Monday, June 30, 2008

Time to Start Breathing Fire

Democratic Representative Robert Wexler from Florida has served in Congress for six terms. In 2007 The Nation named him "Most Valuable Congressman" and Congressional Quarterly included him among "The 50 Most Effective Legislators in Congress." His just-published book, Fire-Breathing Liberal: How I Learned to Survive (and Thrive) in the Contact Sport of Congress is an energetic, entertaining, and hopeful account of his congressional experience set against the recent history of the United States.

Fire-Breathing Liberal offers a good introduction to its author, who belongs to the courageous wing of the Democratic Party. He and co-author David Fisher have produced a fast-moving narrative that features many laugh-out-loud anecdotes. But what I most appreciated was the ringside seat Wexler provides for such developments as

  • the Gingrich-DeLay subversion of legislative process and bipartisanship within the House of Representatives,
  • the theft of the 2000 presidential election, due in part by the mishandling of numerous ballots in Wexler's own congressional district, and
  • the growing demand that Dick Cheney and George Bush be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors against the people of the United States.

The introduction to Fire-Breathing Liberal is entitled "It's Time to Be Mad as Hell." Wexler's right about that. His final paragraph is also on target:

"After eight long years of Bush and Cheney, if we give the American people a clear choice, they will pick us overwhelmingly. But if we show them caution, hesitation, and meekness, they will remain frustrated, even despondent over the state of our government. I believe that if more liberals start 'breathing fire,' we Democrats will finally build a lasting majority."

I encourage you to read this book as a summer project in patriotism.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Responsible Plan for Ending the Iraq War

What's happened due to the Iraq War? More than 4,000 U.S. troops are dead. Nearly 30,000 more have suffered serious injuries. Our nation's military capabilities and readiness have been severely damaged. Our international standing has plummeted, making work with other nations to address security threats more difficult. Our constitutional system has been abused by an executive branch claiming unprecedented powers. Our economy is threatened, partly because to date this war has cost $16,500 for every U.S. family of four.

No political reconciliation has occurred in Iraq and none is on the horizon. As many as a million Iraqis have been killed. Four million have fled or been displaced. Half the households in Baghdad have lost a family member. Iraqis have no reliable electrical power, no reliable hospital system, no reliable schooling for children, and no functioning civil infrastructure. Unemployment is estimated at 60%. Young, unemployable men end up joining local militias rather than helping to rebuild their shattered nation.

In light of these well-documented realities, how can we bring American military involvement to a rapid and responsible end? How can we keep from repeating the mistakes that have brought us to this calamity? Working with military and security experts, ten congressional candidates have put forth "A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq" ( Their proposal has been endorsed by four Senate candidates and fifty-four House candidates. It includes several bills introduced in Congress last year.

"A Responsible Plan" calls for an end to U.S. military involvement in Iraq and transfer of control and responsibility for Iraq to the Iraqis. This draw down of troops would not depend on Iraqi action or inaction. It would occur with utmost regard for troop safety and would result in no U.S. troops in Iraq other than those required for embassy protection.

The United States and the international community would engage in diplomacy and nation-building rather than military action. Our departments of State, Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation, and Treasury would all play a part. The United States would work to establish a regional dialogue involving all of Iraq's neighbors.

The humanitarian crisis involving millions of Iraqis who have fled their country or have been internally displaced would be addressed through accountable assistance to these populations and their host countries, increased border security, and the resettlement of Iraqis at risk. Among those at risk are Iraqis who have assisted the United States; they must not be abandoned.

"A Responsible Plan" advocates that the three branches of the United States government perform their functions in accord with the Constitution. Specifically it requires that ongoing war funding be incorporated into the normal congressional budgeting process, which is not now the case. Signing statements by the current president have involved attempts to alter the laws passed by Congress; such statements must be eliminated.

Habeas corpus, the individual's right to appeal to a court of law against arbitrary detention, would be reinstituted. Government surveillance without both probable cause and judicial warrants would be eliminated, as well as the torture of detainees and their secret transport to countries that practice torture during interrogations.

The renewal of our military would include reducing reliance on unregulated private militias, the provision of first-rate medical care for veterans, and the restoration of educational benefits for veterans. Holding contractors responsible for their contracts and increasing congressional oversight of contractors would help to eliminate war profiteering.

Lack of impartiality and skepticism on the part of the news media allowed administration claims to go largely unchallenged around the start of the Iraq War. "A Responsible Plan" calls for greater public participation in the establishment of media ownership rules and increased diversity in the ownership of broadcast media.

Last but far from least, this plan supports research on next generation energy technologies and the elimination of our nation's dependence on foreign oil. These efforts are viewed not only in the light of environmental responsibility, but also of economic and national security. Investment in alternative energy will create new industries and new technology which will result in new jobs and a healthier economy.

