Thursday, March 25, 2010

Health Care and the Political Future

The health care legislation that President Obama signed into law yesterday tilts American social policy in a more just and progressive direction that should bear fruit for months and years to come. Equally important, however, is the conservative reaction to the bill. In their fury at Democrats who voted for the bill, conservatives will alienate the very moderate Democrats that the Republicans might want as allies in the future.

Take the death threats against Bart Stupak.

Or Kathleen Parker's column calling Stupak a "backstabber."

Their single biggest consequence will be to remind politicians like Stupak that, for all their differences with their fellow Democrats, they have more friends in the the party of Obama than they do in the GOP or the Tea Party movement. That cements the opposition to the Republicans--a good thing for Democrats, but a bad one for the GOP.

As E. J. Dionne points out, Stupak in the end voted for the bill because to vote against it would have derailed health care reform--a cause that is big enough to include opponents of abortion who also value improvements in health care.

Dionne's thinking reflects the kind of broad-minded pragmatism necessary to sustain a Democratic majority. The Republicans and Tea Baggers who attack Stupak do not display the same cast of mind in support of their own cause.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Grateful Dead at the New-York Historical Society

I've seen some popular exhibits at the New-York Historical Society, but yesterday I encountered the first show that had me waiting in line to get into the exhibition gallery: GRATEFUL DEAD: NOW PLAYING AT THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY.

Admittedly, part of the explanation for the line is that the the show was mounted in a relatively small space. Still, it was the lure of the Dead that drew dozens of visitors to the museum on a cold and windy afternoon. What they found was a great taste of holdings from the Grateful Dead Archive at UC-Santa Cruz and interesting lessons on the band's connections to New York City.

You enter the exhibit by passing a giant photo of the Fillmore East marquee, taken in 1969, announcing shows by the Byrds; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Jimi Hendrix and the Dead. I was impressed, but even more impressed to learn, to my surprise, that the Dead played at the Columbia takeover in 1968.

The show does a good job of sketching out such associations between the Dead and Gotham, but it does an even better job of show the band's complex cultural history. The Dead's reputation for psychedelics and extended jams sometimes overshadowed the eclecticism of their music, their deep relationship to their fans, and their innovative business models.

GRATEFUL DEAD gets at all of this with intelligent labels that are enthusiastic without being worshipful. It also deploys an impressive array of artifacts that allow visitors to explore the band's complexity: Pigpen's harmonica and a Warner Brothers contract citing the name of one Jerome Garcia; plans for the short-lived but impressive Wall of Sound; and a collection of letters from Deadheads.

My favorite artifact was a folding pyramid built in memory of the Dead's concert at the pyramids on 16 September 1978. One day later, Anwar El Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel signed the Camp David accords, which led to a cool but real peace between the two countries. The pyramid reads, on one side, "The living thank the Dead for the first chance at peace in 30 years."

The Dead archive at UC-Santa Cruz is still in development. When it is fully open, it promises to be a great resource for researchers with interests in everything from the Dead to business to the politics of fandom. For now, your best bet is to visit GRATEFUL DEAD at the Historical Society. Open through July 4, 2010.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Bad Decision

The Obama administration seems ready to overrule Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try Khaled Sheik Mohammed (KSM) and his co-defendants in a civilian court and return the matter to a military tribunal. This would be such a bad decision on so many levels that I don’t know where to begin. First, Obama will never be able to satisfy his Republican critics. If Obama agrees to a military tribunal his critics will insist that it take place in Guantanamo. (And the odds that Guantanamo closes by the end of the Obama administration are going down steadily.) If the tribunal is held in Guantanamo they will insist that evidence gathered under torture be admitted. If the Obama administration concedes on everything, his critics will just say why don’t we just do away with all these formalities and just assemble a firing squad and be done with it? Obama will not win. But far more importantly, this will legitimize military tribunals for any similar case in the future. Obama will mumble something about the limited scope of the military tribunals he is authorizing, but all it would take would be another Republican president to vastly expand the scope of military tribunals for all sorts of cases. The Bush-Cheney administration has won, and the rule of law in this country has been permanently damaged.

But Republicans will be Republicans, and easily cowed Democrats will be easily cowed Democrats. I want to focus on the real culprits in this, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the other NYC politicians who decided in a narrow NIMBY-ish fashion, despite the large number of civilian terrorist trials in recent years, that trying KSM would create to many traffic jams in Foley Square and so on. (And I don’t have a sense that Bloomberg’s decision is wildly unpopular with the average NYCer.) But, of course, if NYC doesn’t want to risk a civilian trial, why would any other municipality in the country want a trial that NYC thought was too dangerous? The logic will lead to a military trial in a military base, sure as shooting. It is Bloomberg’s decision to oppose civilian trials, and the acquiescence of all major NYC politicians, as far as I am aware, to go along, that has forced the easily forced hand of Obama. New York City politicians have done a grave disservice to the nation, and in real sense, to the entire world

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Eric Massa

The big news in our corner of western New York is that Eric Massa is not going to run for re-election. Massa is the first term congressman who represents a sprawling district (as are all upstate districts), from the outskirts of Rochester down to Corning, Hornell, and Olean. I am not in his district, but I can’t ride more than a few blocks without entering it. Massa is a former naval officer, resident of Corning, who first ran in 2006 to replace the retiring Amo Houghton, the longtime moderate Republican congressman and scion of the Corning Glass fortune . (Houghton was one of the few Republicans to vote against the Iraq war authorization in 2003.) Massa was defeated by Randy Kuhl an utterly undistinguished state senator, and then, in 2008, Massa, riding the Obama surge, narrowly defeated Kuhl.

Massa has been a lively energetic representative, a left of center Democrat in a right of center district. He held about twenty town hall meetings this summer over health care, and then was one of a handful of Democrats to vote against the health care bill in House from the left, though we will see what happens this time around. He continues to be, under Obama, critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has been a general breath of fresh air around here. As part of an Israel pro-peace group, we met with his staff a few months ago, and then he called me a few weeks later, to see if I had any other concerns to discuss with him.
Yesterday, he announced he would not be seeking re-election. He said it was because he had terminal cancer. There are other reports that his decision is connected to a sexual harassment suit brought by a male staffer. Whatever the reason it is very sad. He has been an independent Democratic voice, vigorous and very much his own man, and I was looking forward to hearing him speak on matters of local, national, and international interest for many years to come. He will be missed.