Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Free Radicals - Individual Efforts Can Change the World

The premise of my forthcoming book from Cambridge University Press, Radicals in Their Own Time: Four Hundred Years of Struggle for Liberty and Equal Justice in America,* is that the efforts (mostly unwelcomed, at the time) of certain individuals throughout the nation's history have played huge roles in first identifying, then guaranteeing the freedoms we enjoy today. In this book I focus on the lives of five so-called "free radicals": Roger Williams, Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.E.B. Du Bois and Vine Deloria.

Yesterday's column by Bob Herbert in the NY Times, "Changing the World," speaks to the mind-set of these sorts of people:

"The tendency now is to assume that there is little or nothing ordinary individuals can do about the conditions that plague them.

"This is so wrong. It is the kind of thinking that would have stopped the civil rights movement in its tracks, that would have kept women in the kitchen or the steno pool, that would have prevented labor unions from forcing open the doors that led to the creation of a vast middle class....

"Being an American has become a spectator sport. Most Americans watch the news the way you’d watch a ballgame, or a long-running television series, believing that they have no more control over important real-life events than a viewer would have over a coach’s strategy or a script for 'Law & Order.'

"With that kind of attitude, ... Rosa Parks would have gotten up and given her seat to a white person, and the Montgomery bus boycott would never have happened....

"The nation’s political leaders and their corporate puppet masters have fouled this nation up to a fare-thee-well. We will not be pulled from the morass without a big effort from an active citizenry, and that means a citizenry fired with a sense of mission and the belief that their actions, in concert with others, can make a profound difference.

"It can start with just a few small steps. Mrs. Parks helped transform a nation by refusing to budge from her seat. Maybe you want to speak up publicly about an important issue, or host a house party, or perhaps arrange a meeting of soon-to-be dismissed employees, or parents at a troubled school.

"It’s a risk, sure. But the need is great, and that’s how you change the world."

Individuals like Williams, Paine, Cady Stanton, Du Bois and Deloria had plenty of reason to be discouraged - and they sometimes were, to the point of despondency. They bent, but they didn't break - and they ended up changing the world.

Who will be the free radicals remembered from our current era?

* Release date: summer/fall 2010

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Kudos to Harry Reid for Including Public Option in Proposed Health Care Bill

Yesterday's announcement by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that he will include a government-run insurance plan (a public-option) in the health care bill that will now be debated in the Senate is excellent news.

Contrary to naysayers' arguments, including a public option does nothing to limit the ability of private insurers to compete - unless by "competition" one means the ability to impose unfair conditions on customers because they have nowhere else to turn under the current oligarchy.

The bottom-line is that a government-run public option would keep the private insurers honest, resulting in better, less expensive coverage for all.

Now the Democrats need to put aside their differences to get behind and pass a plan with the public option. One interesting aspect of Reid's proposal would allow individual states to "opt-out," & refuse to participate in the public option - a perfectly reasonable provision that respects America's federalist structure. This could lead to a very interesting side-show in the states - how many citizens would vote with their feet and leave states that opted out??

Sure, it would be nice if a Republican or two (or even more) would take off their partisan blinders for a moment and consider what Americans truly want and need instead of playing the same old politics, but given the experience of the recent past we won't hold our breath - so now it's up to the Senate Democrats to do the right thing and pass this bill.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Obama Needs to Take Stands on Principle

In her column last Sunday, "Fie, Fatal Flaw," Maureen Dowd makes a good point that President Obama does not want to compromise so much that his ideals get blurred out of recognition.

Quoting Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic, she comments: “'The demotion of human rights by the common-ground presidency is absolutely incomprehensible. The common ground is not always the high ground. When it is without end, moreover, the search for common ground is bad for bargaining. It informs the other side that what you most desire is the deal — that you will never acknowledge the finality of the difference, and never be satisfied with the integrity of opposition. There is a reason that ‘uncompromising’ is a term of approbation.'"

Dowd continues, "F.D.R. asked to be judged by the enemies he had made. But what of a president who strives to keep everyone in some vague middle ground of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, without ever offending anyone?

"F.D.R. asked to be judged by the enemies he had made. But what of a president who strives to keep everyone in some vague middle ground of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, without ever offending anyone?

"White House advisers don’t seem worried yet that Obama’s transformational aura could get smudged if too much is fudged. They say it is the normal tension between campaigning on a change platform and actually accomplishing something in office.

"Yet Obama’s legislative career offers cautionary tales about the toll of constant consensus building.

"In Springfield, he compromised so much on a health care reform bill that in the end, it merely led to a study. In Washington, he compromised so much with Senate Republicans on a bill to require all nuclear plant owners to notify state and local authorities about radioactive leaks that it simply devolved into a bill offering guidance to regulators, and even that ultimately died. Now the air is full of complaints that Obama has been too cautious on health care, Afghanistan, filling judgeships, ending “don’t ask, don’t tell,” repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and rebuilding New Orleans; that he has conceded too much to China, Iran, Russia, the Muslim world and the banks."

For the President to fulfill his promise, every now and then he needs to take a stand on core principle - especially when we're talking about human rights. But Obama appears to be all-too-ready to compromise even there. As 73-year old former Czech president Vaclev Havel said recently about Obama's caving to Chinese dictators by failing to meet with the Dalai Lama during his recent visit to Washington, “It is only a minor compromise. But exactly with these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, the real problems.”