Monday, March 30, 2015

Don't hate Indiana in the name of love....

by Libby Sternberg

Before I begin, a few premises:

I am not a "social conservative." I support gay marriage. It took me a while to get here.

Nonetheless, I have much sympathy for social conservatives and think they have a great deal of unfair scorn and mockery heaped on them.

I have a son who married his partner.

Now, on to discussing the recent passage of Indiana's religious freedom law. Gay activists are upset because such laws would allow businesses to refuse to offer products or services to gay weddings. Such laws do not allow people or businesses to deny services or products because the customer is gay. If a gay individual goes into a bakery and wants to buy a cake, the bakery owner can't say, "I won't serve you because you're gay." But if the gay customer asks for a wedding cake for his or her union, then this law allows the bakery owner to say, no, I can't do that because I oppose gay marriage due to my understanding of Scripture and my faith.

Okay, go ahead and mock and laugh about the Scripture part, the "faith" part of that proposition. If you don't share that owner's faith, it's easy to make fun of it, or to even hatefully dismiss it. Yes, hatefully. Hate isn't a feeling owned by only one side of an argument.

In fact, it's very difficult to understand an opponent's point of view if you have nothing but derision for that view. Try, instead, to think of circumstances where you would be in sympathy with a business owner refusing to serve a customer due to the customer's request. How about...

A Muslim of Palestinian origin who owns a bakery and is asked by a Jewish family to bake a cake to celebrate the birth of Israel. Let's add to this tale a detail -- say, the baker's family had years ago been kicked off their land before moving to America when the new state was formed.

Wouldn't you sympathize with the Palestinian baker in that case? Wouldn't you think, c'mon, why ask them to bake that cake? Isn't it hurtful? If you felt that way, it doesn't make you anti-Semitic not to sympathize more with the Jewish customer, whose family history is probably filled with pain, too, and who has every right to celebrate the birth of the Jewish state.

I know this analogy is not perfect. It doesn't even deal with the religious belief part of the Indiana law. But the underlying sentiments are there: The baker has in some way experienced pain for his beliefs, right or wrong. The customer is not only ignoring that pain but exacerbating it.

When my gay son was married, we threw a party for him. When I called vendors -- caterers, for example -- I asked about services but first told them it was a gay wedding, and if they would prefer not to provide services, I would not judge. From a purely practical standpoint, I wanted vendors who were enthusiastic about providing the services, not reluctant. And, even though it would have hurt to get a rejection on that basis from a vendor, I realized that gay marriage is still new to many people, and it will do me no harm to be patient with those who've yet to walk the path I walked toward acceptance.

No vendor, by the way, said they would have a problem with serving a gay marriage. The caterer, in fact, was excited to serve one.

The battle for gay marriage has essentially been won. More and more states allow it. Social conservatives have lost.  Stop hating them. Don't threaten them with boycotts. Don't threaten them with fines if they won't participate in a gay wedding.  Be patient. Be kind. Be loving...even toward those who don't love your celebration of love.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

This is only a test

by Libby Sternberg

I had my eyes checked recently. Near-sighted since forever, I've worn glasses from fourth grade on. When I was younger, eye tests used to create anxiety in me. I felt I was failing when I couldn't read the lines on the chart.

Now I'm calmer and don't fear failing the test. I do, however, get anxious about accurately assessing whether option A is clearer than option B, etc. as the doctor tries to figure out precisely what lens will work best for me. What if I'm only thinking it's clearer? What if I get it wrong? Then my eyeglass prescription will be off and...headaches, bad vision, light-headedness will ensue. Fortunately for me, my eye doctor was excellent at drawing out of me a precise assessment of which lens strength worked the best. She was patient and kind. Her goal was the same as mine-- to make sure my vision was corrected adequately.

The point is that even the simplest tests can create anxiety, even after years of testing has given you a comfort level with the assessment. But if the tests have a worthy goal, you soldier through the unease and get to the good results.

