Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Arguing Sanders vs. Clinton? Fine. But Take a Clear and Honest Stand, Please.

Since the Iowa caucuses, the Democratic Party and independent voters who swing towards them are in quite a fury over the rivalry between Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State and Senator from New York. They are both personally popular, both have long careers in federal politics - and they genuinely represent different values and priorities. So the good news is the same thing that makes the race so heated: there is an actual choice, and either choice has consequences for the party even if the Democratic candidate does not win the election.

By the way, matchup polls show that either of them are likely to win, as the Republican Party, facing its own difficult choice, stands an excellent chance of nominating a candidate who pleases crowds but will have great difficulty winning a general election. So for the Democrats, it really can be about who is the standard bearer for the party's rank and file. Not just the elites running the party machine, not the high-level donors that finance their preferred spokespeople in the patronage system that has subverted democratic choice, but the people who actually show up and vote.

As I type this quick update, New Hampshire is voting in its primary. I am in Memphis preparing for an audition so I won't look at the results until very late tonight. And I will, because it seems possible that the Democratic Party is actually making an important choice, and however it chooses, it indicates there is a great deal of work to do for those who wish to challenge the established power structure. Even if Sanders pulls this off and becomes the nominee in the end, the behemoth will not be easy to vanquish - and a President Sanders would indeed face a Congress dominated by Republicans calling him a communist (with no regard to what that word actually means).

As the Clinton campaign senses trouble, its surrogates and sympathizers are going negative and making some fatuous arguments. Madeline Albright, who has no lessons for anyone about who belongs in hell, suggested women who support Sanders are going there for not supporting a woman. Gloria Steinem infantilized them, suggesting they only work for Sanders so they can meet boys. (Steinem later said she "misspoke," whatever the hell that means. Didn't Nixon coin that word?)
Regardless of age or sex, there are people who simply feel more comfortable with a candidate who seems familiar even if they aren't "perfect." It's a reflexive conservatism: a president looks and sounds this way, they support capitalism but hit the right notes about compassion and opportunity, liberal sound bites, for "balance," and they stand for putting a kind and gentle, familiar, "likable" face on established power. Their argument is that they are playing the game as it is played and trying to expand its benefits to a greater swath of society. Meanwhile, they deepen privatization, expanding market relations into more and more areas of human life, and cede more autonomy to corporations as with TPP. It is a false balance (capital wins) but a great many people instinctively reach for it. "Grow up," they say, and beckon people to the middle of the road. (Which is actually the most dangerous place to be.) 

Hillary Clinton sells that image very well. Fits the suit, so to speak. It is why I still suspect she will prevail in the end. No matter how much people suffer and grumble about the conditions of their lives, liberals will go for that kind of president every time. It's how they think grownups should vote.

Here is how a friend of mine presented it recently in writing: Electing Bernie does not magically mean all his policies come to pass over night. Those of us who have seen a few elections know this. I tend to wonder, if someone wants Sanders policies so badly, why are they not pushing for far-left, Progressive candidates to be elected in all nationwide elections? Why are they not excited about Sanders being in Congress, where actual legislation gets submitted? 

This is a straw man argument. No one thinks electing a president means everything magically changes for the better. If I felt a president could work magic, my candidate would be Gandalf. Magic is not a basis on which to decide for whom to vote. The candidates present, truthfully or not, what they promise to fight for, a vision, and policies that are plausibly achievable if they are fought for and won.

It is true that more progressive candidates need to be elected, locally especially, and federally when the opportunity arises. (And a lot of people who support Sanders are also active in BLM and/or fights for minimum wage increases, against foreclosures, for single-payer, and doing so as Democrats, Greens, Socialist Alternative members, DSA members, and unaffiliated.) So that is happening and I'm sure they'd love to have more in the ranks. Ah, but there's the rub of this argument. Are you doing that? You say you "like" Sanders and his policies but you aren't interested in promoting those policies or him. But you suggest from your Barcolounger that other people should go out and support progressive candidates.No offense to my friend, but this is a weird argument; and if I didn't know him, I'd suspect it was disingenuous. It goes like this: "I like Sanders, and to show my support I'm going to argue against supporting him, insist on supporting a candidate who is wholly invested in the system Sanders is criticizing, and encourage other people to support Sanders instead of me."

All I ask is for honesty. If you support Clinton, I won't be upset with you, I won't persecute you. But don't tell me you support Sanders in principle but are going to support Clinton anyway, because that is simply an untenable position. They stand for different things and will work for outcomes that are diametrically opposed. Take your stand. If you want a president who is invested in capitalist oligarchy - because it is more predictable, more stable, more beneficial to you, in your view - then take that stand. If you think we need a president who will fight according to different values and humanitarian goals - while we all recognize one president can't achieve them all even in two full terms with a sympathetic Congress - then you need to take that stand.

