Archive for the ‘The Era of Obama’ Category

The End of “an End of an Era”

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on September 3rd, 2009

As I watched Ted Kennedy’s funeral and listened to the coverage of his life and death last week, I heard the phrase “the end of an era” so many times, it convinced me that people should stop using the term “the end of an era.” What does an “era” mean? According to the Oxford English dictionary, an “era” is defined as “a system of chronology reckoning from a noteworthy event.” Perhaps the commentators mean their observation to refer to the era beginning with the birth of Joseph Kennedy Sr.’s children. True, a genertion of Kennedy brothers had passed away now, ending the era of that generation of the Kennedy brothers. True, many of us (including myself, born the year that Ted Kennedy entered the Senate) cannot remember a time when Ted Kennedy was not in the Senate. True, thousands of liberals in America can no longer count on Senator Ted Kennedy to always speak for us in the Senate, and never apologize for being liberal. But what is the point of calling this an “era?’ What more do we learn from this phraseology?

Perhaps those who called Ted Kennedy’s death “the end of an era” intend announce the end of liberalism in America that was most prevalent in the 1960s but lingered until Ted Kennedy’s death. If thatmpphpH7AOUT[1]t is the case, then I must, most emphatically, object, not only to the phrasing but to the sentiment behind the phrase. There remains a strong progressive tradition in the Democratic party, shared by many members of he general public who dop not affiliate themselves with that party. The progressive tradition was most recently re-affirmed by the election of President Obama (with Ted Kennedy’s crucial support) and his numerous Demcratic colleagues in Congress. It is reaffirmed in the polls that show that despite months of the healthcare industry spending over a million dollars a day to fight health care reform, the American public still strongly supports it, and still demands a change to our health care system. So, let’s put an end to this talk about “the end of an era” and concentrate on what we need now. There’s never an end of the era of need for the poor and middle class folks in this country who demand health care reform.

Of Men and Nations: Obama’s Wisdom in Releasing the Torture Memos

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on April 24th, 2009

A relatively simple moral imperative requires the righteous to criticize their own conduct and when found wanting to admit and atone for the wrongdoing. Indeed, the capacity for moral correction and growth may just be the defining feature of being a person.  It’s certainly a necessary condition for the possibility of ethics. This virtue is rarely, if ever, exemplified by nations. The conventional view is that nations must be strong and confession and atonetmpphplc5uyy1.jpgment threaten national strength. While perhaps true of weak nations, powerful nations strengthen their moral authority by admitting and correcting wrongdoing. Doing so reveals the powerful nation’s willingness to listen and hear the complaints of other nations and more important, the criticism of their own citizens. So why is there such an extreme reaction to President Obama’s releasing the torture memo?  Is the concern over revealing state secrets?  Not likely. The content of the torture memos can be easily discovered by anyone wanting to know their content. (No?) Is it that revealing that the United States would torture–in violation of domestic law and international treaties–weakens our public stature? Well, not exactly; it’s not the revelation that weakens our public stature. Rather, it’s that we would torture in the first place. And that’s the reason why releasing the torture memos and prosecuting those officials who formulated and justified the policy conforms to the moral imperative that’s true of both men and nations. Coming to grips with our own wrongdoing and taking responsibility for altering the mind set and the policies that engendered the wrongdoing is required to regain America’s tarnished spirit. Those who cannot appreciate this elementary moral scheme lay no claim to understanding ethics.

Click here for Paul Krugman’s take on this fundamentally important issue.

Changing our Economic Priorities

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on March 5th, 2009

President Obama’s speech last week was hailed by some as a declaration that the era of Ronald Reagan is over.  I hope that is true, Reaganat least with regard to our country’s economic priorities.  Prior to Reagan’s presidency, our country had gone through a long period of relative prosperity that began after the end of World War II.  Sure, there were some downturns during that period, including a deadly combination of inflation and unemployment under President Carter that contributed to his loss to Reagan.  However, what was most notable about that long period was the steady increase in real wages of middle class people.  There was at least an implicit understanding that the goal of our economy was to provide decent, well paying jobs for people so that they could achieve the “American dream” of a comfortable middle class lifestyle.  An indication of this consensus is the fact that even Republican president Richard Nixon supported the right to a minimum income.

