Thursday, July 24, 2008


Dear Blog Pals,

I am pleased to announce that Andrew's Tiki Lounge has moved to a new location!

My friends at the Waterloo Region Record have given the Tiki Lounge a wonderful new home. You can access the weird and wild world of the Tiki Lounge by clicking HERE. Other than the location, nothing really changes. You will still get the same news and views from a Jeffersonian/humanitarian/irreverent/Canadian-American perspective.

I am still going to leave the Old Tiki Lounge open for business, but new posts will appear on the New and Improved Tiki Lounge.

Please join me at the New Tiki Lounge. I look forward to seeing you there!


Andrew Hunt
Proprietor, Andrew's Tiki Lounge

Campaign Trail Follies of 08 (part 2)

The S.S. McCain: One Rapidly Sinking Ship!: You know things aren't going well for John McCain's presidential campaign when the candidate attacks the media for being too biased in favor of the "other guy." In a combination mass email and YouTube video, the McCain campaign declared, "It's pretty obvious that the media has a bizarre fascination with Barack Obama. Some may even say it's a love affair. The media is in love with Barack Obama. If it wasn't so serious, it would be funny." To the tune of the 1960s' hit "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," the video shows images of influential media figures swooning over Senator Barack Obama. Sad. Very sad. These are the tactics of a desperate, go-nowhere campaign. And this isn't the only troubling sign -- not by a long shot. Campaign deserters tell tales of entire communities without any real McCain campaign presence. The refusal by the New York Times to print an op-ed piece by McCain added to his woes. The extensive media coverage of Obama's recent trip overseas also heightened frustrations in the McCain camp. As conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh noted, "My prediction is that the coverage of Obama on this trip will be oriented toward countering the notion he has no idea what he is talking about on foreign policy and defence issues and instead will prop him up as a qualified statesman. McCain, on the other hand, is a known quantity on these issues and his position does not excite nor fit the mainstream media's narrative on Iraq and Afghanistan, so they simply ignore it and him." Then McCain was stung by the news that one of his big donors, Craig Berkman, is being sued in a fraud case and has been ordered to pay $28 million in damages. Arr, me maties! From where I'm standin', the S.S. McCain don't look none too seaworthy!

The Gutter Gazette Strike Again: The National Enquirer is reporting that former North Carolina senator John Edwards "met with his mistress, blonde divorcée Rielle Hunter, at the Beverly Hilton on Monday night, July 21"and left the Hilton (in Beverly Hills, California) in the wee hours of the morning. The Enquirer is insisting that Edwards and Hunter had a "love child" together (what a nasty term). Luckily, the story has failed to get much play in the mainstream media. Edwards, easily the most progressive and humane political leader out there, is now in the midst of trying to launch his own one-man War on Poverty. He is busily touring the country, speaking out for a higher minimum wage, improved medical insurance for the poor and other measures to protect the jobs and livelihoods of ordinary, working-class families. A Rocky Mountain News headline said it all: "John Edwards passion to war against poverty." No other politician is out there fighting the good fight on behalf of the poor as aggressively as Edwards. Unfortunately, the sleazy Enquirer has never given a damn about the plight of the poor in America. All they want to do is destroy good people and good reputations -- as long as it translates into selling copies. Let's hope this story stays in the gutter where it belongs. Edwards, more than anyone else I know, deserves a prominent spot in the new Obama White House.

A Watershed Year for Democrats?: A recent article in the British Guardian quoted New York senator Charles Schumer is predicting several Democratic victories in Red States this fall. So far, poll after poll seems to support this prediction. Local state polls show Obama way out ahead in most races. Nationwide, the numbers tell the same story. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll says Senator Obama leads Senator McCain by 47 per cent to 41 per cent for the November 4 election. Senator Schumer predicted a watershed for the Democratic Party this fall that may rival that of 1932. He said, "Every generation, generation and a half, there are these dramatic changes, and if they're permanent they are governed by people's relationship to government." In a letter to the Republican leadership earlier this year, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) expressed his concerns: "The political atmosphere facing House Republicans this November is the worse since Watergate and is far more toxic than the fall of 2006." But the battle is far from over. The Chicago Tribune's political reporter Matthew Hay Brown's latest Blog entry is appropriately headlined, "Dems: Beware 'Irrational Exuberance.'" Or, as Han Solo told Luke Skywalker, "Don't get cocky kid!"

Give Those Girls a Raise!: Finally, from People magazine comes the news that Obama gives his daughters, Malia (10) and Sasha (7) a $1 a week allowance. $1??? Come on, Senator, you can do better than that. If you win the race for the presidency -- no, no, no... make that, when you win -- in November, you have got to give those girls a raise. According to People, they do a lot of work around the house (and on the campaign trail, too!).

Hello! Reality check! These days, $1 a week just doesn't cut it. In fact, it hasn't cut it since, oh, 1971. Get with the times!

Monday, July 21, 2008

From the Nixon Files: Nuggets of Wisdom From Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon on Italians: "They're not like us. They smell different, they look different, they act different. The trouble is, you can't find one that's honest."

Richard Nixon, Man of the People: "This would be an easy job if you didn't have to deal with people."

Richard Nixon on Golf: "By the time you get dressed, drive out there, play 18 holes and come home, you've blown seven hours."

Richard Nixon offers Reassuring Words: "Sure there are dishonest men in local government. But there are dishonest men in national government too."

Finally, Pat Nixon on Her Husband's Peculiar Nocturnal Habits: "Nobody could sleep with Dick. He wakes up during the night, switches on the lights, speaks into his tape recorder."

Honoring the Noble Side of America: The New Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond, Virginia

It was thrilling to see the dedication of the new Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond, Virginia, the "Heart of the Confederacy." The statue honors an early and largely forgotten episode in the history of the Civil Rights Movement: A 1951 protest, led by local activist Barbara Johns, against the deplorable conditions in the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. The main goal of the protesters was to push for a new and improved school house. They ended up becoming pioneers in the infancy of the Civil Rights Movement, several years before Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat on a public transit bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Many of the older figures depicted in the statue -- including protest organizer Barbara Johns (who passed away in 1991) -- are now dead. Sadly, they did not live to see the day when a glorious statue honoring their noble work was dedicated on the grounds of the state Capitol, where the Confederate Flag once flapped proudly in the wind.

A great deal has changed since 1951. Now, an African American is the Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States and he stands an excellent chance of winning the election in November. If you could somehow go back to 1951 and tell Barbara Johns or any of the other protest participants that one day, there would be a statue honoring them in the heart of Dixie, or that an African American man would be running for the highest office in the land, or even that black and white kids would one day sit in the same classroom together, they'd probably think you were a foolish, wide-eyed idealist; maybe even a raving nutjob. Back in the dark days before the Civil Rights Movement, virtually nobody -- not even liberals -- envisioned the day when the virulent Jim Crow racism so pervasive across the American South would become a relic of the past.

