Monday, August 08, 2016

Make America Whole Again

Donald Trump's rise seriously challenges U.S. openness to, and engagement with, the world. The system he attacks is worth defending, but must be modified to work for people it has left behind.

For months, Donald Trump was treated by the media and non-GOP-primary-voters as a sideshow attraction -- someone to gawk at, to raise one's eyebrows at, but ultimately to be dismissed when the time came. Unfortunately, for a man who utilizes attention the way the rest of us do oxygen, that was enough to propel him past a crowded field of unappealing Republican candidates. Since his unlikely ascension to the nomination there has emerged an appropriate focus on the obvious: that a vain and crass blowhard who espouses bigoted views against ethnic groups and religions, who has a poor business track record despite that being his claimed competency and source of fame, and who hasn't demonstrated a grasp of the details of any key aspect of public policy -- such an individual is a poor choice for president.

Even so, these criticisms have always been obvious to Trump's detractors and largely irrelevant to his supporters. It may yet be that, having come this far, his competitiveness has only been sustained due to former foes, critics, and the Republican Party apparatus dutifully falling in line behind him. And it isn't a stretch to think that Trump's unforced errors, such as a spat with the parents of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, combined with his seeming lack of interest in actual governance (versus personal brand-building), lead to a resounding defeat this November. And yet...

Monday, February 22, 2016

Go Left, America!

Bernie Sanders' candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination should be lauded for, at a minimum, unapologetically bringing liberal/progressive social justice views to the forefront of the national dialogue.

For most of the decade-and-a-half I can claim to have followed politics in the U.S. closely, it's been the Republican Party's right-most wing that has set the terms of the debate1 and the Democratic Party that has largely emphasized moderation rather than countering with stridently left-wing ideas. The roots of this dynamic lie in recent history.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan won re-election while carrying 49 out of 50 states, a little more than a decade after fellow Republican Richard Nixon accomplished the same feat. It cemented a rightward re-alignment in American politics that has resulted in compromised liberal politics to this day. Bill Clinton was famously a "New Democrat" and leader of the "Third Way", which was successful in winning elections but required, for better and worse, adopting numerous conservative positions: proclaiming an end to "welfare as we know it" and "the era of big government", pushing for deregulation and free trade deals, passing the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, and harsh anti-crime stands.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Dumb, Dysfunctional Disservice

The interminable U.S, presidential election campaign's lack of seriousness devalues our democracy, co-opts the media, and makes cynics of believers in politics as an instrument of meaningful change. It needs to be shortened.

Even for a hardened cynic, election season in the U.S. can be a trying time. Worse yet, it's a long time -- while in many other countries national election campaigns last anywhere from a couple weeks to 4-5 months, in the U.S. they begin 1.5 years or more before the actual election.  During this epoch, the least pretense to rational dialogue is left by the wayside. Instead, most "serious" candidates only occasionally deviate from vague statements, devoid of substance and nuance, in order to trumpet the most irresponsible and implausible ideas. They often delve into logical incoherence as they try to make themselves broadly, impossibly palatable across a host of issues. Pointing this out, for whatever reason, is the domain not of serious journalists who confront the candidates, but of late-night comedians.

The only publicized respite we get from a non-informative discussion of issues comes in the form of trivial scandals -- verbal gaffes, email irregularities, exaggerated personal backgrounds, spats with reporters, discredited conspiracies, etc. These get funneled through the "team sports" mentality of America's stultifying two-party system, ensuring that our nightly news programs, cable TV pundits, opinion columnists, and social media memes remain fixated on an inane series of point-counterpoint to fill up our time until next November.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

Deeming the fight between the Western world and ISIS terrorists a "clash of civilizations" distorts what is just a power struggle in the Middle East. Still, as this fight is waged, the West must cling stronger than ever before to its loftier values.

The predictable but nonetheless distressing reaction of many in the aftermath of the heartbreaking weekend Paris terrorist attacks has been to twist the event to fit biased viewpoints. A recurring, deeply erroneous refrain is that the incident represents a clash of civilizations (the West vs. Islam) or a battle of ideologies (freedom vs. terror). This view, undoubtedly appealing to some for drawing ostensibly tidy battle lines, is misleading and dangerous.