After Reagan became president, our national economic priorities shifted to overall economic growth regardless of who benefited.  Under the “trickle down” economic policies of Reagan and his allies, as long as the rich got richer, we would all eventually benefit.  Our country began to focus more on the stock market as an indicator of wealth – as long as the market was rising and GDP was growing, then the country was doing OK.  The problem with that theory was that the wealth did not trickle down.  Rich people got richer – a lot richer, but for the rest of us real wages began to decline, and are still far behind those of the mid 1970s when inflation is taken into account.

The decline of real wages since Reagan became president was no accident.  It is the result of government policies that favored rich people and large corporations, including tax cuts for the rich and de-regulation of business, accompanied by policies that hurt low and middle class people, including the end of welfare as we know it and strident anti-unionism symbolized by Reagan’s firing of the striking air traffic controllers.  The weakening of unions has placed a downward pressure on the wages of all of us because it reduces the bargaining power of workers as a whole.

My mention of “the end of welfare” deserves more explanation, and illustrates the fact that not only Republicans, but also Democrats, bought into these harmful economic policies.  Under Bill Clinton, a Democratic Congress voted to end the entitlement to welfare of the New Deal era Aid to Families with Dependent Children (“AFDC”) program and replace it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“TANF”), a program that has a five year lifetime limit and requires recipients (with a few exceptions) to work in order to receive their benefits.   While AFDC was not ended under Reagan, he began the process with his campaign rhetoric that included lies about Cadillac driving welfare mothers.  The end of AFDC places downward pressure on wages, since most people now have no alternative but to accept low wage part time service employment, providing fiercely anti-union companies like Walmart with a ready supply of cheap and exploitable labor.

For the sake of all of us, I really hope that Obama’s speech signals an end to Reaganomics, and a real change to our national economic priorities.  We simply can’t afford the old ones anymore.

My Journey to the Inauguration

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on January 22nd, 2009

I just returned from Washington, DC, where I witnessed the Inauguration of President Obama on a jumbotinauguration pictureron at the foot of the Washington Monument.  To get there, my family and I drove past Youngtown, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, both cities which used to be the home of a thriving steel industry – an industry that is (to say the least) no longer.  We drove past the GM factory in Lordstown, a huge factory that is in danger of closing down – we saw a huge parking lot that had not even been plowed.    We drove through the wooded hills of southern Pennsylvania, and saw many boarded up buildings.  These sights reminded us of the hard work that President Obama has ahead of him.  But we also saw more cheering sights – car after car from Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio, filled with people going to DC to celebrate Obama’s inauguration.  We also enjoyed the music of the concert at the Lincoln Memorial on the radio, singing along to the song that should be our national anthem – This Land is Your Land.

Music filled our inaugural journey.  We celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday by listening to the choir of the Iota Upsilon Lambda Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic and Lift Every Voice and Sing – often referred to as the Black National Anthem.  We enjoyed the rendition of Air and Simple Gifts by Yoyo Ma and his companions.  But the musical highlight was Aretha Franklin, singing My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”  Tears streamed down my face as I listened to the Queen of Soul sing the song that Marion Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution forbid her from singing in Constitution Hall; hearing once again the words that Martin Luther King chose to end his “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963.

On the way home, we were surrounded with people who had shared our experience on the highway, in our hotel, and at every rest stop.  We all felt like we were part of something special.  Mr. Obama has amassed an incredible amount of good will and support from the American people.  I hope that he will not be afraid to capitalize on that good will.  Two million people once again voted with their feet, traveling to DC so they could be there when he began his presidency and show their support with their physical presence.  I and my companions on my journey hope that President Obama will not feel the need to compromise based on petty political differences, but that he will use his power to lead the country in the manner that he feels is right.

