Fighting Words

Former Utne Editor in Chief David Schimke on conflict, compassion, partisanship, and peace

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We live in a country where a stunning number of TV meteorologists still aggressively deny the existence of climate change, so I couldn’t help but be both surprised and a bit encouraged by the results of a national poll conducted last November. It seems that Republicans who dare to take a “green position” on climate—which essentially means admitting that something needs to be done to keep the earth’s temperature from rising—could end up wooing undecided voters without alienating their core constituency.

According to The Daily Climate, Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment called 1,000 randomly selected participants and asked them to evaluate a hypothetical Senate candidate based on a number of issues and found that “taking a green position on climate won votes . . . and taking a not-green position [which includes sticking with coal and oil as the nation’s dominant energy sources] lost votes.”

Based on a detailed breakdown of the data, researchers concluded that while Democrats could strengthen their base by focusing on climate, Republicans hoping to woo Independents and disappointed Dems had more to gain at the moment, especially if their opponents stay silent on the subject. “On taxes and the economy, the Republicans are singing one note,” Bruce Cain, professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, told the Daily Climate. “The only way to win is by shining the light on the differences.”

This analysis squares with the findings of another Stanford poll released a year ago, which found that “three out of four Americans believe that ‘the Earth has been gradually warming due primarily or at least partly as the result of human activity and want the government to institute regulations to stop it.’ ”

Whether or not taking a pro-green position on the stump would actually result in actual legislation after the polls close is another question altogether, of course, but it will be interesting to see if data like this changes the conversational climate come primary time.

Source: The Daily Climate 

Image by paul nine-o, licensed under Creative Commons. 



Upon hearing the sad news that the visionary jazz saxophonist and flutist Sam Rivers died just after Christmas at the age of 88, I started scrounging for the notes I’d taken at a special guest appearance he made with pianist Jason Moran on October 4, 2001. It took a while to sift through the scribbling, but the exercise led me to a short piece I wrote about the experience. That is took place at Walker Art Center, a modern art museum in Minneapolis, was particularly fitting, since the composer and bandleader will forever be remembered for his abstract expressions. Here are a few graphs from the review, which originally ran in Jazziz magazine: 

This much anticipated, one-night, one-time only gig was inspired by Moran’s third solo effort for Blue Note records, Black Stars, which features Nasheet Waits, bassist Tarus Mateen [Scott Colley played bass in Minneapolis], and Rivers on tenor, soprano, and flute. Like the CD, the 90-minutes set was an often stormy, sometimes sun-drenched, but always soulful journey to the sharp corners that define the outskirts of modern jazz. Unlike the studio summit, which showcases Moran’s promise as writer and River’s concision (which, like the hole of his career, is criminally underappreciated), the Walker performance bore a palpable urgency, a hang-it-all-out-there vibe characterized by telepathic teamwork and fearless individualism. In fact, after listening to Black Stars, I thought Rivers, who pushed Blue Note toward the avant-garde in the ’60s and fueled the New York loft scene in the ’70s, might have been holding back a little on the recording. I even wondered if it was Moran, not Rivers, who should’ve been billed as a special guest.

After watching the two of them onstage, though, there is no question that the pairing was not a commercial conceit, but a marriage of like-minded artists. Like Rivers, Moran uses the full range of his instrument, belies scholarly pretension, and manages to be as musical as he is adventurous.

Ultimately, though, it was Rivers, pushing himself physically, pulling at the edge of time-tested tunes such as his own “Inspiration” and “Unity,” who left the most stirring impression. Just ask Waits, who sat behind his kit, perpetually grinning in disbelief as Rivers played off his every snap, crackle, and pop. (Waits himself was an unexpected treat, working his equipment’s limitations with a harmonic sensibility rare among young drummers.) On soprano, Rivers conjured visions of Coltrane, searching for spiritual release. On flute, he was cat-like, skipping and scatting seamlessly above the fray. And on tenor, he jump-roped from register to register so quickly, so smoothly, that his most experimental wanderings seemed downright lyrical.

