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Musings on Politics, The Tea Party, and America's Rampant Electile Dysfunction

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    Tuesday
    Aug052014

    Gaza: A Poem

    [NOTE: This is a cross-post from The Pulitzer Praises. For those interested in finding out more about that project, please start here.] 

     

     

    GAZA

    Every child questions the rain

    sooner or later,

    wonders what it means, where it comes from--

    “Those are God’s tears,” we’re told,

    (though never wondering at the sadness that

    makes

    God

    cry).

     

    A rite, these tears: like abandoning the breast

    or walking to school alone

    or staying out late with the third-most beautiful girl you know.

     

    Or leaving home…

     

    A rite: like any other circumcision that reminds

    you of what you are in ways not always pleasant.

     

    And halfway around our world

    (and isn’t it ours, after all?)

    children live who

    cannot walk to school

    or stay out late

    (though they do leave home, and may again tomorrow).

     

    Surrounded by killer angels

    we struggle to understand how people can revere the same history,

    claim the same home,

    disbelieve the others’ same God;

    how people can revisit Abel’s Cain mutiny with such cyclicality

    And such—yes—reverence.

    (It is the only word, after all, which justifies.)

     

    Those truly embattled are those who

    do not yet understand siege,

    or enemy

    or amputate,

    who have not yet been taught to hate.

    A rock is a rock to them;

    a stone, a stone:

    something over which small feet stumble when running for mothers.

     

    Those truly embattled only understand

    the visceral knife-stab of fear.

    For the rest, there are no sharp edges,

    no clean blades,

    nothing to measure success or failure.

    Only body counts until the next time that

    wizened and shattered men pretend détente when

    (really)

    all that is happening

    is a re-arming respite

    while, in the mean time, these children will

    sooner or later

    come to question the rain and will be told:

    “Those are God’s tears.”

     

    But there, just there, a child asks, too:

    “Then what is the thunder, omma, and what is the lightning?”

    Saturday
    Jul122014

    Nails on a Chalkboard: The Implosion of Coffee Party USA

    For the few remaining who actually care, Coffee Party USA is suffering what some have termed a crisis in leadership, but which is far more existential, far more visceral.

    The Coffee Party (CP) is a “grassroots, non-partisan movement that aims to restore the principles and spirit of democracy in America.” The origins of the organization begin with Annabel Park, a filmmaker and political activist with a strong following. (Check here for more on the group’s formation and history.) Eventually organizing as a 501(c)(4), CP formalized into a national entity with a board of directors and a loosely-connected array of local chapters that depends largely on good will, connections, and civil conversation. This last is very important; from the Coffee Party website comes the “Civility Pledge”:

    As a member or supporter of the Coffee Party, I pledge to conduct myself in a way that is civil, honest, and respectful toward people with whom I disagree. I value people from different cultures, I value people with different ideas, and I value and cherish the democratic process.

    The organization has something of a schizophrenic following: while boasting nearly a half-million fans on its Facebook page, the total number of paying members and donors—as near as anyone can tell—hovers closer to 1,000, making it an organization with a strong reach to the barely involved, but an anemic connection to the true activists. It’s an organization that has done little with little, and with little attention.

    And yet: I’m one of those “few remaining who actually care.”

    I came to the Coffee Party self-serving; a desire to promote and sell my book had me hunting for radio and social media opportunities and so I reached out to then Board President Eric Byler asking for a spot on one of the group’s internet radio shows. I quickly struck up a friendship with Eric which led, first, to him and me co-hosting a new radio show, and then on to my appointment to the CP board of directors. I served until the fall of 2013, when I resigned over ideological differences.

    The people I worked with were—and are—fundamentally good people, but in late 2013 they made a tragic error in judgment. The group has always struggled with fundraising; filled with passion but lacking key non-profit skills, the group, frustrated, followed the lead of one director in pursuing a multi-level-marketing alliance with a questionable energy company, Viridian.  This decision was a groupthinked disaster, leading to discussions of conflict of interest, adjustments of by-laws, and the need to litmus test any new directors. One director—Eric himself—resigned over the issue. When Eric resigned, he went public to the membership (via Facebook), and the membership was understandably concerned (at first) and then irate, particularly over the lack of communication about what had been going on.