What The Inauguration Does Not Mean

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on January 21st, 2009

A number of folks have suggested that the inauguration of President Barack Obama is the fulfillment of or a down payment on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.  It is unclear it is either.  Barack Obama’s election suggests that more Americans in particular states voted for Obama than voted for John McCain.  The key issue is not merely whether those folks voted for Obama, but why they did.  The problem with using a winner-take-all election tally to suggest that Dr. King’s dream is on the march is that the vote is a collective judgment that can mask individual judgments and prejudice.  Dr. King’s dream is based on the actions of individuals, rather than the collective.  The traditional claim in the black community is that blacks have to work twice as hard to get half as much.  Dr. King’s dream would require that blacks need work only as hard as others to get the same amount as others.  It is unclear that President Obama’s inauguration indicates that we are close to fulfilling Dr. King’s dream.

Given the economic times, concerns about the shortcomings George W. Bush’s presidency and the concern that a McCain/Palin administration might be a continuation of Bush ideas, that many Americans were willing to vote for Obama over McCain may say little about where we are regarding Dr. King’s dreams.  We can separate voters into four groups.  The first group judged Obama and McCain without regard to race.  The judgments of this group closely track Dr. King’s dream with respect to voting in the past electiontmpphpybwtlw.jpg.  The second group voted for Obama in spite of his race.  This group is not fully living Dr. King’s dream.  The third group voted for Obama because of his race (as opposed to voting for him because of the experiences gained because of his race).  This group also arguably is not fully living Dr. King’s dream.  The fourth group refused to vote for Obama because of his race.  This group is definitely not living Dr. King’s dream.   I make no claims about the number of people in any of the groups or the demographics of those in any of the groups.  Nonetheless, it should be clear that Barack Obama could have won the election even if very few people were in the first group.  Conversely, it would have been possible for the number of people in group one to have been large and growing even the midst of a McCain victory. To be celar, we may be moving closer to Dr. King’s dream, but the election of Obama is not proof of that.  Rather than focus on the collective result that was Barack Obama’s election, we should refocus on the individual actions of those in all four of the groups mentioned above.  Those in the first group may be Kinglike in their electoral decisions, but be quite un-Kinglike different in their decisionmaking in other areas.  Conversely, those in the second, third and fourth groups may be even more un-Kinglike in their other affairs or may be more focused on equality in those other affairs.  At any rate, though the election of Barack Obama appears to be a hopeful sign, we need to wait for many more signs before either thinking about declaring victory over racism or even declaring that racism is on the run.


Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on January 20th, 2009

The American Revolution and its constitutional expression—at least in the Constitution’s Preamble, the Bill of Right, and the Civil War Amendments–represent a commitment to the critical political values story-1.jpgof liberty and equality. Ours was the first nation to be committed to an idea, to popular sovereignty.  This involves requiring the allegiance to the people not to Kings, theocrats, and such.  Instead, the people governed would also be the governors. This idea would sweep away other forms of political commitments. It is an idea that anyone could adopt, anyone committed to self-government. In theory, one didn’t have to be a member of a particular nationality or religion.  It was a new beginning that one chose to adopt, not one that was imposed by other people or traditions. The beauty of this polity was that each generation, if it chose, could begin the world anew. This was the theory, but it often fell short in practice. The power of domination to which other nations adhered also had expression in American political and social practice.  The most onerous form of domination was slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and presently, subtle forms of discrimination. Could America’s aspirations every truly be realized?

