I’M SO PLEASED TO HAVE BEEN NOMINATED FOR THE VERSATILE BLOGGER AWARD

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Dracul Van Helsing recently nominated me for The Versatile Blogger Award.
Thank you so much, Dracul, for your support of my blogging efforts.

Dracul’s blog can be found at https://draculvanhelsing.wordpress.com.

He writes fantastical and incredibly complex (often hilarious) tales interwoven with past and present world events, each story closing as follows: “—A vampire novel chapter written by Christopher.” He also writes some very good poetry.
I encourage everyone to visit his blog; I believe that, like me, you’ll marvel at his versatility.

WHAT IS THE VERSATILE BLOGGER AWARD?
“The Versatile Blogger Award was created to celebrate blogs that have unique content, strong writing, and beautiful images or photographs.”

[A brief divergence from the format: Writers are generally advised to “write what you know,” and to find a niche and develop expertise, so I thought I was being undisciplined by just following my curiosity wherever it takes me—sometimes well beyond my comfort zone. But that’s what I wanted to do, and I love learning about new topics. Since I’m the boss here, that’s what I’m doing. And now I’m being honored for my versatility. Who knew?]

RULES
-Thank the person who gave you the award.
-Include a link to their blog.
-Select 7 blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly.
-Nominate those bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award.
-Finally, tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself.

[I stress that these nominations do not imply that I agree with all the sentiments expressed by these bloggers. Often, I strongly disagree. But I feel they have interesting things to say and frequently include wonderful photos, and I enjoy reading their blogs.]

I’M FORWARDING THIS AWARD TO:
https://jpcavanaugh.com
https://lensdiary.blog
https://www.juliaelizabethblog.com
https://leavingfootprintseverywhere.wordpress.com
https://myexpressionofthoughtsblog.wordpress.com
https://creativityoverloaders.wordpress.com
https://ginisnaturenews.com

7 THINGS ABOUT ME
1. I am one happy blogger: I love the writing, the research, the dialogue with my readers, and the sense of being part of this wonderful international blogging community.
2. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be surrounded by caring people: my immediate family, extended family, and friends from various times in my life—some of whom I’ve reconnected with via this blog.
3. My musical tastes are diverse, including (I’m mixing composers and performers) Beethoven and Chopin, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, Audra McDonald and Lady Gaga.
4. The most extraordinary non-fiction book I’ve read recently is An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic, by Daniel Mendelsohn.
5. The most enjoyable novels I’ve read recently are The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (author’s true identity remains a matter of controversy, but who cares?).
6. I’m an unabashed bleeding heart liberal (now progressive) who weeps at the thought of babies torn from their mothers’ arms and of the senseless ending of so many innocent lives by people armed with grudges and automatic weapons that should only be in the hands of the military.
7. I am deeply concerned about the apparent fragility of our democracy and the polarization that divides us, but I continue to believe that deep down—beyond the fear and anger—we humans all have similar needs and wants. And I fervently hope we find leadership that will inspire us and focus on the things that unite us: that vast area of common ground.

________________

Memo to all, especially my non-blogging subscribers: As you know, annieasksyou emphasizes dialogue, so although this format is different from what you’re used to, please feel free to register your thoughts, comments, and likes as always.

Next week, with gratitude to Christopher (aka Dracul Van Helsing) for nominating me for not one, but two awards, we return to our customary format, covering a topic that will once again demonstrate my lack of discipline/versatility.

Annie

How Do We Avoid the Pitchforks and Achieve Greater Economic Equality?

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I am extremely fond of someone whose politics and world view differ significantly from mine. One text exchange with him really brought me up short. I had written what I consider a self-evident truth: unless we do something about the growing economic inequality in this country, it won’t be only the poor and struggling middle class who will suffer. Eventually, our fraying social fabric will tear completely, and the .01% will find society inhospitable to them as well.

My correspondent’s response stunned me. He said that what I’m suggesting will mean the end of a nation based on merit, and my grandchild will face a dismal future. I responded that I do worry about my grandchild’s dismal future, but it’s because of the ravages of climate change—not efforts to reduce inequality. And so our discussion ended.

