follows the pattern of his refusing to denounce neo-Nazis in Charlottesville after the murder of Heather Heyer; the ripping of babies from their mothers as a deliberate ‘immigration policy;” the continual framing of members of the legitimate press as “enemies of the people” (even after a pipe bomb had been sent to CNN); his false depiction of a stream of desperate people fleeing for their lives on foot from crime- and violence-ridden Honduras as an invading horde endangering us—and the continual stream of lies and bullying. 

In the face of all these un-American expressions and actions, how can the Republican leadership remain silent or offer false equivalence, using Trump’s “fake news” slogan again and again?

I am writing now because I fear that our democracy is at stake in this election. Unless the Democrats gain control of the House (and preferably also the Senate), President Trump will think he has a mandate to continue, even accelerate, his dangerous rhetoric. And, as we have seen, there will be no “Sense of the Senate” or other castigation by the Republicans.

There’s reason to believe the violence he has countenanced, even encouraged, will not only continue but escalate, and his openly stated admiration for dictators offers a frightening portent concerning how he will respond to the ensuing chaos.

So I make a plea that regardless of your political affiliation, you vote for Democrats as a necessary check on this President, a repudiation of the politics of hate, and a clear demonstration to our elected officials that most Americans do not want our country riven by fear and divisiveness. (And if you aren’t thinking of voting, are thinking of voting for a third party candidate, or don’t believe your vote will matter, please think again.)

In urging this action, I join many former Republicans who have denounced President Trump and the current Republican leadership—whom they believe have usurped the Republican Party and led it astray—and are urging a vote for Democrats.

They include Steve Schmidt, former strategist for President George Bush and other Republicans; Max Boot, author of The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right; James Comey, former head of the FBI; George F. Will, conservative columnist; Seth Klarman, a former GOP “mega-donor;” Jennifer Rubin, author of the Washington Post’s “Right Turn” column; and many others.

I encourage you to read Boycott the Republican Party by Benjamin Wittes and Jonathan Rauch, who identify themselves this way: “We have both spent our professional careers strenuously avoiding partisanship in our writing and thinking…We are the kind of voters who political scientists say barely exist: true independents who scour candidates’ records in order to base our votes on individual merit, not party brand.

“This, then is the article we thought we would never write: a frank statement that a certain form of partisanship is now a moral necessity. The Republican Party, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy.”

I write these words with considerable sadness. I believe in the two-party system and the give-and-take of ideas that lead to compromise. But that seems  impossible in the current political environment.

So I have concluded that in my search for common ground, in my reverence for the democratic (small d) form of government, I feel it is essential for us to vote Democratic. Perhaps, then, forces of responsibility and moderation will return to the Republican Party, or another party will form to galvanize those who support what were once considered traditional Republican values, and we can once again legitimately debate issues on their merits–and on the facts.

Please let me know your thoughts. Your comments will be most appreciated, and you can also express your views via a new rating scale below my name that invites you to award stars—from one (awful) to five (excellent). Those who’ve signed on through WordPress still have the “like” option.

Annie

“We Deserve Better”: Two Important Messages About Gun Violence (Updated)

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Update: I had originally posted these two emails, which included solicitations for funds, without comment. But a very thoughtful and consistent follower questioned the appropriateness of my including such solicitations on my blog. He was right, so I’ve deleted that portion of the information below. (His comment and my response remain in their original form.)

I am retaining the rest of the messages because I feel the sentiments expressed are extremely important. As this is the most overtly partisan material I have included in a blog devoted to finding common ground, I plan to explain my position in a subsequent post quite soon.

Annie

FROM GABBY GIFFORDS AND MARK KELLY ON BEHALF OF GIFFORDS PAC

Several months ago, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania posted a message for the congregation on their website.

The title of the post was “We Deserve Better,” and it included the following passages:

“I recall seeing a post not long ago that rather accurately describes the life cycle of news, and I paraphrase to the best of my recollection: Tragic event – Thoughts and Prayers – Call to Action by our Elected Leaders – Hang Wringing – Next News Event.”

“Despite continuous calls for sensible gun control and mental health care, our elected leaders in Washington knew that it would fade away in time. Unless there is a dramatic turnaround in the mid-term elections, I fear that the status quo will remain unchanged, and school shootings will resume. I shouldn’t have to include in my daily morning prayers that God should watch over my wife and daughter, both teachers, and keep them safe. Where are our leaders?”

