Friday, August 31, 2012

The Real Mitt

Having completed the 2012 Republican Convention (and still recovering from Clint Eastwood's monologue), it strikes me that the Mitt we saw for most of his speech last night was actually the 'real' Mitt Romney...minus the add-on policy stuff at the end to please the conservatives in the audience.

First of all, the loving son, the devout Mormon, and the faithful and head-over-in heels-in love husband and father. That truly is at the heart of this man. Secondly, the CEO who is the consummate, totally driven businessman. And thirdly, the totally pragmatic politician who really does not have an ideological bone in his body, except for that which supports the first two propositions above (family, faith, and business).

Matt Latimer, former Bush (43) speechwriter, wrote this about Romney in the Daily Beast, trying to imagine what he would say in his acceptance speech if he could speak totally honestly.
Look, I’ve said a lot of things over the course of the campaign that I didn’t really mean. Or frankly even understand. I did it because that’s how you win a nomination these days. The two people I most respect in politics are my dad and the first George Bush. They were both moderates uncomfortable with the rightward drift of the party. Neither of them really respected President Reagan, or thought of themselves as part of some ideological movement. I am a pragmatist—that’s how you succeed in business. I work with anyone who can help my companies succeed and turn a profit. A big profit. I really believe I can do the same thing for the American economy by finding a way to work with anybody I can to turn things around and bring profits to the Treasury. If that means raising taxes, I’ll do it if I can get away with it. Cutting spending? Well, that’s going to be too hard because the American people don’t really want them. And I want to get reelected. All of you who voted for me know deep down who I really am. You picked me over more conservative candidates, you ignored all of my past positions, because the professional conservatives on TV told you that I was the best person to win and more than anything you really, really want to beat the hated Barack Obama. I gave you Paul Ryan to make you happy—maybe I’ll even listen to him sometimes. So no more pandering for me. We all know what we’re doing here. Just go to your ballot box, close your eyes, and vote for me whether you like it or not. Thank you and good night.

Can these things make him a good President of the USA? It is very possible that we shall be getting an answer to that question in a few months now. Given the alternatives (in the Republican primaries), I'm quite glad it's him, and not Cain, Gingrich, Perry, Bachman, Santorum, Paul, etc., each and every one of whom was totally off-the-wall! My guess is they don't even know who Mitt Romney is, and how or what he'll do as President! What a country!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Republicans and Federalists At 'War': The Ongoing Process of American Politics

I have been doing a lot of reading in the American founding, from the 1770s through around 1800.  This was simply an amazing time in our history, when we threw off the yoke of British colonialism,  declared our Independence at the Continental Congress in 1776, and waged an 8 year-long war, at the cost of 25,000 American dead.  A few years later, we constructed a new nation called the United States by the adoption of our Constitution, and then we elected George Washington as the first President, the unanimous choice of all electors in the Electoral College, in 1989.
Presenting the Declaration of Independence, 1776

Yet seven years later, upon the retirement of George Washington, two new political parties were contesting for the Presidency in a way that sounds very modern.  The Federalists, representing the social and financial elite of the country, were campaigning for John Adams; the Republicans (also called Democrats), representing the middle and lower classes of people (primarily) were campaigning for Thomas Jefferson.

Historian Susan Dunn, in a fabulous book Jefferson's Second Revolution, describes the ferocity of the political battle being waged in 1796 (see if this sounds at all familiar) between political surrogates for Founders and friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
The Federalist press blasted Jefferson for possessing a feeble commitment to public service.  They accused him of twice abandoning his trust, first when he resigned as governor of Virginia during the British invasion and then when he resigned as secretary of state in 1793.  But mostly Federalists denounced him as an atheist, a utopian dreamer...a radical French Jacobin, a lover of revolution intent on subverting American government....

