Archive for April, 2010

28
Apr
10

CN Column 04/30/10: In politics, it’s all about context

Over the course of the last year, I’ve learned that the context of a political action is often more important than the action itself. I’ve observed this at the local level, covering municipal politics, and have repeatedly seen how reading between the lines pays dividends when weighing matters of political significance at the state or federal levels.

Well, it’s not so much about reading between the lines as it is consciously choosing to read the writing on the wall. It’s not really my job to evaluate subtext.

It’s all about context.

Take, for instance, the Naugatuck school board and the ongoing drama about its budget. I have been on top of that story for months and have worked many late nights in the last few weeks, as officials have hacked and chopped the budget, which has dropped from a possible $7 million increase to one just less than $1 million.

Board of Ed. members have appeared to me in my dreams, and that’s not a joke. A week ago, I spent at least two hours lying awake in bed, mulling numbers and trying to reconcile savings estimates. A year ago at that time, my eyes would have been glazing over amid an all-night video game binge. My, oh my, how life does change.

But that’s not the point. The school board presented its budget to the joint boards last week, and two Finance Board members alleged it had used “scare tactics” and dumped an unpopular decision at the Finance Board’s feet.

They were interpreting the subtext: The Board of Ed. got parents “all riled up,” Diane Scinto said, by voting to close Salem School; it then reversed the decision in the midst of much public outcry and implied it would revisit the issue, if the joint boards didn’t award an adequate budget increase. The school board essentially said, “We’re putting the ball in your court. Salem School is on you.”

To be clear, this is not my opinion, rather the one I heard and partially inferred from Scinto’s and Matt Katra’s public statements. This is the subtext of a month’s events, as interpreted by a minority of the Finance Board. And school board Chairwoman Kathleen Donovan denied that the board had in any way employed “scare tactics,” saying, “We’re doing what’s educationally right within what the budget allocation is.”

But here’s the context, from which you can draw your own opinion: The school board voted March 30 to close Salem in an attempt to save some $400,000. At its regular meeting about a week later, it was publicly chastised by dozens of residents. A week after that, at a public hearing, it was put on the stand again and urged to reconsider the decision. The next week, only three days before its presentation to the joint boards, it reversed the vote by a narrow margin but acknowledged the decision may merit revisiting, pending the joint board’s allocation. You can decide whether the school board intended to scapegoat the joint boards, or simply responded to residents’ concerns and acted in the interests of an educationally sound school system.

It’s all about context.

On the national stage, take the GOP’s latest obstructionist ploy against President Obama’s agenda. All 41 Senate Republicans (and one Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska) voted against bringing a financial reform bill to the floor for debate.

As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post points out, this latest filibuster isn’t preventing a vote on anything, but, “Rather, it’s standing in the way of debate and amendment … That is to say that Republicans who want to see the bill debated and changed are filibustering the process in which the bill can be debated and changed. They’re not filibustering legislation so much as the legislative process itself. … But Republicans have gotten so used to filibustering everything that they filibuster whether it makes sense or not.”

More interesting to me than this nonsensical approach—and an example of why context matters most—is a comparison of Republicans’ opposition to health care reform and their opposition to financial regulation.

At the crossroads of health care legislation, conservatives decried the Democrats for “shoving [the bill] down Americans’ throats” and “ramming it through,” and they called for the administration to heed popular opinion and the will of the people. Fair enough. The bill wasn’t polling well.

But compare that to public opinion of financial reform legislation: According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, about two-thirds of Americans support “stricter regulations on the way financial institutions conduct their business.”

Yet it’s an attempt to impose those very restrictions that has again drawn Republicans into staunch, rank-and-file opposition. Read the writing on the wall: Republicans apparently demand unequivocal acquiescence to public opinion—that is, when it’s convenient for them.

Are both parties hypocritical in their own manner? Yes. Do I think the public opinion point is moot, anyway? Yes; I believe we elect leaders to make executive decisions, even when they wind up being unpopular. There’s a reason why we don’t send every issue to public referendum.

But here we see that considering issues in context can illuminate hypocrisy, indecisiveness and political inaction disguised as principled opposition (the Republican Party’s MO of late, were you to ask me).

We can infer from subtextual clues what bearing these developments will have in November, or we can opine about either party’s disregard for the other or for the American people. But let’s stick to the facts.

At every level, it’s all about context.