Most inspiring is how a small group of dedicated Virginians went from door to door, raising money to finance the $2.6 million memorial. This celebration of the Civil Rights Movement was built with private funds, including a generous donations from over 400 groups. Fund raising began in 2005 and continued for the next few years. The end result is a statue depicting 18 heroic men and women -- including young students -- in what sculptor Stanley Bleifeld refers to as a "living memorial." Similar monuments have been built in other key Civil Rights Movement battlegrounds, including Columbia, S.C.; Little Rock, Ark.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Memphis, Tenn. Another memorial will soon go up in Raleigh, N.C. Lisa Collins, former First Lady of the state of Virginia, was one of the leading forces behind raising money to build the statue. One day, several years ago, her young daughter asked why only white men were commemorated on the state Capitol grounds. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement Memorial, that has changed. As Collins put it, "It is a statement of knowing that these African Americans, who happen to be Virginians, at great personal risk brought about sweeping change to our society and legal system."

It's easy to find what's wrong with America. All you have to do is read most of the headlines in the newspaper. Sometimes, it is important to take a moment to find out what's right with America. The country has come a long way. But as Barbara Johns said fifty years ago, "It seems like we were reaching for the moon." It's important to remember that quote. Justice is not guaranteed. It takes brave people -- ordinary people with extraordinary courage, often struggling against enormous odds -- to fight for it. This memorial is a celebration of those people.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Tragic Decline of the Midwest

Republican presidential candidate John McCain (right) was in Michigan today meeting with General Motors CEOs and auto workers. Things are rough in that part of the country. For the past 30, 35 years, we've been hearing tales of the declining "rust belt." By the time Michael Moore made Roger & Me in 1989 -- by far Moore's best film, about the irreverent filmmaker tracking down GM CEO Roger Smith -- it didn't seem like things could get much worse in America's Industrial Heartland. But in 2008 -- not quite 20 years after Roger & Me played in movie theaters across the country -- things are worse. McCain realizes that the "rust belt" region of the Midwest -- especially Michigan and Ohio -- are feeling the pain of America's economic downturn most acutely. That's why he is spending time there and listening to the stories of troubled auto workers.

"We all know in this room a job is more than a job," McCain proclaimed, right in the heart of Auto Country.

But McCain's tough populist talk is often at odds with his unwavering advocacy of free trade, corporate welfare and minimal regulation of industry and environmental laws. Still, the Arizona Republican knows he is lagging behind in the polls in the race against Obama, particularly when it comes to economic issues. That's why this visit to the GM plant at Warren, Michigan, is so important to him. He has to appear sympathetic to the average American worker or he is going to lose much-needed votes to Obama.

By going to Michigan, McCain is right in the center of the sinking "rust belt." Adding to the woes of that region's inhabitants has been the nationwide housing crisis, which has hit that part of the country particularly hard. A recent Reuters article highlighted the terrible housing slump in the Midwest, which shows no signs of recovery anytime soon.

The Reuters article quoted Katherine Porter, associate professor of law at the University of Iowa College of Law as saying, "I expect the hardest hit places to be those such as Ohio and Michigan where the foreclosure crisis was driven by serious, if not permanent, economic downturns." Porter is quite correct in her analysis. Unlike the "Sunbelt states" of the South and Southwest, the "rust belt" is not experiencing steady increases in population growth or migration. The Reuters article also included a telling quote from Andrew Jakabovics of the think tank the Center for American Progress: "The sad truth is that in economically stagnant places, the value of foreclosed properties is often the value of the land less the cost of demolishing the structure."

Hard to believe that less than a half century ago, the troubled spot that McCain is touring was once literally the engine (no pun intended) of economic growth for the nation. The tragic decline of Michigan -- and indeed, the Midwest -- reflects the shifting economic priorities of the last forty years. As the country has moved away from protectionist policies that favored American industry and toward a greater emphasis on free trade, the service sector and high-tech industry, the ailing "rust belt" has become even rustier. And it is difficult to see how McCain's modest proposals -- which include giving a $5,000 tax credit to Americans who buy no-emissions cars -- are going to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Can Rev. Jesse Jackson's credibility be rescued?

In the United States, a lot of commentators, pundits and seasoned political observers have already written Rev. Jesse Jackson's political obituary. Rev. Jackson has apologized repeatedly for remarks he made when he was off the air in a Fox News interview earlier this month about Senator Barack Obama. Jackson, as most of us know by now, said he wanted to "cut off his nuts." It is now known that Jackson remarked, "Barack...he's talking down to black people...telling niggers how to behave."

A short time later came Rev. Jackson's apologies:

I am deeply saddened and distressed by the pain and sorrow that I have caused as a result of my hurtful words. I apologise again to Senator Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, their children as well as to the American public. There really is no justification for my comments and I hope that the Obama family and the American public will forgive me.

Well, that's a start. But Jackson has already used up some of his 9 lives in the political world. In January 1984, he referred to Jews as "Hymies" and New York City as "Hymietown." His critics have also pointed to other, lesser known flubs, strategic mistakes and errors in judgment on his part (too numerous to list here). Which begs the question: Is there any way he can rescue his credibility?

But it is important to remember that, in addition to his notorious blunders, Rev. Jackson has also been at the helm of many great progressive triumphs. His brilliantly organized Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s brought together a number of marginalized groups -- gays and lesbians, veterans, disabled people, working-class families, Native Americans, etc. -- into a massive united front that, if nothing else, showed that progressives were still a force to be reckoned with, even in the Age of Reagan. Jackson rallied this support in his two runs for the presidency, first in 1984, then again, even more impressively, in 1988. His speech at the Democratic National Convention that year was absolutely electrifying -- maybe one of the finest American speeches ever delivered in the final quarter of the Twentieth Century.

Rev. Jackson has said -- and done -- some regrettable things in his political career. It is difficult to forgive or forget his flagrant anti-Semitism from 1984.

And then there was his use of the so-called "N-Bomb" in his rant earlier this month (this is the same Jesse Jackson who condemned comedian Michael Richards for using the N-word two years ago his incendiary, self-destructive stage routine). Equally unsettling was his crass, gangster-like reference to cutting off Obama's testicles. Rapper/actor/director Ice Cube (right) offered some especially insightful comments about Jackson's outburst: “It’s kinda sad, for one thing for a black man to even consider cutting off another black man’s nuts. Especially in a country like America, where that’s happened to us over the years countless and countless times, being sanctioned by the government. It’s kinda sad that he would even think about that. Even though it’s not literal, it’s just as painful.”

It isn't enough to say that Jackson should be careful about these sorts of outbursts in the future. For every one of these crass comments Jackson makes in public -- whether it's about "Hymies" or cutting off someone else's gonads -- you have to wonder how many equally vulgar statements he makes in private, beyond the reach of the microphone. The damage has been done and it can't be undone.

