Thursday, October 28, 2010

Liberal disillusionment with President Obama has been greatly exaggerated

I’m convinced that the media narrative that liberals are disillusioned with President Obama is a gross exaggeration.

Last summer when my husband and I were traveling in New England, I conducted my own unscientific poll of friends and relatives. My friends are not media folks—neither main stream media nor the blogosphere. They’re not blogging and tweeting their political opinions.

I asked them, have you become disillusioned with the president? In every case, I heard something like: “Hell no. He’s doing the best possible job in horrible circumstances. When you inherit a mess like this, it takes time to dig out of the hole.” This is exactly what my Philly friends (with a few left wing exceptions) have been saying.

I have a little bit of sympathy for Robert Gibbs and his denunciation of what he called “the professional left.” It was a poor choice of words, but he had a point.

I’m not saying that liberals should not criticize Obama nor try to pressure him to support progressive polices. But there is a way to criticize that acknowledges the real achievements and doesn’t buy into the right wing narrative that President Obama has done nothing right.

The Obama administration has an impressive record of achievement and I’m convinced there is a silent Democratic majority which knows this. Although the president is not on the ballot this November, the election has been nationalized and the outcome will be seen as referendum on the Obama administration. I expect the Democratic base will come out to register their support for what the president has accomplished.

To cite just some of these accomplishments: The consensus of most economists is that the stimulus program brought the economy back from the brink of real disaster. It probably should have been larger, but was arguably the best that could be done given this dysfunctional congress.

And in this economic climate, President Obama (with a lot of help from Nancy Pelosi) still managed to pass a healthcare bill establishing access to heath care as a right of all citizens. Sure, it’s an imperfect bill but just as with other programs (such as social security) which started as deeply flawed, we now have the opportunity to improve the bill. We’re no longer debating the basic right to health care; the debate can now move to making the existing program more inclusive, more affordable.

The overhaul of the college loan program will save significant money for students, their families and the taxpayers. And then there is the passage of meaningful—again not as much as we need—regulatory reform. We have a long way to go before we have real recovery, but the dismantling of regulatory agencies at the root of the current economic crisis dates back to the Clinton years. This crisis was many years in the making. Reasonable people understand this.

I could go on and on, but it would be much better for folks to read the first rate analysis of the achievements of the Obama administration by Tim Dickinson in Rolling Stone. Some excerpts from Dickinson’s well researched, must read article, “The Case for Obama”:

By any rational measure,Obama is the most
accomplished and progressive president in decades, yet
the only Americans fired up by the changes he has delivered
are Republicans and Tea Partiers hellbent on reversing them.

This president has delivered more sweeping, progressive
change in 20 months than the previous two Democratic
administrations did in 12 years. "When you look at what
will last in history,"historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tells
Rolling Stone,"Obama has more notches on the presidential belt."

In fact, when the history of this administration is
written, Obama's opening act is likely to be judged as
more impressive than any president's - Democrat or
Republican - since the mid-1960s. "If you're looking at
the first-two-year legislative record," says Ornstein,
"you really don't have any rivals since Lyndon Johnson
- and that includes Ronald Reagan."

Taken together, Barack Obama's achievements are not
only historic in their sweep but unabashedly liberal.
By contrast, President Clinton's top legislative
victories - NAFTA and welfare reform - catered to the
right wing's faith in free markets and its loathing of
big government. "When you add them all together, it's
clear that Obama's accomplishments have been
underrated," says Brinkley. "Saving the auto industry,
health care, getting out of Iraq - these are big things
for the progressive movement." .

So why aren’t these undeniable accomplishments driving the narrative? The conventional wisdom is that the Obama administration could have done a better job communicating their achievements.

That may be, but I think the liberal Democratic base understands the argument Dickinson is making even if we’re not on top of all the specifics.

The liberal base gets it. We know this President has delivered. I’m not worried about middle aged and older liberal Democrats. The question of course is the young folks.

My only regret about retirement is that I’ve lost my connection to young voters. This week I spoke to a class at Community College of Philadelphia where I taught for 35 years. I was heartened by these students' awareness of what is at stake. They intend to come out. Of course, Philly is one of the deepest blue patches in the country, so the interest in voting I picked up in this group of students might not extend beyond Philly. We’ll see.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

In search of the holy grail of peak fall foliage

Last October my husband and I took advantage of retirement to take a two week fall foliage tour in New England.