Republicans accused Adams of being an "avowed friend of monarchy."  His sons were waiting in the wings to succeed him, they noted, while Jefferson only had daughters....One candidate was mesmerized by England, the other was the tool of France.  The Republican Committee of Pennsylvania declared that voters had a choice between a man who was "the uniform advocate of equal rights among citizens" and another who was "the champion of rank, titles and hereditary distinctions."

It was not all political ideology.  There were some clear sectional differences too, between the parties.  The "moral and political habits of the citizens of the southern states," one writer announced in the Connecticut Courant, seemed to make an enduring union unlikely.  Perhaps the nation should split along geographical lines, some people in New England felt.  For his part, Jefferson did not go that far, though he saw himself as committed to protecting the "Southern interest."  Despite their different sectional biases, both parties claimed that only they expressed the public good and could represent all Americans who were committed to constitutional government.

Adams and Jefferson, dignified, aloof, kept above the fray.  Although Washington had created a powerful executive branch of government--surely more powerful than the Framers had envisaged--and made the presidency the one big political prize in the United States, and although bitter disputes over foreign policy were polarizing Americans and politicizing their society, Adams and Jefferson were non-participants in the race, neither active candidates nor party leaders nor party builders.  They made no speeches, they shook no hands.  Jefferson remained hidden away the entire time in Monticello....It was local party leaders who organized rallies and distributed pamphlets.  Republicans were more active than Federalists, cultivating grass-roots support, aiming their message at ordinary citizens.  Adams compained that the people were being "abused and deceived" and that "little care or pain" was taken by Federalists to "undeceive and disabuse them."
John Adams and the Federalists won this contest in 1796 by only three electoral votes, and he became the second U.S. President.  However, four years later, in 1800, the results were reversed, and Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans were victorious. 

The moral of this story?  In the midst of a Presidential campaign, from (nearly) the very beginning, things have been said and done on both sides that disturb and anger, exaggerate, misrepresent, and demonize the other side, and even former friends (eg Adams and Jefferson)  sometimes become political enemies.  But once the election is over, everyone calms down and life goes on, and the Republic survives to live another day....

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Trashing the President

I'm going to blame (or give credit to, whatever the case may be) my friend Tom for the following, because his wild enthusiasm for the recent movie 2016 Obama's America was the only reason that I bothered looking into this fellow Dinesh D'Souza, who is the brains behind it.

I was going to go see his movie at our local theatre, but then I didn't really want to spend my dollars that way, especially after I began to read online about the basic thesis of the movie.  So I kept looking on the internet, then went to the library to get one or more of D'Souza's books (2016 is based on the two most recent of his books, The Roots of Obama's Rage and Obama's America).

D'Souza seems to have concluded that America is in danger because President Obama is a dangerous person.  Why is Obama dangerous?  Well, let me quote his words, from the first of the already mentioned books:

"The most powerful country in the world is being governed according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s—a polygamist who abandoned his wives, drank himself into stupors, and bounced around on two iron legs (after his real legs had to be amputated because of a car crash caused by his drunk driving). This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anti-colonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son. The son is the one who is making it happen, but the son is, as he candidly admits, only living out his father’s dream. The invisible father provides the inspiration, and the son dutifully gets the job done. America today is being governed by a ghost."

Really, Dinesh?  Really?  Is that what you see when you look at the White House?  Funny, I don't see that at all, nor do a great majority of Americans, who still like and admire President Obama.  They don't like the progress he's making on the economy (I don't either), but that's an entirely different matter, isn't it.

So where did this otherwise sensible fellow Dinesh D'Souza come up with this quite novel theory?   I've taken the time to look at a few of D'Souza books and essays, and listened to a few of his online interviews.  He's got an interesting background: an immigrant from India around the age of 18, graduate of Dartmouth College, and a diligent worker in the rarified world of conservative think tanks, including Heritage, AEI, and Hoover--all the major ones.  (He also worked briefly in Reagan's White House.)  He is a Movement Conservative intellectual, without a doubt.  And presently, he works for Campus Crusade for Christ, as the President of their small Christian College in New York, King's College.

