Tuesday, September 11, 2012

September 11 lesson? Don't squander goodwill

I was working a block from the White House that clear Tuesday morning, with weather almost identical to today's (at least in the Boston-Washington corridor). What most amazed me was the unexpected sympathy from every corner of the globe.

Not since John F. Kennedy's assassination had the world been with us. For a moment we Americans stopped being to other peoples brash and uncouth, exploitative and money-grubbing, violent and warmongering or, to borrow a Maoism, "running dogs of capitalism."

They saw us as just human beings in the United States.

Canadians, particularly English Canadians who can't shuck off the fact that they're really just like us as much as they hate that, and Mexicans, of whom Carlos Fuentes said are too far from God and too close to the United States, had nice things to say about us.

People from every corner expressed sympathy for the tragedy, for the people  undeserving of such deaths.

We had a president I had not voted for who could have transformed this moment into a giant turnaround in the world. Instead, he called for a "crusade" (Dubya, you do know that the medieval crusaders lost, right?), and the rest is history.

History as usual. Dreary, jingoistic bluster. Bush went all-out to prove the American-haters overseas right.

Just when almost all the world was with us. Let's never do that again.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Democrats and Republicans even look different

One of the most striking differences between the convention speeches by Ann Romney and Michelle Obama, was not the oratory, at which the latter is obviously more adept, but the audience. The Democrats listening to the First Lady looked like America.

In the Republican Tampa audience, it took scouring the crowd to find someone younger than 40, female, not to mention of a coloring other than deathly pale. Ann Romney herself reflected the weird white people motif of the GOP, with her obvious wrinkle tucks and her pill popper demeanor.

When the Republicans tried to go Hispanic, suddenly the in-thing for political duopoly, they chose a Cubano, the most un-representative of all U.S. Hispanics.

Think about it: the overwhelming majority of Cuban Americans are here because they or their parents were admitted to the United States under an open-ended "parole" program. All they had to do was say they were Cuban and didn't like the bearded guy over there.

The Republicans wore cheese-head hats, held up ridiculous signs and brought in a famed aged actor to make a fool of himself. Where did they get these people? Of course Romney looked passable in that crowd! A monkey would have.

At the Charlotte, N.C., gathering last night and the next few days, I'm seeing the much broader variety of human beings that make up the U.S. of A. The Hispanic speaker came from among the Mexicans, who account for two thirds of all Hispanics.

Although her came from recent immigrant stock, do note that many Chicanos' ancestors had been in what today is the United States for decades when the Jamestown settlement was established, let alone when the Puritan Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

As for the Republican slogan "we built it," African-American slaves built the house that Obama lives in, not white businessmen. Irish and Chinese immigrants, treated worse than slaves for a generation or two, built the railroads. And the list goes on ...

You could see the heirs of these and other immigrants at Charlotte, as much as you could not their absence at Tampa. Oh, yeah, Paul Ryan is Irish Catholic, but he's the kind of Irish Catholic who has turned his back on the unions and the solidarity that allowed the Irish to survive ethnic and religious prejudice in this country.

Michelle Obama said it: we can't slam the door behind us when we rise (as Ryan has). We have to reach back and help others. That's the real the United States of America. It's at the Democratic Party's convention.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Let's rebel against living on automatic!

Have you noticed how cops, nurses and sales people have all been trained to use the passive-aggressive crowd-control phrase "you need to" when what they really mean is "I command you to" (or "do as I effing say!"). Next time, consider responding with a thoughtful examination of the statement, with reference to, say, Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

It's the rebellion waiting to happen. 

In our globalized, corporation-run world, all workers who feed you, or clothe you, or deal with your aches and pains, or protect you, or provide you the necessary paperwork to go on going on, have been trained (under penalty of death?) to keep you -- the customer/citizen/patient -- anesthetized, pliable and, most important, willing to pay the price for the goods and services that some middle management technocrat just knows you need.

It's irritating, to say the least.

Borrowing from medicine, let's call it "The Protocol Society," an entire society run mindlessly by providers of services or goods who follow a detailed plan, or protocol. In medicine it serves to ensure a standard, and correct, treatment regime for every particular diagnosis by personnel without advanced medical degrees.

Nurses have an exact list of insanely repetitive questions to ask new patients and teachers in some school districts have their activities prescribed down to 15-minute increments. Everybody has a script and endless checklists ... and don't get me started on customer "service" representatives and salespeople!

The basic idea is that rather than educate people on taking time to think through what matters in their work, it is easier to outline a set of prescribed steps that can be performed by rote. This way it doesn't matter if the teacher failed math or the nurse is squeamish or a cop is a bully. Follow the protocol and everything will be all right.

Take the HMO worker on the phone who asks you, toward the end of a litany of inane questions, "Are you considering doing harm to yourself or others?" Here you were, trying to get a medical appointment and you were being put through the wringer simply because instead of Stage 3 Cancer, you had a loose (but let's say rather painful) hangnail.

"Frankly," you reply, "I'm considering using my special powers to send my arm through the telephone cable to strangle you if you ask me one more silly question."

Have to give him credit, though. Without a change in inflection he responds by asking if you know his location.

It reminds me of my favorite Somerset Maugham quote, which made me howl with laughter the first time I read it in Cakes and Ale years ago:
The Americans, who are the most efficient people on the earth, have carried phrase-making to such a height of perfection and have invented so wide a range of pithy and hackneyed phrases that they can carry on an amusing and animated conversation without giving a moment’s reflection to what they are saying and so leave their minds free to consider the more important matters of big business and fornication.
Apply that to work activity instead of talking.

Monday, September 03, 2012

We don't need or want a CEO for president

Think about it: have you ever elected your boss or voted on the price tag for the goods or services you produce? Of course, not. Business functions pretty much as a dictatorship, not a democracy. Bosses command, employees obey.

That's not the way democracy is supposed to function. Democracy is about people governing themselves. We have elections, discussions, votes. The more the merrier.

Montesquieu was fond of saying that democracy was like a raft going down rapids, always on the verge of overturning; even if it does, the raft will float on. Monarchy, he added, was like a stately ship capable of sailing the seven seas; but fire one cannonball at a precise spot and it would sink like a rock (this was especially true of the galleons of his day).

Today, democracy's antagonist is not monarchy but plutocracy, which is government by the wealthy (and their corporations).

The style of plutocracy is that of corporations -- slick, shimmering, always promising the rainbow's end with each new product. The yardstick is money. You're smart if you have it; dumb and lazy if you don't. In plutocracy, everything should make a profit, even your family, your friendships and your leisure.

Everything should be efficient: if some way could be found, all the rich people would have one servant, a single person pushing the buttons of immense machinery to make them happy. The rest of us ... well ... we're dumb and lazy and didn't beat the button-pusher to the job, we should all be unemployed and poor, but grateful for any bone they throw us.

In plutocracy, money has disparate and unrepresentative weight in policy decisions. Elections are won by whomever spends the most.

Democracy is the very opposite. It's always trying to improve on itself and its ability to serve people well, which is the yardstick by which it is measured. Every person counts, no matter what. Because people are self-contradictory and riddled with flaws, democracy is usually very messy, slow, unglamorous and full of disagreements.

The best person to run a plutocracy is a chief executive officer.

The best person to run a democracy, however, is a a president, someone who merely steers the messy, inefficient and unprofitable collection of human beings we call society according to the will of its people.