Last year I wrote:

For many years, I longed to see New England’s spectacular fall foliage, but it’s just not possible for a teacher to take off a week or two in October. Southeastern PA is beautiful but we just don’t have all those deep reds and purples.

My husband and I just returned from our retirement gift to ourselves – a trip to New England in October. We were chasing that mythical “peak.” We just missed it in Vermont (but it was still beautiful) and we had a great time visiting with good friends.

Then off to New Hampshire in quest of the peak. Our innkeepers told us we were a little past peak. My reaction: if this is past peak, the peak must be unimaginably beautiful. We had one glorious day in New Hampshire—blue skies, brilliant sun. Then it SNOWED! See photo of Columbus Day snowfall.

Maybe next year we’ll catch that mythical peak on a balmy Indian summer day. Will I spend my retirement years chasing the mythical peak and not quite catching it? .

Well, we failed again. We had a great time visiting our friends in Vermont over Columbus Day week-end but those glorious reds and purples continue to elude us. I had read somewhere that fall is coming later to New England, but our Vermont friends say that in their patch of Vermont Fall appears to be coming earlier. Go figure.

There was still glorious foliage and unlike last year the weather was spectacular—relatively warm with dazzling sunlight—but the reds and purples were all gone. Apparently the red maples are the earliest to drop their leaves.

Oh well, the consolation prize is that it looks like we are going to have a good foliage season right here in the Delaware valley. Maybe what I was seeking is right here in my back yard.

Photos from my Philly garden:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Thank you, Nora Ephron. You nailed it with your statement re feminism and abortion rights!

I’m more than a little annoyed when women opposed to abortion rights (like Sarah Palin and her Mama Grizzlies) claim to be feminists. But I get really depressed when women who are themselves pro-choice start buying into this saying things like: “Who are we to police the boundaries of feminism? Let’s be open to all women who want to identify as feminists.” Groups like Feminists for Life have been making these arguments for years. But hearing this from members of the pro-choice community is something new.

On one level, I am happy to hear that so many women want to claim the feminist label, but not at this price. Feminists differ over priorities/strategies. We have our race/class /generational faultlines. But even if abortion rights may not be a feminist’s top priority issue, it’s got to be on the list of non-negotiables! Let’s not buy into the notion that insistence on support for abortion rights makes one a narrow-minded feminist.

The recent series at Slate By DoubleX Staff, “Who Gets To Be a Feminist? That's the Wrong Question brought home to me the extent to which this “big tent feminism” has taken hold.

The comments from avowed conservatives were no surprise:

From Christine Rosen:
Americans have often underestimated the political power of conservative women. (Remember Phyllis Schlafly?) But feminists shouldn't underestimate the appeal of a feminist message that emphasizes equity and opportunity, not gender grievances. After decades of the feminist establishment owning the term, perhaps the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. The feminism of women like Palin isn't the feminism of the past. But it might be the feminism of the future.

From Christina Hoff Sommers:
If conservative women wish to describe themselves as feminists, and if they offer a new model of women's empowerment that large numbers of American women find inspiring, even determined feminist bouncers like Traister and Holmes won't be able to keep them from the party.

Much more disturbing were the comments from pro-choice feminists. From frequent critic of the feminist movement but definitely pro choice, Katie Roiphe:

I think the question of whether or not Sarah Palin should be "allowed" to be a feminist is a bit beside the point. What is interesting is the question behind the question: Who is it that does this "allowing"? What does it mean to be "not allowed"? I don't like Sarah Palin any more than the next registered Democrat, but I think the idea that she should somehow be cast out of feminism is revealing of the narrower vision of the movement and its uglier, more cliquish instincts.

Or this from Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick:
I am not prepared to announce a categorical rule for who gets to be called a feminist. It sounds too much like the rules about who gets to be called a good mother or a real woman, and such rules always obscure more than they clarify. I am also not prepared to rope out whole categories of women who happen to oppose abortion as bad feminists.