Standardized testing?!!!
These are my thoughts as I hear complaints about testing in school. The way some educators and school leaders talk, you would think standardized testing was a new thing foisted on them unawares, that it takes up enormous amounts of school time and creates tremendous anxiety in students that is bad for their health and ultimate learning abilities.

For those with no historical memory, here's a quick flashback: Tests were always with us. At least, for baby boomers, tests were usually a part of school life, even if you went to a private school as I did. And I'm not talking about the regular ole end-of-lesson testing teachers themselves came up with. I'm talking about nationalized tests.

Chances are, if you're a baby boomer, you took one of four tests on the national market at your schools: Terra Nova, Stanford, California Achievement, or Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Teachers would pass out the tests. You'd take them. And...things went back to normal. Before the ruckus over current testing, I remember a presentation at my children's middle school where the principal talked to parents about Terra Nova scores, how they'd identified a problem in reading instruction because of the results, fixed the problem, and scores went up. No fuss, no muss.

So, what's changed? Well, attention, for one. When the four tests listed above were administered, chances are the only people who knew the results for the classes involved were the teachers and administrators. Now, newspapers and other media regularly report on scores from schools, focusing attention (negative, if scores are bad) on what's going on in those institutions.

Now, federal regulations (from No Child Left Behind mostly) require schools to use standardized testing (that states can configure on their own) to assess progress and identify areas that need fixing. The tests are supposed to be used precisely as my eye test is -- to identify where help is needed, where the job isn't getting done. And while fixes are made, children in schools with regular failing grades should be able to access tutoring and even other schools if necessary.

Let's think about this for a bit, shall we? The tests are given out to help teachers and administrators identify problem areas. Just as they always were when we took the four mentioned above back in the day. But now, the problem areas are more on display as media attention has focused on them.

Okay, I get that this attention is painful to teachers who work awfully hard dealing with many challenges. I really, really get that. But the tests are helping them identify some of those challenges. If, for example, you have year after year of first grade scores where only, say, a third of your kids are scoring in the proficient range in a gateway skill like reading...maybe it's time to rethink how you approach teaching reading, right? Maybe it's time to switch up the teachers in those grades or do some professional development work. Maybe it's time to stop pointing the finger at societal problems and ask: Even with all the stuff going on in these kids' lives, how can I make sure every one of them learns to read before they leave my classroom?

That's a painful bit of self-examination, to be sure. But it's necessary. So, here's some advice to school leaders: Take the time you now spend complaining about testing and put it into fixing problems the tests identify. The scrutiny of schools is unlikely to fade. But, trust me, your test anxiety will fade over time.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Je suis Charlie, Je suis Abdul Muhammad, Je suis Hobby Lobby

by Libby Sternberg

The US Supreme Court ruled yesterday, in Holt v Hobbs, that Abdul Muhammad, a prisoner in Arkansas, can grow a beard according to his Muslim religion's dictates. Does that decision make you uncomfortable, given that men and women who adhere to Mr. Muhammad's faith have been involved in massacring others who don't share their beliefs?

If so, welcome to the uncomfortable world of religious freedom and freedom of expression.

This is what religious freedom and freedom of expression really mean: letting people act on their beliefs when their actions don't trigger a compelling state interest to intercede. Religious freedom, in particular, can be summed up in this phrase: the right to be wrong (the apt title of a book on First Amendment rights by Kevin Seamus Hasson, founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty). 

Freedom of expression means the cartoonists at the satiric publication Charlie Hebdo should have the right to mock Muslims, Jews, Christians and all peoples of faith, no matter how wrongly offensive their drawings are. 

Free exercise of religion means that Arkansas prisoner Abdul Muhammad has the right to grow a beard in accordance with his faith, no matter how wrong the authorities think he is, nor how angry we are at those who share his faith and use it to slaughter innocents.

