Archive for category Politics

President Barack Obama and Jon Stewart: The reckoning (not really)

Jon Stewart interview President Barack Obama; July 21, 2015

It’s an unlikely double case of “senioritis,” Jon Stewart commented in his recent interview with President Barack Obama.

Jon is leaving The Daily Show in two and a half weeks, and some sort of national neurosis seems to have shifted Obama into his lame-duck period a bit early. I’m trying very hard to pretend that none of this is happening.

Whether speaking the truth about President George W. Bush when seemingly no one else would, or keeping Democrats from getting complacent in the Age of Obama, Jon has been, as Obama himself put it, a “gift to this country.”

He should know. Obama has been on The Daily Show numerous times both as a senator and president, and is in fact the first sitting president to appear on the program. Some may consider that a cynical ploy to win favor with the young voters that seem to listen only to Jon (and, until recently, Stephen Colbert), but regardless it’s been pretty entertaining.

Yet like most of those interview, this final installment wasn’t a love fest. Jon’s first two interviews with Obama as president were pretty awkward, and this time he started with a ribbing about the first 2012 presidential debate (where Obama’s appraised poor performance took precedence over Mitt Romney’s pigheadedness), and engaged in a more serious discussion on the VA toward the end.

Despite all of the enthusiasm of the 2008 election, it seems like criticizing Obama has become an initiation right for the liberal club over the past seven years. Maybe old Bush-era habits are hard to break, or maybe the Left has become a collection of gutless hipsters that can’t be associated with anything too popular.

Over the years, Jon Stewart has repeatedly shown how to do this right. He criticizes constructively and when he believes it is warranted, not simply attacking Obama and other leaders for not following a narrow ideological path. And his job is actually to make fun of those leaders, what’s everyone else’s excuse?

I spent most of college watching Obama make his way to the White House, and most of the time since watching him try to steer the country in the direction of progress. Things haven’t gone perfectly, but looking back I’d say it wasn’t exactly a fiasco either. All along the way, Jon Stewart has been there to help us make sense of everything, by not blowing it all out of proportion.

For what it’s worth, I’m proud that Barack Obama is my president, and no matter who is in office, I hope there will always be someone like Jon Stewart to make fun of them, although Jon himself is irreplaceable.

Because no matter who is sitting behind the desks in the Oval Office and a tiny studio in Hell’s Kitchen, meetings like this are probably good for the country.

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Apollo 45

Apollo_11_bootprintThis week marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and people are posting their recollections of that event under #Apollo45.

I wasn’t born until well after the last moon mission took place, but the story has been conveyed so vividly that I almost feel like I experienced it firsthand.

The footage of the Saturn V rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Neil Armstrong’s iconic words, and the image of an American flag on the moon’s surface have all been burned into my consciousness.

Yet the whole event seems unreal. It’s still hard to believe that massive rocket propelled the tiny Apollo spacecraft to the moon, and that the entire complex operation worked not just once, but multiple times, ending with the safe return of the astronauts even when technical problems on Apollo 13 made that outcome seem unlikely.

The United States hasn’t accomplished anything on that scale since the last moon mission in 1972, so perhaps it’s not surprising that so many people believe the whole thing was faked.

Obviously, it wasn’t but the Apollo missions may turn out to be a historical fluke. There’s plenty of enthusiasm for continuing the journey into space with a return to the moon, or even a mission to Mars, but the country can’t seem to muster the political will to make that happen.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out in his excellent book Space Chronicles, the Apollo program was a product of defense interests as much as scientific interests. The Cold War was raging, and the Soviets needed to be beaten.

While the U.S. has plenty of problems now, none of them rise to the quite existential-threat level of impending annihilation by a communist superpower. The stakes are just too low.

A renewed space program could have many benefits in terms of pure science or even jump-starting the economy, but those are just too ethereal, and the fact that U.S. astronauts can hitch rides with the Russians while maintaining national dignity proves that space is no longer an arena for geopolitical chest thumping.

So will future generations have to accept that Apollo was unique to its time, an inspiring product of a terrible conflict that threatened to destroy the world?

Perhaps another momentous event (say, the arrival of a Vulcan survey ship) will galvanize Earth’s population again, but until then it seems we’ll have to remain content with memories of past triumphs.

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Crimea conundrum

It’s Friday, which means conservatives are decrying President Barack Obama for harming the country.

Actually, they do that every day.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has made the President for accusations that he is weak from, among others Senator John McCain and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Obama has already called for sanctions, and is working with European nations to present a united diplomatic front in the face of Russia’s aggression.