Most of what D'Souza had written prior to 2010 was unexceptional Movement Conservative in style and substance, the only unique thing about it being his interesting upbringing in India, which gives him a somewhat unusual perspective.  Namely, he believes in the benefits of British colonialism (see Chapter 2, "Two Cheers For Colonialism", What's So Great About America).

Speaking about his Indian grandfather, D'Souza wrote:  "The reason for our difference of perception [his grandfather's extreme dislike for colonialism] was that colonialism had been pretty bad for him, but pretty good for me....Colonialism was the transmission belt that brought to India the blessings of Western civilization.  It was a harsh regime for those who lived under it, to be sure.  My grandfather would have a hard time giving even one cheer for colonialism.  As for me, I cannot mange three, but I am quite willing to grant two.  So here it is: two cheers for colonialism!"  (pp. 56, 59)

Alright, Dinesh, let's talk here, just you and me.  I can see the point you're trying to make here.    You want to give some credit to the British for their fairly benign form of colonialism, as opposed to most other colonial powers like Spain, Portugal, Belgium, France, and Russia.  Fair enough.  But here's the thing.  That kind of thinking doesn't really work here in the U.S., you see, as opposed to your native India, because our entire way about thinking of politics and government is based on our own revolution against the British.  America has been, for over 200 years, anti-colonialist in its thinking and approach to the rest of the world.

In other words, Dinesh, we would EXPECT Barack Obama to be anticolonialist.  That's what it means to be American.  The last (and only) US President that I can think of who was not completely anticolonialist was Theodore Roosevelt (and possibly William McKinley, his predecessor), when we annexed the Philippines as our own 'colony' from Spain.  Before and after this, anticolonialism has been the American name of the game.  It is who we are: freedom and self-determination for all people.

So your far-fetched thesis, embodied in this slick movie 2016 Obama's America, that Obama is driven by the ghost of his absent father and of his other 'surrogate fathers' to destroy America because it is the great colonial hegemon in the current world, is simply ridiculous and absurd.  It's amateurish psychobabble, unworthy of someone who thinks of himself as a 'public intellectual.'

I'm disappointed in you, Dinesh.  You do some decent writing, particularly on religious matters, and I want to give you credit for that.  But with this viciously personal, partisan hatchet-job of a movie (and the books on which it is based), you have basically destroyed your own intellectual reputation, it seems to me.  Even FOX and National Review, two of the flagship conservative entities of our day, seem to think you've gone too far into the crazy right-wing world of Obama hatred.  The only folks that I've seen online who love your idea here is Glenn Beck, who is too wacko even for FOX, and some right-wing, conspiratorialist radio hosts.  So good luck with that.

Sadly, however, in the process of your own reputational self-destruction, you've possibly also managed to unfairly damage the reputation of a man who doesn't deserve it, a man far more important than you are to this country.  Movies like yours have great power in America, which is I'm sure why you made it.  (And I guess there must have been a LOT of money behind you as well, from who knows where.)  So your thesis will get a lot of play among people who don't know any better and who can be swayed by your emotionally powerful film.  Who knows, your trashy movie (because it trashes a good man) may prove decisive in this close election.  So congratulations, Mr. Movie Director.  I'm assuming that that's what you want from all of this.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Mind of D'Souza

Silly me.  Here I was, thinking that the question of Barack Obama revolved around what he had done in the last 3½ years of his Presidency.  Things like his handling of foreign policy, his health care plan, his economic programs, etc.  Or perhaps comparing the foreign policy, military, economic, and social policies and proposed plans of Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Dinesh D'Souza
But NOOOOOO!  It now seems that we’re going to be making judgments in the forthcoming Presidential election based on how Obama is seen through the mind’s eye of a denizen of right-wing think tanks and an Indian immigrant to America by the name of Dinesh D’Souza, who’s just released a movie called 2016 Obama’s America.    That makes sense, right?  Of course right!

