Race in Massachusetts

Who knew that the Massachusetts race for the United States Senate – and maybe for Democratic control of the entire Senate – would come down to race?  When I wrote about this last May I thought this was a one-off remark and since it didn’t move the polls, I figured the whole thing would die.  A lot of people who are part Cherokee didn’t register for many reasons including fear of being targeted if they were open about Native American ancestry.

But now Scott Brown has made Elizabeth Warren’s race the centerpiece of  his campaign.  He has decided that the path to re-election is to question Warren’s family heritage.  He has not produced any proof that her having “checked the box” made any difference in her tenure at Harvard Law School.  On the other hand, Warren has produced people, including Republican Charles Fried, to say either they didn’t know or if they did it made no difference.  Where’s the beef, Senator Brown?

After her initial fumbles at a response, Warren has settled on a great answer and produced a good response advertisement.  But this is not the end for Scott Brown.  This is the opening of this mornings Boston Globe story

In a tough new ad and in his attacks at last week’s debate, Senator Scott Brown has stoked questions about ­Elizabeth Warren’s professed Native American ancestry. But the difficulty of seizing on the controversy without crossing into uncomfortable racial territory became apparent Tuesday with the release of a video showing Republican staff members, including an aide in Brown’s Senate office, performing tomahawk chops and war whoops outside one of his campaign events.

Brown said such behavior is “not something I condone,” but declined to apologize.

“The apologies that need to be made and the offensiveness here is the fact that Professor Warren took advantage of a claim, to be somebody, a Native American, and used that for an advantage, a tactical advantage,” Brown said.

Does he really think this is going to get him re-elected?

Race is a difficult construct and, no, Elizabeth Warren’s family never registered to be members of a tribe.  On the other hand, one cannot simply look at someone’s physical characteristics and say she is obviously no a person of color as Brown did when he opened the last debate.  Melissa Harris-Perry talked about this the other night on the Rachel Maddow Show.

But I actually think that what we need in part is a conversation about what race is.  Race is a social construct, not a biological reality.  So, you know, when we think about blackness, which is the one most can put their finger on, yes, most Americans think they can tell a black person when they see one based on hair texture or how broad your nose is, or how brown your skin is.  But in fact, there`s no clear distinct line that makes one black or outside of black or inside of indigenous identity or outside of it.

It’s not our blood that makes us those things.  It’s our social constructs.   —MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry on Scott Brown’s peculiar racial attack on Elizabeth Warren

Brian McGrory is not quite calling the election yet, but his column in today’s Globe is not kind to Senator Brown.

Go ahead and stick a fork in the image — or, more ­accurately, the illusion — of Scott Brown as the affable everyman, the consummate good guy who folds laundry before pointing his pickup toward the docks to shoot the breeze with his fishermen friends.

It took him less than 30 seconds at last week’s debate to try and claw the eyes out of his opponent by questioning her character, honor, and truthfulness. He summoned the press corps he generally disdains to his office the following morning to distort ­Elizabeth Warren’s work on an asbestos case. He released his first negative ad on statewide TV Monday. His daily schedule on Tuesday included the line that he was “available to the media to address today’s revelation that Professor Warren worked on behalf of LTV Steel Company.”

And then, of course, there are his idiotic underlings filmed making tomahawk chops and reciting ridiculous Indian chants at a Dorchester rally. Nice.

It brings new meaning to being a Scott Brown Republican.

Boston is atwitter with half-cocked pundits wondering whether Brown is taking too big a risk by going too negative too soon. Here’s what they’ve got wrong: It may not be a strategy. It’s probably just who he is. When things went well, when he glided into the Senate on the wings of a short campaign and a hapless opponent, Scott Brown was as charming as they come.

McGrory concludes

I’ll say again what I’ve written before: Campaigns are long for a reason. In this case, Brown isn’t wearing well with time. So much of it comes down to whether ­Warren can rise to the moment, whether she can lift herself above an increasingly ugly fray.