But it would be a shame to allow those comments to take away from the legitimacy of the progressive work that Jackson has done and the noble things he has accomplished. Down the road, historians will likely pass a verdict on Jackson that he was an incredibly complicated man, fraught with contradictions. Compassionate yet judgmental, visionary yet reactionary, bold yet self-destructive, perceptive yet narrow minded. Sadly, many conservative commentators are pointing to Jackson's remarks as proof that old-school Civil Rights leaders who still play the "race card" are merely delusional fools who do not understand that racism is a relic of the past. On the contrary, racism still permeates and plagues so much of American society, despite Obama's grand achievements. That is why Jesse Jackson's ideas -- rooted in the age of Martin Luther King, Jr., yet tempered by the realities of post-Civil Rights America -- are so important in today's dialogue on race relations. Sadly, the more he stumbles like he did earlier this month (and like he did in 1984), the less credibility and weight his vision of social justice carries in the eyes of the American public.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Iraq War Deserters and Canada

On Monday, Canadian authorities deported Robin Long (right), a U.S. Army deserter who left America and came to Canada hoping to escape the horrifying bloodbath that is the Iraq War. Even though a recent poll noted that 3 out 5 Canadians believe the Iraq War deserters should be allowed to stay here, the minority opposed to allowing them to stay is extremely vocal here in Canada. And their main argument is that the United States now has a volunteer, professional military and people like Long volunteered to serve in it (unlike Vietnam War-era resisters who came to Canada, many of whom were evading the draft). I wrote a column about it in the Waterloo Region Record that appeared on Saturday, June 12. For my Tiki Lounge friends, I'm posting the column here, too. I hope you find it interesting.

Accepting U.S. deserters is a small step in the right direction

Should the Canadian government give asylum to American military deserters seeking to escape the Iraq War?

The question has prompted a lively -- sometimes contentious -- debate across Canada. An Angus Reid survey of 1,001 Canadians taken earlier this month shows that three out of five people in this country believe Iraq War military deserters should be allowed to stay in Canada.

In early June, the House of Commons passed a non-binding resolution urging the government to permit the deserters to remain in Canada. Of course, the resolution is not official policy. Rather, it was a symbolic statement intended as a sign of sympathy from antiwar MPs.

Nobody knows exactly how many Iraq War resisters there are in Canada, but estimates vary between 100 and 600. Some American asylum seekers, such as 25-year-old Robin Long, have come perilously close to being returned to the United States by Canadian authorities.

Canadians who support sending the deserters back to the United States argue that, in contrast to the Vietnam War, when tens of thousands of draft evaders sought asylum in Canada, there is no draft in present-day America.

The reasoning goes that the Iraq War deserters flocking to Canada voluntarily enlisted to serve in the U.S. armed forces, unlike the Vietnam War-era Americans who dodged the draft. As Citizenship and Immigrations spokesperson Danielle Norris put it, "Those coming to Canada now volunteered for military service."

But that's a specious argument. During the Vietnam War, when the Selective Service Act (or draft) was in place, young American males had as much of a legal obligation to serve the Vietnam War as today's professional volunteer soldiers have to serve in the Iraq War. If we are examining the issue purely from a legalistic position (as opponents of giving asylum to Iraq War deserters often do), then draft evaders were breaking the law and violating rules in the 1960s every bit as much as Iraq War deserters are doing now.

And the current situation is exacerbated by the "backdoor draft" - the arbitrary extension of military service for thousands of volunteer reservists, often against their will. This problem did not exist in the Vietnam War.

We now know that even before the first American troops were deployed to Iraq, leaders at the highest levels in Washington, including President George W. Bush and former secretary of state Colin Powell, lied repeatedly and flagrantly to the American public (and, indeed, to the rest of the world) about the reasons for intervening in Iraq.

In doing so, they violated the trust of the military personnel serving overseas.

But there is a higher principle at stake. The occupation of Iraq is a catastrophe that is bleeding the nation to death. We will never know the precise Iraqi death toll - estimates have ranged as low as Bush's figure of 30,000 and as high as one million. Whatever figure one accepts, too many Iraqis have died.

Meanwhile, overcrowded refugee camps in neighbouring countries have become massive human rights crises ignored by much of the outside world. The Iraq War has evolved into a lethal combination of civil war and counter-insurgency war, with no end in sight. Iraq needs self-determination and a new Marshall Plan - not continued war -- to bring a halt to its destruction.

Giving asylum to deserters is a small step in the right direction. Canadians assisted runaway slaves in the 19th century and Vietnam War resisters in the 1960s. Today's Iraq War deserters are as deserving of our help as these past victims of misguided policies.

Andrew Hunt is the chair of the department of history at the University of Waterloo.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Odds & Ends: Guns, Dogs & Boycotts!

Welcome to "Odds & Ends," a regular feature of Andrew's Tiki Lounge, bringing you the news of the weird, nutty and downright absurd from North America and, yes, around the world! With no further delay...

From the "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" File: This from United Press International: The Windsor Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma canceled its plans to give away a semiautomatic assault rifle away at a weekend gathering of teenagers. The reason? One of the event's organizers could not make it. The good news: Windsor Hills will resume the contest next year and some lucky teenager will be the proud owner of a sleek little assault rifle. Bob Ross, the church's pastor, assured local news outlets that the church has no interest in "putting a weapon in the hand of somebody that doesn't respect it who are then going to go out and kill."

That puts my mind at ease.

From the "So, what's the interest rate on your dog's credit card?" File: A Lhasa Apso dog belonging to a couple in Sacramento, California, recently received a $142.34 bill from Verizon Online, reports UPI. The dog's owners complained vociferously, insisting their dog did not have a Verizon account. Turns out there was a mix-up at Verizon's billing headquarters. The dog's name is Andy Fanelli. It just so happens there is an Andy Fanelli in some other part of the United States that owes Verizon $142.34. How did Verizon find the address of Andy Fanelli, the dog? Simple: Andy Fanelli's owners applied for -- and received -- an American Express charge card in their dog's name. One of Andy's owners admitted he take friends to lunch "from time to time... on Andy."

My question to the owner is: Does Andy get a doggy bag?

Finally, from the "We Shall Overcome Someday" File: In Gallivare, Sweden, 64-year-old Karl Eric-Borg is launching a boycott against a local supermarket. Why? A cashier in the supermarket refused to sell Borg cigarettes because Borg did not have his identification card to prove he was over 18! In the spirit of the heroic Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950s, Borg has decided to boycott the supermarket for this terrible outrage. Borg issued this impassioned statement: "Seriously, if the cashiers can't tell the difference between an 18-year-old and a pensioner who has served in six U.N. battalions, it's enough to make you wonder if they can even tell the difference between a 500 kronor note ($83) and a 50 ($8)." There is a silver lining to this harrowing story. Borg happened to be with a female friend who had her ID and was able to purchase a pack of Marlboros for him. Also, the ordeal has produced another unexpected result. As Borg announced, "The whole episode has made me so angry that I've decided to quit smoking for good!"

That's stickin' it to the man!

(Sources: United Press International wire service reports.)

From the "Better to Ignore It" File...