Yet some seem to think more drastic action is necessary. The question is: what kind of action?

If the recent history of Republican foreign policy is any indication, the American people probably won’t like where they want to go.

Prominent conservatives can call Obama all the names they want, but their record is far from laudable.

The war in Afghanistan is just winding down, and I’m pretty sure Obama didn’t start it.

Neutralizing Al Qaeda was a legitimate military goal, but the Bush Administration allowed its military adventure in Central Asia to drag on through its two terms without making any serious attempt to end it.

That’s an example of gross foreign-policy incompetence. It’s a testament to this country’s short memory and political partisanship that one of the main architects of the bungled Afghan war is still considered a credible source for criticism of the current President.

In general, the kick-ass-because-America method of military intervention rarely produces the desired results. Did we ever find those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

Even smaller-scale interventions tend to become massive embarrassments. Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Granada wasted resources and accomplished nothing, while his support of the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua set the stage for one of the biggest scandals in American presidential history.

These types of interventions only succeed if there is a clear goal, and there really isn’t one here.

Yes, Putin’s annexation of Crimea violates the sovereignty of Ukraine. However, the U.S. doesn’t have a clear interest here, which makes choosing a course of action difficult.

There’s no physical U.S. presence to be defended, or concrete issues to serve as bargaining chips. The U.S. wants Russia out of Crimea simply to maintain the international balance of power, and because it’s the right thing to do.

Would it be worth going to war with Russia over a piece of land that most Americans probably can’t locate on a map?

I’d wager most people would answer “no,” but subjectively, diplomatic solutions like sanctions seem inadequate with Russian troops walking the streets of Sevastopol.

That’s where the conservatives come in. They’re always looking for opportunities to bash the President, and people’s confused feelings about Crimea have created the perfect opportunity.

So, yes, Crimea is a problem that needs to be dealt with. But blaming Obama isn’t a solution.

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Private risk for public good

Convent StationIt may be a train station in New Jersey, but Convent Station is a nice place to be.

Situated along a relatively quiet stretch of track and a bike path in Madison, the building itself looks like something plucked from a Lionel catalog.

Yet this picturesque station serves nothing but the College of St. Elizabeth and, perhaps, a few guests from the nearby Madison Hotel. There’s another station about 2 miles away, built on a viaduct that runs through the center of town.

Today’s commuter rail planners would probably lay a concrete pad, plant some ticket machines, and call the job done. Luckily, the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad had greater ambitions.

Called simply the “Lackawanna” by train buffs, this coal-hauling line had one of the most impressive physical plants of any railroad in history. It pioneered the use of steel-reinforced concrete, which it used for everything from grandiose stations and bridges to humble signal towers.

It would have been cheaper to build a smaller, less substantial station for this somewhat unimportant location, just as it would have been cheaper not to span a valley at Nicholson, Pennsylvania with a massive concrete viaduct, or create an earthen berm to minimize the gradient.

NJ Transit commuter train leaving Convent Station.Yet the Lackawanna did all of these things. Even though the company no longer exists, its greatness is still evident in the Tunkhannock Viaduct, (currently unused) “Lackawanna Cutoff,” and the simpler dignity of Convent Station.

This mentality probably cut into the Lackawanna’s profits, but it made the trains run better, and impressed the public.

The idea of a private company spending more money than necessary just to, essentially, show off is an alien idea today, but it has great utility.

Today’s U.S. passenger trains are run by public agencies, which get their funding from taxpayers and are thus caught up in the toxic debate over government spending.

Yet it’s apparent, from the hope-tinged-cynicism surrounding President Obama’s intermittent support for high-speed rail, that people think this is important. It’s hard not to look at the systems of countries like France, Japan, and China and not feel like the U.S. should catch up.

However, those systems were created by the same mentality that drove the leaders of the Lackawanna: a singular focus on building the best railroad, period.

It also demands a level of corporate citizenship that today’s ultra-capitalistic cabals utterly lack.

At the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway–the world’s first–there was a banner that read “Private Risk For Public Good.”

We’ve all heard the line that corporations are only responsible to their shareholders. Good thing no one told the builders of Convent Station.

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Revolution 14

After watching the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles coming to the U.S., I’ve come to the only logical conclusion: we suck.

Today’s pop stars have nothing on Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and the juxtaposition was actually a little painful to watch.

Of course, music is a subjective thing. Some poor lost souls will always think Katy Perry is better than the Fab Four, and they are entitled to their opinion.