So now I’ve got to go back and pore over the this guy’s oeuvre, so I know what I’m talking about when I challenge his rather, uh, imaginative speculations. I’ve got to hand it to this D’Souza character: he’s been clever in getting people to pay attention to him and his ejaculations.  

Michael Moore, meet your competition!  Grrrrrrrrrrrrr (that's a growl of frustration, by the way)!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Great Awakening Through Which We Are Living

I got to thinking about 'Great Awakenings' today, as I sat in a contemporary worship service this morning.  (This is not normally my 'cup of tea' but we were there for Mary Beth's school, the staff of which was being honored by a 'megachurch' in High Point, Green Street Baptist Church.)

Methodist Camp Meeting, 1819
The United States is one of the most religious nations in the world.  This is especially true when compared to the countries of Western Europe , which have been largely secularized over the past century or two.  And the primary way this has happened over the past 300 years is by the process of 'great awakening', when an intense period of evangelical Protestant revivalism occurs and individuals by the thousands and even millions are converted from a nominal Christianity (or no faith at all) into devout, church-going, faithful Christians.

The first 'Great Awakening' is the one most people know of from our national history.  It began around 1740 (long before the Revolution), under the revival preaching ministry of George Whitefield, a British evangelical Anglican, who came to the United States seven different times and preached throughout the colonies, in a most effective way.  Even the skeptical Benjamin Franklin was impressed:
Benjamin Franklin attended a revival meeting in Philadelphia and was greatly impressed with Whitefield's ability to deliver a message to such a large group. Franklin had previously dismissed, as an exaggeration, reports of Whitefield preaching to crowds of the order of tens of thousands in England. When listening to Whitefield preaching from the Philadelphia court house, Franklin walked away towards his shop in Market Street until he could no longer hear Whitefield distinctly. He then estimated his distance from Whitefield and calculated the area of a semicircle centred on Whitefield. Allowing two square feet per person he computed that Whitefield could be heard by over thirty thousand people in the open air.

Franklin admired Whitefield as a fellow intellectual but thought Whitefield's plan to run an orphanage in Georgia would lose money. He published several of Whitefield's tracts and was impressed by Whitefield's ability to preach and speak with clarity and enthusiasm to crowds. Franklin was an ecumenist and approved of Whitefield's appeal to members of many denominations, but he was not himself converted. After one of Whitefield's sermons, Franklin noted the: "wonderful...change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem'd as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro' the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street."
Rev. George Whitefield was the Billy Graham of his day, that's how powerful his influence was in colonial America.  Furthermore, scholars believe that "the evangelical movement of the 1740s played a key role in the development of democratic thought, as well as the belief of the free press and the belief that information should be shared and completely unbiased. This helped create a demand for religious freedom.  These concepts ushered in the period of the American Revolution."

After 40 years later, beginning around 1790, a second 'great awakening' began to permeate throughout the new United States of America.  According to this Wikipedia article, "the Second Great Awakening was a religious revival that occurred in the United States beginning in the late eighteenth century and lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century. While it occurred in all parts of the United States, it was especially strong in the Northeast and the Midwest. The epicenter of revivalism was the so-called Burned-Over District in western New York. Named for its overabundance of hellfire-and-damnation preaching, the region produced dozens of new denominations, communal societies, and reform movements.  In addition to a religious movement, other reform movements such as temperance, abolition, and women's rights also grew in antebellum America."

Interestingly enough, one of those new denominations/religions that sprang out of the Second Great Awakening was Mormonism (1830).

The religious effects of the Second Great Awakening kept working within American society for the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th, sometimes hidden, sometimes not so hidden.  Dwight L. Moody continued the revivalist tradition in the 1880s, continuing to produce a flood of newly converted Christians for the churches to take in and nurture.  At the same time, new holiness and charismatic movements produced new churches full of the Spirit and spiritual fervor.  Also, American churches lauched a worldwide missionary endeavor, effectively spreading Christianity all over the globe.