I didn’t launch into all the evidence demonstrating that our society has never been based solely on merit—from the Original Sin of Slavery to the very 21st Century scandal of famous people bribing coaches to get their kids into the best colleges.

But the idea that any mention of redressing inequality could evoke such a reaction made me think that it’s time to talk about why the wealthiest among us should welcome steps to close the ever-widening economic gap, why some of them are advocating for just that, and what approaches might be feasible for us as a nation.

I realize once again I’m taking on a “you can’t cover such a mammoth, complex topic in a blog” subject. That’s why I won’t mention world economic inequality right now. I have some awareness of my limits, for goodness’ sake (!?). I must add a disclaimer, however: my formal education in economics is practically zero, so you should be skeptical of anything I write that I don’t attribute to others.

What I do have is a heart that hurts when I see so much suffering and anger in this land of plenty, a conviction that this growing economic inequity is unsustainable, and—I’ve been told—an analytical mind in addressing problems. And my blessed blog gives me a bit of a forum to try to evoke discussion of these views.

So here we go.

We’ll start with Nick Hanauer. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with him and his work, but I’ve attached a link to his 2014 TED Talk: “Beware, Fellow Plutocrats: The Pitchforks Are Coming.” It’s worth “eavesdropping” on Hanauer’s speech, which lays some of the groundwork for the reasons and ways to bring about positive economic change. (I’m not endorsing everything he’s ever said or written—simply focusing here on ideas that make great sense to me.)

I think this is especially important as the Democratic Party internally debates how moderate, progressive, or even (gasp!) socialistic its policies should be. Polls show that most voters—not just Democrats—want policies that are moderately progressive—though the word “progressive” may worry them (worries bolstered by the Trump-Republican push to make even the desire for healthcare sound like we’re racing toward the “evils of socialism.”)

Hanauer describes himself as a “plutocrat” and “proud and unapologetic capitalist” who has made a fortune. (He was the first non-family investor in Amazon, co-founded a company that Microsoft bought for $6.4 billion, etc.) But he says he’s neither the smartest nor hardest working person and was a mediocre student.

“Truly, my success is the consequence of spectacular luck, of birth, of circumstance and of timing. But I am actually pretty good at a couple of things. One, I have an unusually high tolerance for risk, and the other is I have a good sense, a good intuition about what will happen in the future, and I think that that intuition about the future is the essence of good entrepreneurship.”

“So what do I see in our future today, you ask? I see pitchforks, as in angry mobs with pitchforks, because while people like us plutocrats are living beyond the dreams of avarice, the other 99 percent of our fellow citizens are falling farther and farther behind.”

To me, that evaluation resonates strongly, and I hope his message is reaching at least some of his fellow plutocrats.

Hanauer stresses that although he believes some inequality is essential for what he calls a “high-functioning capitalist democracy,” inequality today is historically high and worsening daily. If this trend continues, he says, our society will become more like what 18th-century France had “before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks.”

“So I have a message for my fellow plutocrats and zillionaires and for anyone who lives in a gated bubble world: Wake up. Wake up. It cannot last. Because if we do not do something to fix the glaring economic inequities in our society, the pitchforks will come for us, for no free and open society can long sustain this kind of rising economic inequality. It has never happened.
There are no examples. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state or an uprising.” [All the passages bolded for emphasis are mine.]

What’s more, he says, this inequality is bad for business. Throw out a belief in “trickle-down economics,” which never worked, Hanauer says, because economies aren’t efficient and don’t tend toward fairness. He advocates what he calls “middle-out economics,” which views economies as complex systems that can be effective only if they’re well-managed.

He gives a cogent illustration of why trickle-down economics can’t work.

“I earn 1,000 times the median wage, but I do not buy 1,000 times as much stuff, do I? I actually bought two pairs of these pants…I could have bought 2,000 pairs, but what would I do with them? How many haircuts can I get?…a few plutocrats…can never drive a great national economy. Only a thriving middle class can do that.”

