Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Posts Tagged ‘U.S. politics’

Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart * How We Come Together

Posted by nliakos on June 10, 2018

by Van Jones ( Ballantine 2017)

I don’t watch CNN much, and I have never seen Van Jones’ show, The Messy Truth. In fact, I had no idea who he was (progressive activist, CNN political contributor, author, attorney, founder/supporter of numerous progressive organizations). However, reading this book has made me curious to know more (if you know when The Messy Truth airs on CNN, please let me know!).  In it, Jones speaks as a progressive, but he speaks to both liberals and conservatives. He believes that both share responsibility for the mess we are in today, and both have the power and the responsibility to fix it. In fact, he says, we need each other, because neither side has the whole answer. He writes, “In the end, the promise of America is liberty and justice for all. My fellow liberals are so focused on justice we too easily forget about liberty. Conservatives can be so committed to liberty that you become blind to cases where injustice curtails freedom. We need each other. We cannot improve this country alone.” He couches the progressive/conservative split as a difference in which values are prioritized. It’s a simple thing, but I had never really thought about it in that way before. I think perhaps he is right. Government can be too big and too intrusive. Regulations can be too onerous than necessary. Not every conservative goal ends in injustice. We do need a balance between the sides; the discussion between them slows down the process and gives everybody a chance to consider all the options and possible consequences of change, and forces everyone to think about and clarify their ideas and their consequences.

Chapters Two and Three are “open letters” to liberals and conservatives, in which Jones speaks first directly to his fellow progressives and then to those on the conservative side. As a lifelong liberal, I read the “Open Letter to Liberals” with interest and introspection, and found Jones’ conclusions to ring true. (Example: Democrats take the African American vote for granted, not bothering to make good on their promises to this group: “The party should dramatically increase its paltry investments in the one community that has backed it unconditionally” [92% of the African American vote generally goes to Democrats.]).

Jones has great compassion for the poor and working-class white voters who have been abandoned by the party that should prioritize their interests–the Democrats. He understands that not all of these voters are racist bigots. He understands how globalization, trade deals, wars, and other decisions made in the interests of the big parties and big business have stolen the ability of many to support their families as they were accustomed to doing by working in factories and mines, for example. But he doesn’t excuse them for supporting Trump despite his offensive statements. He writes, “I understand where [they] are coming from. I hear their pain, and I want to give voice to that. . . . [but] as much as I want liberals to understand where blue-collar families . . . are coming from, I want Trump voters . . . to broaden their political agenda to include real compassion for the pain experienced by Americans who are black and brown. I want them to understand that the impact of their choice has created a living hell for American Muslims living in fear, for Latino workers facing deportation, . . . for Native Americans fighting the imposition of leak-prone pipelines, for those Americans . . . who will face longer prison sentences under the reignited drug war.” He concludes, “Trump’s stoking of racial animosity was one factor, but not the only factor, in his victory. Liberals need to keep that in mind–lest we paint too many people with the wrong brush and push persuadable people deeper into Trump’s arms.”

In Chapter Five, “Prince, Newt, and the Way Forward’, Jones describes some of his personal relationships with people on both sides of the great divide, like his college journalism teacher and mentor, E. Jerald Ogg (a white, conservative Republican), Newt Gingrich (an unlikely friend for a liberal Democrat, but nevertheless), and Prince, the rock star. The part about Prince was especially interesting to me. I was never a fan of his music (probably because I never heard much of it or recognized it as his, and I was surprised at the outpouring of emotion when he died. Jones, who became great friends with Prince, describes how he would donate large amounts of money to many individuals, projects, and causes, but generally anonymously, because he wanted to avoid attention for his generosity; and how Prince stood by him and advised him during a particularly dark time in his life. Jones and Prince together created a program to encourage young African Americans to learn computer coding so that they would have the skills to work in the new 21st century jobs. He writes, “Prince touched people’s lives in countless ways. . . . His music will be his legacy, always and forever, but I will always remember him for his generous commitment to giving back. He notes how people of all races, religions, and ethnicities were among his fans: “Somehow everyone was in on the secret of the purple magic he created, and everyone belonged.” Jones’ words turned Prince from a mere celebrity  into a human being that I think anyone would have admired.

The final chapter is devoted to four ideas to help bring Americans together again:

(1) fixing the justice system that incarcerates more people than any other country, and sometimes spits them out after their sentences are served, deprived of their fundamental rights or any way to make an honest living. Specifically, he recommends keeping disruptive students in school rather than suspending, expelling, or arresting them; eliminating excessive fees and fines; doing away with money bail; decriminalizing addiction and mental illness; not sending people to prison for low level crimes; abolishing mandatory minimum and solitary confinement, increasing access to education and family visits; supporting ex-offenders’ ability to make a living; and restoring their voting rights.

