Madiba wows Washington

Fully unveiled at lastA new statue of Nelson Mandela dazzled, charmed, and empowered all gathered outside the South African embassy in Washington this past overcast Saturday. Especially endearing to those present was the uncovering—thanks to wind gusts—of Mandela’s characteristic raised fist ahead of the statue’s official unveiling. Speaker after speaker remarked on how “only Nelson Mandela would unveil himself”. He was certainly that kind of leader. He saw the path forward before others did, and then brought them along.

The premature exposure of Mandela’s defiant fist was perfect for an occasion rich in symbolism. South African Ambassador to the United States Ebrahim Rasool gave the speech of the day. He delivered a rousing tribute to Mandela and an impassioned, mesmerizing exposition of how morality trumps legality. “What is legal,” he reminded, “is not always moral”. He welcomed the nearly completed renovation of the embassy. He delighted in its spiritual cleansing and purifying. From being a place in which the heinous had been defended, the embassy was now a place of promise, where the new could be combined with the best of the old. The statue of Mandela out in front underscored this fresh beginning for the embassy.

Peek-a-boo
The tribute from Zindzi Mandela, the youngest Mandela daughter, was poignant. Most Americans remember her as a feisty 25-year-old who read a letter from her still-imprisoned father to a huge rally in Soweto in 1985. She famously read, “Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” She was frank at Saturday’s event too. She shared how inaccurate and hurtful much media speculation was about her 95-year-old father’s health and how he would meet His Maker in due course. She stressed that he had always seen and conducted himself as part of a collective, as a member of the African National Congress, and never as an individual. Even in divorcing her mother, Zindzi noted, her father had done this as part of a collective.

Being part of a community or collective was a constant theme. American speakers at the event included luminaries from the protests organized outside the South African embassy in the mid-1980s. There were many references to these Washington demonstrations and the accompanying frequent arrests, as well as to the divestment and disinvestment campaigns. In these efforts, U.S. pension funds were pressured to divest the stock of U.S. and foreign corporations invested in South Africa; such companies were also pressured to disinvest from South Africa. These collaborative efforts were critical. Together, they helped force a reluctant Reagan administration to adopt sanctions against South Africa. Such economic and other pressures contributed to the Nationalist government’s increasing isolation and to a general sense of crisis. Eventually, the unconditional release of political prisoners like Mandela and negotiations between the Nationalist government and the ANC brought freedom and democracy to all South Africans.

Contributors from the podium spoke often about the essential connection between black Americans’ struggle to assert their civil rights in the United States and their support for black South Africans in their struggle. Many noted that this year is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. One speaker referenced the triangle that was now formed by the statues of King on the National Mall, Mahatma Gandhi nearby at the Indian embassy, and Mandela. These three are global icons in the push for equality and social justice in diverse societies around the world.

Listening to the American activists sharing recollections of their participation in the Free South Africa Movement was also a little jarring for this South African. Sometimes I found the commentary a little myopic and ahistorical. Yes, activism in the United States helped dramatically to change the global position of the Nationalist government and contributed profoundly to its demise. But somehow—apart from the obvious stress on Mandela’s role—the contributions of ordinary black South Africans in defying the government, making its laws unworkable, increasing the costs of enforcement, and generally opposing the unjust system that dictated their lives were understated at the event. The anti-apartheid movement was far more than American elites protesting outside the South African embassy in Washington and its consulates around the United States.

The day was replete with many wonderful moments. Keynote speaker South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, broke into a struggle song about Mandela before delivering her comments. How many foreign ministers would sing an impromptu solo like that! The mood in the gathered audience (at least where I was sitting) was relaxed and happy, with many introductions and reunions taking place. The clothing of many is also worthy of comment. Gorgeous colourful beads and fabrics abounded. I also enjoyed watching a D.C. policewoman snapping photos of the activities on her cell phone in between her official duty of directing traffic. It was that kind of a joyful day! And it was a most positive affirmation of South African-U.S. bilateral relations.

Even the rain—always a blessing in Africa—waited for the ceremony’s conclusion before bringing relief to parched Washington.

Shrouded in mystery

Far beyond the Beltway

Americans are consistently concerned about their elected representatives becoming too Washington-centric. The bubble of Washington’s self-important political culture is alluring.

Leaving Washington and considering it from other vantages is always revealing. Whether viewing it from elsewhere in the United States, or from another country—as I am now, from Cape Town, South Africa—one always has a different perspective on Washington than when in it.