How do we achieve that thriving middle class? One way, which Hanauer sparked, is to raise the minimum wage. Less than one year after his article “The Capitalist’s Case for a $15 Minimum Wage” was published—and Forbes called it “Nick Hanauer’s near-insane proposal”—Seattle did just that: raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, more than twice the existing federal rate.

“It happened because a group of us reminded the middle class that they are the source of growth and prosperity in capitalist economies…that when workers have more money, businesses have more customers, and need more employees…that when businesses pay workers a living wage, taxpayers are relieved of the burden of funding the poverty programs like food stamps and medical assistance and rent assistance that those workers need. We reminded them that low-wage workers make terrible taxpayers, and that when you raise the minimum wage…all businesses benefit yet all can compete.”

To those who insist this approach is economically disastrous, he points out that Seattle is doing very well, thank you, and is one of the fastest growing cities in the US, with a booming restaurant business, where the restaurant workers can afford to eat where they work (despite restaurateurs who had said they’d have to close their doors).

Hanauer acknowledges these issues are more complex than he can depict in one speech but says there’s simply no evidence that increasing wages will harm both workers and the economy.

“The most insidious thing about trickle-down economics is not the claim that if the rich get richer, everyone is better off. It is the claim made by those who oppose any increase in the minimum wage that if the poor get richer, that will be bad for the economy. This is nonsense.”

When President Bill Clinton said “the era of big government is over,” we had already been on a trajectory that sees government as a necessary evil at best, or pure evil at worst. (Notably, Clinton had added: “but we cannot go back to a time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”) Without mentioning those sentiments, Hanauer calls for “a new politics, a new capitalism”:

“Let’s by all means shrink the size of government, but not by slashing the poverty programs, but by ensuring that workers are paid enough so that they actually don’t need those programs…Government does create prosperity and growth, by creating the conditions that allow both entrepreneurs and their customers to thrive.”

“Balancing the power of capitalists like me and workers isn’t bad for capitalism. It’s essential to it. Programs like a reasonable minimum wage, affordable healthcare, paid sick leave, and the progressive taxation necessary to pay for the important infrastructure necessary for the middle class like education, R and D, these are indispensable tools shrewd capitalists should embrace to drive growth, because no one benefits from it like us.”

He concludes with a message to his fellow plutocrats that it’s time to “recommit to our country”—and to a more inclusive and efficient capitalism…

“…a capitalism that will ensure that America’s economy remains the most dynamic and prosperous in the world. Let’s secure the future for ourselves, our children and their children. Or alternatively, we could do nothing, hide in our gated communities and private schools, enjoy our planes and yachts — they’re fun — and wait for the pitchforks.”

Since this speech, Hanauer has continued to push for change. His podcast, Pitchfork Economics, is widely available. I listened to a segment in which US Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Cory Booker discussed his proposed bill concerning stock buybacks, explained here. May sound dull, but I found it fascinating.

Before 1982, I learned, stock buybacks were illegal: using corporate profits to buy back stocks, thereby raising the price of those stocks, was viewed as market manipulation. Doesn’t that make sense? But now it’s standard practice, contributing nothing to economic growth except what goes into the stockholders’ pockets. The workers whose increased productivity made those profits possible receive zilch; their wages remain stagnant, as wages have since the late 1970s.

Even worse, there are disincentives to corporations trying to be fair.

Booker cites American Airlines. After having a great quarter last year, he says, “they announced long overdue pay raises to the pilots and flight attendants.” But analysts looked askance at this move, and Morgan Stanley downgraded American’s shares, complaining its action established a worrying precedent for American Airlines and the industry.

So they were essentially punished for trying to be fair to their workers. Is that not an example of an economy gone seriously awry?

Booker’s bill, the “Workers Dividend Act,” says that if corporations plan to engage in stock buybacks, they must give a commensurate share to their employees. He stresses that this bill is not intended to “vilify” wealth, but simply to ensure that everyone has more.

Importantly, he points out why it’s needed:

“We make moral and value decisions with how we structure our tax codes, shortchanging workers, adding to wealth disparity, and weakening our democracy as a whole.”