Note: In last week’s column, I implied a reader who had phoned in to complain I am a “bleeding-heart” was referring broadly to my personal politics. The caller wrote me to say he was not casting broad assumptions about my belief system but simply responding to a specific opinion (a Feb. 19 column opposing a prison’s decision to take away privileges that had previously been granted to inmates). The caller wrote: “This accusation was not about political views, but you didn’t say that” and felt I had spun his statement. I’d like to publicly apologize for unintentionally misrepresenting his call.

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21
Apr
10

CN Column 04/23/10: Political dichotomy an illusion

A couple weeks ago, I was sharply critical of the GOP, citing a poll that revealed, as I wrote, “the extent to which black-hearted hatred, poisonous fear and wing-nut extremism have infected the modern Republican party.”

That column proved to be the most controversial I’ve yet written for publication here at Citizen’s News; it inspired a few objecting e-mails and at least one unreasonable phone call. Even Callum, my editor, agreed it was “one of [my] more pointed” pieces.

But the responses I’ve received illustrate, to some extent, one of the myriad problems with two-party politics in this country. To many, it seems, criticism of the conservative message or the Republicans automatically equates to unequivocal support for liberal ideas and ideals, and by default makes people like me seem like shills for the Democratic party. It may go both ways, but I’m not so sure; I’ve never gotten feedback about more conservative columns accusing me of being a GOP panderer.

Let me take a moment to say I truly appreciate any and all responses to my opinion writing, and I try to take the time to respond personally to those who take the time to write me. I’m always glad to engage readers in a conversation or e-mail exchange, regardless of whether they agree with me.

But on a few occasions, and especially on this one, I’ve been accused of being too liberal—one reader even called Callum several weeks ago to complain I’m too much of a “bleeding-heart.” Readers seem to believe that because I think the conservative movement’s rhetoric is going, or has already gone too far means I’m a Democrat, a liberal, a bleeding-heart, or what-have-you.

Although I like to think I make my stances sufficiently clear, I’d like to set the record straight to those of you who read my column and shake your head, writing me off as just another liberal media hack.

First of all: I stand for no ideology. I am not affiliated with any political party at the local, state or federal level. I am not a “party person.” I vote independently, and yes, I vote.

I do believe in nurturing a “marketplace of ideas” in the media, not to mention in political forums and in citizens’ everyday lives. I believe this marketplace could—and should—be devoid of hyper-partisan rhetoric, personal aspersions and assumption-making.

I believe if we must have two parties in this country, as appears to be the case, we need two healthy, high-functioning parties that can make equally compelling cases to independents. We need two parties with clear leaders whom everyone can at least respect—something we have in neither major party at this point. We need two parties that can respect each other as much as both claim to respect the American people.

I believe voters should judge issues on their own merits and according to personal values. I believe criticism of one thing is not the same as support for its perceived opposite, and by the same token, I believe that very diametric opposition is nothing more than a calculated illusion.

I do not believe in the political dichotomy we’ve all been fed by Washington bureaucrats and the media. I believe people’s opinions, like my own, manifest themselves across a wide spectrum of thoughts, ideas and beliefs. I do not believe in left and right.

That being said, I implore those of you who are good enough to read my columns to bear in mind that I, like you, believe in liberty, justice and freedom from oppression. I believe in the United States just like every “real American” out there. You don’t need to “take the country back” from people like me. The country is ours to share, and I think we’d all be better off if we tried to explore issues sans the talking points and platitudes.

Do I have liberal tendencies? Yes. I’m 22 years old. I just graduated from college, for God’s sake. I watch HBO, PBS and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; read the New York Times, Rolling Stone and Harper’s Magazine; and listen to college radio and NPR—bastions of the so-called liberal media, all. I have a bumper sticker quoting Kurt Vonnegut on my car, listen to Bob Dylan and am the proud owner of several wantonly ironic T-shirts. Give me a break.

But I was far more liberal a year ago than I am now. Several months fully engaged and entrenched in local politics and budget issues makes one immediately cognizant of the fact that fiscal conservatism is really the only spending philosophy that makes any sense. I opposed the bailouts under Bush and Obama, just as I oppose our foreign wars.

I believe small businesses should be given as many tax and regulatory breaks as possible; but big businesses, especially banks, insurers and trading firms, have proven they need to be monitored and policed. Conversely, I believe the banks shouldn’t enjoy a government safety net funded by tax dollars.

I believe in people’s freedom to do what they will with their own bodies at the counsel of their doctor and in their own homes, and I believe all people who pay taxes—and even many who don’t—deserve equal access to health care in a fully-developed nation like ours. I believe the government could and should play a role in ensuring it.

I’m just another guy who has a lot of opinions. The only difference between you and me is that I have a platform from which to disseminate them. So if you feel differently or have a cohesive counterargument, let’s talk. I’m a good listener.