The Mayor with Warren

There are a lot of serious issues to talk about and Scott Brown picks Elizabeth Warren’s heritage?  Give me a break.  Let me end with a quote from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston, who threw his valuable political support to Ms. Warren last week, said in an interview on Monday, “When candidates go negative, it means they have nothing to talk about.”

He continued: “Education, public safety, jobs, housing — my God, he won’t talk about any of it. He voted against a jobs extension bill three times.”

Photograph Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Tony Kushner accepts a Puffin

Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, was awarded The Nation Institute Puffin/Nation prize for creative citizenship on December 5, 2011.  He won the Pulitzer for “Angels in America” in 1993.  Last June Kushner was first awarded, then not awarded and finally awarded a honorary degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, part of the City University of New York System.   The controversy centered on Kushner’s alleged failure to support Israel.  The process of being chosen for the Puffin had a lot less drama , but his acceptance speech had it all:  drama, humor and a call to citizenship.  Published in the Nation, it is well worth reading or viewing.

So what is citizenship?  Kushner defines it this way

…the whole point of citizenship is that one admits to a personal stake, and to the potential derivation of benefit, in giving to and sacrificing for the community. One recognizes one’s self in the community, one identifies an important part of the self, a part that deserves tending and nurturing and attention, even therapeutic attention, as much as does the selfish self, which of course receives infinite attention, tending, caring, nurturance. When we step into our citizen selves, we step into that part of our lives, our souls, that exists only in relationship to others. As a citizen, one occupies that part of one’s life, soul, self that is at least as communal, collective, social and contractual as it is monadic, individual, replete.

Citizenship, in other words, is not simply a duty, though of course it is that, nor is it merely a privilege, though it’s that too. It’s a blessing, by which I guess I mean that there is beauty, grace, magic, charisma, charm in citizenship; it’s a gift handed down to us from generations of forebears who thought and fought and struggled and died to create this thing we inherit and advance, this recent, numinous evolutionary phase of humanity.

Kushner, who is working a film about Abraham Lincoln, continues

…Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the better part of five years trying to make up a plausible version of Abraham Lincoln, that utterly implausible man. Maybe because of the time I’ve spent with his words and his life and the inexplicable fact of his existence, I’ve come to consider what Walt Whitman said may have been Lincoln’s greatest virtue, his “longwaitingness,” as a cardinal principle of democratic progress. Maybe because of Lincoln, I’ve come to believe that an unexamined, reflexive excess of even righteous impatience is an unaffordable means of keeping oneself warm in the chilly climate of democratic politics. Maybe it’s Lincoln’s fault that I’ve come to believe that electoral politics, and all that goes with it, is the last, best hope we have.

(Here I interrupted my prepared speech and risked spontaneity in response to seeing Jesse Jackson seated at a nearby table. His campaign for president in 1984 had been mentioned by the evening’s host, Melissa Harris-Perry, and I took the chance to thank Reverend Jackson for his speech at the Democratic convention that year. I’ve often quoted him admonishing those on the left who were considering not voting: “Don’t you walk away from that vote! People died for the right to vote!”)

All of which is to say—and this is what my whole speech was going to be about, but instead maybe I’ll write an essay and submit it to The Nation: In the upcoming election, we must must must hang on to the Senate, we must must must recapture the House, we must must must must must must must re-elect Barack Obama President of the United States of the Reality-Based Community! And a goddamned great president—yes, I said it, I said it out loud!—a great president he is!

(A great president, by the way, is not the same as a great progressive. A great president is a plausible progressive who achieves significant and useful and recognizably progressive things, which is very, very hard to do in a democracy, and which President Obama has inarguably done. We can argue about that later.)

And almost best of all is what he is doing with his prize money

…So, for the sake of my soul and my psyche and in the name of creative citizenship, I’m going to donate this mortifying, beautiful money [$100,000] to establish an endowed scholarship at John Jay. I was dazzled by the students I met at the John Jay commencement last June; they’re as impressive and promising and brave and inspiring and awe-inspiring as the CUNY board of trustees isn’t. At John Jay I’ve met students and faculty committed to thinking about law and order in larger contexts, to understanding law as it relates to community and to social and economic justice; they’re committed to building, to creating, to citizenship, to progress, to justice.