To me, the big question is: How do we get the plutocrats to change direction before our democracy is further weakened—and/or the pitchforks are activated?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Michael Tomasky’s Op-Ed, published today in The New York Times: “Is America Becoming an Oligarchy?,” which echoes the concerns expressed here. Tomasky writes:

“Democracy can’t flourish in a context of grotesque concentration of wealth. This idea is neither new nor radical nor alien. It is old, mainstream and as American as Thomas Jefferson.”

Many writers have examined this topic lately, and I think it’s one that we must face as a nation. I plan to explore some of the ideas in subsequent posts.

Are you with me in having this discussion—whether you agree or disagree?

Annie

The Constitution: Can It Help Us “Replace the Jeering With Productive Conversation”?

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No matter what your politics, you may well be troubled, as I am, by the efforts on college campuses—as well as in many other arenas—to stifle dissent by preventing people with unpopular views from being invited to speak—or interrupting them so that they can’t be heard. Short of falsely shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater, the First Amendment to the US Constitution should be a protected and revered part of all our public dialogue—from colleges to the White House.

And it seems the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement (AP) college entrance exams, has decided to do something about that problem, reports Thomas Friedman in The New York Times. They determined to ensure that the next generation really learns what the Constitution is all about. 

It was part of an effort to define the skills and knowledge that best correlate with success in college and beyond. “Their answer: the ability to master ‘two codes’—computer science and the US Constitution,” states Friedman.

The emphasis on the Constitution came about because the folks who run the College Board concluded, Friedman writes,

“that if you want to be an empowered citizen in our democracy—able to not only navigate society and its institutions but also to improve and shape them, and not just be shaped by them—you need to know how the code of the US Constitution works.”

As David Coleman, president of the College Board, put it:

“Our country was argued into existence—and that is the first thing that binds us—but also has some of the tensions that divide us. So we thought, ‘What can we do to help replace the jeering with productive conversation?”

And Stefanie Sanford, the College Board’s chief of global strategy, said:

The First Amendment lays the foundation for a mature community of conversation and ideas—built on the right and even obligation to speak up and, when needed, to protest, but not to interrupt and prevent others from speaking.”

I read their comments shortly before watching a highly informative One Day University lecture titled “The Constitution: Enduring Myths and Hidden Truths.” The speaker: Andrew Porwancher, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma who teaches constitutional history. 

Porwancher set the stage for the Constitutional Convention in 1787: the delegates were trying “to salvage a country whose very existence was mired in doubt.” (Some have expressed the same concerns about the US today!)

The Continental Congress was “impotent”; “the Articles of Confederation were failing.” Americans who were wary of centralized government had gone too far in the opposite direction: there was no executive branch or judiciary, and a single state had veto power over any actions.

This document the framers came up with wasn’t all that popular; in fact, an effort was under way to throw it out and start from scratch. As the ratification effort proceeded, there were pro-Federalists on one side and anti-Federalists on the other.

(The Federalist Papers, a group of 85 essays, had been written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, using the pseudonym Publius, the Roman statesman who helped establish the republic. More on their impact on us today follows.)

So the vote went to New York. Though there were already nine votes, ostensibly enough for passage, Hamilton knew that New York’s prominence meant its position was critical to passage—and thus to the continuation of the republic.

When Hamilton began to speak, two of the three members of the New York delegation were opposed. But, Porwancher reported, “Hamilton spoke with eloquence and passion and moved them to tears.” Still, the vote for ratification was 30-27—pretty close to ending this American experiment.

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Alexander Hamilton

I won’t go into all the common myths that Porwancher covered in his talk, but here’s one relevant to our discussion:  the Bill of Rights was an integral part of the Constitution from the start. Not so.

In fact, it was ratified years later. There was worry—and Hamilton was one of the worriers— that if certain rights were enumerated, others might be considered unimportant; without specific mention, they might later be encroached upon. 