    A call for board resignations began and, up to this point, things looked like they could be managed. But then people decided to show their very worst selves. It wasn’t long before the “—gate” appellation formed: Viridiangate. Soon after came the rare but nevertheless obvious references to Nazism, communism, and Stalinism. Factions formed. People yelled, screamed, and questioned each other’s integrity. Board members lashed back, several reaching new lows in so-called “civil conversation.” People were banned from the various CP properties, and posts were deleted. In retaliation to the retaliation, members began hijacking threads whenever and wherever they could, preventing any of those other 400,000 plus people from engaging in any kind of reasoned dialog. Questions and statements were twisted and parsed for positional advantage. People who in the past could have been counted on to challenge such incivility began to reveal themselves as no better or worse than any other participant in any other mob. The few remaining board supporters were continually harassed, badgered, and bothered until, in frustration, most simply gave up and left the conversation. The whole thing was a true exercise in how a small minority can completely outscream any reasonable conversation. It got ugly. Very ugly. And very un-CP-like.

    And the truth, supposedly a priority for CP and its members, was forced to the gangplank, sacrificed to the baser twisting of supposed “facts.” Make no mistake: the board members have tripped over themselves trying to justify banning posts, jettisoning members, fixing elections, and just generally figuring out how to redefine the concept of cognitive dissonance. But at the same time a small group of very vocal members have gone to great lengths to twist any word, thought, action, or intention into cringe-worthy conspiracy theories and blood-red anger, not only directed at the board, but directed at anyone who defends them or, in some cases, anyone who even tries to see both sides of the story. And both sides have systematically opposed any real attempts at conciliation, instead spending time accusing each other by asking ridiculous questions of the “When did you stop beating your wife?” variety.

    Today, the dispute left the CP and FB confines; an article came out about this crisis. Written by Laura Sesana and released on arbiternews.com, the article presents just these kinds of “facts” while conveniently hiding any real truth.

    It presents the following, for example:

    Despite cutting all ties with [Annabel] Park and the threatened lawsuit, the Coffee Party has continued to use her image and slogans (which are protected by copyright) to promote their website and Facebook page without Ms. Park’s permission.

    Certainly “facts” so far as they go. But “truth?”  Not so much.

    Technically, the board did not cut ties with Annabel Park. She left the Coffee Party in 2011, both as a leader and as a member, though she has been granted permission to access the organization’s assets at various times in order to promote programs of mutual benefit to the group’s principles.  Also, Annabel was only one of several hundred FB fans (out of nearly a half-million, remember) who were banned by the page’s administrators, a practice first initiated when Ms. Park was still leading the Coffee Party.

    But then, that truth would get in the way of the desired narrative….

    Also, it’s true that the Coffee Party has ”continued to use her image and slogans,” (though it’s unclear whether they are protected by copyright; CP claims it’s using public sources), but doesn’t also point out that Ms. Park was apparently fine with such usage for the three years that have elapsed since she left the Coffee Party, and only now—when she vehemently disagrees with the board—is she raising the issue.

    And while it’s also a fact that the Viridian plan was “discovered by a group of members,” it would be more truthful to point out additional context, which includes Annabel herself using deception in texts to the board (which she admits to but justifies) prior to Eric’s resignation, and that it was Eric who took the details public. In that sense, it was more accurately revealed to a group of members.

    And what of all that supposed civility? Well, lately there really isn’t much of it to go around. Oh sure, most of the words appear civil enough but, in the same way that Clinton had us ponder what the word “is” is, we all know a good dodge when we see it. And trust me: the dodging would make any storefront politician proud.

    We get things like this:

    You can not [sic] have a civil conversation with liars and obfuscators.

    a blanket statement that apparently makes incivility okay. As in, for example, calling people liars.

    And here’s some snark sent in response to the revelation that a particular board meeting did not include a financial update (despite the fact that dozens of others did):

    No financial report!!!! INCOMPETENCE!!!! OFF with her head!