And, yes, it also means that the Greens, the devout owners of the Hobby Lobby craft stores, have the right to exclude what they believe to be abortifacients from the health care they offer employees, even if many liberals, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, think they are egregiously wrong-minded.

Let me repeat: We all have the right…to be wrong. And the only time the state, in the form of any government, should infringe upon that right is when it has a compelling interest to do so. A compelling interest.

Why bring this up now? First, because some who celebrate and agree with the Abdul Muhammad decision wailed over the Hobby Lobby one. And some who are eager to utter Je suis Charlie to stand with free artistic expression against Islamic extremism balk at agreeing with the Holt v Hobbs ruling or the Burwell v Hobby Lobby one. 

Such was the case, in fact, with Justice Ginsburg. She voted with the unanimous court in the Abdul Muhammad opinion that said Muhammad, an Arkansas prisoner, had a right to grow a beard in accordance with his Muslim faith, despite the prison's rule against beards more than 1/4 inch in length. The state had no compelling interest in enforcing that rule. 

Ginsburg, perhaps realizing the potentially contradictory ground she was headed into, penned a one-paragraph concurrence that said, in essence, that Holt v Hobbs was different from Burwell v Hobby Lobby because Muhammad's actions "would not detrimentally affect others" who don't share his beliefs. (It's on p. 20 of the opinion.)

But in the Hobby Lobby case, the owners' actions didn't "detrimentally" affect others, either. The Green family, as has been pointed out numerous times, wasn't forbidding employees from using abortifacients. The family simply wasn't going to pay for them. The state had no compelling interest in forcing the Greens to go against their faith -- not when employees still had other contraceptives covered and could easily access the uncovered ones elsewhere (or the government, if it felt the need for these items so compelling, could have provided them, rather than forcing the Greens to do so).

Justice Ginsburg, though, faced the problem that many people face when thinking of protections of religion and free expression rights. She had to confront her own biases, her own dislikes and discomforts.

I'll be honest about mine, at least. I probably would have looked for ways to justify the beard ban in the Holt v Hobbs case because I would have wondered if Mr Muhammad was truly a devout practitioner of faith or merely a cynical prisoner trying to stick his finger in the eye of the system. I would have been troubled by the idea of giving aid and comfort to a man espousing a religion which has been used to justify massacres and terror. 

But that speculation and discomfort doesn't trump religious freedom. He has the right to be cynical or devout, the right to embrace a religion I find troubling because of how it's been used. The right to be wrong.

You can't pick and choose favorites when ensuring that right is protected. You can't embrace freedom for folks whose ideas you embrace, yet want to take it away from others when you disagree with the faith in question.

Je suis Charlie. 
Je suis Abdul Muhammad.
Je suis Hobby Lobby.

Cringe, if you must, when saying any one of those. But they all embrace something we should recognize as a fundamental right, to be proclaimed proudly, vigorously and often: the right to religious freedom, the right, sometimes, to be wrong.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

TX town forcing Muslims to serve pork?

By Libby Sternberg

(Note: You must read to the end of this story for an important update.)

In what civil rights activists are calling a “stunning slap in the face” to local devout Muslims, the town of Gallate, TX (pop: 13,000) has passed an ordinance that forces local food vendors that provide catering services to any public event to include “among the proteins offered, at least one pork item.”  

Gallate is a major pork-producing town and holds an annual pork barbeque cook-off that attracts aficionados from across the country and beyond. But the town’s pride is sacrilege to a group of devout Muslims, several of whom operate food businesses in the area and, until this ordinance was passed, participated in public food contracts and events.

Mohammed al Ibrahim, the owner of Specialty Foods in Gallate, operates a food catering business that, until the ordinance, regularly landed local town food contracts and took part in public events. Now, Al Ibrahim will have to consider going against his faith and handling pork products or pulling out of the events and contracts altogether.

“A good portion of my business is taken away with this,” he said, standing outside his facility, which also includes a popular local restaurant offering Middle Eastern and Mediterranean fare. “I cannot continue to operate successfully in Gallate with this law.”