But Porwancher says the American people did want fundamental rights enumerated. Patrick Henry disagreed: he opposed the Constitution because he feared a strong central authority, and he fretted that the Bill of Rights would, Porwancher says, “sweeten that bitter pill.” The Bill of Rights was finally ratified four years after the Constitutional Convention.

Interesting fact: The First Amendment we revere—guaranteeing freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, petitioning the government—often cited as our most significant freedoms, actually started out in third place. It followed two amendments that failed to be ratified: one to determine the size of Congressional districts; the other pertaining to Congressional salaries. So it’s by default that those critical freedoms moved up two notches to their current place of prominence.

Another interesting fact: The Federalist Papers were not important in their day. Porwancher says there’s no evidence “they moved the needle back then.” But in the last few generations, they have played what many consider an outsized role in the selection of judges at all levels of government. Consider that President Trump operated almost solely from a list provided by the Federalist Society in determining his Supreme Court picks. 

Says Porwancher:

“We can debate the merits of whether they should be so important today.”

Indeed, many who are concerned that the federal judiciary is becoming far to the right of the majority of Americans’ views believe this debate is overdue. See, for example, Jane Mayer’s discussion in her book Dark Money about the role of the Olin family (whose fortune is tied to DDT), working with the Federalist Society to create a conservative agenda at law schools throughout the country to turn back federal regulations against toxic pollutants.

In many of the major questions that divide us, such as the separation of church and state and the implications of the Second Amendment, some are always asking: What was the framers’ original intent? But Porwancher points out that we can’t always know. “There were big gaps,” he observes. “The framers disagreed on the meaning of their own words, and on clauses they themselves wrote.”

On the question of whether originalism is possible, he says partial originalism is—on matters pertaining to freedom of the press, speech, rights of accused, free exercise of religion, and balance between liberty and national security. (I would imagine many people may find this view debatable.) “The framers understood the threat to national security but still valued liberty,” he says. 

Disagreement concerning original intent versus a living Constitution adaptable to its time began with the framers.  Hamilton posited that the Constitution must be adaptable so that it can be relevant when unanticipated circumstances arise. Madison’s view was more limited: we have the amendment process to address such issues; they shouldn’t be decided by judicial fiat.

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James Madison

Of course, we want the Constitution to provide clear guidance, not to harp on conflicts but to remedy dilemmas. But “The framers’ time was as toxic and fragmented as our own,” Porwancher says. They suffered no illusions that human beings were without flaws. 

Porwancher points out that there’s always been tension between the role of the state and the role of its citizens, and that tension will go on.

“We are a young country, but no other nation has such extraordinary longevity—not in resolving conflicts, but in institutionalizing them. As long as debate endures, the Constitution has succeeded.”

”What they [the framers] understood was that when debate ends, carnage begins. When people stop yelling, violence begins. They drafted the Constitution to keep the conflicts going. When politics ends, violence begins.”

But today, we are hearing political speech that seems to encourage violence. We appear to be witnessing a blurring of the lines between politics and violence that the framers probably also experienced, but don’t seem to have offered guidance about handling. So how do we react? How can we ensure everyone’s right to be heard while keeping everyone else safe?

Several questions from the audience concluded with one from a woman who identified herself as a descendant of slaves. She said she is optimistic in general, but asked: “Will we survive this [the years of Trump] also?” 

Porwancher’s response:

“Our remarkable resilience: a republic with little chance of surviving becoming the greatest superpower in the world. I can’t help but be optimistic about our future.”

After viewing Porwancher’s lecture, I reread Friedman’s article about the College Board’s efforts. And I checked the changes being made in the AP curriculum. In addition to focusing on college skills such as analyzing, comparing, interpreting, and communicating political information, there will be

  • More emphasis on the U.S. founding documents and other primary sources. A specified set of 15 Supreme Court cases and 9 foundational documents—including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—is now required study.

In a clear demonstration that this effort is already bearing fruit, Friedman writes:

“Kids are getting it. An AP US Government and Politics class at Hightstown High School in New Jersey was credited in a Senate committee report with contributing content to a bill, the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act, which was signed into law last month.”