The Blogosphere is abuzz with debates about the controversial cover of an upcoming New Yorker magazine (right) depicting Senator Barack Obama as an Islamic terrorist and Michelle Obama as a 1960s-style Black Radical. While some liberals dismissed it as the work of Karl Rove, the artist responsible for the cover, Barry Blitt, is actually sympathetic to Obama and wanted the cover to poke fun at all the outrageous claims of Far Right loonies who wish to discredit the Democratic presidential candidate. As Blitt put it, "I think the idea that the Obamas are branded as unpatriotic [let alone as terrorists] in certain sectors is preposterous. It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is." No surprise: The Obama Campaign saw the image and went ballistic. Campaign spokesman Bill Burton issued a statement: "The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama’s right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree."

One of my favorite political websites, Steve Benen's The Carpetbagger Report, had this to say about the cartoon: "There’s clever, poignant satire, and then there’s ham-fisted, garish satire that’s in poor taste. The New Yorker cover falls comfortably into the latter category." The Carpetbagger Report quotes progressive Canadian Blogger Rachel Sklar as saying:
Presumably the New Yorker readership is sophisticated enough to get the joke, but still: this is going to upset a lot of people, probably for the same reason it’s going to delight a lot of other people, namely those on the right: Because it’s got all the scare tactics and misinformation that has so far been used to derail Barack Obama’s campaign — all in one handy illustration. Anyone who’s tried to paint Obama as a Muslim, anyone who’s tried to portray Michelle as angry or a secret revolutionary out to get Whitey, anyone who has questioned their patriotism — well, here’s your image.
I tend to agree with New Republic Blogger Isaac Chotiner, who insists that Senator Obama would be better off ignoring the cover instead of making an issue out of it. If you don't like the cover -- and most progressive Bloggers have made it abundantly clear they dislike it -- then keep quiet. The more Obama condemns it, the more his right-wing foes are going to use the cover to fuel uncertainties and misconceptions. Blasting the cover -- calling it tasteless, crude, Islamophobic, right-wing, failed satire, etc., etc. -- is only going buttress its street cred among anti-Obama yahoos.

If you don't believe me, look no further than Canada for an important cautionary tale. A while back, the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission against conservative syndicated columnist Mark Steyn (left) for his column in the October 2006 issue of Maclean's magazine titled "The Future Belongs to Islam," which was an excerpt from his book America Alone. Steyn's article claimed that Western society was under the threat of being overrun and taken over by the world's rapidly growing Muslim population. At one point in the article, Steyn quoted a European imam who allegedly said that Muslims are reproducing "like mosquitoes." The CIC's complaint went all the way to the British Columbia Human Rights Commission, which launched a tribunal to investigate whether Steyn's article ought to be considered a violation of the human rights of Canadian Muslims.

It was a terrible move and it backfired. It triggered a firestorm of protest from Canadian civil libertarians across the country (including yours truly), who thought this tribunal threatened to stifle free speech. I fervently defended Mark Steyn in my regular newspaper column, despite the fact I disagreed with his claims. There was a brief show trial out in British Columbia in early June. It was a joke and it was attacked by people around the world as a sham. Luckily, the Canadian Human Rights Commission -- following an outburst of nationwide protest -- dropped the CIC's complaint. But sadly, in the course of the tribunal, Mark Steyn became a hero of "free speech," and untold numbers of readers who would have otherwise ignored his column in Maclean's were instantly drawn to it.

There is something about "taboo," "politically incorrect" topics that atrract people like magnets. While there are no Human Rights Commissions in the United States like the ones in Canada, the same general principle in the Maclean's/Steyn case applies to the case of the New Yorker Obama magazine cover. The moral of the story is: Let sleeping dogs lie. Leave it alone. Ignore it. If you ignore it, it will go away. Make a big deal out of it and your foes will know where your vulnerable spot is located and they will hit you hard there. That is the nature of politics. It was like that long before you or I came along.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Roswell Update

This bit of encouraging news comes from the Las Cruces (New Mexico) Sun-News:
Roswell UFO Festival Attendance Increases

The Associated Press

ROSWELL, N.M.—International UFO Museum and Research Center officials say attendance at Roswell's annual UFO festival jumped more than 25 percent this year.

The museum's executive director, Julie Shuster, says 7,216 people attended lectures, workshops, celebrity appearances and other events Thursday through Sunday.

She says she would have been happy if last year's attendance total had been met, especially with the economy the way it is and with gasoline prices rising.

The annual festival marks the anniversary of the Roswell Incident, a purported UFO crash on a nearby ranch in July 1947. The military later said it was a top-secret weather balloon.

At this rate, America might have its first Extra-Terrestrial President in another fifty years.

"Joseph Never Came Home"

The iconic Iraq War photograph of Private Joseph Patrick Dwyer carrying an Iraqi child to safety (above) was used repeatedly by the war's apologists to justify the intervention in Iraq. On June 28, 2008, police found Dwyer dead in his Pinehurst, N.C., home as a result of sniffing an aerosol cleaner. This was not the first time Dwyer had abused the aerosol. Until the day he died, he suffered from a sleeping disorder as a result of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) he brought home with him from war-torn Iraq. The aerosol relaxed him. It gave him relief. That is, until June 28, when it finally destroyed him.

The death of Dwyer at age 31 brought a tragic end to a tormented soul. For years, the veteran had been plagued by insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, nervous stress and explosive temper outbursts. People who knew him said that he came back from Iraq a shell of his former self. As his mother, Maureen Dwyer, pointed out: "He loved the picture, don’t get me wrong, but he just couldn’t get over the war. He wasn’t Joseph any more. Joseph never came home."

Dwyer, like countless other Iraq and Afghanistan War vets, did not receive the treatment he so desperately needed. While the Bush administration and Congress pump billions -- ultimately, trillions -- of dollars into a war that is destroying one nation, they ignore the needs of the men and women who put their lives on the line overseas after they come home. America's soldiers risked everything for one simple reason: Because they loved their country. And after serving, so many of them have been ignored, marginalized and put out to pasture.

Dwyer was yet another veteran who was given the shaft by his government. Worse yet, he lived in agony until the day he died. His father, Patrick, said, "He went away to in-patient treatments. None of it worked. And the problem is there are not adequate resources for post-traumatic stress syndrome."

In the end, Patrick and Maureen Dwyer are two more parents who will never see their beloved child again as a result of this most horrible of wars.