Or this from Amy Bloom:
If she[Palin] understands that she is a product of feminism and is prepared to pursue its goals, I can give her a pass on abortion because there are, apparently, honest-to-God feminists who believe that abortion is murder and even though I think that that's not true, I have to respect that (I guess.)

Thank you, Rebecca Traister and Katha Pollitt, for challenging this, and most of all Nora, who cuts right to the chase:

From Nora Ephron:
I know that I'm supposed to write 500 words on this subject, but it seems much simpler: You can't call yourself a feminist if you don't believe in the right to abortion.

For years, I’ve been depressed that we still need to defend abortion rights. When the Roe v. Wade decision came down in 1973, I never thought that I would still be working to defend abortion rights in 2010!

Women have made incredible progress in so many areas; it’s hard to believe that we are still fighting for the right to have control of our own bodies. In our tax phobic society, it’s not surprising that we haven’t achieved some of the feminist goals which would cost real money—-e.g. high quality affordable child care provided by well-paid professionals. But settling the issue of abortion rights is not an issue of economic redistribution but rather of basic human rights. Sadly, so many people who claim to want government off their backs support government intrusion into this most private decision.

It’s bad enough we’re still struggling to secure abortion rights, but to have pro-choice feminists backing away from a definition of feminism which includes abortion rights, well, that is really hard to take.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Susan Faludi's:"American Electra: Feminism's Ritual Matricide”: An old feminist's response

Susan Faludi's recent article in Harper's, American Electra: Feminism's Ritual Matricide” is the latest attempt to characterize a movement as diverse as American feminism in terms of a single theme: the generational divide. Faludi argues:

No one who has been engaged in feminist politics and thought for any length of time can be oblivious to an abiding aspect of the modern women’s movement in America—that so often, and despite its many victories, it seems to falter along a “mother-daughter” divide. A generational breakdown underlies so many of the pathologies that have long disturbed American feminism—its fleeting mobilizations followed by long hibernations; its bitter divisions over sex; and its reflexive renunciation of its prior incarnations, its progenitors, even its very name. The contemporary women’s movement seems fated to fight a war on two fronts: alongside the battle of the sexes rages the battle of the ages.

The generational faultline Faludi describes is real but no more so than the divide between those who focus on gender above all else and those for whom gender politics are inextricably intertwined with issues of race/class /sexuality .

I'm convinced that Amanda Marcotte in her response to Faludi is correct that what appears as a generational divide may be really something far more mundane.

I think the causes are more mundane than dramatic differences in outlook between generations. I think women are basically like men have always been. We struggle for power.....because we struggle for power...Older people are worried, for good reasons, that our ageist society will push them out. Older people, for less honorable reasons, think they should be able to rest on their laurels a little bit and dismiss the opinions of younger people, who they see as less experienced and therefore uninteresting. Young people can be stubborn and not willing to learn from the experiences of their elders. Everyone’s self-interest gets in the way of communication.

There are just so many good jobs to go around, just so many leadership positions available. The Great Recession has exacerbated the problem—-fewer jobs for old folks to hang on to, fewer job openings for young people trying to get a foot in the door.

Granted this is complicated; women have often entered careers later in life than their male counterparts. At 66, if one has been a tenured professor for 35 years maybe it's time to make room for a younger scholar. But if the 66 year old has been in the position for only 20 years, one can understand the reluctance to retire. And then there are those women in positions of real power. What liberal feminist would want Nancy Pelosi to step down at the height of her career? We wouldn’t have gotten health care reform through without her. But if everyone hangs on, options for young women are few indeed.

And there are just so many leadership positions in feminist organizations. It is certainly understandable that older women would not want to give up running organizations in which they have invested so much. But if everyone hangs on, where are the opportunities for younger women to develop their leadership skills?

Faludi uses the 2009 NOW conference as one of the key examples to illustrate her point that older feminists just do not want to let go:

Fifty-five-year-old Kim Gandy’s presidency had lasted eight years. With her retirement came an opportunity that many NOW members, and in particular many younger members, found hopeful. The candidate who seemed to be in the lead was thirty-three-year-old Latifa Lyles, a charismatic speaker attuned to a youthful sensibility, a black woman who insisted on a more diverse constituency, a technologically savvy strategist who had doubled the organization’s Internet fund-raising and engaged the enthusiasm of a host of feminist bloggers.....