In the early to middle 20th Century, Billy Graham led a new movement for evangelical revival, and one thing he used that hadn't been done before was the use of television to spread the Word.  In this way, he reached millions of viewers around the world, becoming the best known Christian evangelist in the world (and a spiritual advisor to American Presidents!) for several decades.

I think it is plausible to assert that another Great Awakening began in the mid-1970s and has been slowly gaining steam (with some fits and starts) ever since.  Among the manifestations of this late 20th Century Great Awakening are these persons, movements or churches: Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek Association, Chuck Smith and the Calvary Chapel Movement, John Wimber and the Vineyard Movement, Jim Baker and PTL, Jimmy Swaggert, Rick Warren and the Saddleback Church, Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church in Houston, Adam Hamilton and the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas, and the list goes on and on.  (It is my experience that most traditional churches are now trying to imitate the kinds of worship and evangelistic techniques utilized by these innovative persons and churches listed here.)

Several characteristics of most of these churches and movements include: churches that grow from small through large to 'mega', where tens of thousands of people can attend on a single day;  the prominent use of contemporary Christian music, including modern rock and roll instrumentation;  a turn from hymnals to projection screens for words and video, churches that look more like theatres than traditional sanctuaries, using comfortable seating, hi-tech audio and video; informal dress; the use of television for outreach.

The church I attended this morning, though technically a Baptist Church, used all of the above 'techniques' in its worship.  And it did so in a thoroughly sophisticated way, though we were only in downtown High Point, NC (not a particularly sophisticated place).

It is my contention that the Great Awakening through which we are living is having an amazing and profound impact on our society, in ways visible and invisible.  And it shows no sign of going away.

One final point: its profound impact even on the Democratic Party can be seen in the fact that Barack Obama, hardly the evangelical world's favorite President, invited a mega-church pastor, Rick Warren, to give the opening invocation at his 2008 inauguration.  THAT is power.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Under 'Ryan Plan', Mitt Romney Will Pay No Taxes At All

Well, this was interesting!
The Ryan plan -- formally, the "Roadmap for America's Future" -- "promotes saving by eliminating taxes on interest, capital gains, and dividends; also eliminates the death tax."  Mitt Romney's income -- more than $20 million each of the past two years -- comes almost entirely from capital gains on his investments, or from "carried interest," a cut of Bain Capital profits that are taxed as capital gains (the infamous "hedge fund loophole.") His only major ordinary income was from the speaking fees he collected ($374,000, or "not much," as he put it.) This explains why his tax rate was only 13.9 percent last year -- because the capital gains rate is 15 percent, well below the top rate of 35 percent for ordinary income.
But if the capital gains was eliminated altogether? Well, let's let Romney explain the result in his own words, as he did at an NBC primary debate in January:
Hours before he plans to release his 2010 tax returns, Mitt Romney noted at the GOP debate in Tampa that under his opponent’s tax plan, he wouldn’t have paid any taxes at all. The moment came after Newt Gingrich joked about Romney’s 15 percent tax rate, saying: “I’m prepared to describe my flat tax as the Mitt Romney flat tax.”

Romney jumped in to ask: Do you tax capital gains at 15 percent or zero percent? Gingrich’s answer: Zero.

“Under that plan, I’d have paid no taxes in the last two years,” Romney said, alluding to the fact that all his income is from investments.
So, at the very moment when we're all tittering over Harry Reid's wild accusation that Romney paid no taxes for the past decade, Romney picks a running mate whose plan -- supported by virtually the entire GOP congressional caucus -- would have him paying, well, no taxes.

Bad Blood

Here are a few things I've learned the last 24 hours about Romney's pick of Paul Ryan.

1)  There is a sense that, within the Washington beltway, the race for President is now between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan.  In that sense, this could be a unique race in our history.  You think I exaggerate? 