True patriotism should be about more than just regurgitating buzzwords like "freedom" and "democracy" and wearing Old Glory lapel pins. It ought to be about caring for the weakest, most vulnerable members of society. The best place to start is with the tens of thousands of veterans who struggle every day with mental health issues, financial challenges and readjusting to American society. Too often in history, America's veterans have been shamefully discarded by the very same politicians who talk the loudest about "freedom" and "democracy." If more Americans awaken to this reality and kick these crooked warmongers out of office, then maybe Private Joseph Dwyer -- an American hero and a victim of his government's misguided policies -- did not die in vain.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Reflections on the Roswell UFO Incident -- 61 Years Later

Dear Tiki Lounge Blog Pals,

Last year about this time, I wrote a column for the Waterloo Region Record (you may recall that in an earlier Blog I mentioned I'm a regular Record columnist) about the 60th Anniversary of the alleged Roswell UFO Incident. It turns out that I scrapped the column and wrote something else instead (I can't remember why I decided not to run it -- maybe I thought readers would think I was a crackpot if I weighed in on the Roswell UFO Incident.) At any rate, I re-read the column the other day -- it being the 61st Anniversary of the UFO Incident and all (I know 61st does not carry the same well-rounded meaning as 60th, but hey, go easy on me). I know this sounds self-promoting and self-congratulatory, but liked the column and I regret not running it. Oh well. What better place to put it than Andrew's Tiki Lounge? I hope you enjoy it!


Above: Roswell alien autopsy film.

Sixty years ago, something happened in a lonely stretch of desert near Roswell, New Mexico. Even though nobody knows exactly what happened to this day, a legend was born.

Since then, Roswell has become a household word. The so-called Roswell UFO Incident continues to stir the imaginations of millions of people worldwide. It has become a staple of modern popular culture. Countless books and numerous feature films, documentaries and television shows have focused on the alleged UFO crash that occurred sixty years ago. And the legend shows no signs of fading away.

As a general rule, academics are loathe to comment on the incident. For the most part, they’ve consigned it to the realm of supermarket tabloid sensationalism. Yet the mystery of what happened in the New Mexico desert remains potent, still prompting widespread curiosity and speculation.

The legend of Roswell began sixty years ago, when W.W. “Mack” Brazel, a ranch foreman in rural New Mexico, went out to check on some sheep following an intense thunderstorm and found metallic debris scattered across the landscape. Word of the discovery quickly reached the authorities at the Roswell Army Air Field, and within days, the normally quiet ranch near Roswell was crawling with military personnel.

On July 7, 1947, Brazel went on a local radio and told an interviewer about finding “little bodies.” Coincidentally, the Roswell Army Air Field released a statement that it had found pieces of a “crashed disc” (pictured right) at the ranch outside of Roswell. The revelations caused quite a stir. By July 8, newspaper headlines across the country told of a crashed “flying saucer.”

The drama proved short-lived, though. Within days, the Army revised its story. The debris came from a downed weather balloon, insisted top Army brass at a press conference. The dramatic newspaper headlines abruptly ceased. The story faded. People stopped talking about crashed “flying saucers” and moved on. And for more than thirty years, the Roswell UFO Incident was largely forgotten.

The legend of Roswell was reborn – with a vengeance – in 1980, with the publication of Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore’s bestselling account, The Roswell Incident. Over the past 25 years, the Roswell incident has gone from being a forgotten occurrence to a worldwide phenomenon. Larry King, the late Peter Jennings, and many other television news personalities have hosted specials on the incident. Living witnesses told of seeing alien bodies and strange, metallic debris with hieroglyphic-like symbols on it.

Before long, the word “Roswell” became shorthand for a sinister government conspiracy. Reflecting post-Watergate sensibilities, stories soon spread of federal agents orchestrating a massive cover-up. The Air Force fanned the flames when it reiterated in 1994 that the UFO crash site debris came from a weather balloon, and the “alien bodies” were actually “anthropomorphic dummies” placed inside the balloons for testing purposes.

The Roswell Incident has also found a prominent spot in pop culture. The 1996 blockbuster Independence Day referred to it repeatedly. The cult television hit X-Files contained Roswell-related plotlines. When Fox television aired grainy, black-and-white footage allegedly showing a Roswell alien autopsy (pictured above), it proved to be a ratings bonanza for the network. The short-lived 1996-97 NBC series Dark Skies upped the ante, linking John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 to the Roswell aliens.

The city of Roswell (dubbed “the Alien Capitol of the World”) has successfully capitalized on the craze. Tourists from around the world flock to Roswell in droves, filling the local hotels. Sixtieth anniversary celebrations are already underway. A carnival-like atmosphere pervades the community, as alien-themed museums, hotels, bookstores, gift shops and restaurants thrive along the main drags.

“Little green men” are everywhere, including towering inflatable aliens at car lots, waving greeters in alien costumes, and toy aliens sold by street vendors. Each year, geeky UFO researchers invade the city to butt heads, holding roundtable discussions and attacking each other’s research and conclusions. In 2010, a multimillion dollar, alien-themed amusement park will open in the town.

The actual Roswell UFO Incident remains shrouded in mystery. We’ll never know what happened sixty years ago. But the lasting popularity of the legend highlights some important truths about contemporary society.

It’s no surprise that Roswell went from being a forgotten episode to occupying a central place in the popular imagination. It is really a tale for our times, more so than it was at the onset of the Cold War, when it actually happened. Roswell’s continuing international appeal points to a deeper, collective yearning by people around the world to find out whether we share the universe with life forms on other planets.

But there’s also a dark side to the tale. Stories of a government cover-up, of alien bodies being whisked away to secret locations and dissected, and of malevolent government agents in suits intimidating eyewitnesses, are also key elements of the narrative. If the enduring Roswell story underscores a widespread hunger to know what else lurks in the heavens, it also highlights a pervasive lack of faith in governing institutions to help solve this most profound of riddles.

Andrew Hunt is the Chair of the Department of History at the
University of Waterloo.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Re-creating 68? The Democratic Convention Then and Now

Protesters are gearing up for the Democratic National Convention in Denver next month. Email lists are busier than ever. Activist bloggers are weighing in. Indymedia outlets regularly issue updates about upcoming plans. A number of protest groups have formed a coalition called "Re-create 68" to protest at the Convention (the name refers to the upheavals at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago 40 years ago). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is objecting that the protesters will be confined to an area 700 feet from the Pepsi Center (where the convention will be held). As ACLU attorneys noted, "No human voice, or any other sound . . . can ever hope to reach a person at the entrance." Adding to the drama is a split within Re-create 68, which has led to the birth of yet another protest organization, this one called the Alliance for Real Democracy, a coalition of some 12 groups of mostly 20 and 30something activists. This splinter group, according to the Rocky Mountain News, "promises free concerts, art displays, classes for activists and a "massive" anti-war march during this summer's Democratic National Convention." All over, activists are girding for the protests.

In more ways than one, the upcoming protests are starting to resemble the upheavals of '68. Like the demonstrations four decades ago, today's militant activists are already confronting naysayers and critics. Commenting on Re-create 68, conservative Denver columnist and radio host Mike Rosen noted, "Glen Spagnuolo, Marxist revolutionary-in-chief, describes his group as representing minorities, anarchists, communists, socialists and radicals. He expects 25,000 people from across the country to join his Denver protest. So what? Whom do they represent? And why should anyone else care? Do the math: Twenty-five thousand people out of a population of more than 300 million is eight one-thousandths of 1 percent. That's less than one person out of 10,000 in the country. Even if it were a hundred times that number, what would it matter?"