"A Responsible Plan" envisions generous and courageous goals. The United States has realized such goals before and can do so again. This plan points the way ahead for genuine patriotism in the twenty-first century. Such patriotism will contribute to the rebuilding of Iraq as well as to the restoration of the United States as a vibrant and confident democracy.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Attitudes of a Life-long Learner

The June 6 Washington Post featured a half page obituary entitled "Harlan Cleveland; Dean, Author, Statesman and Lifelong Learner." The headline intrigued me, as did the accompanying photo of an elderly man next to an elephant. I had never heard of Harlan Cleveland, but reading his obituary, I felt as though I was standing beside a theatre entrance as a jubilant audience flooded out onto the sidewalk: I had missed a remarkable show.

Cleveland packed a lot of living into his ninety years of life. "He was a journalist, an assistant secretary of state, a NATO ambassador, a university president and the author of a dozen books on leadership and public policy, and he was interested in almost everything--in part because he believed that everything is inter-related." Cleveland hated the phrase, "Have a nice day!" As he told one audience in 1989, "What I want is exciting days, passionate days, blessed days, surprising days."

Among Cleveland's books is Nobody in Charge: Essays on the Future of Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2002). There he tells of how over the decades he reworked and refined a list of attitudes essential to what he called "a generalist mindset . . . indispensible to the management of complexity." Here are the eight attitudes he came to recognize through experience and reflection.

  • First, a lively intellectual curiosity, an interest in almost everything--because everything really is related to everything else, and therefore to what you're trying to do, whatever it is.

  • Second, a genuine interest in what other people think, and why they think that way--which means you have to be at peace with yourself for a start.

  • Third, a feeling of special responsibility for envisioning a future that's different from a straight-line projection of the present. Trends are not destiny.

  • Fourth, a hunch that most risks are there not to be avoided but to be taken.

  • Fifth, a mindset that crises are normal, tensions can be promising, and complexity is fun.

  • Sixth, a realization that paranoia and self-pity are reserved for people who don't want to be leaders.

  • Seventh, a sense of personal responsibility for the general outcome of your efforts.

  • Eighth, a quality I call "unwarranted optimism"--the conviction that there must be some more upbeat outcome than would result from adding up all the available expert advice.

Leadership of this sort has been conspiciously absent from both the halls of Congress and the White House for many years. It is in short supply in many other venues as well. The good news, however, is that those in conventional positions of power have no unique claim on leadership.

In his 1985 book, The Knowledge Executive: Leadership in an Information Age, Harlan Cleveland predicted that it would no longer be possible for information to be hoarded by leaders and alleged experts, but that leadership would increasingly arise from new sources rather than trickle down from established figures. Leadership would be abundant rather than scarce.

All of us can help this vision become a dominant reality. In diverse ways, we can contribute to the refreshing streams of new leadership necessary for the invigoration of our suffering society. The eight attitudes identified by Harlan Cleveland outline the shape of any future leadership worthy of the name.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Oil and Politics

Everyone agrees that putting gasoline in our cars and trucks is expensive, that the price has increased alarmingly in recent months, and that for many American families fueling their cars has become a threat to their economic security and even their ability to pay the rent or put food on the table.

You may have also noticed that this is an election year.

The answer to our gasoline woes, say both George W. Bush and John McCain, is to drill for oil on the North American continental shelf, something that has been prohibited ever since both Congress and the president's own father banned off-shore drilling. The reasons for this ban are obvious: drilling and the inevitable subsequent oil spills pose catastrophic threats to the complex oceanic and litoral ecosystems.

Nothing makes this threat any less significant now than when these prohibitions began. Indeed, one could argue that as the world's population continues to grow and as feeding all those people becomes increasingly difficult, we should do all we can to protect and even restore the ocean's great fisheries.

But with oil up over $130 a barrel, with voters angry about their gasoline and heating oil bills, and with reserves of oil apparently sitting off shore, the big oil lobby, abetted by Bush and McCain, is demanding a chance to suck it out and sell it to you. If you've recently filled up your tank, you might agree.

Here's what Bush and McCain are not telling you: Under the very best of circumstances--meaning no regulatory problems, sufficient refining capacity, and cooperative weather and geological conditions--not a drop of any oil found will reach your gas tank in less than ten years. More important, under the best of scenarios, the amount of recoverable oil on the continental shelf will not make any appreciable difference in the price of oil. There simply isn't enough of it to make the pump price go down. See here. There are reasons why gasoline costs so much: the declining purchasing power of the American dollar--largely brought on by a ghastly and astronomically expensive war in Iraq--is one. A growing appetite for oil in China, India, and rest of the world is another. The reluctance of American car manufacturers to invest in fuel-efficient technologies is yet another. The list goes on and on.

Drilling in environmentally sensitive areas--and this includes the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--is not the answer. Pushing for new drilling is an election-year gimmick and yet another republican gift to the oil companies. Though the amount of oil out there will not do you and me any good, it will do plenty to engorge the already obscene profits of the oil companies that land the leases. Anyone recall what industry Bush and Cheney used to work for?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

John McCain and Your Liberty

There's a lot about John McCain that scares me, starting with his unrelenting support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq and his willingness to commit American troops to that disaster far into the distant future. But something he said yesterday demonstrates with unnerving precision just how horrible a president he would be.