And once the primary is done, you have a candidate. Is it the one you wanted to work for? Is it the one whose desired outcomes are what you want to fight for? There is a concern among many on the left that supporting Sanders's primary campaign helps build a Democratic Party, which is an organization they cannot support. Others, including the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), hold out hope that the party can yet be claimed as a party that fights for the interests of labor against the dominance of capital.

For the record, I'm not a Democrat and New Mexico, where I live, is a closed-primary state. Moreover, I'm actually tepid on Sanders - this blog is not an endorsement - but I don't have doubts about his integrity, and he clearly represents a rational and (more) humanitarian alternative to the imperialism championed by Clinton and her patrons. If he wins the nomination, I will be surprised and impressed. If he wins, it represents a new generation of active voters who are ready to retire some very old, bad ideas about American politics - and it's high time. 

Monday, February 08, 2016

On the ABC Debate Debacle

The hilariously botched introduction to the ABC Republican candidates' debate has gone viral and there are lots of jokes pinning the folly on the politicians supposedly botching the show. I disagree.

The great ABC debate debacle speaks to the importance of rehearsal. You rehearse entrances like that. And some professional common sense goes a long way. Carson and Trump didn't hear their names because the names were called too quickly in the midst of loud cheering and applause. All of the candidates (except Christie) were put in awkward positions because of poor preparation and sloppy execution by their hosts. And as for the moderators not even noticing that a candidate hadn't made it to the stage - what a stunning error. I'm not blaming the candidates for any of this. This is 100% ABC and a stunning failure of basic stage management.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Theatre Dojo returning to Las Cruces

The theatre can be contacted by phone at (575) 523-1223.

Facebook users can visit us by clicking this link.

And I should get back to rehearsing now...

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Without Him At Our Side

[Excerpt from a letter to a clergy friend. I don't think he would mind my sharing this part.]

Opinions among Christians vary, for sure, but it seems not to me that Buddhism contradicts the teachings of Jesus. On the other hand, who really understands Christianity or Buddhism? Some Christians are concerned about any path that does not confirm the primacy of the Bible or affirm a personal relationship with Jesus as the literally resurrected son of God. Others are more comfortable code-switching, and embrace zen as an accessory to prayer, to touch Christ with our inmost being and transcend our egocentric "selfing." Also, as I have observed the Christian world in America, Christ as king dominates the view of Christ as light. One stresses obedience, the other true liberation.

You see again my Quaker as well as my zen leaning.

There is this, from Thomas Merton:

But Christ Himself is in us as unknown and unseen. We follow Him, we find Him and then He must vanish and we must go along without Him at our side. Why? Because He is even closer than that. He is ourself.

Some find this repugnant, even blasphemous, while others clap their hands and say, Yes! That is what it is like! What He is like, while I dwell in this body.

In any case, even with all this stated, zen practice or consideration of the Buddha's words do not preclude belief in God. You state, with understated elegance, the necessity to realize the promise of the Kingdom here, while we are here. Similarly, zen is about realizing the awakening of which Buddha spoke, in this lifetime - not in some rebirth or Pure Land but in the world of muck and sorrow (but also of laughter and music).

Sometimes when I speak with Christians I even juxtapose salvation with the Bodhisattva vow. Bodhisattvas are beings who could be reborn in the Pure Land or heaven or not at all, but choose to remain within this world until all beings (or all being to take a wider view) are liberated. In light of my vow, I have presented the problem of salvation: why should I not remain among the suffering? My point is ultimately similar to yours: how do we live and uphold one another here?

Monday, January 25, 2016


Memes like the one above are becoming more common with the rise in popularity of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic Party's nomination for president. The senator has embraced the term "democratic socialism" to describe his politics.

With Trump calling Sanders a "communist" (which Sanders certainly is not), supporters of Hillary Clinton raising the prospect of campaign ads tying Sanders to images of the hammer and sickle (i.e. red baiting), TV host Lawrence O'Donnell frequently identifying himself as a socialist yet never critiquing capitalism, and memes like this equating socialism with capitalist public sector programs (many of which are "safety nets" to mitigate the social damage of capitalism), I find myself wanting to nitpick.

Those are all things that socialists would support, pretty much, and so do liberals - but liberalism and socialism are not synonyms. As someone who identifies as a socialist, not a liberal, I would like to see more precise language in social media conversations about what we would like to see, what we don't want, and our questions about how to make good things happen, to "begin the world over again," as Thomas Paine put it. (Note: Paine was not a socialist, I'm just quoting his famous phrase.)