Meantime, the Denver police are gearing up for action. Last month, you may recall, the Denver PD ordered 88 Mark IV launchers, "a less-lethal" weapon that fires a pepper spray-type substance. There are even rumors among activists that the powers-that-be will unleash a weapon -- according to Fox News reports (so you know it's trustworthy) -- that relies on "infrasound frequency that debilitates a person by making them defecate involuntarily."

Activists who insist on "Re-creating 68" ought to study the events of 1968 carefully. Times have changed. A lot. For one thing, the Vietnam War -- while supported by hawkish Republicans -- was really the creation of Cold War Liberals in the Democratic Party. So in 1968, militant street protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago made a great deal of sense.

Above: Chicago 1968.

Forty years later, in our post-Cold War, post-9/11 world, the chief architects of the dismal Iraq War are Republicans -- especially neocons. To be certain, there will be protests at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul on September 1-4. But the more ambitious and militant protests are being planned for the Democratic convention. This is definitely a repeat of '68, when demonstrations were much larger and more dramatic at the Democratic National Convention than its Republican counterpart (who even remembers the '68 Republican Convention protests? -- they were pretty minuscule). Forty years ago, activists believed it was more important to target Democrats because Republicans were more set in their ways politically, less willing to change.

You see some of that same line of thinking at work today. Some of the protest organizations demonstrating in the streets of Denver next month will be pro-Barack Obama groups. But there are also some hardcore shit disturbers who are working to trigger dramatic clashes with authorities. The folks in this uber-militant wing are the ones who should be studying the events of 1968 more carefully. Violent street clashes between police and demonstrators during the Chicago convention (which, in fairness, were mostly the fault of the police -- although they were sometimes exacerbated by over-the-top protesters) only served to alienate the American public from protest.

Times have changed since 1968. Police brutality -- while still a problem -- has decreased significantly over the decades. More importantly, in today's America, dissent is not necessarily seen as a bad thing (as much as it was in 1968). According to a USA Today poll taken earlier this month, "Protesting U.S. policies you oppose is also patriotic, according to two-thirds of those polled."

Above: Chicago 1968 (again).

There is still the same sense of urgency today as there was in '68. The Iraq War has been horrifying in its sheer destructiveness and Washington shows no signs of ending the occupation anytime soon. So we need voices of protest. But the upheavals of '68 teach us that street violence is not only abhorrent, it's impractical. It slows down the pace of change. It turns public opinion against protest. That's why undercover FBI agents who infiltrated the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War encouraged activists to embrace extremist violent tactics. They knew bloodshed in the streets would only hinder -- not advance -- the cause of change.

Before activists attempt to "Re-create 68," they first need to find out what about that period is worth preserving and what ought to be discarded.

Above: My sentiments exactly! A protester in 2007.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

From the Nixon Files: Dick Nixon, Fashionista!

From the White House Tapes (May 13, 1971) -- we join a conversation between John Ehrlichman and President Richard Nixon on the latest fashion trends:

NIXON: You know one of the reasons fashions have made women look so terrible is because the goddamned designers hate women. Designers taking it out on the women. Now they're trying to get some more sexy things coming on again.

EHRLICHMAN: Hot pants!

NIXON: Jesus Christ!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Saluting a Rocker with Guts

Neil Young (left) is at it again. The Canadian-born rocker has never been afraid of controversy. Ever since the Vietnam War, he has used his music to protest injustices in American society. Now he will be the star of a new documentary. The film will chronicle his "Freedom of Speech Tour," in which he sang mainly antiwar songs on stages across America. The cameras followed 62-year-old young, along with fellow performers Crosby, Stills and Nash, from city to city, capturing his performances on film. Many of his songs lacked subtlety. For instance, there is no mistaking what his tune "Let's Impeach the President" is about. No hidden meanings, no veiled messages, no concealed subtexts. This is tough, fighting, edgy political music, as only Young can deliver. Along the way, the energetic performer encountered a number of angry folks who were in the audience. A female fan -- now maybe an ex-fan -- declared, "Neil Young can stick it up his ass" after one of his performances. "Sonofabitch — I’d like to knock his teeth out," said another.

But Young is fearless. He is also insisting that all sides of the often contentious debate over the Iraq War be included in the documentary. As Young put it, "It’s important to have the other side. Plus, those people were part of the story, so why leave them out? We decided to have an embedded correspondent documenting the tour like he was documenting a war."

Young has no illusions that the film will set box office records. This is no Iron Man. He told a reporter, "I mean, let’s be realistic: it’s a film about war and a bunch of old hippies, so that’s the way the public will view it. We spent a lot of time on it, and it means a lot to us, but in the overall scope of things . . . it has a moment, and this moment is coming up, and after that it’ll be a DVD, then it’ll be gone. It’ll be a piece of history."

So here's an Andrew's Tiki Lounge Salute to Neil Young. After all these years, he's still going at it, hammering away at the powers that be, full of piss and vinegar and not afraid to speak his mind.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Birthday, America!: Cool Factoids About the July 4 Holiday

Those of us who love America -- and I count myself solidly in this category -- rejoice every time the Fourth of July rolls around. It's a time to celebrate the democratic experiment known as the United States. I have lots of nostalgic memories of July 4 celebrations: the fireworks shows and flags, the barbecues and parades.

There are some cool factoids about the Fourth of July that are worth highlighting on this Blog. You may already know some of them, but please bear with me. A holiday this important deserves a special tribute. So with no further delay...

-- 232 years ago today, the Second Continental Congress approved of the Declaration of Independence, which was first revealed to the public two days earlier in Philadelphia.

-- Although a huge holiday in America, the Fourth of July was not officially a paid holiday for federal employees until 1941.

-- Thomas Jefferson and John Adams -- two of the most important figures in the birth of America -- died on the same day: July 4, 1826 -- fifty years to the day after the Continental Congress approved of the Declaration of Independence. (Cue the Twilight Zone music...)

-- At the time the Declaration of Independence was approved, 2.5 million people lived in the colonies.

The Fourth of July has always meant different things to different people. On July 5, 1852, the abolitionist, human rights activist and ex-slave Frederick Douglass delivered an important speech in Rochester, New York, where he commented on the meaning of the holiday to slaves:
What to the American slave is your Fourth of July I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy's thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.
-- Even though Independence Day is celebrated on July 4, the first person to actually sign the Declaration of Independence was John Hancock (whose signature is the most famous thing about him) on August 2, 1776. The last person to sign it did so in November.

-- Thomas Jefferson (my ultimate hero) tried to insert an anti-slavery passage into the Declaration of Independence, but his efforts were met with intense resistance. As
Ronald Hoffman, director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, noted: "Jefferson’s original draft included a strong condemnation of slavery and the slave trade. The southern delegation wouldn’t go along with it, so Jefferson backed off and allowed it to be removed.”