Washington, D.C., is a self evidently important global focal point. There are many cities in the world where momentous decisions are made that profoundly impact others, especially those living outside that city’s perimeters and indeed beyond that country’s borders. Washington and Beijing are arguably the two most powerful cities in the world at present, with the impact and influence of decisions made in these cities and then implemented beyond them being breathtaking.

On this visit to South Africa, I am mostly struck by how esoteric and inward-looking much of what is happening in Washington appears when one is well beyond “the Beltway”, the famous highway that encircles Washington. Certainly, these impressions occur too when in Washington itself. Indeed, one can then be consumed with dismay and frustration at the small-minded posturing and pettiness of much so-called debate there nowadays. As I sit in Cape Town, I am taken by the extent of the seeming triviality and purposelessness of so much of the political machinations in Washington. The antics and contortions of politicians there suggest they have lost the big picture. Their inability to address the U.S.’s challenges of the day has greatly damaged perceptions of the United States.

President Barack Obama’s recent visit to South Africa is one prism through which to view perceptions of the United States. I have intentionally asked as many local people as possible about how they viewed the president’s visit. Reactions ranged from great enthusiasm and appreciation to utter indifference and dismissal. There were of course also boisterous demonstrations against Obama’s presence from local Moslems appalled at targeted drone killings, as well as by those supporting the Palestinian cause and protesting U.S. bias toward Israel in the Middle East.

A key factor on President Obama’s visit to South Africa was the hospitalization in Pretoria of an elderly Nelson Mandela. Concern over Mandela’s health pervaded Obama’s visit. Obama recognized people’s distracted attention by mentioning Mandela at every opportunity throughout his visit and acknowledging Mandela’s profound influence on himself. Most importantly, Obama gained enormous goodwill and personal credit by backing away from possibly seeing the ailing Mandela, instead meeting privately with family members. South Africans approved wholeheartedly of this sensitivity by Obama.

Many to whom I have spoken were glad President Obama had taken the trouble to come. For those following the visit more closely, Obama’s public speeches at the University of Johannesburg ‘s Soweto branch and the next day at the University of Cape Town were well received, more notably the latter as it was less choreographed and so perceived as more sincere.

The UCT speech was noted for its focus on aspirations, ideas, and values. Obama remarked on the impossibility of predicting what was happening at that very moment—America’s first black president addressing a fully integrated audience at a South African university that had awarded an honorary degree to Nelson Mandela. Obama’s comments on the pernicious impact of corruption were particularly popular, reflecting South Africans’ dismay at increasing local corruption. His observation that government should serve its people rather than itself seemed to garner even more applause than when Obama greeted the crowd with South African salutations, including the ubiquitous “howzit”.

A Johannesburg-based friend shared an anecdote about a taxi driver she encountered who had journeyed to Soweto specifically to line the route the president’s motorcade would travel to his UJ Soweto speech. The driver was apparently enthralled by the experience. Other Johannesburg friends who were caught up in traffic snarl-ups related to the Obama visit remarked negatively on all the hardware that goes along with a presidential trip, with the word “circus” being used a few times.

While people overall appreciated that Obama, the first black American president, had come to South Africa, and recognized him as a “good guy”, others said “so what?” Many preferred instead to speak about their opposition to U.S. policies. They spoke of their dislike of U.S. surveillance methods and U.S. policies in the Middle East and the Pakistan/Afghanistan region. Others commented on the irony of Obama being so moved upon visiting Robben Island, where Mandela and other leaders from the anti-apartheid struggle were imprisoned for many years, while detainees from the war in Afghanistan are being held in Guantanamo Bay.

Obama coming to South Africa and making a couple of solid speeches certainly didn’t change the latent anti-Americanism of many South Africans. They need more than a once-in-a-blue-moon presidential visit to be convinced that the United States wants to engage seriously in Africa—and is not ceding Africa to the Chinese and Brazilians. For the United States to be more of a player here than it is, South Africans need to feel and see more commitment.

Personally, I do feel that the United States does not get the credit it should for its incredibly generous HIV/AIDS work here. Many hundreds of thousands of South Africans are alive today because of the U.S. PEPFAR Program, which began its life-sustaining donations of anti-retrovirals under President George W. Bush.