Yesterday morning, that same Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill was targeted in a hate-fueled act of violence. And once again, our nation is shaken to the core.

Several are dead, many others injured.

Neighborhoods in Pittsburgh are devastated and our Jewish community is heartbroken.

We’d like to say a tragedy like this is unimaginable, but we just cannot.

We have seen them before, and we will see them again.

Sometime, likely soon, we will see more images of police clearing areas around schools, places of worship or places of work, as families rush toward the scene of the crime desperate for information about their loved ones.

But we do not have to.

We can decide that, in the words of Rabbi Myers, “we deserve better.” We can decide that our leaders show up.

Because they know how to solve this problem. And like Senator Chris Murphy says, “I shudder to think about what it says about us as a nation if we fail to even try.”

Every single day, nearly 100 Americans are killed with a gun in our country.

We must not only recognize the realities of hatred in our society but actively work to make it harder for dangerous people fueled by hate-filled intentions to access firearms and commit crimes.

So — once again — our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this shooting, their families, and their friends. But the truth is, for those who have the power to act and to save lives, that’s not enough.

It is long past time for Congress to find the courage to take on the gun lobby — to do it for our families, and to do it for each other.

So far, the current Congress has failed to act. Next week, we must elect a Congress that will.

Thank you for standing with us in this fight.

All our best,

Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly

Giffords PAC works to reduce gun violence and save lives by empowering voters with information and supporting candidates who will fight for safer gun laws.

FROM SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY, IN BEHALF OF GIFFORDS PAC, EVERYTOWN, NEWTOWN ACTION ALLIANCE, AND THE BRADY CAMPAIGN TO PREVENT GUN VIOLENCE

Chris Murphy for Senate

Yesterday morning that familiar knot in our stomachs returned as we found out online, on television or from friends that a gunman walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue, shouted out anti-semitic remarks, and indiscriminately opened fire on the congregation.

Our thoughts are, of course, with yet another community on an ever-growing list of those impacted by this kind of gun violence. But for my colleagues with the power to do something, our thoughts and our prayers are not nearly enough, and our unwillingness to confront this chaos is complicity.

Because the truth is, the evil that we saw yesterday exists in a lot of places. There are people all over the world who are fueled by racism, anti-semitism and rage against women.

Yet among all countries in the developed world, these mass shootings are a uniquely American problem.

My colleagues know how to fix this. It’s not a mystery. Almost every other country has figured it out, and we know how to as well.

But instead, Congress has made an active decision that the increasing levels of gun violence in our communities are an acceptable price to pay to protect the profits of a handful of gun manufacturers.

What they have done is repeatedly looked at solutions that enjoy the approval of 90 percent of the American people, and then they looked over their other shoulder at the gun lobby and decided to do nothing.

So I want to be very clear about something, and I will not be told that there should be some artificial waiting period before I am allowed to say it:

If you want the gun lobby in charge of gun policy in the United States — if you are ok with this kind of carnage in our communities — then keep on voting for Republicans who have pledged loyalty to the gun industry. I wish it weren’t as black and white as that – but it is.

If you want to do something about violence in America, then you have to vote them out.

Because if we actually want to change the gun laws in this country, we are going to have to change Congress next week.

So today, I want to ask you to support some of the gun violence prevention groups working to accomplish that goal. 

The gun lobby’s vision for America and much of the Republican Party’s vision for America is one where people, trained and untrained, are armed to the teeth in nearly every single public place — in every church, in every school, and in every synagogue.

The president said as much yesterday in his callous remarks immediately after the shooting.

But that idea only works in action movies, and it’s the number one priority of the gun companies who would love to sell guns into every public place in our nation.

Banning assault weapons and doing our best to make it harder for potentially dangerous people to buy guns — that’s what works in real life.

Because if more guns led to fewer gun deaths, America would have the lowest gun violence rates in the world.

So, next week we have a chance — an obligation — to do something at the ballot box.

Because there are no doubt a lot of very important reasons to elect a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate, but gun violence is one of them. A big one. Please support some of the groups working on this critical issue.

I’ve long said that when it comes to gun violence in this country, lawmakers cannot remain this out of touch with so many of their constituents for so long.

Next week, let’s make that message clear.

Every best wish,

Chris Murphy