That question has now the beginning of an answer and that answer is yes we can.  Today, after forty-three white presidents, Americans will swear in their first African American president. We will begin our world anew. This, of course, does not mean racism will be extinguished in America today or even in this decade.  But now we see the beginning of the end of virulent racism.  Committed racists are now a severely endangered species and like the dinosaurs are headed for extinction.  Other forms of racism will take longer to extirpate.  But the dye has been cast. With the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama we have turned a new chapter in the American narrative. No longer will an entire group of Americans be cast out of America’s highest office because there skin color is not “correct.”  No longer will other minorities be similarly shut out.

What is genuinely inspiring, for me, about America’s greatness lies, not in its attainment of perfection whatever that would be like, but rather its capacity for change, its commitment to remediating wrongs, and perhaps most importantly and most relevant today, its penchant for expanding the idea of who counts as a full and equal citizen. The new president represents the promise of transformative change, of righting its wrongs and expressing its revolutionary and constitutional aspirations in a new birth of freedom.

But President Obama represents more than simply the first African American to win the presidency. He brings to the presidency a new political philosophy. The commitment to liberty and equality, as important as it is, fails to complete the idea of self government. Added to the fundamental values of liberty and equality, must be an aspiration to community.  Consider his own words:

Communities had never been a given in this country, at least not for blacks. Communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expanded or contracted with the dreams of men—and [in the civil rights movement] I saw the African-American community becoming more than just the place where you’d been born or the house where you’d been raised. Through organizing, through shared sacrifice, membership had been earned.  And because membership was earned—because this community I imagined was still in the making, built on the promise that the larger American community, black, white, and brown, could somehow redefine itself—I believe that it might, over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life.

President Obama’s commitment to community is illustrative of what this extraordinarily intellectual, and morally grounded, man will contribute to the idea of America.  We must attend to our commonalities; we must strive to seetmpphpvr8i5n.jpg ourselves in others. The poison of factionalism, special interests, and demonizing our opponents must give way to respecting our opponents in the hope of achieving principled compromise with them. But a sensitivity to community is not a given; it is not easy.  Each American, in his or her own way, must contribute, must sacrifice, must exude patience to bring forth a transformation in American political culture. No, this will not be easy, but then again, it is never easy to begin the world anew. It is, however, our legacy, a legacy that empowers and invigorates like no other legacy can. The challenges facing America are enormous and grave, and we must give the new president a chance. Welcome to the age of Obama, where we can begin the world anew by revivifying our precious values of liberty and equality, and add to these values the value of community. Within the vast diversity in the American nation, the new president challenges us to recognize our interconnectedness. We are one people, not because our religion, gender, race, sexual orientation, or ethnicity makes us one people, but rather because our commitment to American ideals, to the better angels of our nature; that’s what makes us one.  Congratulations, Mr. President! Congratulations America!

The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on January 19th, 2009

Racial apartheid has taken a terrible toll on African Americans by shutting them out of America’s promise.  But racism has exacted a terrible cost on all Americans. The symbol of this oppression can be best captured in the introduction to the film “Mississippi Btmpphp6mpgve.jpgurning.” The movie opens with the camera focusing on two water fountains, one marked “white,” the other marked “colored.” An adult white man approaches the white fountain and drinks and then walks off. A young African American male then approaches the colored fountain, drinks and also walks off. This metaphor has special currency in my own life. During my family’s first trip to Florida, we stopped for refreshments at a Dairy Queen in Georgia. My older sister, Julia, approached the water fountain marked “Colored,” and was about to drink when an angry white employee redirected her to the fountain marked “Whites.” My sister was thirteen, at the time, and no activist, so she refrained from drinking from the “Colored” fountain.  Nonetheless, she could not bring herself to drink from the “Whites” fountain and thus refrained from drinking at that Dairy Queen at all. An eight year old neighbor, accompanying us on our vacation, spied the “Colored” water fountain and shouted gleefully and in earnest, “Look colored water.” In retrospect, the starkness of Günnar Myrdal’s “two Americas” has no greater reality than through the conduct and words of children.

Why did this experience have such a poignant impact on me?  After all, I was just a little kid. The answer lies in the fact that I grew up in a household where racism was viewed as America’s original sin. Racism was wrong and America needed to redeem its promise by extirpating the practice once and for all.