Romney is an outsider to the Republican Party, a loner among even Republican politicians, a mystery wrapped inside an enigma for most Americans.  Paul Ryan, on the other hand, has risen in a very short time to a position of incredible prestige within both the Republican Party AND the Conservative movement.  His views on fiscal matters are dominant within the Republican Party.  His budgets for the government have been passed overwhelmingly by the House Republicans.  He has become as good a symbol of what the Republican Party stands for in 2012 as anyone out there.

So while Romney has the formal power, it would seem that there is a new power behind the throne, who will wield a powerful scepter himself.

2)  Over the last three years, the relationship between Ryan and Obama has become more and more strained.  Initially, the two men seemed interested in pursuing a dialogue about their respective political perspectives, but especially in the last 18 months, things have turned sour.  According to the Ryan Lizza article in the New Yorker magazine, one particular event exacerbated the ill-will: an April 2011 speech at George Washington University by President Obama, in which he criticized Ryan's budget plans to his face, after having invited to come and sit in the front row.  After this humiliation, Ryan in turn discouraged any House compromises with Obama, including the now infamous Obama-Boehner 'Grand Bargain' proposal, that failed at the last minute after the Tea Party Republicans, led by Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, refused to go along.

So, there appears to be some bad blood between Paul Ryan and Barack Obama, and that will only get worse, it would seem, in the heat of the forthcoming fall political season.  It isn't going to be pretty.

3)  Much has been (and will be) made of the ideological influence of Ayn Rand upon Paul Ryan.  Fair enough.  He did read, and was deeply influenced, by Atlas Shrugged, the primary ideological novel of Ayn Rand, and this thrust Ryan's thinking in a deeply individualistic and libertarian direction.  However, he has read deep and wide in the conservative movement pantheon of thinkers and illuminati, including Hayek, Friedman, and von Mises.  Furthermore, he cut his policy teeth with supply-sider Jack Kemp, who was probably his political godfather back in the 90s.  And we mustn't forget that Paul Ryan was and is a Roman Catholic, so that like Mitt Romney, the social influences of religion will remain a part of the mix.  So the intellectual influences on Ryan are much broader than just Ayn Rand (thank God), and for the Democrats/liberals to try and caricature Ryan as a 'Randian' is unlikely to work as a political weapon against him (though, Lord knows, they will try).

A Bold Stroke: Romney Picks Ryan

Up to now, Mitt Romney has shown little backbone for the hard choices, the tough calls, the bold proposals.  Since he won enough delegates to assure his nomination, his speeches have consisted mostly of criticism of President Obama, with almost no specifics offered as an alternative.  He has been on the defensive against Obama's hard-hitting ad campaign, and he has committed gaffe after gaffe, the most recent in Britain during the Olympics of all places.

Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin
But with the selection on Saturday of Paul Ryan to be his Vice-Presidential candidate, all that has changed.  In one fell swoop, Romney made a bold pick of the rising ideological star of the Republican conservative movement.  He chose a Congressman who has set out over the last 14 years a new course for America that is radical, bold, and specific.  Medicare, Medicaid (and probably Social Security as well), and the federal tax system  could be radically changed if the Romney/Ryan team is elected this fall, in what would be the most radical change in direction since the founding of Medicare in the 60s, and possibly since the 30s under FDR.

Whereas McCain confused things within the conservative movement by his pick of Sarah Palin (who energized some folks but turned off much of the conservative intelligensia), the pick of Paul Ryan has energized and focused the conservative movement and its support of Romney.  It is now 'full speed ahead' for Romney/Ryan and the conservative legions in Washington and around the country.

If you are not very familiar with Paul Ryan, I would recommend you read the portrait drawn by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker magazine.  Though Lizza is a liberal, his article about Ryan is fair, even sympathetic, and very easy to read.  You'll get a good summary of Paul Ryan's life, his politics, and his ideological convictions.

So, game on!