“It’s the guy’s integrity,” Moran told the crowd. “That’s what you want to emulate. He’s just so upfront and direct with everything he does.”

During the show’s high mark, a delicate duet featuring the veteran and the young lion, the two swayed gently, as if they had played together for years—as if they knew they may never share the stage again. Titled “For Peace,” the song paid tribute to a friend of Moran’s who was killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks. If you closed your eyes and let your imagination ride along, you could envision a world so beautiful, so harmonious, that such violence truly would be unthinkable.

Shout outs to photographer Mike Dvorak, who covered the show with me that night, and NPR’s A Blog Supreme, which recently posted a link to an exhaustive Rivers discography.

Image by Tom Marcello , licensed under Creative Commons  








Given the corruption that crashed the American economy (again), and the current administration’s unwillingness to seriously address class issues or corporate greed, it’s hard to find fault with Occupy Wall Street.

The “leaderless resistance movement,” which started in New York City on September 17 and continues to attract protesters to Zuccotti Park near Wall Street, is viewed by many, including Noam Chomsky, as courageous and honorable.

“Anyone with eyes open knows that the gangsterism of Wall Street—financial institutions generally—has caused severe damage to the people of the United States and the world. And should also know that it has been doing so increasingly for over 30 years, as their power in the economy has radically increased, and with it their political power,” Chomsky says. “[The protests] should serve to bring this calamity to public attention, and to lead to dedicated efforts to overcome it and set the society on a more healthy course.”

On the Washington Post’s editorial page, staffer James Downie concludes that “as long as the sluggish economy continues to hit Americans—and especially young Americans—hard, expect more and bigger demonstrations like Occupy Wall Street—unfocused, sometimes excessive, but fundamentally justifiable.”

Not everyone who agrees with the protesters’ principles is impressed, however. In an essay posted on Ted Rall’s website on September 26, the political cartoonist, commentator, and author says that “for me and other older, jaded veterans of leftist struggle, [Occupy Wall Street’s] failure was a foregone conclusion”—and that “yet another opportunity to agitate for real change was being wasted by well-meant wankers.”

This is not to say Rall doesn’t believe in the cause. The author of Wake Up, You're Liberal!: How We Can Take America Back from the Right, acknowledges in the first sentence of his critique that Occupy Wall Street “is and was important.” If only because it represents the first major repudiation of the Obama administration by the American left. But, he argues, good intentions are not enough, especially when the stakes are so high.

“Michael Moore complained about insufficient media coverage, but this non-movement movement was doomed before it began by its refusal to coalesce around a powerful message, its failure to organize and involve the actual victims of Wall Street’s perfidy (people of color, the poor, the evicted, the unemployed, those sick from pollution, etc.), and its refusal to argue and appeal on behalf of a beleaguered working class against an arrogant, violent and unaccountable ruling elite—in other words, to settle for nothing less than the eradication of capitalism.”

Rall desperately wants the protesters to be better organized, and points out that a number of those who did get interviewed by the mainstream media lacked a central message and the ability to articulately unpack key issues. To hammer home his point, he implores the kids in the park to “lose the clown clothes.”

“It’s not the early 1960s; you don’t have to wear a suit like the civil rights marchers did,” he writes. “But how about showing up on national TV looking decent, like it’s Casual Friday?”

Rall is a provocateur, and a few progressives have already taken him to task both for his hyperbolic prose and for his failure to support the troops. Fair enough. There’s a lot to chew on in this tirade, however, and when everyone goes back to their lives and Wall Street continues its run toward ruin, it demands a dispassionate revisitation.

Sources: Occupy Wall Street, Ted Rall, Washington Post 

Image by Carwil, licensed under Creative Commons. 


BostonReviewja11In an essay disguised as a long-form book review, writer Mark Schmitt delivers a decidedly progressive but even-handed evaluation of the current administration that culminates with a refreshingly pragmatic take on President Obama’s pragmatic political philosophy.

