Obama’s Simple Decency


Obama’s act of simple decency

Scott Lemieux in The Week
Pete Souza, courtesy The White House Flickr
It was an act of simple decency. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who was serving a 35-year sentence for leaking a large trove of classified information. This was unquestionably the right thing to do, and helps redress a civil liberties record that is a relative weak spot in Obama’s legacy.

This is not to say that the decision to charge Manning was, in itself, indefensible. There is no question that Manning giving classified materials to WikiLeaks was illegal. Should she have been exempted from prosecution as a whistleblower? It’s not an absurd argument. Certainly, much of the information she released — such as video of an appalling helicopter attack on a crowd in Baghdad that killed two Reuters reporters whose cameras were misidentified as guns — was unquestionably in the public interest.

But one problem with that argument is how indiscriminate Manning was about the information she chose to release. As the political scientist Robert Farley of the University of Kentucky observes, it would be impossible for her to make crucial distinctions about what materials should be leaked because “she lacked sufficient expertise in the subject matter to tell the difference between material that was properly and improperly classified.” Information the state had a legitimate interest in keeping confidential was leaked alongside information that should have been made public.

Given these factors, it was unrealistic to expect Obama to pardon Manning, which would have absolved her of guilt. But there are two reasons — each of which would be sufficient in itself — why the case for commuting Manning’s sentence was not merely plausible, but compelling.

First, Manning’s sentence was grossly disproportionate. Prosecuting leakers is very rare, although Obama went after whistleblowers to an unprecedented extent. The seven people prosecuted for leaking information to the media by Obama constitute 70 percent of the people prosecuted for this crime in the history of the United States. And there is certainly no precedent for anything remotely resembling a 35-year sentence for leaking information to the media. Sentencing Manning to time served would have been towards the harsh end of what was potentially justified. Arbitrarily singling out Manning for an extraordinarily harsh punishment is exactly the kind of injustice the commutation power should be used to redress.

And, second, not only has Manning been in prison much longer than her offense merited, the conditions she was subjected to in prison were a vile abuse of human rights. She was held in solitary confinement for extended periods, treatment that amounts to torture in practice, even if it’s not defined as such in law. She remained in a man’s prison despite announcing her gender identity as a woman in 2013. She detailed the effects of this treatment in her letter to Obama: “I am living through a cycle of anxiety, anger, hopelessness, loss, and depression. I cannot focus. I cannot sleep. I attempted to take my own life.” She was actually punished for her suicide attempt with more time in solitary confinement, an act of astonishing cruelty.

The disproportionate length of the sentence given to Manning and the cruelty she was subjected to in prison make commuting her sentence a no-brainer.

This doesn’t mean that Obama’s opponents didn’t attack it. Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called Obama’s commutation “outrageous,” asserting that “President Obama now leaves in place a dangerous precedent that those who compromise our national security won’t be held accountable for their crimes.” The idea that seven years of hard prison time in often deplorable conditions doesn’t constitute “accountability” reflects an appalling lack of human decency.

The harsh treatment given to Manning is particularly hard to justify given that most of the people responsible for the financial collapse of 2008 and all of the people responsible for the torture of prisoners under the Bush administration got away scot-free. While it’s too late for many of the worst villains of the first decade of the millennium to be held accountable, it’s important that other injustices be addressed.

Obama made the right call in commuting Manning’s sentence, and it’s a sobering reminder of a general commitment to decent values that Obama’s successor utterly rejects. Obama didn’t always do what the liberal wing of the Democratic Party would have liked, but he often still did what was right.

 

To Obama, from a conservative: Thank you for being a great role model

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
 Barack Obama is leaving the White House. As a conservative, I don’t think he’s been a good president. But I’ll readily admit he’s been a terrific role model.

As the orange id approaches the threshold of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — God help us all — I find myself reflecting on this more and more. And even if Obama is a master image manipulator, as any successful politician must be, who cares? He projected the right image.

As the author J.D. Vance pointed out, Obama gives hope to those of us, like him, who come from broken homes and strive to build stable, loving ones for their children.