However, there is one part of the Beatle legacy that is undeniably missing from today’s cultural scene: revolution.

People celebrate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Beatles in the U.S. because it marked a major shift in American culture. They brought rock n’ roll to the mainstream, and became powerful advocates for political change.

Today’s music is many things, but it’s not revolutionary.

Yet the connection between music and political protest is still viewed as important. After all, shouldn’t there by a ’60s-style mass cultural movement for gay rights, or against the hegemony of the One Percent?

The idea of perpetual revolution has always been an important part of American political philosophy.

Thomas Jefferson believed that a revolution should occur every few decades, if for no other reason than to remind leaders that true power rests with the people.

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure,” Jefferson said.

However, I feel that’s been difficult for the generations that came after the Baby Boom, because there’s a pervading sense that all of the revolting has been taken care of.

Younger generations share more values with previous generations than the Boomers did with the “Greatest Generation,” which won World War II, but was also intensely rigid and bigoted.

Like most things in 21st century America, the battle has become hopelessly nuanced in discrete, with no zeitgeist to unite different elements behind a common front.

Epochal cultural shifts like the emergence of rock n’ roll, or the political awakening of the 1960s don’t happen very often, which might explain why looking at today’s crop of artists, it’s hard to spot another Paul McCartney.

Then again, revolutionary ideas wouldn’t be very revolutionary if they arrived punctually. If we want social change, we need to do the best we can to make it happen in whatever way we can.

That way, we can brag to our children about how much better our generation is than theirs.

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Reforming the healthcare reform debate

The most painful part of today’s passage of a bill that will allow people to keep their health insurance plans–regardless of whether they meet the standards of the Affordable Care Act–isn’t watching President Obama capitulate to more Republican pressure. It’s listening to everyone complain about it.

Obama was wrong to say that people could keep their plans in all circumstances but this, along with the constant criticism of Healthcare.gov, is getting out of hand.

The President should have been clearer about the law, and the people handling its rollout should have made sure the website worked. They didn’t. It’s not that big of a deal.

People like to point to the constant political strife in Washington as the nexus of this country’s problems, but the strife runs much deeper than that.

The Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare) is a very middle-of-the-road policy, which is why no one likes it. Liberals don’t like it because it’s not a single-payer system. Conservatives don’t like it because Obama created it.

Everyone else seems to be disgruntled because it requires them to change policies or pay more money. Never mind that they’re getting more coverage.

“Healthcare reform” means just that. It’s about providing access to healthcare for the maximum number of people, and implies no guarantee that certain people won’t be inconvenienced by a change of the status quo.

That big-picture reality applies to people’s ideas about healthcare reform as well.

Many liberals decry Obama for not enacting a single-payer system, and instead delivering millions of customers to the insurance companies. But where were these people when the Affordable Care Act was being drafted?

Did they stare down conservative opponents of the law, or just criticize the President for not doing what they wanted?

Two years after the passage of Obamacare, people are still complaining about the lack of a single-payer system. Yes, that would be fantastic. But the time to advocate for it was when the law was being drafted.

The biggest problem with Obamacare may just be that it is the President’s signature domestic policy. It makes it too easy for people to criticize the man and abandon the policy in the process.

Supporters of healthcare reform need to be for healthcare reform, not their own specific idea of healthcare reform. They need to stop throwing their hands up and shaking their heads every time a setback occurs. The ship will never get anywhere if everyone jumps off.

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When tragedy becomes mundane

Another week, another round of disturbed people firing guns in public places.

The New York Times described Richard Shoop’s escapades in the Garden State Plaza mall as grimly familiar, and the same could be said for the shooting at LAX that left a TSA security guard dead.

These types of events have apparently become so common that–even when two of them happen in less than week–barely anyone bats an eyebrow.

Politically, the eyes of the nation are still on yesterday’s elections and the functionality of Healthcare.gov.

Sometimes, there’s concern that policymakers need to strike while anvil is hot; that public interest in an important issue will wither outside the emotional rawness of a tragedy.

Who could have predicted that would still happen, even as the nation’s mentally ill gun owners continue to supply new tragedies.

It’s hard to believe that these shootings could become mundane, but that seems to be exactly what is happening.

However, no matter how mundane they become, they won’t go away. As long as the twin factors of mental illness and firearms are allowed to interact, America will have to deal with these tragedies.

Having a discussion on gun control and the treatment of mental illnesses may be an uncomfortable  prospect for the electorate, but is it as uncomfortable as having to wonder if today’s shopping trip will end in bloodshed?

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