Just weeks before the convention, another candidate had jumped into the race, fifty-six-year-old Terry O’Neill, who made a point of representing the concerns of NOW’s older, more traditional constituency. She had enlisted two young women to run on her slate, but her campaign was geared to her boomer sisters: its rallying cry was a return to Sixties-style street activism, and its view of young feminist social networking ranged from tolerance to bewilderment.

I was one of Latifa Lyle’s supporters. I was bitterly disappointed by Latifa’s defeat and at the time saw this primarily though the generational lens. But there was more going on. There were real differences about how to handle the organization's deteriorating financial condition, and anger about the Clinton defeat was also a subtext in a variety of ways. The vast majority of NOW members were Clinton supporters and that included most of Latifa’s supporters and most of Terry’s supporters. But to the extent that there were NOW members who supported Obama rather than Clinton, most of them were backing Latifa. (Being an Obama supporter and a NOW activist was a challenge as I can personally attest.)

Finally, as is always the case in any kind of bitterly contested election, personal animosities were mapped onto the ideological/ political divides and disentangling the personal from the political was not so easy.

Faludi as an outsider to the organization was probably unaware of these other divisions and she exaggerated the generational dimension.

NOW is struggling to heal the generational divide. As Faludi reports, two young women, Allendra Letsome and Erin Matson, were part of Terry O’Neill’s team. I don’t know Allendra personally but I do know Erin and she is a dynamo. So the transfer to a new generation will occur, maybe not as I once would have liked, but it will occur. And at the 2010 conference many of the divisions appeared to have healed. Those of us who care deeply about NOW have no intention of abandoning the organization just because our candidate did not win.

Younger women are questioning whether it will matter if NOW continues to exist or withers away. From Slate’s Emily Bazelon:

I'm sorry to hear about NOW's generational split, even if I don't get why Faludi is blaming the younger women for it. I'd care more, though, if I thought that NOW was central to the lives of American women or even to political feminism. But it's not and hasn't been for a long time.

As a second wave feminist who thinks the continued existence of NOW really does matter, I hope Bazelon and her generation think the organization is worth taking over! We’ll see.

Katha Pollitt in her response to Faludi’s piece, “Feminist Mothers, Flapper Daughters?” writes: "young women in a hurry should use their fabulous social networking skills to start their own organizations.” When I read Pollitt, I’m usually nodding my head in agreement, but this is one of those rare exceptions.

It’s not so easy to start a new organization (especially a national organization). Also, I've begun to think we already have too many feminist/progressive organizations with overlapping agendas competing for the same foundation grants, targeting the same donors. NOW and other second wave organizations have resources and an extensive donor base. Rather than starting from scratch, I’d like to see a younger generation of feminist leaders (diverse in race, ethnicity and class) take over these organizations and reshape them so they connect with young feminist women and men.

Yes, there are the generational tensions Faludi describes which will complicate the transition to new leadership. But Emily Bazelon, Courtney Martin and others at are certainly right that divisions in feminism cannot be explained in purely generational terms. A part of the story? Certainly. The whole story? Clearly not.

Friday, October 1, 2010

I love getting those Facebook birthday greetings!

A week or so ago, my husband Rick and I were talking about how the number of people who remember our birthdays is dwindling. Both of us have lost our parents, we each have only one sibling, I have only one child, and neither of us has much of an extended family.

I have a few close friends, who always call me on my birthday, but Rick’s guy friends don’t remember birthdays and he’s also lost a few very close friends. It happens at this stage of life.

But Facebook has stepped into the breach and I now receive all these birthday greetings from my Facebook friends! Rick thinks it's ridiculous. He doesn’t understand how I can waste so much time on social networking sites, but I really enjoy hearing from all these folks, especially from my former CCP students.

There are people I once knew well who have moved to different parts of the country. I may not see them again, but I really enjoy getting their updates. My guess is as I get older and less mobile, social networking sites will become increasingly important.

And when you’re involved in politics you have large social network and a whole lot of Facebook friends. (I’m such a political junkie I spent my birthday at a ward meeting!)

It's nice to know that thanks to Facebook I can count on getting birthday greetings.