Michelle and Barack Obama clearly and obviously love each other and are tender towards each other. They find ways to humorously poke fun at each other. They visibly work as partners leading the difficult endeavor that was Obama’s political career, presidential campaigns, and mandate as president.

Meanwhile, the Obamas have also been assiduous at protecting their daughters from the public eye and have refrained from using them as props. Famously, President Obama has drawn a red line around family dinner time and respects it. This is a red line he’s actually kept, and it rightly puts all of us dads to shame. If the freakin’ president of the United States is not too busy to spend dinner with his family, neither are you.

In an era where scripts for fulfilling gender roles get ever more twisted in knots, there are much worse scripts for a heterosexual male to follow than that of Obama, who is faithful, loves books as much as sports, and isn’t afraid to shed a tear in public.

Even Obama’s much-derided aloof, professorial demeanor is not a bad pointer. While it probably didn’t serve him well in politics and (especially) foreign affairs, an anecdotal survey of those around me suggests a lot of families could do with less drama.

In recent years, people have warned about the imperial presidency, by which they mean the ever-expanding powers of the executive branch. But there is another aspect of this phenomenon worth mentioning, which is the increasing expectation that the president not only act as king, but symbol-in-chief and national therapist. This is a trend we should all resist. Still, given that that so many eyes fall on the president, it’s worth acknowledging that it’s a part of the job that Obama did brilliantly, and one which we may find ourselves very much missing in the coming years.

Thanks, Obama.

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Farewell, America


Farewell, America

No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently.

The sun sets behind the Jefferson Memorial in Washington.

America died on Nov. 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide. We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country.

Whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on Nov. 7. No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently. We are likely to be a pariah country. And we are lost for it. As I surveyed the ruin of that country this gray Wednesday morning, I found weary consolation in W.H. Auden’s poem, September 1, 1939, which concludes:

 

“Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.”
I hunt for that affirming flame.

This generally has been called the “hate election” because everyone professed to hate both candidates. It turned out to be the hate election because, and let’s not mince words, of the hatefulness of the electorate. In the years to come, we will brace for the violence, the anger, the racism, the misogyny, the xenophobia, the nativism, the white sense of grievance that will undoubtedly be unleashed now that we have destroyed the values that have bound us.

We all knew these hatreds lurked under the thinnest veneer of civility. That civility finally is gone. In its absence, we may realize just how imperative that politesse was. It is the way we managed to coexist.

If there is a single sentence that characterizes the election, it is this: “He says the things I’m thinking.” That may be what is so terrifying. Who knew that so many tens of millions of white Americans were thinking unconscionable things about their fellow Americans? Who knew that tens of millions of white men felt so emasculated by women and challenged by minorities? Who knew that after years of seeming progress on race and gender, tens of millions of white Americans lived in seething resentment, waiting for a demagogue to arrive who would legitimize their worst selves and channel them into political power? Perhaps we had been living in a fool’s paradise. Now we aren’t.

This country has survived a civil war, two world wars and a Great Depression. There are many who say we will survive this, too. Maybe we will, but we won’t survive unscathed. We know too much about each other to heal. No more can we pretend that we are exceptional or good or progressive or united. We are none of those things. Nor can we pretend that democracy works and that elections have more-or-less happy endings. Democracy only functions when its participants abide by certain conventions, certain codes of conduct and a respect for the process.

The virus that kills democracy is extremism because extremism disables those codes. Republicans have disrespected the process for decades. They have regarded any Democratic president as illegitimate. They have proudly boasted of preventing popularly elected Democrats from effecting policy and have asserted that only Republicans have the right to determine the nation’s course. They have worked tirelessly to make sure that the government cannot govern and to redefine the purpose of government as prevention rather than effectuation. In short, they haven’t believed in democracy for a long time, and the media never called them out on it.

Democracy can’t cope with extremism. Only violence and time can defeat it. The first is unacceptable, the second takes too long. Though Trump is an extremist, I have a feeling that he will be a very popular president and one likely to be re-elected by a substantial margin, no matter what he does or fails to do. That’s because ever since the days of Ronald Reagan, rhetoric has obviated action, speechifying has superseded governing.

