Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Gay Divorce

Whatever the Supreme Court decides, acceptance of same-sex marriage is now a fact of life but, amid so much furor pro and con, a social change that deserves consideration in context of what has been happening to American families since World War II.

If gay marriage is here, can gay divorce be far behind?

Fifty years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead proposed that, with rising breakup rates, marriage be divided into two kinds: for the childless, a legal union easily dissolved (a “practice” or “student” marriage) followed by a renewed set of vows after children to bind couples more tightly to their responsibility as parents.  

Since then, couples living together without paperwork, both straight and gay, have more or less put the first half of Mead’s proposal into practice but no-fault divorce laws have failed to protect both parents and children from the financial and emotional savagery of state divorce statutes.

With same-sex marriage on the brink of acceptance, millions more will eventually find themselves not in the idealized Currier & Ives print they envision when taking their vows but a legal morass that can curdle love into conflict, pain and often financial ruin.

As American society takes an enormous leap forward into the future for a basic institution, would it be too much to ask for rethinking its failures of the past?   

Homophobia is not the only prejudice to be overcome.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A War That Never Should Have Been Waged

“Ten years after it began,” says a New York Times editorial, “the Iraq war still haunts the United States in the nearly 4,500 troops who died there; the more than 30,000 American wounded who have come home; the more than $2 trillion spent on combat operations and reconstruction, which inflated the deficit; and in the lessons learned about the limits of American leadership and power.”

From those years, there are regrets and mea culpas, but the lessons of Iraq are fading even as President Obama in Israel is mending fences over a continuing nuclear threat of Iran.

In 2000, a disputed election ended with seating the most radical government the US has ever had. After half a century of fear about Communist subversion, a small group of faceless ideologues came silently to power and brought us chaos.

Instead of spreading propaganda and fomenting unrest, they had met in paneled rooms, issued position papers no one read and, with the accidental help of a few dozen terrorists, took us into a pointless war to prove their twisted thesis, subverted our traditional liberties and created a crisis that any rational politician could have foreseen.

Their blueprint was a tract, issued just before Bush’s election, that looked like thousands of previous boring think-tank bloviations. Titled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources,” it advocated aggressive military action by the world’s only surviving superpower to shape the political universe.

“The Project for the New American Century” was no ordinary think tank. Its leading members included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Jeb Bush, Paul Wolfowitz and I. Lewis Libby.

In charge of finding a Bush running mate, Cheney selected himself and, for the new government, Libby as his Chief of Staff, Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense with Wolfowitz and others of his ilk as deputies.

Even so and with a puppet President to manipulate, they could not have put theory into practice. In their manifesto, they had acknowledged that their “policy of military strength and moral clarity may not be fashionable today.”

But 9/11 changed everything. The bluster could be transformed from words into action with Iraq as the laboratory, and in a climate of national trauma, sold to the American people as a “new product,” to the use the language of Bush’s Chief of Staff Andy Card.

We went to war in Iraq, not primarily to protect the interests of oil companies or to redress the failure of Bush’s father to topple Saddam Hussein but to bring into reality the strategic wet dream of armchair theorists without a minute of military experience.

On October 11, 2002 the Senate passed “H.J.Res. 114: A joint resolution to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq” by a vote of 77 to 23.

What few knew then was that the Bush White House thought it had the right to go to war without consulting Congress and the measure was a pale version of what they really wanted.
Alberto Gonzales was the President’s counsel then and, according to then Sen. Chuck Hagel, wrote a memo saying, “You have all the powers you need.” Hagel asked the White House why the President would consider going to war “without Congress being with him.” As a result, “a few of us--Joe Biden, Dick Lugar, and I--were invited to discussions with the White House...

“Finally, begrudgingly, they sent over a resolution for Congress to approve. Well, it was astounding. It said they could go anywhere in the region...Sure as hell it was clear they meant the whole Middle East. It was anything they wanted.”

Hagel, Biden and Lugar “had to rewrite it...stripped the language the White House had set up and put our language in it.” That was what Congress approved and authorized a decade of the worst war in American history that began five months later.