While Washington’s political sway might be diminishing in Africa, the pervasive impact of Hollywood and the U.S. music industry is amazing. The amusing, loveable minions from “Despicable Me” have, for example, achieved much attention in South Africa—wider than hapless American politicians? Reflecting clever marketing too, the minions appear in unexpected contexts here.

Is the soft power of American culture perhaps more powerful than the well-articulated thoughts of a visiting American president?

Mind the gap

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The unifying lustre of U.S. Independence Day celebrations was short lived this year. After a long weekend of flag flying, naturalization ceremonies, patriotic parades, home-grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, and fantastical firework shows, it was quickly back to the new normal of short-term thinking, special-interest legislating, and deadlock politics in the Nation’s Capital. And yet, after a fortnight of brutal political mudwrestling, there are now faint glimmers this week of a possible new modus operandi, at least in the U.S. Senate.

The most flagrant down grade was reserved for the meekest in U.S. society—those dependent on food stamps to feed themselves and their families. One in five Americans relies, in some way, on government food aid, such as food stamps or free or reduced school lunches; half of those who receive food aid are young people. These figures are stark reminders of how precarious life is for many in this wealthy but socially very unequal country.

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a farm bill that provides substantial subsidies to agribusiness. To placate conservatives, the bill was stripped of its customary simultaneous provision of billions of dollars to the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Republicans say that food stamp funding will be taken up later, in subsequent legislation. But the fact remains that conservatives are fixated on addressing the spike in the size in the food stamp program. Reflecting the devastating impact of the 2008 recession, the percentage of the population using food stamps has apparently risen from 8.7 in 2007 to 15.2 in the most current data. Conservatives want to reduce this heightened dependence on government; they feel that private, perhaps church-based, organisations should rather be meeting such needs.

The food stamp exclusion came on the heels of Congressional Republicans choosing not to extend government-subsidized interest rates on student loans, thereby letting rates double. Their preference is instead for rates to reflect the market. While bipartisan efforts to produce a way forward are underway in the Senate, the uncertainty has been most debilitating for those loan-dependent students trying to plan for the imminent academic year.

The prospects for long-needed immigration reform also nosedived after Independence Day. House Speaker John Boehner said he wouldn’t place a Senate-passed bill on comprehensive immigration reform before the U.S. House of Representatives as it lacked support from a majority of Republican House members. Instead, House Republicans expect to address immigration reform in a piecemeal fashion. They plan to pass aspects of the Senate bill they endorse—such as strengthening border security, permitting more visas for high-skill immigrants, and possibly providing a solution for “Dreamers”, young people brought to the United States illegally as children who now identify exclusively as Americans. And they will likely ignore the part of the Senate bill that is anathema to them but nonnegotiable for Democrats—the “path to citizenship”, whereby 11 million illegal residents can qualify in a long, expensive, and time-consuming process to become full-fledged American citizens. Addressing immigration reform in this bite-sized way will, in all likelihood, kill the initiative for yet another cycle. And some say that is conservatives’ real goal: to deny President Obama legislative success in yet another arena that has defied reform despite successive attempts over the last decades.Happy birthday America!

The noted Congressional actions reveal a conservative strategy that is narrow, cynical, and ideological. In their purist zeal to limit the size of government, lower taxes for Americans, and reduce the budget deficit, House Republicans are hurting those in U.S. society who most depend on government. It is hard too to avoid noticing that the groups being treated so dismissively by these recent actions formed the core of the national majority that elected and then reelected Barack Obama as president: Latinos, African-Americans, young people, and (unmarried) women.

Given the reality of demographic trends, it is especially surprising that House Republicans are willing to follow a politically ruinous strategy by not addressing their “Hispanic vote problem” through all-encompassing immigration reform. Their argument that they need to ensure better turnout of their key constituency—the white working class—while also trying to attract those more inclined to vote Democratic is short sighted. This will resign the Republican Party to having voting strength in particular states, counties, and cities, but being unable to compete for national tickets. Losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections has apparently not yet hammered home the message. The recent narrowly focused actions of House Republicans will only further marginalize their party.

The disconnection between more moderate leaders of the Republican Party and zealous U.S. House of Representatives’ members should be noted. Mainstream Republicans, like many in the business community, endorse immigration reform, including the “path to citizenship”. Even former President George W. Bush came out forcefully in public recently in support of comprehensive immigration reform.