-- Founding father John Adams predicted that July 2 -- not July 4 -- would become America's independence day. His reason for arriving at this conclusion had to do with the Second Continental Congress approving a piece of legislation calling for independence on July 2. In an enthusiastic letter, John wrote to his wife Abigail:
The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfire and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
The dude was only two days off. Cut him some slack.

-- The first fireworks ban occurred in 1731 in the colony of Rhode Island, which outlawed "mischievous use of fireworks." Today, many states ban most types of fireworks, especially in the West, where wildfires are raging out of control. In Pacifica, California, Police Chief Dave Bertini pointed out, "We have signs in almost every business. We have lawn signs. We have two electronic signs at both ends of the town that say '$1,000 fine for illegal fireworks.'"

-- First Fourth of July celebration to include fireworks shows: July 4, 1777.

-- Out With a Bang: In February 2008, Mr. Meredith Smith of Indianapolis died at age 74. He was a beloved member of the community who orchestrated the local fireworks show for more than thirty years. To honor him, some of his ashes are going to be mixed with a firework that will burst in the sky as part of the big grand finale. It seems like a fitting farewell.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Remembering the Sixties

I admit, I'm a hypocrite. Yesterday, I said that humanitarians/progressives/lefties should exercise caution when criticizing Barack Obama during the presidential race. Now I'm going to criticize him. But this is meant to be constructive. The guy still has my vote.

The ghosts of the Sixties will not leave Obama alone. In his recent speech on patriotism, the Democratic presidential candidate discussed the culture wars and the polarized climate that birthed them in the 1960s. Here's an excerpt:
What is striking about today's patriotism debate is the degree to which it remains rooted in the culture wars of the 1960s--in arguments that go back 40 years or more. In the early years of the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War, defenders of the status quo often accused anybody who questioned the wisdom of government policies of being unpatriotic. Meanwhile, some of those in the so-called counterculture of the '60s reacted not merely by criticizing particular government policies, but by attacking the symbols, and in extreme cases, the very idea, of America itself--by burning flags; by blaming America for all that was wrong with the world; and perhaps most tragically, by failing to honor those veterans coming home from Vietnam, something that remains a national shame to this day.
Sadly, in his otherwise eloquent commentary on the beauty of patriotism, Obama accepted many of the most odious right-wing stereotypes about the 1960s. His purpose here is obvious: To distance himself from Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers, who, along with Obama, was a member of the board of directors of the Woods Fund of Chicago (the story, incidentally, was first brought to the attention of the world by Peter Hitchens, the conservative brother of fiery contrarian columnist Christopher Hitchens, in February).

There is no need for Obama to continue distancing himself from Ayers. Obama's spokesman, Bill Burton, issued a statement a few months back (when the story about the Ayers-Obama connection first broke) pointing out the fact that Ayers a) didn't kill anybody; b) has been a professor of education for years at the University of Illinois; c) and has worked as an aide to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. The statement concluded:
Senator Obama strongly condemns the violent actions of the Weathermen group, as he does all acts of violence. But he was an eight-year-old child when Ayers and the Weathermen were active, and any attempt to connect Obama with events of almost forty years ago is ridiculous.
It was an eloquent statement and it should have been the last word on the Obama-Ayers link.

As for the 1960s, it is time to start shooting down some of the false myths perpetuated by the Right. The fact is, flag burners were a tiny minority of protesters in the 1960s and many of them were actually agents provocateurs on the payroll of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Sixties was a polarized time in American history and it did produce extremists who advocated violence.

However, the overwhelming majority of protesters were both nonviolent and motivated by a deep love of their country -- whether they were part of the Civil Rights Movement, the Antiwar Movement, the Gay and Lesbian Liberation Struggle, Chicano Rights, Feminism, Environmentalism, etc.

It is also important to remember what a profoundly destructive war they were protesting. The Vietnam War was laying waste to all of Southeast Asia, leaving millions dead, forests wilting under defoliation, bomb craters and unexploded munitions all across the countryside, and paving the way for the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge.

Most antiwar activists -- and a significant number of them were antiwar Vietnam Veterans, as I point out in my book The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War -- opposed the war out of a deep love of their country. The easy way out for them would have been to reject politics, stay at home and watch their nation implode. But they took the difficult approach: They loved their nation enough to protest injustice.

I salute Obama for saying that only "some of those in the so-called counterculture" resorted to such extreme tactics as flag burning and "failing to honor" Vietnam Veterans. Yet he also should have mentioned that the worst dishonor to Vietnam veterans came from the horrendous treatment they endured from their own government. And the very same conditions that so many Vietnam veterans encountered in the 1960s and 1970s are still evident in America today, this time contributing to a declining quality of life for Iraq War and Afghanistan War vets when they return to America.

Not long ago, I posted a moving video on the Tiki Lounge from Ron Kovic, the heroic Vietnam veteran who came home and opposed the Vietnam War. It is worth quoting his words again:
How can you send young men like myself and those of this generation to Vietnam and to Iraq? How can you send them and spend billions of dollars on a war that is lost, a war that cannot be won? A senseless war. A wasteful war. How can you do that? How can you put their lives at risk? How can you put them through that emotional trauma and not care for them when they come home? This is- this is unacceptable. I love this country. I was willing to risk my life. I gave three-quarters of my body to this country in Vietnam. And I'm watching this same thing happen all over again. What is it gonna take? How many more have to die? How many more have to come home wounded and maimed like myself?
Barack Obama should be sure to remember that truly great Americans -- real patriots -- such as Kovic, Martin Luther King, Jr., César Chávez, Gloria Steinem, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Mario Savio, Joan Baez, the Berrigan Brothers and William Sloane Coffin had a much bigger impact on the movement against the Vietnam War than misguided young militants whose acts of resistance included flag burning and extreme, over-the-top, anti-authoritarian rhetoric.

Today's right-wing myths about the Sixties present a distorted view of the period. Yes, it was a painful time in American history. But the United States emerged from that decade a freer, nobler and more open place than it had been ten years earlier.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Did Obama Gravitate to the Center?

Less controversial than Retired Army General Wesley Clark's comments about Senator John McCain's military service -- but every bit as important -- is the current debate about whether Senator Barack Obama has moved to the political "center" in the aftermath of the highly contentious primaries. And you guessed it, Blog Pals. Yours truly is prepared to weigh in.

"I've been struck by the speed and decisiveness of his move to the center," observed Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute. In his June 30 New York Times column titled "The Obama Agenda," liberal economist Paul Krugman wrote, "It’s feeling a lot like 1992 right now. It’s also feeling a lot like 1980. But which parallel is closer? Is Barack Obama going to be a Ronald Reagan of the left, a president who fundamentally changes the country’s direction? Or will he be just another Bill Clinton?" Meantime, Michael Gerson's Washington Post column on Obama's move to the center featured the headline, "The Audacity of Cynicism." "Obama Turns Centrist," said the headline of Ruth Conniff's column in the Progressive magazine. In her commentary titled "Memo to Obama: The Center is for Losers," Arianna Huffington wrote:

As part of this process, I looked at the Obama campaign not through the prism of my own progressive views and beliefs but through the prism of a cold-eyed campaign strategist who has no principles except winning. From that point of view, and taking nothing else into consideration, I can unequivocally say: the Obama campaign is making a very serious mistake. Tacking to the center is a losing strategy. And don’t let the latest head-to-head poll numbers lull you the way they lulled Hillary Clinton in December. Running to the middle in an attempt to attract undecided swing voters didn’t work for Al Gore in 2000. It didn’t work for John Kerry in 2004. And it didn’t work when Mark Penn (obsessed with his “microtrends” and missing the megatrend) convinced Hillary Clinton to do it in 2008.

