On Mercy

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Gollum/Smeagol, at war with himself, consumed by desire for the Ring

W.J. Astore

Mercy has been on my mind since re-watching “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.  There’s a nasty little character known as Gollum.  Before he was seduced by Sauron’s ring (the one ring of power), Gollum was known as Smeagol.  Twisted and consumed by the Dark Lord’s ring, Smeagol becomes a shadow of himself, eventually forgetting his real name and becoming Gollum, a name related to the guttural coughs and sounds he makes.

Gollum loses the Ring to Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire.  The Ring extends Bilbo’s life but also begins to twist him as well.  As Sauron returns to power in Mordor, he needs only to regain the Ring to defeat the combined might of the peoples of Middle Earth.  Bilbo passes the Ring to his much younger cousin, Frodo, who together with a Fellowship consisting of representatives drawn from men, elves, dwarfs, and hobbits as well as the wizard Gandalf, journeys to Mordor to destroy the Ring and vanquish Sauron.

Early in his journey to Mordor, Frodo says he wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum when he’d had the opportunity.  (Gollum, drawn by the Ring, is shadowing the Fellowship on its journey.)  Gandalf sagely advises Frodo that Gollum may yet play an important role, and that mercy is not a quality to disparage.  As the Fellowship is separated and Frodo has to journey to Mordor with only his faithful friend Sam beside him, Gollum soon becomes their indispensable guide, and Frodo begins to pity him.  Frodo, by showing Gollum mercy, reawakens the good within him, calling him Smeagol and preventing Sam from hurting him.

But the corrupting power of the Ring overtakes Smeagol again, and Gollum reemerges.  Even so, without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom.  On the brink of destroying the Ring, Frodo too becomes consumed by its power, choosing to use it instead of casting it into the fire.  Here again, Gollum emerges as an instrumental character.  He fights Frodo for the Ring, gains it, but loses his footing and falls into the fires of Mount Doom, destroying himself as well as the Ring and saving Middle Earth.

It was Bilbo and Frodo’s mercy that spared the life of Gollum, setting the stage for Gollum’s actions that ultimately save Frodo and the rest of Middle Earth from Sauron’s dominance.  Without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mount Doom; or, if by some miracle they had, Frodo in donning the Ring would have been ensnared by Sauron’s power and executed by him.  If Frodo is the hero of the tale, Gollum is the anti-hero, as indispensable to Middle Earth’s salvation as Frodo and the Fellowship.

Another story about the role of mercy came in one of my favorite “Star Trek” episodes, “Arena.”  In this episode, Captain Kirk has to fight a duel with an enemy captain of a lizard-like species known as the Gorn.  It’s supposed to be a fight to the death, overseen by a much superior species known as the Metrons.  When Kirk succeeds in besting the Gorn captain, however, he refuses to kill the Gorn, saying that perhaps the Gorn had a legitimate reason for attacking a Federation outpost.  A Metron spokesperson appears and is impressed by Kirk, saying that he has demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy, something the Metrons hardly suspected “savage” humans were capable of showing.

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Capt Kirk fights the Gorn captain in “Arena”

Perhaps war between the Federation and the Gorn is not inevitable, this episode suggests.  Diplomacy may yet resolve a territorial dispute without more blood being shed, all because Kirk had the courage to show mercy to his opponent: an opponent who wouldn’t have shown mercy to him if their fates had been reversed.

Mercy, nowadays, is not in vogue in the USA.  America’s enemies must always be smited, preferably killed, in the name of righteous vengeance.  Only weak people show mercy, or so our national narrative appears to suggest.  But recall the saying that in insisting on an eye for an eye, soon we’ll all be blind.

The desire for murderous vengeance is making us blind.  The cycle of violence continues with no end in sight.  Savagery begets more savagery.  It’s as if we’ve put on Sauron’s ring and become consumed by it.

Do we have the courage of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and even of that man of action, Captain Kirk?  Can our toughness be informed by and infused with mercy?

Debunking Spectator Sports: Confessions of an Anti-Sports Fan

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Are you not entertained?

Richard Sahn

I’ve never gotten excited about or interested in a particular sports team, whether professional or amateur. I don’t care whether a particular team wins or loses and I go out of my way not to watch games on TV or listen to a radio broadcast.

Prior to this year’s Super Bowl game, I listened to people chant, on the phone or in person, “Go Patriots” or “Go Eagles.” Even a Catholic priest at the end of a mass I attended recently couldn’t leave the altar before letting the parishioners know he was a Patriots fan.