The truth of the matter is that the Islamic State (aka ISIS or Daesh), like any geopolitical entity, is motivated by something far simpler: the desire to gain and maintain power. Anything more is a convenient ex post facto justification of actions for a group that bombed Beirut one day before Paris, has killed thousands of Muslims, and is involved in a convoluted civil war against a repressive dictator (Syria's Bashar Assad). Russia's support for Assad is allegedly why Daesh blew up a Russian passenger plane earlier this month.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Bring the Noise

After another questionable law enforcement incident, the national dialogue has disappointingly centered on sensationalized riots instead of on how to address the root causes of poor relations between minorities and the police.

Baltimore, after the still-unexplained death of Freddie Gray, is the latest national flashpoint in the recent spate of high-profile incidents of police mistreatment of minorities. As a Maryland native who still has many friends who live, work, or study in the city, seeing a state of emergency declared and the National Guard called in to deal with riots has been particularly disheartening.

More disheartening has been the rush to simplistic moralizing pronouncements ("hot takes," in the current parlance) that focus on the easy-to-condemn rioters. As with opinions on Ferguson last year, the bulk of the dialogue on Freddie Gray addresses the small faction of criminals that looted a handful of stores. But the folks snarking about Baltimore rioters for their counter-productive behavior miss the point entirely. No one serious is advocating that burning down a corner store is constructive. Yet, perversely, it's once again taken destruction of property -- and not the loss of actual human (black) lives -- to get Americans to pay attention to the plight of struggling minority communities.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Next, Normalize Iran Relations

As has been the case with America's failed Cuba policy, decades of fighting Iran economically and via proxy wars have had a high moral, economic, and human cost for both sides and not led to any productive changes.

Last month, President Obama announced his decision to begin the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba, an acknowledgement that this bizarre policy of the past half-century had failed to produce regime change and had only hurt the Cuban people. The president's reversal of long-standing U.S. policy in this matter was wise, overdue, and will continue to be extremely contentious -- but another decision would be bolder still: normalizing relations with Iran.

A brief bit of history: In 1953, the CIA collaborated in the removal of Iran's prime minster, Mohammad Mosaddegh, concerned about his power struggle with the country's Western-backed monarch Shah Pahlavi and over fears Mosaddegh would align his country with the Soviet Union. An entrenched Pahlavi and his notorious secret police, the SAVAK, became so hated, Iran exploded in a violent, radical (Shia) Islamic revolution in 1979. The depressing chain of events linking the U.S. and Iran since then includes the Embassy Hostage Crisis, the Contra affair, Iran-sponsored Hezbollah bombings of American targets in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. shooting down Iran Air 655, arming (Sunni) Saddam Hussein for a staggeringly bloody fight against Iran (the 20th century's longest war), eventually having to fight two wars against Hussein, and ending up with Iraq today a virtual proxy state of Iran.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Millionaire Underdogs

Many sports fans blame "greedy" star athletes for chasing high-paying contracts and for high ticket prices to games, but that anger is better directed at far-wealthier owners taking advantage of players and fans.

An NFL star is a "greedy, me-first diva" if he holds out of training camp to protest being paid far below market worth, and is selfish if he doesn't emulate Tom Brady1 by agreeing to take less money "for the good of the team". Yet in a league where contracts are not guaranteed, on the frequent occasions when teams cut players under contract it is a smart "business decision" and no one howls about "not honoring an agreement".

Professional athletes who sign big money deals based on their accomplishments are often looked at as sullied. They play a game, goes the common gripe, and being paid $100 million -- or poo-poohing that amount as too little -- to play a game is ridiculous. That's why ticket prices are too high for the average fan to attend, laments the typical ESPN talking head, newspaper "hot take" sports columnist, or pugnacious radio caller. The assumption is always that star players make too much money -- when actually, given the enormous value they generate for their franchises, the best talents often should be paid far more than they are.