A town council member, speaking anonymously, said she understood Al Ibrahim’s point of view, but believes the town’s common good comes first. 

“The pork business is our heart and soul. It puts us on the map. We can’t be offering contracts and opportunities to a group that deliberately excludes our economic interest from its offerings.”

One council member, Jean Sherwood, suggested that the new ordinance was about promoting Gallate and its main business, not in restricting anyone. “If Specialty Foods wants to operate without including pork products in their menus, we don’t have a problem with that.”

Several civil liberty groups have offered to challenge the Gallate ordinance in court, but the Al Ibrahims have not decided whether they’ll sue.  A local lawyer suggested the Al Ibrahim family has a good case. 

“On the merits, this is one of the most straightforward violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act a court is likely to see,” Wayne Martin said. “The family’s religious beliefs prohibit them from providing food services in Gallate under these circumstances. The council mandate at issue here cripples them.”

April Fool’s. This story is NOT TRUE. So don’t start sending it around the interwebz as an example of hick Southwesterners going after Muslims. In fact, the “lawyer” quote at the end of the story is actually a paraphrasing of the opening paragraph of Hobby Lobby’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That was the reason I wrote this tale: to illustrate, for many of my liberal friends, some principles at play in the Hobby Lobby case. If you found yourself sympathizing with the Al Ibrahim family in this story, then just substitute the Green name (owners of Hobby Lobby) in the tale. Instead of being forced to offer pork products, slip in the words “abortifacient contraceptives.” And instead of the fictional town of Gallate, use “the Affordable Care Act” or “Health and Human Services” or even, “the United States of America.”

I know this story isn’t an exact parallel to what has been happening to Hobby Lobby (one could argue that the ACA contraceptive mandate is far more restrictive of religious rights than this fictional town ordinance), but the large points are applicable. The government of the United States is compelling a devout family to offer something that goes against their religious tenets. 

I know my friends mean well when they offer passionate arguments about the value of contraceptives and why women should have easy access to them. But, like the Muslim family in this story, the Greens shouldn’t be compelled to offer products that go against their religious views to achieve the government’s goal. 

I know my friends mean well when they use glib slogans such as “Keep Bosses Out of My Bedroom,” but that glibness demonstrates a lack of understanding of the facts of this case, the principles involved, and any smidgeon of sympathy for the Greens’ predicament. 

We don’t know how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in the Hobby Lobby case, but I at least hope my liberal friends can now see that the Greens have a right to their views, and that the government can achieve its goals—whether those objectives are town promotion or contraceptive access—without impinging on the religious views of individual citizens.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.
This post also appears at Liberty Unyielding.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My break-up with MSNBC

by Libby Sternberg
You’ve probably seen this coming, MSNBC. After all, I’ve not been paying attention to you much lately. My interest in you has waned. I just don’t…care…any longer. And you’ve probably guessed that I’ve started seeing someone else. So I hope it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise when I tell you…it’s over. We’re breaking up. I won’t be seeing you anymore, if I can help it.

No, no, don’t try to protest or woo me back. Don’t ask me to give you a second chance. Don’t even pretend that you’ll try harder, that you’ll give it another go. I know you can’t change what you really are, and as I got to know you better, I realized you’re just not the type I like to hang with. Accept it and move on is the best way. I already have.
To be honest, I started hanging out with you a couple years ago under somewhat false pretenses. It wasn’t so much that I was attracted to you. I had something to prove. Or, at least, to analyze.

Your friends were all dissing my regular pal, FOX News, calling him names (“Faux News” seemed to be the most popular) and ridiculing him so much that I thought, “Am I like that about their best bud, MSNBC? Do I reflexively diss people and policies based solely on hearsay?”

You see, I didn’t think their criticism was based on watching FOX much. Often it sounded as if it came straight from the offices of professional FOX bashers like Media Matters and Talking Points Memo. And I didn’t want to be like that, echoing what my “fellow travelers” said about you. I wanted to get to know you myself.