Tony Kushner has come full circle. 

 a puffin in Maine.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama and the State of the Union

At the 41st Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Breakfast in Boston, Melissa Harris-Perry asked us to remember the picture of King with President Lyndon Johnson and to superimpose President Obama on one of the men.  After a brief pause to let us think about it, she said that if we had made King Obama we had picked the wrong person, that Obama was President just as Johnson had been. 

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rev. Dr. Marti...

Image via Wikipedia

While, as Harris-Perry pointed out there are a number of parallels that can be drawn between King and Obama.   “Both men are brilliant orators, both had a unique ability to capture the American political imagination … and both endured harsh criticism.”  And I will add, both are Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Using King’s book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, she pointed out

It was a period of backlash,” she said. “We were being told it was all moving too fast.

It is easy to behave as if Martin King was beloved in a bipartisan manner across races and communities — but that is not the reality of Dr. King..

But the primary difference is the King was an activist seeking change from the outside while Obama is the President who has to govern the country as a whole while still trying to move us toward a more progressive society and trying stay above the chaos.

Meanwhile we have the shootings in Arizona, Michelle Bachman giving a Tea Party response to the State of the Union Address (in addition to the Republican resonse), and new Tea Party Republicans pushing the more moderate Republicans in Congress into taking up legislation that I feel certain that Speaker Boehner does not view as in the parties best interest.  We can only hope that the chaos remains in the Republican Party and that incidents like Arizona do not spread.  Maybe the Republicans will lose the Tea Party Republicans to a third party.  Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Nate Silver posted a response to the recent polls the other day on Fivethirtyeight,

With the Democrats still in control of the Senate and Barack Obama in the White House, there is little that the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives can do before 2013 to enact legislation. The health care overhaul will not be repealed, and social welfare programs will not be cut — at least, not unless Mr. Obama wants them to be, or until a Republican occupies the White House.

What the Republicans can do now, though, is use their leverage over the budget process. On spending matters, Congress is compelled to act every year merely to maintain the status quo. Sooner or later — perhaps over raising the federal debt ceiling, perhaps over authorizing funds to put Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul into effect — there is likely to be a showdown between the House Republican leaders and the president.

The most recent precedent is a favorable one for Mr. Obama: the 1995 government shutdown. The public largely blamed Republicans for the mess rather than Bill Clinton, whose standing rose as a result; he went on to win re-election the following year.

He goes on the point out the parallels in the polls while remaining cautious about 2012.

Mr. Obama’s approval rating has risen a few points in recent weeks, and is now at roughly 50 percent in the average poll. Mr. Clinton’s approval rating was at 54 percent in November 1995, just before the shutdown began, according to both Gallup and Washington Post surveys.

A Pew poll conducted in October 1995, meanwhile, found that 36 percent of respondents approved of the job that Republican leaders in Congress were doing. The figure right now is the same, according to an AP-GfK poll, or a bit lower at 30 percent, according to Quinnipiac; both surveys were released last week.

Surveys conducted before the 1995 shutdown found that the public largely viewed Mr. Clinton as capable of compromise, but not the Republicans. Similarly, in this week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 55 percent said they expected the Republicans to be too inflexible in negotiations with President Obama, but only 26 percent said they expected that of Mr. Obama.

We have to remember, however, that President Obama is not Bill Clinton.  While we may have chacterized President Clinton as “the first Black President”, he was still a white man.  His alleged crimes were sexual, not racial.  We have to remember that a segment of the country will never accept Barack Obama as president because of his skin color.

President Obama’s recent moves have been toward the center, toward business, with the hope of creating enough jobs to win re-election.  I understand why he is not pushing more of a social agenda right now.  I think he did that, and did it well during the recent lame duck session.  He needs to put himself and the Democratic Party in a position to keep the Senate and the Presidency and to take back the House.  We need to remember, as Melissa Harris-Perry reminded us that the man in the picture is the President and not the activist.