Friday, November 6, 2009

Do The Rights Thing

What a busy week!  There's so much ground to cover I hardly know where to start.  Two dinner parties, the Yankees winning the World Series, and some election news.  I'll try to keep it brief, but if you've been here before, you know that 's not necessarily my defining characteristic.

Monday night I finally kept a long-ago promise to Marcelene and invited her over for ribs.  It was a promise made near the end of the summer when it was still convenient to grill outside.  Now, I adore Marcelene, but it's in the 40s and low 50s at night this time of year.  Barbecuing is not an option without risking permanent damage to some of my favorite body parts.

I consider using the indoor grill, then - as I'm making the barbecue sauce, which I planned to brush on the ribs - I decide to cook the ribs right in the sauce until they're fall-off-the-bone tender.  I used the same barbecue sauce I made last Saturday, this time adding a little more Asian chili garlic sauce and some more Cayenne to give it a little heat.  Well, I left those ribs in that sauce for 8 hours on low, and they were delicious.  Some butternut squash puree completed a simple dinner set against the background of the Yankee losing Game 5 of the series (didn’t we all know it was going to take 6, and that they’d want to win in NYC?  More fun that way.)

Now, running the risk of having you think I'm a hack in the kitchen (an opinion my husband teases me about having) I will tell you that I made the same sauce AGAIN for our dinner party on Wednesday.  I had been dying to recreate that pork tenderloin I had in Tucson (yes, it was THAT good) and decided to run the risk of consuming so much pork in a single week, that they might not let me be a Jew anymore.  

We had our friends Mark and Todd over to dinner again, thanking them for their hospitality in having us to their East Hampton home a few weeks ago, as well as our friend Mike who was also on the cruise with us.  And really, what's a better metaphor at a gay cruise reunion than a big slab of pork?

I served a butternut squash and apple soup that appeared in the New York Times this week, and was a last minute inspiration, along with a sweet potato puree and some tarragon peas (one bag frozen peas, 1/2 cup water, 1 tbsp butter, 1 cup chopped tarragon.  Throw it all in a sauce pan, heat until the water boils, and simmer for 5 minutes.)

But this posting really isn’t about food this week.  Or even about the Yankees – who won not because they bought themselves a roster of individual talent, but because, for the first time in nearly a decade, they played like a team.  Didn’t they look like they were having fun?  Didn’t they show some character? Say what you will about the Bronx Bombers, but they haven’t been this much fun to watch since the late 70s.

Something that was a lot less fun to watch was Tuesday’s election returns.  It is actually a little too reminiscent of the late 70s: unemployment is high, state and local governments are teetering on the edge of fiscal ruin, and the Democrats seem to have abdicated the responsibility of governing.

In the interest of being open, I will admit that I was never a strong Obama supporter.  I campaigned and voted for Hillary Clinton during the primaries, believing that the concept of a “new kind of politics” was chimerical.  The majority of Americans may be independents, but the composition of our Congress becomes more and more polarized every year.  Less and less are our representatives working together on the issues that matter to most Americans, and the fight for the middle is less about finding moderate solutions, but a war between two distinct alternatives with the winner being the side that best frames and sells his story to enough folks in the political center.  Often, Independents and Moderates, with a few notable exceptions, aren’t choosing between ideas they love or which represent their political philosophy – they’re picking the one that comes closest or the one they like a little better or the one they hate the least. 

I lived through the culture wars of the 80s and 90s, and the demonization of the last Democratic President (whose failure to achieve more was, admittedly, caused as much by his own failings as it was by the forces that sought to bring him down.)  While I would love to believe in a new kind of politics, and while I believe most Americans crave it, I don’t think it’s realistic.  Our system was designed to be adversarial – at its best, it was designed to produce the best possible outcomes by forcing different perspectives to reach a compromise and achieve statesmanship in the interest of as many Americans as possible.  At its worst, its become political theater – which is what we have today.  Politics has become like rooting for a sports team; my guys are good, your guys are bad, and I will stick to my position – blindly if need be. 

This may be unfortunate and undesirable, but it’s also what we’ve got, and I always believed Hillary understood that governing was more about winning endless rounds of hand-to-hand combat than Obama ever did. 