Spectator sports have always been a secular religion in most developed countries but with no promise of any form of salvation, afterlife, or reincarnation. The most you can really expect from your team is winning a bet on the game. But  spectator sports  is a distraction with negative consequences, ultimately, to society and the individual sports fan—such as having no understanding of the actions of political parties.

And because each season of the year has its athletic contests there is no letup. A fan is deluged all year round with games as well as incessant commentaries on athletes and the points they score or might score.  Athletic contests and players, even on the high school level, are  a major topic of conversation, especially among adult males  I view such conversations as not only boring but irrelevant to my own life, to what I  would call meaningful concerns.

In fact, I would argue spectator sports discussions have no lasting therapeutic value in dealing with the real “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Political philosopher Noam Chomsky recently said, probably somewhat sarcastically, that if as much mental energy was expended in solving the social and economic problems of the world as is expended in trying to explain why a given team wins or loses a game, much socially and politically induced suffering and death could be eliminated.

Eavesdrop on virtually any conversation, especially at World Series, Super Bowl, or NBA playoff times, and you’ll hear conversations that would make you believe you were in a think-tank rivaling the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Now, as a sociologist, I realize the important function of sports in society. That function, of course, is a distraction from life’s existential problems and dilemmas. Death, loss of loved ones, nuclear war, global warming are certainly among those problems. And, most assuredly, being a spectator sports fanatic is a far better alternative than being a drug addict or engaging in anti-social behavior.  I also admit spectator sports have a limited psycho-therapeutic effect on some people.

My quarrel is with the level of energy spent watching and then discussing sports events. Even expressing one’s preference for one team or another I find disturbing, mainly because I feel there are more worthwhile causes to champion. Agonizing, so it seems, over the prowess of individual players and their team’s chances of winning playoffs or championships is a waste of time and energy. Simply put, I cannot empathize in the slightest with the sports fan. In that respect I guess I’m a type of sociopath since sociopaths can’t empathize with other human beings in general.

Arguably, spectator sports also contribute to the “us” versus “them” perspective toward social life, the belief that life is not interesting or worthwhile unless “us” is always trying to  defeat “them,” whether “them” be a rival team or country–in other words, not “us.”

The great (former) coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi once proclaimed, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Could Lombardi’s philosophy be applied to our current president who is also an ardent sports fan?  Could Donald Trump’s insistence on America becoming “great again,” with all the dire consequences to minority groups and the underclass, not to mention the world in general, be the by-product of his obsessive interest in spectator sports? At one time our president wanted to be owner of an NFL team. What does that tell us?

Two psychological processes seem to account for the prevalence of the typical sports fan. These are vicarious identification and reification. Vicarious identification is thinking that one “IS” actually the team he or she is watching.  The team’s victory or defeat is his/her victory or defeat.  Being able to enjoy plays, movies, and novels entails the same process; for the moment, one is a character in a work of fiction. The ability of consciousness (mind, soul, brain, spirit, if you prefer) to immerse itself in a story or situation that is fictitious is, for sure, one of the great joys of life. From time to time I’ve watched certain films or videos multiple times and can still fool myself into thinking that I don’t really know the outcome.  Perhaps spectator sports allow male fans in particular to be the macho male, the alpha male they’re not in everyday life, without having to perform in any way. No need to resort to violent behavior if one vicariously identifies with a football team or professional wrestlers.

Reification is psychologically treating an abstract concept or mental construct as if it were real, as if it were empirical or tangible reality.  Semanticists will say “the word is not the thing” or “the map is not the territory.”  Nations, states, cities do not exist as realities (sui generis); they are only abstract concepts, in other words, words.  People exist, athletes exist, and games are played, but the sports fan wants his/her “team” to win because the name of the team itself is regarded as if it were a live person or group of people.

It doesn’t matter, usually, who the real life players are or even if there are any real life players. It’s the “team” itself—the word is the thing.  I once asked my students who were fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers whether they would still want the Steelers to defeat the Dallas Cowboys if the teams’ executives exchanged players and coaches. The Steelers fans said they would still support or root for the Steelers over the Cowboys. I tried to point out the error in their thinking, that there is no such reality as the “Steelers” or the “Cowboys,” that only players and their coaches exist. No, the Steelers fans would remain Steelers fans and want the team to win because they are “The Steelers.”