The most encouraging news of the week was the breakthrough deal in the U.S. Senate whereby seven of President Obama’s long-delayed nominations to senior positions in the executive branch will be confirmed, although two nominees will have to be fresh choices. This positive development resulted from a strategy of brinkmanship by both Senate Democrats and Republicans over the filibuster, a much-treasured tool for the minority party in the Senate. May this sorely needed compromise portend a new style in all things congressional—or at least senatorial.

In addition to starting to confirm more agreed-upon candidates for executive office, today a bipartisan group of senators also concurred on a way forward on government-subsidized student loans. Although today’s Senate proposal will have to be reconciled with the House version, agreement now appears likely on rates marginally higher than previously but lower than the market rate. This agreement will hopefully be reached before students will need to lock in loan rates for the new academic year.

Despite 237 years of independence and freedom, American democracy is still a work in progress.

A whimsical patriot

Listserving the people

Digital communication replacing the village green is such a cliché. But our neighbourhood listserv really proves the point. This is especially so for relative newbies to the area like us.

One learns all sorts of personal details about people in the neighbourhood from our local listserv, including their names and often their addresses too. One learns, for example, who has car trouble, whose child wants to take ballet lessons, who runs a landscaping design business, who needs eldercare for a relative, and who took down a big tree and subsequently offered free firewood for weeks on end. I recognize many names from the listserv by association (“her kids are the ones still chopping away at the tree carcass in their yard, providing free wood to any who want it”), but if I were queuing behind the majority of these people at a till in a nearby supermarket, I would not know them.

Our local digital community bulletin board is a remarkable resource for all in the area. Post a query to it and you are bound to get a host of responses. Need a pediatrician? A plumber? A piano teacher who is willing to come to your home? Write to the listserv asking for ideas and at least a handful of kindly neighbours will usually answer with suggestions about the best (or worst) dentist, electrician, or roofer, you name it. Digital word of mouth is so powerful. All who live in the area are able to sign up for this treasure trove of handy information. A volunteer system administrator facilitates access through referrals.

As in all human interaction, there is unstated etiquette to the listserv. The good-natured, patient manner with which repeat appeals are typically handled amazes me. Persistent requests include recommendations for pediatricians and house- cleaning or lawn-mowing services. It is incredible how often these come up—and how responses are repeatedly yet generously offered. Only once do I remember someone writing in and pointedly suggesting the archives be searched as that subject had come up too recently. The supply of and demand for childcare services also features regularly on the listserv. Helpers looking for additional hours are often from Central or Latin American countries, or they are high school or college-age children living in the area. Additionally, there are frequent anxious appeals for child minders when arrangements with sitters fall through.

There are also explicitly stated protocols. Our system administrator is strict about the listserv remaining nonpartisan and nonpolitical. A posting last year letting folk know about a D.C. march supporting gun violence prevention resulted in an admonishment. Likewise promotion of a particular candidate in a recent school board election elicited a strong rebuke. Our area reflects the partisan fracturing of U.S. society, so it is no doubt wise to keep more divisive issues from the listserv if it is to continue playing its constructive, helpful role for all. Certainly, there are many other channels for digital partisan politicking.

Everyone can agree though that child predators casing the neighbourhood are a problem. Not long ago, the listserv was awash with descriptions of strange incidents in random locations involving an older male behaving threateningly around children and young teens. His physical attributes and those of a possible partner, as well as the vehicle he/they were driving, were widely circulated, along with pleas for extra vigilance.

Another event resulting in a series of postings recently was when a child threw a water-filled balloon at a passing car. The first post was from a person connected to the car that the balloon struck. She requested all abstain from such conduct, especially as it could be unnerving for novice or elderly drivers. The next posting on the subject was a gracious mea culpa from the parents of the balloon thrower. They expressed regret at the incident, as well as noting their negligence in providing adequate supervision of the children playing with water. Subsequent entries complemented the parents for admitting their child’s role in the incident and acknowledging their own culpability. An awkward situation was thus handled and stylishly resolved—completely digitally—in front of the whole community.

A previous “digital confession” to the community is also noteworthy. This was the incident, described in a previous blog, where a neighbor accidently locked himself out of his own home and was then “caught” breaking in. The embarrassed neighbor explained to the listserv what had happened and then apologized for the disruptions and inconvenience due to all the police activity.