Reading that gave me chills. Once again, as I have in the past, I was buoyed by hope that the next generation of Americans will do far better than we are doing now.

An important related question: Should we be pushing to ensure that all students in American high schools receive training in civics classes?

Please let me know your thoughts, stories, other resources, and anything else that this post brings to mind. I love to hear from you.

Annie

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 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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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

Here’s Why I’ve No Intention of Discussing the Elephant in Our National Room

I am a bit of a political junkie, closely following daily developments about national events—except when I force myself to take mental health breaks and turn to Frank Sinatra’s soothing voice on my car radio and to mindless diversions on my TV.

And I’m not alone in my periodic escapism: I’ve learned that therapists are increasingly advocating such breaks for their clients and that some mental health professionals are, in fact, keeping their own news consumption to a minimum, feeling that they are otherwise hindered in caring for their overwhelmed patients. 

This week, The New York Times carried an article titled “In a Divided Era, Political Anger Is All Each Side Has in Common.” The title is self-explanatory; the article goes on to discuss relationships among friends, spouses, and siblings that have been severely damaged or even broken because of vehement feelings either for or against President Trump. As a follow-up, the Times is asking readers to describe their personal situations and relate any lessons they may have learned.

I think the Times was woefully shortsighted in focusing on these sad divisions because: a) this is not a new story; and b) it fails to take into account the quest for commonality that I believe was evidenced in the APA poll on anxiety and the success of the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” which I discussed in my previous post: “Mister Rogers: Where Are You When We Need You?”

Perhaps the Times’ summary of its readers’ reports about what they’ve learned from their tattered relationships will contain some lessons that are broadly applicable. If so, I hope the Times will follow up with stories that demonstrate Americans’ longing to move beyond this internecine warfare.

Despite my own strong political views, I have not, from the outset, intended this blog to be strictly political. So much stuff is readily available that I see no need to repeat what’s often appearing elsewhere—unless I (or we) can somehow come up with a different perspective.

And that’s what I’m hoping you’ll help me with now.

Can our discussion move us forward—with a focus on looking for new (emphasis on the new) ideas and/or examples of how we, as a nation, get through our current morass with our democracy intact? I am eager to hear your thoughts in this regard.

I think it’s worth repeating writer Todd VanDerWerff’s words in Vox, which I quoted in the Mister Rogers post: “Rogers understood that on some level all any of us wants is to know that we’re okay. And because he was so good at seeming to believe everybody was, indeed, okay, he could connect with our need for empathy and hope.”

I believe those political leaders aspiring to office—on any level—who can convincingly convey that message will be welcomed by Americans of varying political views. Do you agree? Do you see such leaders on the horizon—either the “usual suspects” or those outside of the Beltway and possibly not even talked about much? If so, please share your thoughts with us, including what qualities you think this person would bring to healing our national divide.  Please don’t confine your thinking solely to potential presidential candidates.

In addition, exciting things seem to be happening politically outside of Washington. My thoughts have once again turned to Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person to become a state legislator, who won her seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017 by firing up her potential constituents with a promise to improve the traffic congestion on Route 28 in Fairfax County. (!) This year, there are many interesting people running for local and state offices throughout the country.

If you have stories to tell about wellsprings of democracy and compelling candidates in your areas, please do forward them. And please also tell me how you feel about my position of keeping the elephant in our national room off limits in this forum.

Annie

About Cats, Dogs, and Preconceived Notions

 

 

 

Thirteen years ago, a tiny white kitten slipped through our backyard fence and adopted Vick, our male collie/shepherd mix, as his “mom.” He’d trot after Vick wherever the dog went, struggling to keep up with him, and nuzzling him whenever possible. Vick, whose gentle nature belied his large size, was gracious and accepting of this feline interloper.

When torrential rains came, we moved the kitten into our garage while we pondered what to do with him. Keeping him was out of the question: we were unabashed dog lovers, but cats were different. I could tolerate them (and who can resist a kitten?), but my husband was emphatic: “I hate cats,” he said.