Published in the July-August issue of Boston Review, “All About Obama: A President Without an Ideology” should be required reading for progressives who, in the midst of an intensely polarized period of American history, initially mischaracterized the Democratic nominee as a rabble-rousing leftist, and have since compounded the mistake by labeling him as a weak-kneed sellout. Schmitt’s analysis should also be assigned to the president’s apologists, who too quickly dismiss or ignore his failings—the most egregious and disappointing being the continuation of the Bush administration’s abuse of civil liberties, foreign and domestic.

Schmitt first establishes that, thanks to a series of bureaucratic reforms, such as the strengthening of the Environmental Protection Agency, and social progress, including the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Obama will doubtless receive a kinder historical treatment than either Clinton or Carter. But his lasting legacy will be no more transformational, especially if health care reform fails to survive the shifting political winds, which is not just possible, but increasingly probable. After all, Obama is ultimately a mainstream politician, or, as pseudo-revolutionaries like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann like to say, a Washington insider.

While this analysis is beautifully written and expertly argued, it is not unfamiliar. What’s refreshing is that Schmitt doesn’t single out the administration for scorn. In fact, in many ways, despite the somewhat misleading tone of the headline, the essay comes to the president’s defense, in no small part because of the political, economic, and legislative barriers he inherited—including a friendly Congress that became decidedly uncooperative and impotent in a matter of months. Without letting Obama off the hook, the author holds a number of actors accountable, including the right-wing and mainstream media (often one and the same), and those citizens who voted for the Illinois senator and then assumed their work here was done.

As Schmitt reminds us, and as Utne Reader discussed prior to the 2008 elections, the president is not a superhero. He cannot single-handedly break the chains of reality or behave radically without expecting a radical response from an enemy. He must have a fan base capable of delivering tough criticism, but willing to do a lot of legwork and heavy lifting long after the polls have closed and the nasty, grinding task of governing in a representative democracy begins.

“Obama, therefore, has the challenge of building a more coherent ideological vision (as he did in his April 13 speech on the budget), or resorting to small-p pragmatism, just trying to get reelected and get some things done,” Schmitt concludes. “If he is to take the first path, though, it falls on liberals to help build the pyramid of ideas and organizations on which he and future presidents can stand. It can’t be all about him.”

Source: Boston Review 



I’m not sure whether or not beauty pageant contestants wish for world peace these days, but lately the very idea, like Miss America herself, seems both antiquated and absurd. Including the battles in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are 18 wars being waged at this very moment. And given America’s open-ended “war on terror,” the racial climate in Europe, the economic strife in Africa, and the globe’s seemingly endless supply of stubborn dictators, you couldn’t blame a person for concluding that things are going to get a lot worse. In fact, it’s easy to write-off anyone who dares to question the prevailing doom-and-gloom as a bleary-eyed idealist.

In a Foreign Policy piece that even the most cynical of realists will find hard to blithely dismiss, however, Joshua Goldstein, a professor emeritus of international relations at American University, concludes that “President Barack Obama was telling the truth in June when he said, ‘The tide of war is receding.’ ” And Goldstein, who authored Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide, has the data to back up his optimism.

“The last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years, based on data compiled by researchers . . . of the Peace Research Institute Oslo,” Goldstein points out.

Worldwide, deaths caused directly by war-related violence in the new century have averaged about 55,000 per year, just half of what they were in the 1990s (100,000 a year), a third of what they were during the Cold War (180,000 a year from 1950 to 1989), and a hundredth of what they were in World War II. If you factor in the growing global population, which has nearly quadrupled in the last century, the decrease is even sharper. Far from being an age of killer anarchy, the 20 years since the Cold War have been an era of rapid progress toward peace.

Goldstein’s overall argument—that the end of war is “downright thinkable”—is structured around what he sees as a related series of commonly held misconceptions: war has gotten more brutal for civilians; wars will get worse in the future; a more democratic world will be a more peaceful one; peacekeeping doesn’t work; and some conflicts will never end. In each of these sections he artfully combines historical comparisons, recent data, and analysis to either counter the stated assertion or, at the very least, encourage a reassessment.

At times, Goldstein conflates his data or becomes almost too mathematical, forgetting to factor in the subtleties of human behavior and the vagaries of fate. But for the most part, he forces the reader to rethink current history and question the chaotic narrative that distorts our expectations.