Unlike liberals, socialists are people who want society to move beyond capitalism to something based on communal ownership and egalitarian benefit (although visions of what the society would look like and what role democracy would play in it vary widely). So yes, all of these programs are things socialists support (although they would also take an interest in how these programs are funded and who is in charge of them), as do liberals, but liberals - who believe the capitalist system should simply be managed better and made a bit more fair if possible - are having a different conversation than socialists. And many liberals despise socialists.

As a socialist, I consider Bernie Sanders more of a liberal, albeit one who is not hostile to socialism.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Song of Obamacare Compliance

That moment when you are finally forced to buy a mediocre insurance policy because the fines for non-compliance with Obamacare are too steep and your country refuses to build a sensible health care system like other countries have;

and you learn that what the broker told you over the phone isn't true; and by the way your first payment was due upon signup but they told you something different before and you're lucky to be finding out now;

and you are directed to the company's website to make your payment but the website doesn't work, so you call tech support;

and tech support sends you to a call center in Illinois which talks to you for 20 minutes before saying, "Wait, you're New Mexico? You're in the wrong place" and you're thinking "Wrong country, actually;"

and several hold times and confused employees later you are with minimal difficulty able to hand over the money that you can't quite afford but have to because the government is forcing you to buy private health insurance and bragging about what a wonderful thing that is;

and you are ready to say "Cancel the insurance and just shoot me, or send me to one of your wars and let somebody else do it and then you can blame it on terrorism."

Yeah, that moment.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Pondering Ethics After a Tough News Week

Another mangled "Desert Sage" column. Both in print and online, the Sun News lopped off the last 60 words of the column, leaving it to end abruptly and with no conclusion. So here, for what it's worth, is the column as it is meant to appear.

I may give up. I've been struggling to write something of a quality that satisfies me and is also a fit for the local readership. I've also been struggling with mishaps like this, the column not appearing online, and so on. 

So here's the column.

Last week several stories led Desert Sage to ponder the difference between responsibility and guilt.

When you study ethics you learn about two kinds of responsibility. There is something called "role responsibility" that is often confused with "moral responsibility." They are different.  Imagine a first responder who says after a brave rescue: "I am not a hero, I was just doing my job." In that humble statement, she makes a distinction between fulfilling a role (as a rescuer) and getting moral credit for it. Credit and blame have to do with moral responsibility.

Whether or not you believe ethics has to do with a Creator, this is about culture. You own personal responsibility for your actions yet you are not alone. As Willard Gaylin put it: "Freedom demands responsibility; autonomy demands culpability."  You exist as an individual and as part of a society.

For instance, there is the disturbing story of Kenneth Jehle, the Albuquerque schoolteacher accused of harassing and inappropriately touching numerous girls at three different schools starting in 2002.  Despite multiple complaints by students, parents, co-workers, and even a police report filed by an officer of the Albuquerque Public Schools, Jehle's career  flourished until he was fired in 2014. His undoing only came after one family sued the district, Jehle himself, and two principals who allegedly covered for him. Last week, APS settled the lawsuit for  $750,000.

Jehle's individual guilt is one matter, but a deeper question concerns how the district failed in its role, which is to maintain a safe learning environment. How did this problem continue for so long without Jehle being held accountable? Does APS not track teachers with a history of complaints? Why did principal Sam Obenshain repeatedly dismiss complaints about this teacher, even bringing Jehle with him after he transferred to another school? Obenshain arguably put students in harm's way by this negligence, yet he is still the head of that school - still charged with the safety and welfare of children.

Unless there are visible and binding changes at APS, a key social obligation has been shirked despite the cash settlement.

We can be generous or stingy with our sense of communal responsibility. The men who shot up Paris on November 13 may have shouted "Allahu akbar," but they are not true representations of typical Muslims. Ordinary Muslims are not to blame for what they did. Nonetheless, Muslims around the world have spoken out to denounce terrorism as anti-Islamic even as assaults on anyone construed to be a Muslim have risen drastically. This is a generous (but also defensive) expansion of a shared "role responsibility."

Then came the shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs on November 27. Clinics providing abortions have been targets of domestic terrorism for decades. Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion groups have often encouraged tactics of harassment and fear, while distancing themselves from any responsibility for actual violence. Politicians play this game, too.

Early indications suggest Robert Dear, the alleged shooter, may be deranged and not representative of a movement. Nonetheless, a pro-life activist in Las Cruces, Mark Cavaliere, generously expanded his "role responsibility" as a leader of Las Cruces for Life.  He drew an ethical line where Operation Rescue and certain presidential candidates will not.

In a statement published on NMPolitics.net, Cavaliere wrote: "No person who carries out, intends to carry out, or justifies in theory such acts of violence has any part in our movement... We furthermore pledge to redouble our efforts to advance a climate of nonjudgmental understanding and peaceful non-violence."

There are some national figures who could benefit from his example.