So I set my kitchen TV to your channel. I flipped you on first thing in the a.m., tuning in to Morning Joe. Throughout the day, whenever I found myself within viewing or listening distance, I’d see you again – everything from Alex Wagner’s noon NOW to Andrea Mitchell to occasional moments of Martin Bashir (I’m sorry, MSNBC, but I couldn’t take much more than a few moments of him at any one time) through Chris Matthews’s Hardball. (Sorry again, but I couldn’t watch the sanctimonious Al Sharpton, the snarling Ed Schultz, or the too-clever-by-half Rachel Maddow regularly—those were bridges too far).

At first, it wasn’t really a hardship. I actually enjoyed the George Burns /Gracie Allen banter of Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, and once—I do mean that literally, just once—I actually agreed with Chris Matthews.

But here’s why I just had to stop seeing you—you’ve gotten too mean and nasty. You’re just not nice to be around anymore, MSNBC. You’re cruel, and, yes, I’ll say it, often lacking in the smarts department.

You denigrate good people, smearing them with the worst epithets, when they dare to question or disagree with politicians you like on policy issues. You can’t seem to fathom that folks might have legitimate reasons to disagree. You search for malevolent motivations. A shrink might wonder if this points to deeply buried insecurities on your part, but I won’t go there.

Your hosts regularly shout down contrary voices. Scratch that. Let me get specific. Chris Matthews regularly shouts down contrary voices, hardly letting them get a word in edgewise, often bullying guests to the point that I’ve wondered why anyone with a differing point of view even bothers to go on his show when they know they will be verbally abused.

Oh, I know what you’ll say: all network news and opinion programs get things wrong--facts and/or tone, that is --from time to time. Believe me, as a center-right viewer, I get that. Mainstream media outlets regularly cover policy and political news that slants in one direction, leaving out important information. And to be fair, even my buddy FOX makes mistakes, too. So I’m not dropping you, MSNBC, just because you’re no different than the rest. I’m dropping you precisely because you are so different from the rest, especially from FOX, the network whose success I suspect you wanted to emulate.

You see, you don’t get FOX at all. FOX’s main news programs, particularly its six o’clock show, don’t rely on sarcasm, snark, mean-spirited name-calling, or a dyspeptic view of those not in the conservative ideological camp. Yes, the news shows will often cover stories conservatives are interested in. But they don’t cover them with a sneer or a leer or a moustache-twisting delight when liberals are under fire. They often, in fact, provide useful information not found elsewhere, whether it’s on the actual content (rather than just the politics) of the Affordable Care Act or the intricate details of the Benghazi and Fast and Furious scandals.

Before you say I’m being unfair and point to FOX’s opinion programming being just as biased and outlandish as you are, let me point out the obvious: opinion programming is opinion programming—it’s not news. Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity can do all the “bloviating” they want—they don’t anchor the news, and they especially don’t anchor breaking news, such as election results. No, the level-headed and even-handed Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and others lead the news programming. No reasonable person would ever compare the likes of them to the screeching banshees that make up your roster, MSNBC. I’m sorry for the insult, but I figure you can take it since you dish so much of it out.

So, in the interest of fairness, I gave it a try with you. I really did, MSNBC. I watched for more than a year. I even watched in another room when my husband couldn’t stand to listen to you anymore. But I’m afraid it’s over between us now. And, just so you don’t misunderstand, let me be perfectly clear on this point: It’s not me. It’s you.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Yes, I'm voting for Romney. Here's why.

by Libby Sternberg

Four years ago, I voted for John McCain, more out of fear of what Barack Obama would do than out of enthusiastic support for the Arizona senator. I was more energized by his vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin, which I know will appall a good number of folks on the left and right, who continue to believe Governor Palin was some kind of ultra-conservative nincompoop with not enough knowledge or experience to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

But what I liked about Palin was how sure she was of her principles: small government, muscular foreign policy. And she had executive experience, which was more than any candidate in that race could claim. Being a senator--one among many--isn't the same as having to make decisions for which there is no one else to blame.