Of course, in a few short years, the force of  Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to hold segregation up to the American social mirror forcing all of us to decide whether we could embrace the image that we saw. But Dr. King’s approach was not merely an exercise in civil obedience. Indeed, there exists a powerful philosophy behind his activism that needs to be articulated.

Dr. King’s non-violent civil disobedience required enormous courage and self-discipline. Dr. King recognized that individuals are not the measure of all things, but more importantly, he recognized the interconnectedness of everyone. We are community, of one sort of another, and the type of community we choose determines who we are individually. Consider:

[W]e have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood [and sisterhood]. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this.  We must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

These words bespeak the idea of community, but more than that also. King goes on to state what I think is the best statement of his conception of community.

I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

This states the thread that connects every American. It also states a dynamic process of making sure that both you and I are what we ought to be.  But most important, it seems to me, it captures the importance of deliberation and conversationalism.  We must deliberate with one another, engaging in a conversation that never ends, but continues to refine and perfect our Union. Dr. King recognized that the true spirit of the American experiment was a continued process of deliberating over what both you and I ought to be and the recognition that it is impossible for this moral “ought” to be just for whites, or just for Americans. This sense of continued community is contained in the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal” and Dr. King helped to make this aspiration real.

Dr. King realized the difficulty of this moral project, which is among other things, the moral project of justice and freedom. He quotes the Prophet Amos as saying “Let Justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream.” King believed that “America ha[d] made progress toward freedom, but measured against the goal the road ahead is still long and hard.”

And then came Barack Hussein Obama. In May, the University of Pennsylvania’s Journal of Law & Social Change will publish an article of mine which casts President-elect Obama’s philosophy as committed to tmpphpn0yo3h1.jpgdeliberative conversationalism, a methods for engaging in political dispute resolution. His philosophy includes endless respect for others and civil conversation.  He requires us to take one another seriously and see ourselves in others. President-elect Obama sees the need for resurrecting America’s sense of community.  Rather than adhering to weaponized reason which often devolves into an insistence that I’m right and your wrong, President-elect Obama sees commonality in our differences. The possibility that the man and his philosophy can actually change our politics and help re-create our sense of community is not a given.  It requires supporting him not by rubber-stamping his policy decisions, but rather by a continued commitment to his deliberative conversationalism. In my view, the American attempt to rid ourselves of racism begins with the Declaration of Independence, and then marches on to the Civil War amendments, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, Brown, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, and now the Presidency of Barack Obama. While racism unfortunately still exists in our nation. We are entering a new phase that I believe will prove to be the beginning of the end of this national malady.

I am incredulous and amazed that shortly America will begin to overcome its brutal racial past by swearing in the first African American to the presidency of this great nation. But we should celebrate President Obama not only because he is African American but more importantly because of the truly extraordinary person he is. In my mind’s eye I am overwhelmingly eager to see and hear him finish his oath with the words “ . .  . so help me God,” so that the Chief Justice can say, “Congratulations Mr. President.” This is truly the legacy of Dr. King.

The President’s Lawyer

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on January 8th, 2009

President elect final.jpgBarack Obama’s appointments to cabinet positions give us a sense of what he may be like as President, and what policies he may pursue.  The official who best reflects the President’s over-arching theory of his role in our constitutional structure is the head the Office of Legal Counsel, the agency that advises the president on the legality of his actions.  This week, Obama announced that his nominee for assistant attorney general in charge of the OLC is Professor Dawn Johnsen.  Currently a constitutional law professor at Indiana University, Johnsen worked in the OLC office during the Clinton administration.  Obama’s choice is cause for celebration because Johnsen is an expert on the legality of presidential actions, and the mechanisms for insuring that the president follows the law.