I could go on with countless other examples of commentaries about Obama moving to the comfy middle of the road. Many -- but not all -- of them come from progressives and lefties who worry that Obama is jettisoning his progressive views to win support from centrists. The strategy, they say, backfired for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. By contrast, Obama triumphed in the primaries, they insist, because he was decidedly progressive in his positions.

Movement is all relative, I suppose. For the longest time, I was a John Edwards (right) supporter. Now there is a genuine progressive -- in the fighting, populist Robert La Follette/Paul Wellstone tradition. I admit, I was a Johnny-come-lately to the Obama cause. In fact, after Edwards dropped out of the race, I was depressed for two weeks. My loved ones and friends were starting to wonder what the hell was wrong with me.

It took me a while to throw my support behind Obama. You may recall that during the primaries, an awful lot of folks -- including many who are now lamenting Obama's post-primaries drift to the center -- expressed concerns about his vague positions. They agreed that Obama could deliver a hell of a speech, but he was short on specifics. Author, film professor and screenwriter Trey Ellis commented about his reluctance to support Obama during the primaries: "I didn't find his positions, especially on universal health care, as progressive as I would have wished. Both he and Hillary seemed very much of the DLC centrist mold despite calling themselves progressives." Ellis suggests that Obama was always a centrist candidate on a host of issues, but the candidate also took some bold and humane stands, especially on the Iraq War. Ellis concludes with this parting shot: "Obama's strength isn't his slavish adherence to party line but his ability, issue by issue, to decide the right medicine at the right moment. If that makes you call him a centrist then so be it. Get over it already. He's nobody's man but his own."

I agree with Ellis. I think Obama is walking a tightrope, carefully juggling progressive ideas and centrist pragmatism. It's a difficult balancing act, but so far, he has pulled it off and maintained his freshness and credibility. In fact, he's so good at it, he makes it look downright easy. I'm not saying for a minute that progressives/liberals/lefties/dissenters/nonconformists (or whatever your chosen label might be) should refrain from criticizing Obama. Throughout the campaign, he has taken serious missteps and embraced dubious positions. And from time to time, he needs to feel pressure from principled people to put him back on the right track.

But I also think commentators on the left side of the spectrum have a responsibility to circle the wagons around Obama and keep their criticisms constructive. Too many folks on the Left have, for too long, viewed even reasonable compromise as a sin and they've aimed for a level of moral purity that simply does not exist in the charged and brutal world of American politics. As a third party supporter in my youth, I used to be one of those purists -- always attacking the notion that voters should support Democrats simply because they were the "lesser of two evils." Back in those days, I agreed with Michael Moore that American politics was a contest between the "evil of two lessers."

I have left my dogmatic moral purity behind with my youth, though, especially after I've seen what two terms of George W. Bush has done to America. Whatever you may think of Bill Clinton (and a quick perusal of my earlier Blog entires will show that I can be a pretty hard on Old Bubba), he was light years better than Dubya. Light years. My bottom line is: Goal No. 1: Get Obama in the White House. Goal No. 2: At that point, turn up the heat and keep the pressure on from the progressive side of the fence.

McCain, Obama, War and Patriotism

It has been a hectic last week on the campaign trail. The nationwide buzz from the highly publicized "United Front" demonstrated by Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama proved short-lived, knocked off the perch by Retired Army General Wesley Clark's (above) comments about Senator John McCain's military service over the weekend on CBS' Face the Nation. When host Bob Schieffer raised the issue of Obama's lack of military service, Clark said, "Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president."

Clark clarified his remarks the following day on Good Morning America: "As a retired serviceman, someone who came home from Vietnam on a stretcher, someone who spent 38 years in uniform, someone who’s worked his way up through the ranks of the United States Armed Forces, I would never discredit anyone who chose to wear the uniform. I fully respect John McCain and his service, and I’ve said so repeatedly. My point is that there’s a difference in preparing yourself for the highest office in the land. … John McCain as a young officer demonstrated courage and character. But the service as president is about judgment. And the experience that he had as a fighter pilot isn’t the same as having been at the highest levels of the military."

On Monday, the day after Clark's comments caused so much commotion from coast to coast, Obama apparently thought the time was right to deliver a speech on patriotism, in which he emphasized his deep love of America. "Throughout my life, I have always taken my deep and abiding love for this country as a given. It was how I was raised. It was what propelled me into public service. It is why I am running for president. And yet at times over the last 16 months, my patriotism has been challenged -- at times as a result of my own carelessness, more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears about who I am and what I stand for."

The McCain campaign, meantime, has been denouncing Clark and insisting that if Obama really respected McCain's service to his nation and the five and a half years he spent as a POW in North Vietnam, then Obama would cut all ties to Clark.

It would be a foolish move for Obama to cut ties to Clark. Instead, Obama did the wise thing by re-stating his commitment to patriotism. The man has his finger on the pulse of the nation. He understands that there are a number of people across the nation who question his love of America, especially white, working-class voters. And Obama's speech recast patriotism as more than just a connection to a particular country or people, but also a love of ideals. As Obama put it: "That is why for me, patriotism is always more than just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people. Instead, it's also loyalty to America's ideals, ideals for which anyone can sacrifice, or defend, or give their last full measure of devotion."

The controversy caused by Clark's remarks will soon pass. Liberal Bloggers have been rejoicing that a high-level Democrat finally had the courage to question McCain's insistence that his military service helps qualify him for the presidency. But -- as well-intentioned liberals often do -- they're missing the bigger picture. The Vietnam War was a catastrophe that laid waste to much of Southeast Asia, leaving millions dead and the landscape scarred by defoliants and bomb craters. But we don't need another debate on Vietnam in this campaign, because -- as was the case with the Swift Boat Smears in 2004 -- such debates are counterproductive and always focus on the wrong issues. Obama needs to keep discussing the economy, the Iraq War (which is slowly bleeding to death another nation in a different part of the world) and the declining quality of life for ordinary Americans after eight years of George W. Bush. For too long, Republicans have been dictating the terms of political debates. It is time for Obama to set the rules, to call the shots, and to determine which issues are of utmost importance. Let historians debate the 1960s and the Vietnam War. Obama needs to get into the White House. He needs Wesley Clark to get there. And he needs to keep hammering today's -- not yesterday's -- issues home.