Trump was absolutely correct when he bragged that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his supporters wouldn’t care. It was a dictator’s ugly vaunt, but one that recognized this election never was about policy or economics or the “right path/wrong path,” or even values. It was about venting. So long as Trump vented their grievances, his all-white supporters didn’t care about anything else. He is smart enough to know that won’t change in the presidency. In fact, it is only likely to intensify. White America, Trump’s America, just wants to hear its anger bellowed. This is one time when the Bully Pulpit will be literal.

The media can’t be let off the hook for enabling an authoritarian to get to the White House. Long before he considered a presidential run, he was a media creation — a regular in the gossip pages, a photo on magazine covers, the bankrupt (morally and otherwise) mogul who hired and fired on The Apprentice. When he ran, the media treated him not as a candidate, but as a celebrity, and so treated him differently from ordinary pols. The media gave him free publicity, trumpeted his shenanigans, blasted out his tweets, allowed him to phone in his interviews, fell into his traps and generally kowtowed until they suddenly discovered that this joke could actually become president.

Just as Trump has shredded our values, our nation and our democracy, he has shredded the media. In this, as in his politics, he is only the latest avatar of a process that began long before his candidacy. Just as the sainted Ronald Reagan created an unbridgeable chasm between rich and poor that the Republicans would later exploit against Democrats, conservatives delegitimized mainstream journalism so they could fill the vacuum.

Retiring conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes complained that after years of bashing from the right wing, the mainstream media no longer could perform their function as reporters, observers, fact dispensers, and even truth tellers, and he said we needed them. Like Goebbels before them, conservatives understood they had to create their own facts, their own truths, their own reality. They have done so, and in so doing effectively destroyed the very idea of objectivity. Trump can lie constantly only because white America has accepted an Orwellian sense of truth — the truth pulled inside out.

With Trump’s election, I think that the ideal of an objective, truthful journalism is dead, never to be revived. Like Nixon and Sarah Palin before him, Trump ran against the media, boomeranging off the public’s contempt for the press. He ran against what he regarded as media elitism and bias, and he ran on the idea that the press disdained working-class white America. Among the many now-widening divides in the country, this is a big one, the divide between the media and working-class whites, because it creates a Wild West of information — a media ecology in which nothing can be believed except what you already believe.

With the mainstream media so delegitimized — a delegitimization for which they bear a good deal of blame, not having had the courage to take on lies and expose false equivalencies — they have very little role to play going forward in our politics. I suspect most of them will surrender to Trumpism — if they were able to normalize Trump as a candidate, they will no doubt normalize him as president. Cable news may even welcome him as a continuous entertainment and ratings booster. And in any case, like Reagan, he is bulletproof. The media cannot touch him, even if they wanted to. Presumably, there will be some courageous guerillas in the mainstream press, a kind of Resistance, who will try to fact-check him. But there will be few of them, and they will be whistling in the wind. Trump, like all dictators, is his own truth.

What’s more, Trump already has promised to take his war on the press into courtrooms and the halls of Congress. He wants to loosen libel protections, and he has threatened Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos of Amazon with an antitrust suit. Individual journalists have reason to fear him as well. He has already singled out NBC’s Katy Tur, perhaps the best of the television reporters, so that she needed the Secret Service to escort her from one of his rallies. Jewish journalists who have criticized Trump have been subjected to vicious anti-Semitism and intimidation from the white nationalist “alt-right.” For the press, this is likely to be the new normal in an America in which white supremacists, neo-Nazi militias, racists, sexists, homophobes and anti-Semites have been legitimized by a new president who “says what I’m thinking.” It will be open season.

This converts the media from reporters to targets, and they have little recourse. Still, if anyone points the way forward, it may be New York Times columnist David Brooks. Brooks is no paragon. He always had seemed to willfully neglect modern Republicanism’s incipient fascism (now no longer incipient), and he was an apologist for conservative self-enrichment and bigotry. But this campaign season, Brooks pretty much dispensed with politics. He seemed to have arrived at the conclusion that no good could possibly come of any of this and retreated into spirituality. What Brooks promoted were values of mutual respect, a bolder sense of civic engagement, an emphasis on community and neighborhood, and overall a belief in trickle-up decency rather than trickle-down economics. He is not hopeful, but he hasn’t lost all hope.