That was then. Now, having recently euthanized our beloved, very large cat, who’d become extremely ill and deteriorated quickly from a lymphoma, we are both slowly adjusting to his absence and to the void that absence created. But Monty has also left us with some fresh insights about reexamining preconceived notions, exploring the potential for human/animal communication, and opening our hearts and accepting a new source of wonder.

We had arranged for our dog walker, a veterinary assistant, to find a home for the kitten—if we promised to take him to the vet for his shots. We agreed. The tide changed one evening when we were out to dinner with friends who had two cats. They knew I’d been lobbying for another dog. We had our “main dog,” but I also wanted what the humorist Dave Barry has called “a small, emergency backup dog.” Our friends said, “Why don’t you just keep the kitten? Cats are great.” I assume the idea had been floating in my husband’s mind, because he turned to me and asked, “What’ll we name him?”

We named him “Monty,” after Monty Woolley, an actor who had played the title role in the play “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Woolley’s character arrived, and stayed, and stayed. So did our Monty.IMG_0674

Fortunately for us, and perhaps because of Vick’s influence, he was a rather doglike cat—sweet, gentle, and affectionate, happy and purring, and in the years before Vick died at age 16-1/2, perfectly content to roll around and wrestle with his 80-pound companion. He was a well-adjusted indoor cat that seemed to lack any predatory instincts: on the few occasions a field mouse scampered across our kitchen floor, he remained uninterested.

And he became my cat-hating spouse’s cat: An early riser, he fed him, and it was he who cut Monty’s nails, stroking him gently between clips as he said, beaming, “I hate cats; I hate cats.” From my bed in the early morning, I could hear them having what sounded like conversations. Monty didn’t just “meow’: he vocalized, and he had a lot to say—often. Unlike with the companion animals that preceded him, Monty and we just seemed to understand each others’ vocalizations on a whole other level.

His ashes are now buried in our backyard, next to those of his buddy Vick. Though we miss our daily conversations with Monty and thought we’d have many more years together, we are grateful for the happy accident that led him, thirteen years ago, to wriggle his tiny body through our fence and awaken in us both a new capacity to love.

Note: I wrote this piece at the close of a course I’d taken in mindfulness: our final assignment was to bring in something we found meaningful. When several of my fellow participants came up to me afterward and said, “My husband also says he’d never have a cat in the house,” I began to wonder how widespread this sentiment is—and whether it’s gender-related. Many people love both cats and dogs, but other animal lovers choose sides, sometimes zealously, and perhaps stereotyping people whose animal choice differs from their own.

Our experience with Monty also led me to wonder whether it might be a little parable about how willing we are to challenge ourselves more broadly—not only about cats, dogs, and other animals, but also about the people we meet. In these woefully polarized times, can we/will we/do we ever reexamine our preconceived notions based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation, and the very sticky, difficult issue of political attitudes? If so, how do we do that? Your thoughts? Examples? Please leave a reply below. Note: If the “Leave a Reply” box isn’t visible, click on the title of the posting above (“About Cats, Dogs, and Preconceived Notions”), and it will appear–all the way down, below the previously posted comments.

And if you’d like to share stories about your own companion animals–their distinct natures and/or your bond with them–I’d love to hear those as well.

ADDENDUM: Since posting this blog a little over a week ago, I have set to work designing a Home page. (I’ve no idea how long it will take my non-techie self to pull that together.) As I went through Google images seeking appropriate selections, I noticed two very familiar photos: Vick and Monty, just as you see them above, have been reincarnated in the vast universe of cyberspace.

How did they get there? At first I thought it was done by WordPress, but I learned that the photos had, in fact, been swept up by Googlebot, which is using the Google search engine to index my site, with its images, and make it searchable for others. If I didn’t want the photos on Google images, I could either remove them from my blog or bar Google from my site. Neither option appealed to me, so Vick and Monty remain available to anyone who cares to adopt them photographically.

As I love the photos and our memories of our boys, I am actually quite pleased with this turn of events–and amused that while I’m slowly building a community with my blog, Vick and Monty probably now have a fan base in the thousands.