    This one gets a bit meaner still…

    [She] was not elected either... not to anything, not even [Coffee Party] dogcatcher. Sorry for the comparison to all you hardworking Dogcatchers out there.

    And while many may try to parse all of the above and somehow pretend my definition of “civil” is too self-righteous, try this one on for size:

    [He] is a piece of shit. Period. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks that. (I normally don't swear on social media, but I can't think of a better word.)

    I can. And so, I’m guessing, can anyone who is serious about civility.

    For the last four years I’ve been writing passionately about hypocrisy, particularly how hypocrisy in our political arena leads to us-them thinking, demonization, and ultimately a dehumanization of those we oppose. It’s okay for us to use money in politics, because we’re right and they’re wrong. It’s okay for us to lobby because we want reform and they want the status quo. And it’s okay for us to be uncivil because it’s not uncivil if you use the right words and if they’re evil anyway.

    If the Coffee Party is going to survive it’s going to take a few brave people to stand up and shout at everybody on both sides who persist in such behavior. For a while a few were actually doing that, but they’ve grown exhausted and have retired their efforts. And so what’s left, unfortunately, are nothing but the sounds of nails on a chalkboard, screeches reverberating in a self-constructed echo chamber in which only the already converted participate. There is no longer an interest in truth, only “facts; no longer an interest in building, only in tearing down; no longer an interest in two-way conversation, only in unilateral shouting.

    When the dust settles, as it eventually must, I fear there will be nothing left standing, and all that potential will have violently crumbled, a useless footnote in the attempt to create a better, more civil body politic.

    Thursday
    Jan232014

    Am I an Activist?

    Today is the penultimate day of the New Hampshire Rebellion, a 185-mile, north-to-south walk across the state of New Hampshire in support of eliminating corruption in politics. The walk began at Dixville Notch (historically, the first town in the nation to vote in each presidential election), then moved through Gorham, North Conway, Laconia, Concord, and Merrimack. Tomorrow it finishes up in Nashua, just north of the Massachusetts border. Headed by Rootstrikers' Lawrence Lessig (also of Harvard University), the goal is to create a swelling awareness of the ways in which money corrupts our political system. It’s a noble cause, and one I wholly support.

    Well, perhaps not wholly.  I’m not walking.

    It’s not that I found out about it too late. A good friend, Eric Byler (filmmaker, activist and head of CoffeePartyUSA), told me about it well in advance of the event. He knows the topic is important to me, and knows I live in New Hampshire, so thought it a no-brainer that I would want to get involved.

    I have a host of weak reasons for not walking. First of all, it’s really, really cold here in New Hampshire (as I sit here the temperature is cresting at six degrees), and I’m not as young or hearty as I once was. Also, my wife is out on the west coast this week and I have two dogs, with no real way to have them cared for even if I had decided to take an entire day (or more) to trudge through the cold. And then there’s the whole transportation thing. If I drove to where a day’s walk started, then how would I get back there after the walk? I’d be stranded without transportation. Oh, and let’s not forget that I’m an introvert, and don’t generally enjoy hanging out with groups of people.

    Poor excuses all, and so I feel a little guilty about it. Real activists, I’m trained to believe, are those who actually get out there and do things. People like Eric and his partner, Annabel Park, who spent months trudging through the south in search of their Story of America. People like Riki Ott, co-director of Ultimate Civics and co-founder of Move to Amend.

    Me… I’m a writer.

    So I wonder, constantly, whether I’m an activist in any real sense of the word. Strangely—given the previous paragraphs—I’ve decided that I am. I do something, the thing I’m good at. I write about what I care for with respect to our social contract, focusing on the ways in which we should share our common space and strive for honesty, truth, and integrity. We’ve all heard that the pen is mightier than the sword. Perhaps you don’t accept Bulwer-Lytton's overused cliché, but you must admit that the pen can be at least as mighty. Look at what Twitter has wrought, and that’s certainly all about the pen. Or the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., so quotable that they still (and probably always will) continue to move people toward change.

    What’s important is not the how or the what, but the caring, and if I show my caring through words then, yes, I guess I’m an activist.