(2) ending the opioid addiction crisis by ending the “detox and die” method; making naloxone  readily available; providing medicine and counseling to incarcerated addicts; requiring insurance companies to cover addiction treatment; training medical professionals to deal with addiction; and treating addiction like the illness it is rather than like criminal behavior.

(3) recognizing that “technology is great for consumers. But it can be bad for workers.” And really training people for work in the tech industry.

(4) Supporting clean technology and cleanup of industrial pollution.

Reading this book renewed my hope that perhaps things can get better again, if we would just respect one another and seek innovative solutions to some of our most pressing problems.

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The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted

Posted by nliakos on December 22, 2012

by Mike Lofgren (Viking 2012)

Mike Lofgren is a Republican disillusioned with (one might say disgusted by) what the Republican party has become. As the title indicates, he is not enamored of the Democratic Party either. Lofgren worked for 28 years for Republicans John Kasich and Judd Gregg on the House and Senate Budget Committees. As a Hill staffer, he had a good vantage point from which to observe the changes in the Party. When he was finally disgusted enough to quit, he wrote this book. He seems to have written it during the 2012 primary season, as he did not yet know who would be the Republican candidate.

It is quite funny, or would be if the subject were not so serious. Somehow, reading about the corruption of the system as described by someone of Lofgren’s background makes it scarier for me. Lofgren’s prose is frequently inflammatory: The Republican Party is “full of lunatics” (pp. 9-10) who “bamboozle millions of people” (p. 56); the Bush administration went “off their rockers” (p. 173); the new Democrats “will say anything to win an election–an objective that . . . generally requires them to emulate Republicans, particularly with respect to moneygrubbing on the fundraising circuit” (p. 3). He does not mince words.

There are a couple of chapters that were particularly interesting to me. One is Chapter 4, “A Devil’s Dictionary,” which examines the way Republicans have come to call the linguistic shots in U.S. public discourse. I remember how the phrase “family values” suddenly became something I didn’t want to identify with, and when the use of “pro-life” for anti-abortion-rights advocates implied that the rest of us were somehow “pro-death.”  He attributes this in part to the fact that Democrats take their language cues from academia (“arcane, qualified, and convoluted,” p. 61), whereas Republicans take theirs from advertising (the phrase public relations is itself an example of the creation of a new term to replace one that has become tainted, in this case propaganda, according to Lofgren). He writes at length of the sudden use of the word homeland and shows how “the war on terrorism” morphed into “the war on terror” (“How can one make war on a subjective mental state?” p. 59), comparing this use of language to Orwell’s Newspeak. The chapter ends with a funny but chilling mini-glossary including such gems as “conservative: a person profoundly respectful of heritage, tradition, and old-fashioned values while preaching the revolution and strip-mining the Grand Canyon for high-sulfur coal” and “liberal (pronounced librull): a satanic ideologue who is at once a social leveler, an elitist defender of privilege, and atheist, and a secret Muslim determined to bring sharia law to America” (pp. 64-65).

Another eye-opening chapter is Chapter 7, “Media Complicity.”  In it, Lofgren takes no prisoners, lambasting everyone from Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to Tom Friedman and The Washington Post (my hometown newspaper). He accuses the so-called “respectable media” of bending over backward to appear balanced and becoming the mouthpiece of whoever is in power. He berates the Post in particular of overuse of anonymous sources and warns that “the true danger lies in an ostensibly neutral journalism that most Americans count on to tell them what is going on in the world but which too often acts as a stenographer for powerful and self-serving factions in government operating under a cloak of anonymity.” (p. 127)

There are also chapters on the abuse of the Constitution, taxes, war, religion, intellectuals, the decade of the 2000s (from the run up to 9/11 when the Bush administration should have been paying attention to the warnings of imminent terrorist attack from its own people, to the economic debacle from which we have yet to recover–a time he describes as “grubby and dishonest” [p. 177]), and the Democrats, who he accuses of lacking core beliefs and contributing to the massive expansion of military spending. The final chapter offers what he sees as the only possible way out of the mess we are in: public financing of drastically shortened politic campaigns, and an electorate that does the hard work of informing itself so that it is no longer ” apathetic and befuddled” (p. 211).

I liked the book, but I am sure it will not be read by the people that most need to read it: Republicans. I have to admit that I would probably shy away from a similar book criticizing liberals or progressives. (I confess to being a card-carrying member of the ACLU!) It’s painful when the wool is removed from our eyes and we see the ugly truth. And according to Lofgren, there is a lot of ugly truth to see.


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