The criticisms of Palin now seem silly, though, when we watch the current vice president go from gaffe to gaffe, with no one asking the serious question: is this just his way or is something else going on that should disqualify him for office? I'm posing that question in the most charitable way, not as a snide or snarky criticism.

My 2008 lack of enthusiasm for the Republican nominee was shared by many, obviously. So I turned my attention to the new president, and I will admit it in front of all my conservative pals: I was hopeful. He was America's first African-American president. He had a young, beautiful family. He seemed to bring new promise to the country. Maybe he'd bring us all together.

And what could conservatives offer anyway? The previous president had committed us to two wars (which I'd supported) that were now dragging on with vague results. He'd overspent. And, what really bothered me: he hadn't effectively communicated how important his good proposals were, leaving the messaging field to his many opponents, afflicted with a feverish Bush Derangement Syndrome that dominated news cycles.

I was an education reform advocate at the time, and I liked many aspects of No Child Left Behind. But Bush wasn't good at defending that law to critics within and outside his party, and it made people like me feel as if we were alone fighting that battle, without a leader.

George W. Bush, from what most accounts say, is a very good man. But he didn't seem to realize that when he "turned the other cheek" in the face of criticism, he was passing on a chance to defend his supporters, who needed him to be stalwart and vocal in the face of our mutual adversaries.

So I was ready for a change, any change. And I watched the inauguration of Barack Obama with great excitement, even though I'd voted for the other guy.

But it didn't take long for that excitement to fade into disappointment as reality set in. The reality was this: a young, new United States Senator with little experience at the national level would have to be exceptionally talented or surrounded by an exceptionally talented team to navigate the tricky political currents of Washington, DC. The president quickly demonstrated he was neither that gifted nor surrounded by a particularly gifted group of advisers.

For the first two years of his term, his party controlled Congress. Yet he struggled mightily to find consensus on a health care bill that was so complex and ill-conceived even the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi let slip that they had to "pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it." She may have walked back that remark, but it was emblematic of the confusion and lack of leadership Americans, both left and right, were witnessing--the bill was massive and complicated, and the president had had trouble getting it accepted even by his own party members.

At least on the foreign policy side of the equation, I breathed more easily. Well, for a time. You see, as the Middle East erupted, I came to be grateful that Sen. McCain wasn't Commander-in-Chief. Sen. McCain, a brave and loyal military man himself, seemed, to me at least, a bit too swift to suggest American involvement that could lead to boots on the ground. Who knows what he would have done had he been president? I was no different than the rest of America at that point: war weary. I was content to have a noninterventionist president, even if his policies were benignly feckless.

However, they might not have been so "benign" after all, as the September 11--a day that will live in infamy-- attack on the Benghazi consulate seems to indicate.

In April 2004, Condoleezza Rice, then assistant to the president for national security affairs, testified to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States that al Qaeda had been at war with us before we even recognized it as such (emphasis mine):

Long before that day (September 11, 2001), radical, freedom-hating terrorists declared war on America and on the civilized world. The attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985, the rise of al Qaeda and the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the attacks on American installations in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, the East Africa embassy bombings of 1998, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 -- these and other atrocities were part of a sustained, systematic campaign to spread devastation and chaos, and to murder innocent Americans. The terrorists were at war with us, but we were not yet at war with them.

As more details about the Benghazi attack come out, one question stands out amidst the fog of "war": why was the White House so quick to blame the attack on an obscure video when reports suggest the administration was receiving news that it could have been a terrorist attack?

My gratitude that a reflexive interventionist wasn't president has now been replaced with fears that a president unwilling to confront the truth of terrorism was sitting in the Oval Office instead. As Rice pointed out, previous attacks escalated over the years, starting with attacks on our interests abroad, before they culminated in the horror of 9/11. What's next? Will we be ready?