    If you care, and can contribute in the best way that you know how, then you, too, are an activist. Maybe you walk for an ideal. Maybe you risk arrest. Maybe you make films. Or maybe, like me, you write. Whatever you do is worthwhile, as long as you do it because you care.

    So then: How do you care?

    Wednesday
    Dec182013

    Merrily We (En)Roll Along....

    I begin with the standard caveat, one I’ve created for whenever I write about our health care system. I find this necessary because, too often, my audience is either belligerently negative or annoyingly positive on the topic. So: here goes…

    The following brief essay discusses health care. In particular, it addresses, from a personal perspective some of things that I’ve encountered since the changes have begun. Please note the following.

    • I call it Obamacare. It’s easier. I know that the actual name of the law is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but that’s just so much jargon. Do not assume that the use of either term suggests my attitude towards the program entire.
    • There are good things in Obamacare. I particularly like that the insurance companies can’t go hunting for reasons to throw people off of insurance plans just when it’s most needed. I also like the stuff about kids.
    • There are bad things in Obamacare. I particularly don’t like that it doesn’t address tort reform, nor do anything but give hopeful lip service to rising costs.
    • There is a difference between health care and a health care system. There’s also a difference between the Obamacare program and the Obamacare implementation.

    Got that? Good. Now let me tell you how I nearly found myself with NO insurance at all because the Obamacare implementation continues to be a nightmare…

    For those of you who don’t remember, I didn’t have the best experience when I started enrolling in Obamacare. My current plan was sent to swim with the fishes, so I had little choice but to change. When I did, my premiums went up a little bit, my deductible went up a lot, my wife saw one of her most precious medications eliminated, and we lost a doctor she rather likes. (Update: we got the doctor back when our insurance carrier decided, under some pressure, to expand the provider list back to what it was previously.) And through it all the support provided over at healthcare.gov was decidedly lacking (if not downright unpleasant).

    So, given little choice, I signed up and received a nice confirmation from healthcare.gov, then waited to receive the paperwork from my carrier so that I could send in the required first payment. Only it didn’t come. Instead I got another bill for my old plan, the one that had a mere thirty days left in its now-shortened life cycle.

    At this point, I damn well wasn’t trusting that even my initial enrollment had reached conclusion, so I went back to healthcare.gov to confirm that I was signed up.  Turns out I was, and I again saw the confirmation number and the associated notices. I rechecked everything—reading every boring word--, and again noted that I was to make the first payment, and that my carrier would contact me. There were no instructions on where to send a payment, no links to that information, nothing.

    Let me say that again: I was instructed that I had to pay, but wasn’t told where to pay or whom to pay. This was clearly a system designed either by Monty Python or Torquemada.

    So I called my carrier, and they confirmed that they were awaiting my first payment, which they needed to receive before sending paperwork. A very nice person out in Oxnard gave me the address, told me what info to put on the check, and reconfirmed the amount due. I mailed the check directly into the Christmas rush, and now wait with some angst…

    The lesson? If I hadn’t made the phone call—if I hadn’t personally taken it upon myself to determine what information I didn’t have and still needed—I would have faced 2014 with no health insurance at all. My old plan would have gone away, and my new one would have been silently waiting for money to feed it.

    So: I have two questions. First—who in the hell builds a new system without making sure that all the needed information is available? And before you go all anti-insurance company and blame it on them, let me gently inform you that it just ain’t their fault.  When a goliath mandates a program, that goliath is accountable for making sure that the implementation pieces—even those owned by third-parties—are ready to go.  And they weren’t. Frankly, I’ve been involved in large-scale systems roll outs all of my adult life, and if one ever went this poorly then somebody accountable would have lost his or her job.  Maybe more than a single someone…

    In my mind, this entire program wasn’t ready for prime time, and the right thing to do was to find a compromise that would have allowed for delay. Perhaps we could have implemented those elements we all agree on, like the ones that protect children and the sick from being tossed aside like so much unprofitable detritus. And maybe we could have legislated a fixed premium percentage increase for the entire industry (don’t’ laugh—Nixon did something similar way back when during the wage-and-price-freeze days) And then, with the biggest risks to humans eliminated, we could have taken another year to get this thing right rather than foisting it, unready, on an unready public.