“The Iraq war was unnecessary, costly and damaging on every level,” says today’s Times editorial. “It was based on faulty intelligence manipulated for ideological reasons. The terrible human and economic costs over the past 10 years show why that must never happen again.”

It should not, but in today’s ideological divide, can anyone guarantee that it won’t?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Selective Empathy Is a Start

Cynics are having a field day with Rob Portman’s sudden conversion to gay marriage based on his son’s sexuality: If only more Republicans could discover close relatives who are poor, Latino or otherwise disadvantaged...

Yet selective empathy is better than none and deserves more than a reflexive sneer. Contrast Portman’s response with another. Asked what he would do if a son of his were gay, Rick Santorum says he would still love him but urge him to lead a life of abstinence.

In a larger sense, close exposure to social “others” has always been part of the process of breaking down prejudice, which thrives on categorizing the unseen as less than human.

Portman’s conversion recalls the 1956 movie epic “Giant,” in which a Texas cattle baron treats Mexicans like slaves until his son marries one. He ends up in a fist fight with a lunchroom bigot before a final scene showing a white and a brown grandchild in playpens together.

Luckily most Americans have the heart and imagination to respect otherness without such close family encounters, but in advancing respect and equal treatment for everyone, does neatness really count?

Even as the Radical Right selects Marco Rubio and Rand Paul as their heroes at the CPAC convention, a celebrated neurosurgeon named Ben Carson, who grew up black and poor with a single mother in Chicago, excites their attention with conservative views on health care and the national debt, reminding them that in surgery all brains look the same.

If only Sarah Palin and Karl Rove could stop fighting long enough to let that lesson sink in, even selective empathy might do its work in starting to heal the American mind.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Cheney's Banality of Evil

Half a century ago, Hannah Arendt made a scholarly argument that crimes against humanity, like those of the Nazis, are carried out not by brilliant fanatics or sociopaths but ordinary people who accept twisted social premises and pursue them as normal.

A new documentary, “The World According to Dick Cheney,” updates that thesis with chilling echoes. Like Adolf Eichmann, the VP-to-be was a school dropout heading nowhere in life until he found his calling as an efficient functionary dedicated to self-advancement in a cutthroat bureaucracy.

Scenes of Cheney’s Wyoming youth recall the 1992 film “A River Runs Through It” about growing up in Montana where fly fishing was a religion, with a handsome boy playing football, wooing and winning the town beauty but failing to compete academically in college and working as a power-line lineman with drunk driving arrests before getting into politics.

The parallels here between Cheney and his benefactor George W. Bush are striking. Despite class differences, both were headed toward an alcoholic cliff until strong wives deflected them, Bush toward evangelical religion, Cheney into political in-fighting. In 2000, they were a perfect match of fake piety and ruthless ambition.

Now Cheney presents himself as the ultimate realist with disdain for such gauzy values as honor while protecting the nation from terrorists, glossing over deceit about Iraq’s nuclear weapons, Scooter Libby’s revenge outing of Valerie Plame and other criminal actions in office that ultimately led to estrangement even from Bush in the President’s second term.

In a world where recent history is instantly erased by 24/7 media, it’s good to be reminded of less than a decade ago when the most powerful man in America now tells us his favorite food is spaghetti and, when asked to name his faults, replies “Well, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my faults, I guess would be the answer.”

Neither did Eichmann, no doubt.

Friday, March 15, 2013

After Infallibility: Post-Papal Blog?

As a magazine editor,  I once negotiated for weeks with the Vatican to publish a Christmas message for women bylined by the Pope.

That memory stirs speculation about any public afterlife for the first former Pontiff in modern history. Now that the white smoke has risen, must Benedict XVI retreat into total silence and meditation?

His Twitter account has been closed, but is there no place for him as a venerable figure similar to other retired world leaders?

If Dick Cheney is now instructing us on honor and duty, would the world not benefit from a more qualified voice on spiritual matters?  

We’re not talking a Comedy Central roast here but, as Benedict’s senior, I can testify to the sudden psychological altitude drop when “former” is added to your name. After the reality of irrelevance sinks in, it can give way to a wistful desire to reconnect with a life’s work and tease out its meanings in retrospect.