15
Apr
10

CN Column 04/16/10: Fee hike will discourage park use

I love the Connecticut state park system. As I mentioned in passing in a previous column, I spent a summer working as a landscaper and maintainer at Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden, Wharton Brook State Park in Wallingford, West Rock Ridge State Park on the border of Hamden and New Haven and various smaller, satellite boat launches and pull-offs in adjoining towns.

While cleaning up after litterbug park visitors was not my favorite part of the job, the seasonal position was a suitable crash course about where nearby outdoor recreation opportunities were to be had. And if you’re not aware, there are dozens—for example, a network of variably difficult hiking trails leading to a breathtaking vista overlooking New Haven County at Sleeping Giant, a quaint lakefront beach and excellent trout fishing at Wharton Brook and precarious but rewarding bluff-side trails at West Rock.

And I couldn’t count on both hands the number of fond memories I have of stoking campfires, washing down burgers and dogs with cold suds and fishing—and all in good company—at Kettletown State Park in Southbury or Hammonassett State Park in Madison.

Were you to ask anyone who knew me circa 2005, he’d affirm that I was indeed the in-house master fisherman of what motley crew of half-cocked sportsmen I could cull on any given Saturday. Or Sunday. … Nevermind. Any day. I was the one who stocked the tackle box, researched angling strategies, cut the bait (and applied it to the hook, in at least one case), maintained the gear, wrangled innumerable lures from trees and underwater snags and led the gang through an ongoing flirtation with surfcasting (which, if you didn’t know, is better than you’d expect along Long Island Sound).

These things used to be cheap. I mean really cheap. The parks only charge for parking on weekends, and at many it’s no secret that visitors can park outside of them and walk in for free. I also happen to know that at least half the time, if you claim to have no money (in my case, it was normally less of a claim and more of a sad reality) and not know there’s a parking fee, most attendants will let you in anyway—especially if you have a canoe lashed to your vehicle.

A freshwater fishing license then cost $20. Saltwater fishing required no license at all.

Camping, to my recollection, then cost between $12 and $20 per site, per night for up to four people, depending on the park. Yes, that meant an outlay of $3-5 per guy. Even the most cash-strapped among my friends could usually scrape it together. Add to that the cost of food, charcoal, drinks, firewood, gas for the trip etc. and I think it’s safe to say anyone could have had a pretty damn good night for about $25.

Comparatively speaking, movie tickets now cost between $10 and $15, and that’s good for only 90 minutes of entertainment. Add to that a snack from the concession counter and … well, you know that’s a racket. A night of bowling is no cheaper, especially if you play more than one or two games. A few drinks at the bar? Forget that noise.

Nothing really beats the relaxation that can be the byproduct of a night or two out in the woods—close enough to a car and a grocery store to enjoy some convenience, but far enough from your digital life to dampen the constant, Internet- and cable-news-induced headache. Car camping is a great way to connect with family and friends in an organic setting without taking out a second mortgage or scaring the kids with the prospect of complete disconnection. It’s a hobby that pays dividends.

My love for this quasi-outdoorsy recreation (I do like real camping, too; it’s just more of a logistical challenge and thus not as leisurely, at least to me) is the prime reason I found myself quite enraged last October when the state announced the Department of Environmental Protection would increase all fees related to recreation. Everything that had been assessed at less than $150 is now doubled. That means a fishing license will run you $40 (opening day for trout fishing is Saturday). A campsite for a night will run you anywhere between $25 and $40 a night. Parking fees, reservation fees for said campsites, rentals of facilities like picnic pavilions and admission to state park museums have all increased, as well.

The reason for the increase is obvious: The state is trying to make ends meet.

But is it really fair to even further discourage the recreational use of our beautiful public lands? Wouldn’t we all like to see more kids and families recreating outdoors instead of playing video games or watching TV?

The state’s budget is wracked by what many are now calling the Great Recession. That much goes without saying. But legislators should take notice that people, like governments, are also struggling, and a lot of people will be looking to vacation and recreate on the cheap this summer. Camping at state parks has always been a great way to do that.

It is still cheaper, nightly, to rent campsites in the park system than it is to stay in a hotel. But not by quite as much.

07
Apr
10

CN Column 04/09/10: Republicans should recognize that “change” can be a buzzword for their party, too

“Change.” It was the clarion call of Barack Obama’s transformative presidential campaign. It was the rationale that summoned Congressional Democrats’ harried last-ditch push for a comprehensive health care overhaul—which ended up being less than comprehensive and only nominally change-ey (not to mention opposed by a consistent majority of Americans in most polls). And it was the very prospect of said “change” that got conservative leaders spitting venomous, hyperbolic rhetoric and drumming up all kinds of anti-Obama, anti-entitlement and anti-establishment sentiment.