Nonetheless, when he won the nomination I got on board, rewarding the intention even if skeptical about the ability to achieve it, and getting caught up in the history of the moment.  Also, I believed that his approach to policy and governing would focus on delivering real change.

I don’t believe that anymore.  I still want to; I still have hopes for the administration’s agenda.  But I’m angry – and so are a lot of other people.

Tuesday night’s election results were about a lot of things.  Incumbents did poorly.  The incumbent governor of New Jersey lost, the incumbent mayor of New York City – extremely popular with high approval ratings – saw his blowout turn into a squeaker, the incumbent party in Virginia got thrown out, losing the statehouse to someone who – at age 34 – wrote some of the ugliest things about women, blacks and gays that may have ever been written in an academic document.  (Of course, he was helped by the fact that his opponent needed a mirror held under his nose to determine if he was still, in fact, alive.)  Even New York’s 23rd Congressional District flipped – going Democratic for the first time since 1872.

And here’s my first point: setting aside talk about which party “won,” when incumbents lose it’s because people are angry.  They want change and they take it out on whoever’s in power, either by voting against them or staying home in enough numbers to have the same effect. 

It is worth noting that people voted – overwhelmingly – in 2008 for change.  Huge swings by modern standards in the Senate and House, a lopsided electoral college victory for the President, helped – in no small amount – by people who weren’t voting for him enthusiastically, but against the party in power who had squandered our surpluses, abused our military, ruined our economy and lied to our citizens.

In so many ways, Obama’s slogan was perfect for the election of 2008 – it wasn’t just about Change, it was about Hope.  Faith that taking a flier on something new would get different results.

And instead we have the same Wall Streeters regulating Wall Street, the same lopsided balance of power between corporate interests and individual rights, and the same entrenched divisions in our government.

That’s the second point: a lot of Obama voters and a lot of Obama supporters, even those still giving him that 54% approval rating, stayed home on Tuesday.  Left-leaning independents and democrats aren’t racing out to support a party that isn’t delivering what it promised.  The overtures to bipartisanship were nice, but the Republican Party has decided they’d rather stymie the agenda than take part – and that’s fine, as long as the Democrats move forward with or without them.  Continued efforts are futile: I don’t this country is ready to have the full scope of federal power wielded by two middle-aged women from Maine. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if there isn’t diversity among the Republicans in Congress (even if they are – almost exclusively – white protestant men over the age of 40.)  But during the Bush administration, that party stuck together no matter what.  I’d rather the Democrats worked out their issues behind closed doors, then came forward as one.

You know, I may not have agreed with a lot of what George W Bush did, but it’s easy to admire someone who lead with a vision and tried to pull the middle with him.  Those tax cuts were wasteful and the war in Iraq was an expensive distraction, sold with untruths, fought on the cheap and motivated by the most ruinous Oedipal complex ever witnessed globally.  But he wanted it, he was uncomprising, and his party stood behind him.  And Democrats were so afraid of the political price of dissent that half of them got on board.  It was only in Bush’s second term, when his party couldn’t support his domestic agenda on Social Security and Immigration that they abandoned him.  Even that is significant – they didn’t splinter, they split.  With us or against us, but not eight hundred different nitpickers tinkering around the edges of supporting something generally, but only with this program or that caveat.

It is time for this President to lead.  The Democrats are dangerously close to becoming the party of splitting the difference.  Their vision of governing needs to evolve from, “the selection of things we can get from the things we really want” to “the things America needs.”

In a fabulous book, Applebee’s America, co-written by Doug Sosnik, Ron Fournier, and Matthew Dowd, the authors explore why certain people, institutions and brands resonate with Americans and why.  Those that reach a tipping point make a Gut Values Connection with the public.  Obama made that connection – he appealed to, in his words, “our better angels” and our hope for, if not a “purple” America, a better America. 

The authors argue that politicians like Clinton and Bush saw their fortunes fall when they broke that connection, Clinton in lying about Monica Lewinsky, Bush in lying about Iraq.  Obama, if he doesn’t begin to govern with the same leadership and principles with which he campaigned, will risk breaking that connection.  People would rather see him take a stand and fail (and would likely punish Congress for standing in his way) than see him calculate success opportunistically.