Beyond these big issues of national security and a massive health care overhaul is the litany of disappointments that Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, repeats in his campaign message: high unemployment, high dependency on food stamp programs, high deficit, high regulations that stifle business and job growth.

President Obama was hired to tackle the economic problems. He has not done so, nor has he offered anything that isn't "more of the same"for the next four years. I know his team blames "obstructionist Republicans" for lack of meaningful progress, but this stubborn fact remains: his party had control of government for two years, and he didn't even come close to solving the problem during that time. And he's shown a spectacular disinterest in solving the problem of entitlement program spending, despite convening a "National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform" (aka Simpson-Bowles).

But paying attention to Simpson-Bowles, perhaps even trying to enact suggestions from it, would have been a steep hill for the president to climb, pitting him against a large portion of his party, who view entitlement programs as sacrosanct. Changing these programs, even to save them, is viewed with suspicion and derision.

Liberals often portray themselves as the party of compassion, pointing at Republicans as wealth- and greed-lovers who want to give tax cuts to the rich while throwing granny over the cliff to cut Medicare.

It always surprises me how easily some Democrats embrace those images, not realizing that it might say something extremely unflattering about themselves that they swallow the notion that they are more righteous on the issue of poverty and helping the needy than their Republican brethren. They seem to forget that we are not talking about personal compassion when we discuss public policy. They are free to give as much or as little of their time and treasure as they want to charitable organizations to help the poor, and no mean-spirited Scrooge--whatever party he might belong to-- will hold a gun to their heads to stop them.

No, when we discuss compassion in terms of public policy, we're really discussing how much of our neighbors' money are we going to forcibly confiscate to go to programs to help the poor. One can argue that there is no compassion in taking money from others, no matter how wealthy you think they are. One can also argue there's no compassion in ignoring financial issues that will affect future generations and programs for the needy, as well.

Even some Democrats get this, such as William Saletan of Slate, who, although voting for Obama, had this to say about Mitt Romney's vice presidential pick, Paul Ryan (emphasis mine):
Ryan refutes the Democratic Party’s bogus arguments. He knows that our domestic spending trajectory is unsustainable and that liberals who fail to get it under control are leading their constituents over a cliff, just like in Europe. Eventually, you can’t borrow enough money to make good on your promises, and everyone’s screwed. Ryan understands that the longer we ignore the debt crisis and postpone serious budget cuts—the liberal equivalent of denying global warming—the more painful the reckoning will be. There’s nothing compassionate about that kind of irresponsibility.

By choosing budget-cutter Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney demonstrated he understands the importance of addressing our debt crisis. Ryan, seen as a political lightning rod to some, was a bold choice. It took political courage.

I will admit I was not an early Romney supporter. I didn't like the fact that, as governor of Massachusetts, he'd championed a health care bill similar to the president's. I didn't like the fact that he seemed more a pragmatist than a principled man. But I've come to believe he is a principled pragmatist, a problem-solver and, as a Republican governor in the deep blue state of Massachusetts, a good negotiator who had to learn how to work with the other team to get things done.

And, ironically, after four years of the hope-and-change president, Mitt Romney seems to be the one with the hopeful message this year, the "yes, we can" attitude, while the spectacularly tone-deaf team of the president harps on Bain, Big Bird, binders, bayonets, messages with creepy sexual innuendos, and...revenge voting.

Those who know me won't be surprised I'm voting for Mitt Romney. But they might be surprised to learn that I'm now doing it with hope, excitement and enthusiasm, emotions I didn't feel four years ago when I checked off the box for John McCain.