For those of us now languishing in despair, this may be a prescription for rejuvenation. We have lost the country, but by refocusing, we may have gained our own little patch of the world and, more granularly, our own family. For journalists, Brooks may show how political reporting, which, as I said, is likely to be irrelevant in the Trump age, might yield to a broader moral context in which one considers the effect that policy, strategy and governance have not only on our physical and economic well-being but also on our spiritual well-being. In a society that is likely to be fractious and odious, we need a national conversation on values. The media could help start it.

But the disempowered media may have one more role to fill: They must bear witness. Many years from now, future generations will need to know what happened to us and how it happened. They will need to know how disgruntled white Americans, full of self-righteous indignation, found a way to take back a country they felt they were entitled to and which they believed had been lost. They will need to know about the ugliness and evil that destroyed us as a nation after great men like Lincoln and Roosevelt guided us through previous crises and kept our values intact. They will need to know, and they will need a vigorous, engaged, moral media to tell them. They will also need us.

We are not living for ourselves anymore in this country. Now we are living for history.

 

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                                                           Me, in Washington D. C. for art exhibit circa 1980’s.

                                                                 I often went to Washington for art and protests.

 

 

I believe that Progressives and Liberals all had independent wakes for our country beginning the morning after the election. I remember my mind all a-swirl with thoughts about what had just happened to the country I loved so much. I flashed back to 1976 and my dad grilling in the backyard with his red, white and blue apron on, that said 1776-1976. Hot dogs and hamburgers were coming off of the grill. America was not a perfect country then but we let our voices, me and the rest of the young people, be heard and the government was beginning to listen about Vietnam and Civil Rights for black people. We were doing new things like reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. It changed my life as it did the lives of millions of other women, young and old.

 

I helped to start a Domestic Violence shelter in Pennsylvania. It was a journey in faith, but it is still there and helping women and children. There are still women who are in violent relationships today; but more about that another day.

 

I became a feminist and devoted myself to helping women and children to lead better lives. It was important to me that they would be able to access the justice they needed and would not suffer because someone looked at them and decided they should have acted different or been different.

 

Over the years, I watched as racism raised its ugly head when a Mom had kids who were several different shades. That didn’t bother me. Once I fought Children’s Services when they tried to take the aforementioned children away from the Mother. I won and this good mother whose only “crime” was to have been beaten by a man kept her kids. They were beautiful and smart and sweet.

 

When I counseled for Rape Crisis, I often had to protect the victims from the misogyny of the police and even their fathers and brothers. It was no easy task but we educated people and they learned that the important thing was that the woman who was their baby girl or sister or wife had been hurt in a brutal way and we could stop it happening to other women.

 

We were able to stop back alley abortions and I lobbied in Harrisburg to convince legislators of the importance of keeping teen girls and young women out of the hands of questionable doctors who would perform these abortions for a lot of money with no guarantees that the woman would survive. Women were still having to cross state lines at that point.

 

I remember a 10 year old girl who came to an abortion clinic with her Mom. Counseling was required before all abortions and this case was no exception. The girl was seen by a  counselor first and then her Mother joined them. Her Father had molested her and gotten her pregnant with his child. He was in jail, which was where he belonged. This 10 year old had been through enough. It was cruel to ask her to now ask her to remain pregnant for the entire nine months and go through labor and delivery. She carried her Mickey Mouse doll into surgery and held a nurse’s hand. She came through very well and was up and around quickly. There are so many stories where abortion is a blessing and not a convenience.

 

I have friends everywhere. They don’t look like me. We don’t all have the same religious beliefs. We are from both genders. Some are musicians, some are retired business people, some are artists and activists like I am. We all look different although now that some of us are aging, we do have that similarity in our looks.

 

What I am trying to say is that the America I am grieving is lost. It is lost as if a conquering army came and destroyed it and all we can do is look around and shake our heads. Well, I have been shaking my head for over a month now and I have begun to strengthen my resolve. The election was a disaster. The History books will discuss how this all happened. Your great-grandchildren and mine will study it in school and will feel wise because they understand.