But hey, this is how two-party politics works. Those in power push their agenda, and the opposition tries everything in its power to grind the machine to a halt. It’s really nothing new. Right?

Well, to a certain extent that’s the truth. But it’s reached a new level.

Far more concerning than polls which show Obamacare may never win broad voter support is a new poll that reveals the extent to which black-hearted hatred, poisonous fear and wing-nut extremism have infected the modern Republican party.

According to the study, 67 percent of self-avowed Republicans (and 40 percent of Americans overall) believe Obama is a socialist. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans (32 percent overall) believe Obama is a Muslim; 45 percent of Republicans (25 percent overall) believe Obama was “not born in the United States and so is not eligible to be president”; 38 percent of Republicans (20 percent overall) say that Obama is “doing many of the things that Hitler did.”

Perhaps the most ominous finding: 24 percent of Republicans (14 percent overall) say Obama “may be the Antichrist.”

Pretty stunning, no?

But it should come as no surprise that this pathological hatred of the nation’s top elected official—which, ironically, masquerades as patriotism and good American citizenship—has taken root, and even verged on threats of violence toward Democrats in Washington.

Leaders of America’s right have stoked the fire of dissent into the inferno we are now witnessing. And they did so with little to no regard for the consequences.

Take, for example, House Minority Leader John Boehner’s comments on the eve of the historic health care vote: The bill’s passage will result in “Armageddon,” he said, and “ruin the country.” Holy crap! Armageddon?? The End of Days?! Grab the kids, fire up the gas generator and get into the fallout shelter; it’s going to be raining ash soon enough!

“For most of the 20th century, people fled the ghosts of communist dictators and … with passage of this bill, they will haunt Americans for generations,” said Devin Nunes, the California Republican, on the House floor that day. “Your multitrillion-dollar health care bill continues the failed Soviet socialist experiment. It gives the federal government absolute control over health care in America … Today Democrats in this House will finally lay the cornerstone of their socialist utopia on the backs of the American people.”

Yes, because the elected leader of our free republic has so many things in common with a former Soviet dictator. Get a grip.

Then there’s Sarah Palin, who, while not a bona fide Republican leader—seeing as she has shirked her governance responsibilities in Alaska to pursue a career pandering feel-good patriotic platitudes on Fox News—still holds the largely extreme right-wing Tea Party protestors under her sway. After the health care vote, she posted a militant propaganda piece on her Facebook page: a map of the U.S. with health care yea-voters’ locations identified by cross-hair gun sights. She implored her fellow patriots not to “retreat,” but to “RELOAD!”  Now that’s what I call responsible leadership. (EDIT: Palin appears to have since changed the wording of her appeal to “Don’t get demoralized. Get organized!”)

Conservatives who object to the president’s agenda for reasons not steeped in misinformation, hatred bordering on violence or latent (or explicit) racism should disassociate themselves from the Glenn Beck acolytes, the costumed crazies who contribute nothing to intelligent discourse and, most importantly, from their party’s national leadership, many of whom have chosen to adopt the ludicrous apocalyptic tone propagated by protestors and, often, the conservative media.

Change absolutely must become a GOP selling point if the party truly wishes to repeat the 1994 Republican Revolution in 2010’s midterm elections.

Conservative constituents and activists can institute that much-needed change by excising the bad apples from the Republican Party—by removing the Boehners, Nuneses and Michael Steeles from positions of prestige and influence. They can disinfect their partisan rhetoric and focus on the values that make conservatism—and, by association, conservative candidates—appealing to independent voters and moderate thinkers.

Their national committee can stop spending its money faster than it can solicit donations—and stop patronizing bondage-themed Hollywood strip clubs.

As an aside, I must point out that the Republican National Convention can spend a million bucks a day on strippers and booze, for all I care. That’s why I don’t donate.

But nothing says family values like blowing a couple G’s at a strip club, right? That just can’t ring true for social conservatives or the religious right, who comprise a sizable chunk of the GOP’s voting base.

Anyway, it’s becoming increasingly clear that conservatives need to change their message—and their manner of delivering it—if they want to change Washington. And they can start by leaving Palin to the wing-nuts (that means you, John McCain), getting rid of Steele and finding some smart leadership. Maybe in the process the GOP can forge a new identity that makes sense to moderates and independents. I sure hope that proves to be the case.