The listserv really does enhance people’s ability to look out for one another. It is useful for evaluating how widespread a power outage might be during their too-frequent occurrence due to bad storms. Thanks to the ubiquity of smart phones, even during power failures, one can quickly learn their extent and coordinate calls for technical assistance. The listserv is also a tool for obtaining assessments of driving conditions during severe weather. Folk working, say, in downtown Washington can write in after a storm to ask about area road conditions.

The listserv is so much more than finding a highly recommended local orthodontist, giving away outgrown children’s toys, or flogging no-longer-needed baseball mitts. It really does foster good neighbourliness. An entry from a couple of years ago that touched me was from the desperate mother of a two month old who screamed every time he ate. The empathetic, idea-laden responses from the community were quite moving. I have no doubt that one of the reactions, or a combination of them, resolved the situation for the mother and her baby. We never heard back from her to know.

The area listserv is an incredibly effective way to help one another in the digital age. It is a microcosm of the global village.

“How am I doin’?”

Americans are obsessed with performance measures and evaluation. Giving and receiving feedback is a vital component of today’s competitive, meritocratic America. It is, of course, also essential in a services-oriented economy. The quality of an experience with a company, at a restaurant, or in a shop is critical to the success of that enterprise. All hope for a positive, affirming experience—especially one that is then commended to others.

In some countries, concern about the quality of an experience or engagement is nonexistent. In others, like Japan, excellence is assumed. In the United States, concern about performance is persistent.

A simple verbal exchange with a cashier at a shop often results in the person, for example, mentioning their name, circling a website or phone number printed at the bottom of the receipt, and requesting that one connects with that site or calls the number to volunteer information about one’s experience that day. This person would also note that a discount or some other kind of financial incentive would be made available if one did this.

Interaction with cashiers or others in retail that result in this patterned behaviour can make one cynical. People here are hyper aware of being perceived as friendly, even though it is obvious when interaction is disingenuous “sales speak”. I always cringe at the rhetorical, pro forma “Did you find everything you were looking for today?” or “Do you need help out to your car?”

When we moved to Washington nearly three years ago, acquiring a car was an early necessity. A visit to a dealership that carried the car in which we were interested turned out to be rather efficient. The car salesman appeared incredibly happy at the quick, seemingly effortless sale. Upon our leaving, he noted we would be asked later about our experience with him and he hoped our response would be favourable. A couple of weeks later, we received two requests for an evaluation of our experience. One was a phone call, the other a written survey, and I responded to both. I was amazed when the salesman called not once, but twice, to check whether I had responded. He was desperate to get his commission or bonus.

An experience last weekend partly motivated this blog post. I needed to make an airline reservation, was unable to get the job done through the airline’s website, and hence called the company’s toll-free customer service number. The usual long series of automated questions had to be answered, the last of which was whether I would be willing to answer a customer survey after speaking to an agent. I heartlessly answered “no”. And then waited for an agent to come on the call. And waited. And waited. After fifty minutes of holding, I put down the phone in utter disgust. A couple of days later, I endured the whole rigmarole again, only this time I answered that I would be willing to respond to a survey. Guess what: an agent answered my call within eight minutes! Was this a coincidence? I don’t think so.

The American education system also reflects this obsession with evaluation. Indeed, many complain that the testing craze has gone too far. It’s “SOL” time now for many school-going children across America. These “standards of learning” tests assess core competencies and are fundamental to all evaluations of students, teachers, and schools. How well students do in these subject-based, state-wide tests has a significant bearing on teacher evaluations. Student performance in these tests also affects states’ assessment of schools. The federal government too considers these test outcomes in rewarding schools and states with federal money as part of President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative.

Belief in key performance indicators (KPI), feedback loops, and accountability permeates American society. Compensation is then based on the data.

Wall Street is the epitome and distorted extreme of this data-driven society, where quarterly reviews and results are the only name of the game.

The ultimate assessment tool in American culture is, of course, its electoral system, while the Constitution itself enshrines a balance of power between government functions.

Overall, the performance-driven and results-oriented culture of America is invigorating—even if the constant requests for assessment can be irritating and draining. The compulsion here to quantify so much interaction is also of concern though. Sometimes there seems too much emphasis on quantifying and meeting targets, as apposed to the quality and depth of encounters. One could also ask whether the right things are being quantified. And isn’t the system too often being gamed? Are the unaware and uneducated able to participate?