Existence precedes essence, say the existentialists.  Existence is what is tangibly real, for example, what could physically maim, hurt, kill. Essence refers to words, ideas, concepts. (For example, essence would be the “thoughts and prayers” for gun victims–what we hear so much these days from our politicians in the wake of shooting violence.) Scoring a touchdown is “existence.” The team that fans roots for is “essence,” in other words, nothing but an idea with no more substance than the number “5.” When one regards spectator sports existentially it becomes difficult to be a fan, although one may enjoy viewing brilliantly executed plays on the field or in the arena.

My argument here, then, is that the serious spectator sports fan is likely to be distracted from engaging in philosophical, political, aesthetic, critical thinking or reflection.  Now, I have no doubt that one could be a sports fan, even a fanatical sports fan, and be a social activist, an artist, a scholar, a reflective person capable of deep meditation.  I just see spectator sports as tending to obstruct or preclude intellectual and aesthetic development in the general population of a given country.

Professional and collegiate athletic events do benefit our economic system by creating all kinds of jobs and careers, and not just for the players. But spectator sports may also stand in the way of the fan being exposed to and contemplating the vital social and political issues of the times. It is reasonable to ask whether being a serious sports fan erodes participation in the democratic process. Why are most universities known for their teams and not for what their faculties teach? What’s the first thing an American thinks of when he or she thinks of “Ohio State” or “Notre Dame” or “Penn State”?  Is it higher learning?  Or football?

Richard Sahn teaches sociology at a college in Pennsylvania.

Get the Widow on the Set: Trump’s State of the Union Address

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I felt like this, only worse

W.J. Astore

Last night’s State of the Union address was disturbing on many levels.  Republicans applauded when President Trump touted the elimination of the individual mandate for purchasing health care insurance — so it’s a good thing people have no health insurance?  Wait until they go to the emergency room for an appendectomy and leave with a bill for $20,000.  Republicans applauded as well when Trump touted the American prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.  So it’s a good thing our President is vowing to send more “terrorists” to an offshore U.S. military prison?

I could go on and on, but what was most disturbing to me was the use of people in the audience as props for Trump’s positions.  A brave soldier who won the Bronze Star for valor was celebrated to support America’s wars overseas.  Parents whose daughters were killed by illegal immigrants were used to support Trump’s policies on immigration.  A family whose son suffered grievous, ultimately deadly, wounds in North Korea was used to support Trump’s bellicose policies toward Kim Jong-un and his regime, as was a courageous North Korean defector.

It reminded me of the Don Henley song, “Dirty Laundry” and its lines: Can we film the operation?/Is the head dead yet?/You know the boys in the newsroom got a running bet/get the widow on the set/we need dirty laundry. 

The shameless exploitation of other people’s grief is something I can’t stand.  It’s sordid and cynical and dirty.  There are many other things I could say about Trump’s State of the Union address, but my overall feeling was one of exploitation.  After his speech, I felt dirty.

Mom’s Wisdom on Religion

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That’s mom, circa 1950

W.J. Astore

Today, I want to share a bracing view, courtesy of my mother.  She converted to Catholicism (from Protestantism) when she married my dad, but she wasn’t much of a church-goer.  When my dad suggested she should accompany him to mass on Sundays, she had a telling rejoinder:

You worry about your soul — I’ll worry about mine.

Excellent advice.  Mom had a way of speaking that cut to the chase.

When it comes to religion, too many Americans seek to push their beliefs on others.  And often there’s some guilt or a veiled threat in the push.  “A good person goes to church.” “These are holy days of obligation.”  “You should go to set a good example for the kids.” “Don’t forget judgment day — God is looking down on you right now.”

My mom was having none of that.  She also didn’t need church to do the right thing.  She was kind and generous and, in my opinion, followed the example of the Gospel without making airs about it.

When it comes to religion, few people want to be pushed into attending “mandatory” practices.  Indeed, I’ve always liked Christ’s teachings on praying to God in private, rather than standing on a street corner and shouting your beliefs to the masses.  Speaking of which, I once witnessed a man doing exactly that in Oxford, England, shouting on the street, proclaiming the good news.  When someone complained, he cited a Biblical passage that enjoined him to proclaim his faith in a loud voice so that others might follow in his footsteps.

That’s a problem with the Bible: So many passages, so many messages, so many interpretations.

Still, I persist in believing in my mother’s aphorism: Focus on the health of your own soul and its relationship to whatever higher power or higher ideals you believe in.  Don’t focus on the souls and the beliefs and practices of others.

Or, as Christ put it, “Judge not — lest you be judged.”

Of Historical Statues and Monuments

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To counterbalance the perceived grimness of Maya Lin’s Vietnam wall memorial, more traditional statues depicting soldiers were added near it.