Finally, I need to say something about Maine (especially since I just maligned their talented and responsible Senators a few paragraphs ago.  And I actually really think Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe have shown more political courage in the last decade than virtually any other members of Congress.)

The repeal of a legislatively-approved, Governor-signed law granting same-sex couples the right to marry was a shameful embarrassment. 

First – to my brothers and sisters in the gay community.  It’s time for a different kind of action.  I’m cool with the sepia-toned photos of two lesbians playing Frisbee with a kid, and two guys in tuxes sharing the story of how they fell in love 20 years ago while antiquing a lamp.  I’m cool with the emotional appeal of “who’s going to raise my daughter if something happens to my wife?” or “what if I can’t visit Freddy in the hospital?”  But we need to tear a page from AIPAC and start fighting this battle with our wallets.

Gays wield an unbelievable strong economic power and we’re wasting it.  So here’s my advice:

Before you send your money to HRC.

Before you send your money to GLAAD.

Before you send your money to the DNC and democratic candidates for office.

Before you spend your money on luxury crap.

Ask yourself this:

All those companies that advertise in Out, and the Advocate, and GQ, and Details, and all the magazines we’re reading on airplanes to Palm Springs and beaches on the Cape – what are they doing?  Is it fair for you to refuse to spend your money with companies if they don’t add the weight of their political power to our fight?  When was the last time a corporation advocated, or threatened to withhold its contributions, form a candidate unless that candidate supported the civil rights of its customers?  Don’t you have the right to demand that the companies who want your money so badly take a stand for your civil rights?

All those politicians we support with fundraisers and contributions and votes.  What are they doing?  I’ve got to tell you.  I don’t care if staying home means a vote for the other guys.  We survived eight years of George Bush, six of them with a Republican Congress, and lived to tell the tale.  It’s worth noting that AIDS funding increased under the Bush administration and same-sex marriage became a political reality during his tenure. 

I’m not casting anymore “better than the other guy on gay rights” votes anymore.  You either support full equality or I’m staying home.  Hell, maybe I’ll even vote for the other guy.  My taxes will go down.

It is absolutely unconscionable that gay civil rights is still the stepchild of the democratic agenda, the issue that gets thrown under the bus so some wimpy white guy can look tough to the boys.  Saying that you support gay rights but only believe in “traditional” marriage shouldn’t be any more acceptable than saying you’re against race discrimination as long as they don’t marry white people. 

And you know something – don’t talk to me about all the other issues that will suffer if democrats lose power.  Pay inequities for women, racial bias and affirmative action, reproductive choice.  You wouldn’t expect me to support a politician that stands against those issues any more than I expect you to support only those politicians who full-throatedly support marriage and civil equality for gays and lesbians.

Which is my last point.  This issue would move if more leaders stood for it.  So many politicians are so afraid of the political consequences of saying what I think they truly believe - that it’s nothing more or less than bigotry to prevent gays from marrying – that they fail to realize that their half-measures are part of the problem, not the solution.

It’s worth remembering this: any legal historian will tell you that the pre-Civil War journey of American politics was a movement from status to contract; from the rights of people based on who they were, to the ability to freely contract among ourselves.  In post-Civil War America, the movement has been from Freedom to Equality: ever closer to equal rights for all.  The guiding principle, in fact the founding principle of this country, has been about protecting the minority from the tyranny of a majority.  It’s why we have two house of Congress, it’s why they’re structured as they are, it’s why we have courts, it’s why we have three branches of government.

The ballot initiative process has a lot to recommend about it, but the degree to which it can be used to take rights away from people is shameful.  And any measure that attempts to take rights away, regardless of its substance, should be voted down on principle.

Integrating the military, miscegenation laws – this country has a long history of majorities doing the wrong thing.  Today you may be taking away my right to marry.  Tomorrow it maybe about you.

God help you then. 

Because I won’t.

And on a lighter note: gay marriages can be fun.  Just ask Liza Minelli.

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