Obama’s choice of Johnsen is important, both symbolically and practically, because it follows eight years of the OLC facilitating George W. Bush’s imperial presidency.  Last month, Vice-President Cheney invoked former President Nixon’s famous statement, “if the president does it, it’s legal” when describing the president’s power during wartime.  Bush’s legal advisors came close to following that adage.  Relying on their theory of the “unitary executive,” Bush OLC officials such as John Yoo advised the President that he had the authority to order torture of suspected terrorists and conduct wiretaps without court authorization even though both practices were expressly prohibited by federal statutes.  Johnsen has been an outspoken critic of both those policies and the go-it-alone cowboy theory of the presidency that lies behind them.

The head of the OLC plays a crucial role in insuring that the President acts constitutionally, within our structure of separation of powers, and not like a monarch who can make decisions regardless of the views of the coordinate branches.  Obama’s choice of Dawn Johnsen to fill that role indicates that as president, he will respect his legislative and judicial partners in the governing of our country.  This is cause for celebration not only for constitutional law professors, but for all of us who believe in the rule of law.

Barack Obama and Tiger Woods

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on November 5th, 2008

It may seem inappropriate to compare the accomplishments of the first African American president-elect and the first African American golfer to win a major championship.  However, they are linked in more than one way.  Both have been treated as supernatural chosen ones who have been touched from above.  This sort of hero worship is problematic and counterproductive because both are simply incredibly talented individuals who have outworked their competitors to hone their prodigous skills.  Though each possesses an incredible package of skills, they are no more skilled in discrete areas than their competitors.  For example, there are some orators who are as good as Obama, there are some people who are as serene as Obama, there are some people who are as bright as Obama and there are some people who have as much political sense as Obama.  However, no politician of this generation combines all of those skills in the same package.  The same is true of Tiger Woods’ golfing prowess.

However, Barack Obama and Tiger Woods share something infinitely more important.  Through their accomplishments, they give us a new way to conceive of what is possible.  Before Barack Obama arrived, it was almost impossible to imagine an African American president in America’s near future.  Similarly, before Tiger Woods arrived, almost no one believed that anyone would challenge Jack Nicklaus’ record of major golf championships.  By their actions, they eliminated the impossible.  Simply, they both – in their own ways – have forced us to dream again, to demand more of ourselves and to reassess our potential. In short, they have inspired us to believe it when we tell ourselves:  Yes we can.  

The Era Of Obama: Commuity and the Value of Reasoned Compromise

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on October 27th, 2008

An Obama mandate could potentially transform American politics for a generation. The Senator seems to embody a commitment to sincere deliberation, community, and compromise. He views the American republic as a rich assortment of diverse cultures, all attracted to the United States for its grounding in the ideas of liberty, equality, and especially community. American society and politics may have never seen anyone like him before. And the obstacles to his success are formidable. Ameritmpphpgwxxhh1.jpgcan culture has been rooted in fractious, political warfare from 1796 to the present. Keep in mind that some of these battles have been important and desirable. They help the community identify and refine the values that have sustained us through a series of crises and transformations. Yet, demonic elements in these transformations are often corrosive precluding civility, honesty, and truth.  Campaign 2008 is a text book study in how to poison fundamental American values. Together with the advent of internet news and commentary and instant cable chatter, this campaign has a sui generis distinction. It perverts deliberative discourse. However, Obama’s “deliberative conversationalism” and quest for community has the power to transform American civic culture. The bellicose forces of darkness–the individuals groups unable or unwilling to deliberate in good faith–will never go quietly into that good night. Obama will need patience from both principled conservatives and principled liberals until the contrast between conservatives and liberals no longer has much currency. If Obama garners an electoral mandate for change, ECA will try to explore his deliberative conversationalism and how this method of resolving political disagreement or better stated how this method for rationally creating agreement can transform American politics. However, beware what sorts of obstacles the dark forces will continue to place in his path. There will be much to examine in Obama’s era of unity. But first he must win the election the old fashioned way: by fighting for it.