When Benedict XVI returns from his stay at Castel Gondolfo to new quarters at the Vatican, his successor may want to rethink any reflexive decision to entomb him there for his remaining days.

As a self-described “pilgrim who is starting the last phase of his pilgrimage on this earth,” what Benedict discovers may well be worth sharing.  

If a post-Papal blog is permitted, the perfect name is available: “After Infallibility,” which on second thought might also serve others with a lifetime of deeply held beliefs.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Pope/Obama: Control/Chaos

What would that clichéd anthropologist from another planet make of the doings on ours this week?

One gaggle of aging men selects an infallible leader for multitudes while another hobbles the choice of millions into political impotence.

As Barack Obama expresses hope that new Pontiff will have “a tremendous and positive impact on the world,” he admits discouragement about reaching agreement with Tea Party Republicans on anything for the American future.

Are complete control or chaos the only two choices for social organization in this century? Are an all-powerful Pope and an intractable John Boehner the only alternatives in this complex technological world?

Even under all its strictures, the Catholic Church shows more signs of evolving than the GOP. The new Pope chooses a name inspired by a saint synonymous with love and concern for the poor while Boehner rants at Obama for not acceding to his protections for the rich and powerful.

For those not blessed with devout religious faith or absolute political beliefs, this is not a time for trusting that doubt and reason will lead to human progress, but the new Pope’s humility is more encouraging than anything in our new world.

As Joe Biden prepares to attend the installation in Rome, we are reminded of what he said in debate with fellow Catholic Paul Ryan last year:

“My religion defines who I am. Life begins at conception. That’s the church’s position. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians, and Muslims, and Jews.”

Tell that to Boehner and his true believers.

Update: To confirm his priorities, Boehner, who is Catholic, turns down an Obama invitation to join the delegation attending the Pope’s installation. Too busy with spiritual matters on Capitol Hill, no doubt.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Dr. Paul's Drone Delusion

Before entering the family business, libertarian politics, Rand Paul was an eye doctor. After a 13-hour foray into urology this week, his career prognosis is a subject for psychiatry, subheading delusions.

Topping the list is 2016 presidential ambition, closely followed by paranoid resentment of John McCain for dining with the President rather than supporting his filibuster.

"I treat Sen. McCain with respect,” he tells Mike Huckabee on Fox. “I don't know if I always get the same in return."

When McCain and Lindsey Graham are so far to your left, some rethinking may be in order.

For those who feel that Paul’s ostensible subject, the use of drones against American citizens, may have been of merit in considering the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA, it’s crucial to realize that the net result of Paul’s droning on the Senate floor added absolutely nothing to the debate and was quickly followed by Brennan’s confirmation and swearing-in.

Yet Rand Paul’s stunt droning on the Senate floor will serve his own political purposes if not the nation’s. A self-congratulatory OpEd in the Washington Post will no doubt be the centerpiece of the kind of online fundraising for 2016 that buoyed his father’s presidential runs in previous go-rounds.

With that kind of long-distance vision, Dr. Paul must have been a dynamite eye doctor before straying beyond his field of expertise.  

Thursday, March 07, 2013

GOP Vote: Filet Mignon Over Filibuster

Republican Senators had a choice last night of breaking bread with the President or breaking wind with Ron Paul. Refuting suspicions that politicians would rather talk than eat, diners outnumbered gasbags by 12 to 6.

It may not have been a definitive display of cooperation over obstruction but a hopeful sign no less that GOP legislators emerged from the two-hour Obama dinner “more optimistic” about a Grand Bargain on budget differences while Paul headed for the rest room after 13 hours of futile filibustering against the appointment of John Brennan to head the CIA.

Most of the Obama getogether, according to Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns, “was spent on budget and a way forward. His goal is ours. We want to stop careening from crisis to crisis.”