Monday, October 29, 2012

J'accuse: NPR, NYT, CNN and all the rest

by Libby Sternberg

Pity the parent whose child dies as the result of the feckless decisions of a popular leader (popular with the media, that is). He will receive scant attention, let alone interest in the decisions that led to his son’s death.
Such is the case with poor Charles Woods, father of Tyrone, a former Navy SEAL killed in the attack on the Benghazi consulate that took the lives of three others, including that of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, on September 11, a memorable date in recent American history.
Oh, there is the occasional story here and there—sometimes focusing on whether Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney “politicized” the Benghazi attack, sometimes mentioning how the issue follows the president on the campaign trail.

Michael Ramirez cartoon from Investors Business Daily
But where are the investigative reports about what really happened, what the president knew and when he knew it and whether a statement about no one “denying” aid to the besieged is merely a slyly worded way of saying the president did nothing even though he knew of the cries for help.
Except for a few references, the issue has been in the background or media have made excuses for the president. In one presidential debate, the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, rose to the president’s defense to correct what she perceived at that moment to be a false statement by Romney, who declared that the president hadn’t labeled the Benghazi attack as one of “terror” in a Rose Garden statement. Upon reflection, she conceded Romney wasn’t really so off the mark after all. Her epiphany occurred after the debate when mega-millions were no longer watching.
During the final presidential debate, focusing on foreign policy, the moderator, CBS’s Bob Schieffer, hardly pursued the Libya question at all. Romney, perhaps wise to the fact that the media were eager to take the president’s side no matter what he said on the topic, didn’t pursue it either. About the toughest media interrogation has come from a local reporter who pressed the president on the Benghazi attack, getting few straightforward answers and lots of “we’ll get to the bottom of this” spin.
I’ve written before about the media’s disinterest in the president’s defense policies and other stumbles. But now I’m beginning to believe that the media’s reluctance to cover the Benghazi situation with any real zeal makes them accomplices to the wrongdoing. Think about it: a father cries out for answers on why military aid was not sent to help his son—a legitimate question from anyone, but a particularly devastating one from the father of the fallen. The media’s reaction? Shrugs and disinterest.
I recently participated in a reading of T. S. Eliot’s verse play, Murder in the Cathedral, about the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170. At the end of all the mystical and magical poetry, Eliot uses straightforward prose so that those responsible for the crime can argue their case to the audience. The First Knight declares:

“…there is one thing I should like to say, and I might as well say it at once. It is this: in what we have done, and whatever you may think of it, we have been perfectly disinterested.”

He goes on to declare: 

“We know perfectly well how things will turn out. King Henry—God bless him—will have to say, for reasons of state, that he never meant this to happen; and there is going to be an awful row….”

Ordinarily, when scandal erupts—especially if it involves the loss of life, especially when it involves the possible resurgence of a terrorist group that attacked us on an unprecedented scale more than a decade ago—one can count on “an awful row,” as journalists rush to uncover what really happened, and public opprobrium falls on those responsible. This is no meaningless exercise. It serves a double purpose: uncovering valuable information that allows the public to assess the worthiness of a leader up for re-election and as a warning to future leaders to avoid similar mistakes.
In the Benghazi case, however, the media has accepted the king’s president’s excuses—“he never meant this to happen” –and has been curiously incurious in finding out more. Or, in the words of the Becket murderer: “perfectly disinterested.”

Imagine if George W. Bush were president during the Benghazi debacle. Can any journalist look himself in the mirror and claim truthfully that he would have been equally disinterested in this event had George W. Bush been president? The headlines, in that case, would have written themselves, and reporters would have stumbled over each other to determine what Bush knew and when, and why wasn’t he sharing it with the American public.
In Murder in the Cathedral, the Second Knight goes on to explain his role in the assassination of Becket and why he was justified. At the end of his declaration, he stares at the audience and says:

“…and if there is any guilt whatever in the matter, you must share it with us.”

As far as I’m concerned, that knight is addressing today’s media when it comes to Benghazi—if there is any guilt in the matter, they—the “perfectly disinterested” journalists of 2012—must share it with the administration. They have the resources to determine what really happened. Yet they are perfectly content to look away.
For this, they become actors in the drama, not mere observers. J’accuse.