    Oh: and here’s my second question—the one that’s really important. How many millions of people may not have insurance on January 1 because of this system snafu?  And do you know if you’re one of them?

    Wednesday
    Oct162013

    Obama Cares vs. Obamacare

     

    Let me begin my saying that I truly believe Barack Obama cares. He’s not an evil despot figuring out how to run for a third, fourth, or even fifth term, thereby allowing himself the time to create the socialist caliphate that a very small (but very vocal) group of nutcases assume is his nefarious apocalyptic vision.

    Instead, I see Barack Obama as an okay President that lives roughly in the center (sometimes veering left, sometimes veering right), who has fair-to-middling leadership skills (in a time when we need amazing leadership skills) and who has essentially bet his legacy on this one thing which, despite it’s real name, most of us now recognize by its eponymous title, Obamacare.

    But Obamacare is a mess, at least for me. 

    As a sole proprietor I have my own insurance, and for the last few years I’ve been writing checks for reasonable coverage for both myself and my wife. I have a wide spectrum of doctors to choose from, and the drug coverage, frankly, exceeds my original expectations. 

    But now that’s all going away. Yesterday I received a letter in the mail from my insurance company. The letter informed me that every single plan they currently offer in NH is being eliminated, replaced by six plans that, strangely enough, break down into two “bronze,” two “silver,” and two “gold.”  In comparing those six plans to the six plans available to me through the Obamacare exchange, I found out that—surprise, surprise—they are pretty much exactly the same. And, by the way, they are the only company offering anything in NH. So much for choice…

    So I figured I’d better check out the healthcare exchange. (NH uses the federal exchange, having opted not to run its own.) This turned out to be a true technical nightmare. On four separate occasions I managed to create my profile only to find it unsaved, dumped mercilessly into an ocean of bits and bytes that flowed who-knows-where. (I’m guessing the NSA.) Once I had finally surmounted that problem, I found an endless list of questions and answers that I had to complete just to find out what plans were offered in my state. But that would have been too simple, apparently Had this been some other site—say Target or Best Buy—and they’d required a bunch of personal information just to do a friggin’ price check, then I certainly would have bailed. But I couldn’t. I have to have insurance, after all….

    I did finally get a look at the plans offered (hence my ability to compare them to the plan I’m losing), but I then made the mistake, apparently, of refusing to make a snap decision, and now I can’t get back in at all.  A very nice (and obviously battered) customer support rep informed me that I should try checking back in the middle of the night when traffic was lower. I kid you not.

    And so I’m now faced with a painful process of having to deal with a technical nightmare in order to buy something that I don’t like but have to have.  Here’s the short list of the “benefits” I’ll see from Obamacare:

    • My current plan is going away. Everything close to my current plan is going away. And there is only one provider available. My choices have essentially been eliminated.
    • One of our current doctors—someone my wife trusts and has worked with for a while now—is no longer “in plan.” That doesn’t mean, as it used to, that the coverage level is reduced. It means the coverage for going to that doctor is zero. Basically, under Obamacare I no longer have complete choice of doctors.
    • One of the medicines we get every month is no longer covered. At all. And it ain’t cheap.
    • My annual deductible will double, meaning that I can expect more out-of-pocket costs before any coverage (other than basic wellness) kicks in.

    And, for the privilege of this reduced coverage, I get to pay more than I’m now paying for my current plan.

    Okay, okay. I realize that this is anecdotal. I’m just one guy. Obamacare has undoubtedly helped millions. But as a program it’s highly flawed. Any plan that takes a perfectly bell-centered middle class guy like myself and hurts him isn’t doing what a caring Obama wanted to do.

    So, yes. Once we get through this budget/debt ceiling debacle, Obamacare needs to be “on the table.” This is a well-intentioned but very flawed omnibus that needs careful and thoughtful overhaul so that middle-class people don’t get hurt. 

    Can that happen?  I don’t know. The rhetoric is so thick on both sides that it’s hard to imagine. The right needs to accept that Obama cares, and the left needs to accept that Obamacare is flawed.

    We shall see…..