On 12 June 2008, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in a narrow, 5-4 decision, that habeas corpus still means something in this country. The court declared that prisoners at Guantánamo can go before an American judge to try to find out why they are imprisoned. Note carefully: this decision does NOT say that any prisoners should be released. It merely upholds the principal of habeas corpus, the only civil liberty mentioned in the US Constitution before the Bill of Rights.

What is habeas corpus? It is a simple, wonderful thing. It means that the government can't lock you up without saying why. A lot of loudmouths on the right will claim that this Supreme Court decision will lead to wholesale release of terrorists, that it endangers Americans. They'll say it means being soft on the guilty. This is utter bullshit. This decision means simply that our country is governed by law and not by presidential whim. Habeas corpus is the absolute foundation of liberty. Without it, there is no United States of America.

It is therefore profoundly disturbing to read that John McCain told a town-hall meeting in New Jersey that the Supreme Court “rendered a decision yesterday that I think is one of the worst decisions in the history of this country" (see here). McCain and his handlers have obviously decided that this issue plays well with the right-wing fanatics that are the bedrock of lingering (and diminishing) support for Bush and his assault on the Constitution. McCain is pandering to the lunatic fringe of American politics. More important, this tells us clearly what sort of judges McCain would appoint to the Supreme Court--more wingnuts like John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia, who voted to suspend habeas corpus, in clear violation of the spirit and intent of our Constitution.

There are many reasons why a John McCain presidency is something we should fear and do everything we can to prevent. His callous and opportunistic indifference to the American faith in the rule of law is now at the top of the list.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Nuking the Great Lakes

Here's an important issue that's sneaked under the radar:

Ontario Power Generation is seeking permission to construct a huge, underground storage pit for nuclear waste on the edge of Lake Huron, at Kinkardine, Ontario. If permitted, nuclear waste with toxic potential that will last hundreds of thousands of years will be stored where it can leak into Lake Huron. So far, the Canadian authorities responsible for reviewing this project have not considered its impact on Michigan and other parts of the United States.

It's vitally important that Michigan residents express their views on this threat to environmental sanity. In addition to the fact that polluting Lake Huron is, in any form, unethical and stupid, consider this: the Michigan economy is in the tank, and one of the only hopes we have for recovery is the fact that the Great Lakes constitute about one fifth of the world's available fresh water. Storing nuclear waste on the Bruce Peninsula is a threat to everyone who lives in Michigan. Of course, it's also a threat to millions of Canadians.

Send an email, asap, to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. The address is The deadline for public comment is June 18. For an easy way to do this, go the Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination (CACC) website.

Here are some important points, courtesy of CACC:

1. The study area for this deep geological repository should be expanded to include Michigan and all communities in the Great Lakes Basin.

2. The Environmental Impact Panel should be made up of members entirely independent of the nuclear establishment in Canada and should not include members of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

3. The comment period should be extended by at least 90 days to properly inform all communities affected by the proposed repository of its likely serious impact.

4. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency should hold informational meetings in Michigan and other impacted parts of the United States, in addition to meetings in Canada.

It's also important to send copies to your state and federal representatives, which you can do via the CACC site.
For more information, see this article in the Times Herald (ht/jj).

Friday, June 06, 2008

June 21 Rally for Peace and Justice

BlueNovember.Org Peace and Justice Rally

Saturday, June 21, 2008
1:00 to 3:00 P.M.
Corner of Pine Grove and Sanborn
Port Huron, MI

Signs are available, but feel free to bring your own expressions of peace.

This is a non-violent, non-confrontational event. We intend to be a peaceful voice of dissent. All participants are instructed not to impede traffic or engage in confrontational debate with passersby.

Monday, June 02, 2008

As bad as Bush. Or worse.

Looking for a portrait of John McCain? Cliff Schecter has given us one in The Real McCain: Why Conservatives Don't Trust Him--and Why Independents Shouldn't, published by PoliPoint Press. Schecter, a political commentator and consultant, tells the McCain story in a fashion that is lively and well-documented.

The picture he offers is not a pretty one. Consider a few observations:

  • In 2007, McCain voted to abolish the federal minimum wage.

  • The Action Council of the Children's Defense Fund recently named McCain "America's Worst Senator for Children."

  • Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the country's first and largest Iraq veterans' group, graded all members of Congress for their votes affecting the welfare of troops, veterans, or military families. 36 senators received a B+ or above. McCain's grade was a D.

  • In 1999, McCain joined a group of neoconservatives calling for the removal of Saddam Hussein with or without support from the U.N. Security Council. Along with Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and others, he bears major responsibility for the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

  • Former Representative John LeBoutillier, a New York Republican, has said that when McCain and Bush were both seeking the Republican presidential nomination, "Nearly all the Republican senators endorsed Bush because they knew McCain from serving with him in the Senate. They so disliked him that they wouldn't support him. They had been on the hard edge of his behavior."

The Real McCain is a valuable resource for the months ahead. Give it to any family member or friend who talks about voting for this candidate. Sadly, John McCain has proven himself to be not a maverick, an independent, or a reformer, but a legislative follower of the worst sort and a profound disappointment to a wide range of Americans.