Source: Foreign Policy 

Image by Jayel Aheram, licensed under Creative Commons. 



With US troops marching out of Iraq and Osama bin Laden’s head on a pike, it will be difficult for Barack Obama’s political enemies to characterize the president’s first-term performance on the international stage as indecisive, inexperienced, or weak-kneed—a strategy that helped unseat Carter and left Gore desperate for Florida’s electoral votes. Barring a domestic terror attack, in fact, hawkish Republicans will likely avoid serious foreign policy discussions and quietly cheer for the economy to continue its slumber.

The electoral ramifications notwithstanding, what worries Mark Lagon, International Relations and Security Chair at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service Program, is that Obama’s seeming strength (and good fortune, I might add) betrays a lack of inventiveness and depth—especially when it comes to projecting soft power, that combination of diplomacy and nonmilitary coercion essential to enduring influence and stability.

Writing in the October issue of World Affairs, Logan notes that when Obama initially took office he “made fresh start statements, such as his June 2009 remarks in Cairo, and embraced political means like dialogue, respectful multilateralism, and the use of new media, suggesting that he felt the soft power to change minds, build legitimacy, and advance interests was the key element missing from the recent US approach to the world—and that he would quickly remedy that defect.”

Since then, Obama has embraced unilateral military actions, accelerated the use of unmanned drones—despite the risk of untold civilian casualties—and has continued a number of the Bush administration most unpopular policies, including rendition and the suspension of habeas corpus domestic and foreign. Consequently, the administration lacks credibility on those occasions it does choose to engage in statecraft.

To prove the point, Logan looks in detail at events in Iran, Russia, and Egypt during Obama’s first term; countries where a “meaningful” expression of soft power could “have made a difference not only for those countries but for American interests as well.”

“[Obama’s] reaction to the challenges these countries have posed to the US suggest that it is not soft power itself that Obama doubts,” Logan concludes, “but America’s moral standing to project it.”

Source: World Affairs 

 Image by The U.S. Army, licensed under Creative Commons 


work-together-smallThe assumption that human beings are inherently selfish—interested in the greater good only when it serves their own interests—has long-influenced capitalism’s most prominent thinkers (Adam Smith, Alan Greenspan, Gordon Gekko) and served as a litmus test for modern America’s so-called political realists. Employees are best motivated with bags of carrots and a big stick. Without law there is no order, and without the threat of punishment there is no law. We’re all out for number one. Greed is good. Dogs eat dogs.

Just turn on the news anytime of the day or night. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.

A compelling counter-narrative is emerging, however. In the latest issue of Harvard Business Review, Yochai Benkler points to “recent research in evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, political science, and experimental economics [that suggests] people behave far less selfishly than most assume.

“Evolutionary biologists and psychologists have even found neural and, possibly, genetic evidence of a human predisposition to cooperate,” he writes.

In the piece, “The Unselfish Gene,” Benkler, a Harvard law professor and author of The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest (Crown Business, 2011), aims to reach executives and managers who he believes must abandon traditional motivational strategies in favor of techniques that “rely on engagement, communication, and a sense of common purpose and identity.” Along the way, though, he points to scientific discoveries and psychological theories that will engage any reader who pines for collective solutions to common problems.

In one cited experiment revolving around cooperative behavior, for example, a majority of subjects consistently behaved cooperatively (some when treated reciprocally, others even when it came at a personal cost).  In another revealing set of studies, participants showed that traditional incentives, such as monetary awards and the threat of punishment, actually hampered productivity and discouraged engagement. This can be explained in part by neuroscience that shows that cooperation, when chosen freely, simply makes people feel good.

“No, we are not all Mother Teresa; if we were, we wouldn’t have heard of her,” Benkler says. “However, a majority of human beings are more willing to be cooperative, trustworthy, and generous than the dominant model has permitted us to assume. If we recognize that, we can build efficient systems by relying on our better selves rather than optimizing our worst. We can do better.”

Source: Harvard Business Review 

Image by lumaxart, licensed under Creative Commons. 


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