W.J. Astore

Historical statues and monuments are in the news, but sadly not because Americans have taken a new interest in understanding their history. Statues of men who supported the Confederacy, prominent generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, for example, have been appropriated by White supremacists (this is nothing new, actually). Such statues have been defended as “beautiful” by a man, Donald Trump, with little sense of history, even as other Americans have called for these and similar statues to be removed.

Statues, of course, are just that. Inanimate objects. Places for pigeons to poop. It’s we who invest them with meaning. Most people, I think, take little notice of statues and monuments until they become controversial, after which everyone has an opinion.

For me, statues and monuments are a stimulus for reflection as well as education. Who was that guy on a horse? Why is he being honored? And what does that decision tell us about who we were and are as a people?

As a people, we choose certain historical figures as worthy of being sculpted in stone or cast in bronze. We choose our heroes, so to speak, our paragons, our worthies. And our choices are just that — choices. They reflect certain values, priorities, motives, feelings. And since our values, our motives, our sense of what is good and bad, right and wrong, change over time, so too can our statues and memorials change, if that is the will of the people in a democracy that enshrines freedom of choice.

If the peoples of various states choose to remove certain statues, so be it. Other statues might take their place; other worthies might be selected as more in keeping with the times and our values as we conceive them today as a people.

What we choose to memorialize as a people says much about ourselves. Many statues and memorials fall under the category of “man on horseback.” Certainly, military figures like Lee and Jackson were considered great men of their times, at least in a Confederate context. They also, sadly, became potent symbols of racism in the Jim Crow South, physical symbols of the myth of the Lost Cause, intimidating and demoralizing figures to Black communities struggling against violence and prejudice.

Americans are an intemperate lot, driven by extremes, constantly fighting to reconfigure ourselves through our interpretation and re-interpretation of history. All this is proof to William Faulkner’s famous saying that, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

As a historian, I find it deeply sad as well as ironic that, at a time when education in history is withering in the United States, the importance of history has arguably never been greater. We should use statues as a stimulus for learning, but instead they’re more often appropriated as a driver for divisiveness.

If nothing else, today’s debates about statues should remind us yet again of the importance of history and a proper understanding of it. History is inherently disputatious. Controversial. Challenging. Exciting. If we can tap the heat generated by the latest controversies and warm students to a study of history in all its richness, perhaps some good can come from the ongoing controversy.

What kind of statues and memorials are the “right” ones for America? It’s a vexing question, is it not? It’s also a question with powerful implications. I come back to George Orwell’s comment (slightly paraphrased): He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

Our understanding of the past — our selective celebration of it — helps to define what is possible in the future. If you celebrate generals on horseback — military men of the Confederacy — you make a choice that helps to shape what is seen as right and proper in the present moment, and what will be right and proper in the future.

For a better future, I’d like to see fewer statues to military men and sports heroes and the like, and more to visionaries who sought a better way for us as a people. I recall a small monument I saw to Elihu Burritt in Massachusetts. No one is talking about him or his legacy today. He’s an obscure figure compared to his contemporaries, Lee and Jackson. Known as the “Learned Blacksmith,” he was a committed pacifist and abolitionist who worked to educate the less fortunate in society.

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Monument to Elihu Burritt in New Marlboro, Mass. (author’s photo)

If we are to build prominent statues and monuments, would it not be better to build them to people like Elihu Burritt, people who worked for justice and equality, people who fought against war and slavery and for peace and freedom?

The Blinding Power of Nationalism

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W.J. Astore

One of the challenges of my teaching career was to encourage students to think critically about American history and actions.  Since I taught at conservative institutions (the Air Force Academy; a technical college in rural Pennsylvania), many of my students had a strong “America: love it or leave it” mentality.  They associated criticism with lack of patriotism.  Fortunately, I had the advantage of wearing a military uniform (at the Air Force Academy) and later the status of a retired military officer (in Pennsylvania), so few students could readily dismiss my critiques as the work of a “libtard” leftist academic.

Patriotism, I would tell my students, meant an informed love of country, meaning that a patriot was open to seeing the faults in his or her country, and willing to work hard to change things for the better.  The “love it or leave it” mentality, I explained, was a form of false patriotism; an unthinking form, a type of blind infatuation.  Nationalism, in a word.

George Orwell, as usual, beat me to the punch, writing with great clarity in 1945 on the distinction between patriotism and nationalism.