 

What Progressives and Liberals must do now, whether we understand or not, is to give ourselves a good shake. We need to tell ourselves that American life isn’t over. It is different now. It includes mega racism, misogyny, anti-Muslim feelings, anti-Semitism, a distaste for both the poor and for higher education, and blatant bigotry. We have to promise ourselves, our friends, the people we go to school with, the people in our churches and synagogues and mosques that we will stand with them. We will find a lot of hassle and bigotry at work, so prepare yourselves. The people who feel they were voiceless will now want to spew their hatred over everyone frequently and in the direction of the rest of us. Don’t take the bait. Try the rubber band on your wrist if necessary; snap it when you are angry or need to stop yourself from speaking. Live your lives in the caring, helpful ways you have always done. Read what will fill you up and prepare you for the future. Keep your spiritual life healthy and filled with positive energy. Remember we are all children of the Universe. We have a responsibility to be there for each other until the nightmare is over.

 

Namaste

Barbara

 

 

 

 

Sensitive Egos


Last night was the first Republican debate. It seems to have been more a show for Trump and his very sensitive ego than an honest and real look at the issues that are at the forefront of American politics today.

 

For instance, the War on Women. Trump voiced how picked upon when he was questioned about derogatory remarks he has made about women. He seems to feel strongly about the way women look. Perhaps, if elected, God forbid, he would want research started so that all female babies were beautiful and stupid. Yes, I am jesting but when he calls women animals, ugly or other insults, he is not jesting. He is showing us one of the parts of his personality. A dark section of his personality.

 

He complained that the female moderator was asking him inappropriate questions.  Is character not appropriate in a Presidential campaign?  Is that not one of the things we elect our leaders for:  ideas and leadership ability, certainly, but what is that but a part of character?

 

I guess that Trump is a man who is used to, and requires, gentle care.  His choice of words, not just in this instance, but in many public appearances before and after he announced his candidacy, is often vulgar and inflammatory.  Even his re-tweets show questionable judgment.  Is this someone whom the American People can trust on the international stage? Is this someone who will meet opposition with a considered, measure response, designed to keep the United States and its citizens safe?  Or is this someone who will, as his history shows, respond to opposition with an off-the-cuff, possibly offensive comment which will show Americans in our worst light, possibly causing an international incident which could lead to war?

Can we, as Americans, take that chance?

 

As most all of you know, I am a Liberal, although in my lifetime I have voted for Republicans who deserve to be in office.  I think it is very important that the man or woman that we elect to head the free world, as it is said, be someone who has the sort of temperament, the education; the finesse and the diplomacy to speak to international leaders about serious and controversial issues, without losing his temper or insulting people.

 

I don’t want the world to go back to thinking of us as Ugly Americans.  In the 60’s, there was a best selling book called The Ugly Americans, which I read in my AP Literature class.  I was horrified that we were perceived in this light.  We need someone in the White House who is respectable, who is capable of diplomacy and tact; someone who can be open and honest without insulting various sectors of our population.

 

I’m not talking about “Political Correctness”, that supposed bane of Mr. Trump. I am talking about having the decency to treat other human beings with the respect that we all deserve, by the simple virtue of being human beings.  I’m talking about showing them compassion, gentleness, and kindness, and respecting their opinions as valid, though they may differ from his own.

 

One of the most important things an American citizen has the right and responsibility to do is to Vote.  Whom you choose to vote for is private and personal.  But consider, before you cast your ballot, that whomever you elect is going to represent America to the world for four solid years.

 

Do we want War or Peace?  Do we want to continue to marginalize our own citizens?

 

We should not be afraid of open, honest debate and discussion.  It is when well-to-do, educated Americans who have dedicated themselves to a candidacy begin to denigrate each other and the people they meet that we begin to denigrate America in general.  Candidates, all candidates at every level of government, need to finally put aside the mudslinging tactics and face the issues head on, with decency, honesty and a respect for the views of others’, as they will be expected to treat heads of state if they are elected.

 

Flag unfurled by vets

Let American be a Symbol of the Best in Human Nature

 

 

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