He was joined by Sens. Kelly Ayotte (NH), Richard Burr (NC), Saxby Chambliss (Ga), Dan Coats (Ind), Tom Coburn (Okla), Bob Corker (Tenn), Lindsey Graham (SC), John Hoeven (ND), Ron Johnson (Wis), John McCain (Ariz) and Pat Toomey (Pa).

Paul, in his feeble imitation of James Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” was bolstered by newcomer Ted Cruz (Tex), Marco Rubio (Fla), Jeff Flake (Ariz), Tim Scott (SC), Ron Johnson (Wis) and the ever reliable Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky).

“Springtime in Sequesterland” is looking more and more like the show in Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” designed to fail but, despite itself, perhaps destined to succeed somehow as brilliant farce.

Obama’s revival of “The Man Who Came to Dinner” seems to have helped.

Monday, March 04, 2013

A Losing Romney Does Not Disappoint

The man who promised to kill Big Bird is now devoting his foundation to children. In defeat, Mitt Romney is still the same shape shifter Americans knew so well before last Election Day.

He reappears on Fox, clueless as ever to explain that darned 47 percent again, “What I said is not what I believe” and concede “We weren't effective in taking my message primarily to minority voters—-to Hispanic-Americans, to African-Americans, other minorities. That was a real weakness."

Commenting on the current Washington crisis, he offers the insight, “They may be more interested in showing pain and saying, ‘See what the other guys did.’ Nero is fiddling.”

Romney’s lack of wit and grace recalls a politician with so much of both who lost the presidency twice to Dwight Eisenhower half a century ago, Adlai E. Stevenson, whose qualities of mind and heart seem as distant in these days of Sequesterland as Downton Abbey.

During his losing quests, Stevenson told supporters, “When the tumult and the shouting die, when the bands are gone and the lights are dimmed, there is the stark reality of responsibility in an hour of history haunted with those gaunt, grim specters of strife, dissension, and materialism at home, and ruthless, inscrutable, and hostile power abroad...Sacrifice, patience, understanding, and implacable purpose may be our lot for years to come. ... Let's talk sense to the American people! Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains.”

As Romney retreats into his riches, it is impossible to envision a future in public service for him like Stevenson’s moment shortly before his death as JFK’s Ambassador to the UN confronting the Russians over missiles in Cuba, "I am prepared to wait for my answer until Hell freezes over.”

The only consolation for today’s chaos lies in the realization of how much worse the mess in Washington would be if Romney were in the White House rather than Obama.

Time dubbed Stevenson “The Graceful Loser” for his post-election behavior, including the explanation, “I have said what I meant and meant what I said. I have not done as well as I should like to have done, but I have done my best, frankly and forthrightly; no man can do more, and you are entitled to no less.”

That should be recalled not only to Romney the loser but those who have won and are up to whatever it is they are doing now in Washington.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Scalia's America

The nation’s life today is being shaped less by elected politicians in the headlines than a 76-year-old man who prefers any other century to this one.

Antonin Gregory Scalia is the longest-serving justice on the Supreme Court and, without doubt, the most aggressively backward-looking ever.

After turning the history of the Second Amendment on its head five years ago to restore a gun-crazy America of the old Wild West, he is now embarked on dismantling a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

If last November’s presidential election had gone the other way, Scalia would now be one obituary away from overturning legalized abortion as well as weakening the rights of anyone other than old white men.

In 2000, the Reagan appointee was joined by his Bush I echo Clarence Thomas in handing the White House to Bush II.

In 2008, Scalia’s deciding vote turned the Second Amendment on its head, reversing almost a century of legal interpretation that the “right to bear arms” was not meant for individuals.

His arrogance shines through again in yesterday’s assertion that Congress’ almost unanimous re-approval of minority voting rights in Southern states is more an entitlement than a protection against exclusion. How far will his second-guessing of the legislative branch go?

The only heartening news is that Scalia’s retrograde views are being openly challenged by Obama appointees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. In an era when even the Vatican is changing its old guard, there is some hope that America can in the coming four years.

Update: Scalia is not alone. Now it turns out Chief Justice John Roberts is with him on voting rights and misusing statistics at that to “prove” Massachusetts has a lower black turnout than Mississippi. The air must pretty rare up there on that bench.