By ‘nationalism’ I mean … the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism… By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people…

Orwell further explained the dangers of nationalism.  The way a nationalist “thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.”  The way a nationalist’s “thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.”  Nationalism, Orwell explained, “is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right …”

Flagrant dishonesty combined with unshakable certainty is a combustible mix.  To explain why, it is worth quoting Orwell at length:

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind…

The point is that as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged. And, as I have pointed out already, the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also. There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified — still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function…

The nationalist succeeds in constructing his own “reality,” a twisted version of alternative facts, an unthinking construct, a remorseless world without pity and compassion for others.

Contrast the nationalist to the patriot.  A patriot thrives on thought.  She is unafraid to face reality as it is; she does not suppress emotions like pity and compassion.  True patriotism is critical, open-minded, and defensive, as Orwell explained in his Notes on Nationalism:

“Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

It’s easy, in the “might makes right” reality of nationalism, for murder to become sanctioned as a positive good, or at the very least for nationalists to become oblivious to murder.  As Orwell said, a nationalist can justify anything in the cause of “protecting” his construct of the state.  Again, nationalism is a form of infatuation, a willed blindness, that can be used or manipulated to actuate, support, and justify the most inhumane actions.

The world today faces a rising tide of nationalism.  Its dangers are well documented in history and well explained by Orwell.  “Love it or leave it,” in short, is a murderous path, not a patriotic one.  Let’s not go down it.

(My thanks to Mike Murry and Monotonous Languor for their stimulating comments on Orwell and nationalism at this site.)

The Bankruptcy of the Democratic Party

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Tepidness and Timidity

W.J. Astore

Why did Donald Trump win the presidency?  A big reason is that he was willing to take unpopular stances.  He criticized the Afghan and Iraq wars in the strongest terms.  He attacked Wall Street.  He called for closer relations with Russia.  Of course, to cite one example, when he became president, Trump willingly  embraced Wall Street — no surprise here.  Trump is not about consistency. The larger point is that he appeared authentic, or at the very least not tied to traditional politics of the mealymouthed, which involves focus groups and think tanks and polls and triangulation before any policy position is taken.

The Democratic Party has learned nothing from Trump’s success, nor for that matter from Bernie Sanders’s rise.  It’s rejecting the energy and popularity of Sanders’s progressive platform for the tired bromides of economic competitiveness, moderate tax increases on the rich, and infrastructure improvements (which Trump has also called for).  It’s refusing to critique America’s enervating and endless overseas wars.  It’s even refusing to focus on serious social issues (too divisive!), as reported here at Mic Network:

The new [Democratic] agenda will be released under the title, “A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages.”

According to the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, the plan “jettisoned social and foreign policy issues for this exercise, eschewing the identity politics and box-checking that has plagued Democratic campaigns in the past.”

Leaving social justice issues out of the platform is sure to anger many progressives in the party who have been pushing for issues like police brutality, systemic racism and transgender rights to be front-and-center on the Democratic agenda.

Likewise, the absence of any foreign policy agenda is likely to irk the left’s many critics of America’s never-ending wars.

What’s the point of voting for a Democratic Party that refuses to address such vitally important issues?  And don’t you just love the unimaginative title of the plan?

A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages.

If you have to repeat the word “better” four times, I’m less than convinced that the deal is actually “better.”  It sounds like a used car salesman trying to sell a lemon.  I’ll give you a better deal on this beat-up Yugo!  At a better price, with a better warranty, with better loan payments!  Sure … right.

I think I can come up with five “better” titles for the Democrats just off the top of my head.  I’ll give it a whirl:

  1. No Guts, No Glory: A Bold New Plan for Our Country
  2. Soaring Together: Remaking Our Country, Reigniting Our Dreams
  3. America the Bountiful: Tapping Our Greatness — and Goodness
  4. Better Angels: Reviving America’s Nobility
  5. Comrade!  March with Me to the Towers and Pitchfork the Rich!

OK.  Maybe not number 5.  I’m not saying my titles are great — just that they hold some promise of raising ourselves to a higher level.  We should be thinking about making a better America, not for skills or jobs or the economy, but for our children.  For our and their collective futures.  A little idealism, please!  The fierce urgency of now!

Where’s the emotional appeal in “better” skills or a “better” job?  It’s funny: I don’t recall the Founders talking about skills and jobs.  They talked about personal liberty, about freedom, about coming together and raising new hopes.  And they didn’t just talk — they acted.  Give me liberty or give me death.  Now that took guts!

I see no inspiration — and no guts — in the current Democratic Party establishment.  And until the party finds some, they will continue to lose.