And yet a results-based culture is probably “the worst form for [society] except for all the others that have been tried”—with apologies to Winston Churchill.

In an in-between season

DSC_0047America is in transition. As with the 9/11 attacks, the jarring, life-sapping bomb blasts at the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday are likely to change America. Unlike the predictable giving way of blooms on flowering trees and shrubs to green foliage in spring, what the past week’s events will herald in American society is not clear. The impact on President Barack Obama’s second-term agenda is also uncertain.

For the most part, the initial response has been a vigorous and aggressive re-assertion of America’s values and most fundamental beliefs. Speaking in Boston on Thursday, President Obama, who lived in Boston himself as a student, noted, “We may be momentarily knocked off our feet, but we’ll pick ourselves up.” While it was impossible for Bostonians to continue as normal much of the week, affirmations of normality could be observed here in the D.C. metro area—although security was tightened around public buildings, especially after the unsettling news of ricin-tainted letters being sent to the president and a senator. Friday was a bizarre day for all, even for those not in Boston or directly affected by the shutdown and “sheltering in place”. One could follow, in real time, the hunt for the remaining bomber. Some media halted regular programming to provide ongoing coverage, making for surreal, unsettling juxtapositions. One continued one’s scheduled activities while listening to and following media to learn the latest developments. Perhaps it was my imagination, but people seemed extra friendly, polite, and civil in their interactions with others on Friday. Life felt so fragile and delicate.

As the wife of a marathoner, my children and I have stood at the finish lines of many marathons. I know and appreciate the mood and emotions of people waiting at the end of these races: anticipation to see your special runner; joy (and utter relief) when you do see him/her; pride and marvel as you consider what all the runners have endured to reach that point; and enjoyment of the self-evident camaraderie among the runners who have all challenged themselves. The horrendous end to this year’s Boston Marathon has affected me in an intimate way. The death of the eight-year-old boy waiting for his dad to finish the race—with his sister, who subsequently lost a leg, and mother, who was also severely injured—is especially gutting. It could easily have been my family waiting at that marathon close.

The end of a marathon always involves such a complex flash of emotions. It is difficult to comprehend adding Boston’s horror, panic, and fear to the mix. One can only be impressed by the incredible bravery, compassion, and empathy that so many showed in Boston to their fellow runners and spectators when confronted with such gratuitous and unexpected mayhem.

One wonders whether some will now urge the adoption of further security measures for public gatherings such as marathons. Yet taking steps to scrutinize people before allowing access to public events could provoke a backlash and resistance to further intrusions on people’s freedoms. More security measures for such events might not be either cost effective or workable. It will be fascinating to watch how the public debate about this unfolds.

It is always said that America is a society of immigrants and laws. That the bombers were naturalized Americans of Chechen ethnicity and Moslem faith who arrived here on asylum visas is fodder for those campaigning against immigration reform. Quite coincidentally, comprehensive legislation on reforming U.S. immigration policies was presented to the American public this week (before the identities of the Boston bombers became known). A bipartisan group of eight senators has worked on this package for months, and their proposals for a way forward were eagerly awaited. Awareness of demographic trends in U.S. society and the present tendency of Hispanic communities to support the Democratic Party over the Republican Party make both parties more favourably disposed to tackling immigration reform.

Yet for both parties, immigration reform has profound implications. Not succeeding in getting immigration reform adopted would be disastrous for President Obama’s second administration. Indeed, passage of such reforms is a centerpiece of his second-term agenda. For the Republican Party, immigration reform is the quintessential wedge issue. There is no other issue that could splinter the party like immigration reform. The Boston bombers not being native-born Americans is a new complicating factor, with some already suggesting that all immigration should be stopped while immigration reform is debated.

The other political complication from the week was the rejection on Wednesday of a procedural step that would have allowed consideration of a bipartisan measure in the Senate to expand background checks on gun purchasers. It is noteworthy that expanding background checks has majority support in the Senate (54 to 46), the categorical backing of the White House, and the emphatic support of the majority of Americans according to public opinion polls. The procedural measure needed a “super majority” of 60 votes to pass, yet the National Rifle Association was able to prevent the measure from getting the six additional votes it needed for the background check measure even to be considered. Ironically, the majority vote would have been sufficient to pass the measure had the Senate actually been voting on the bill.

Will the minority that rejected even considering background checks for gun purchasers be the same minority that coalesces around rejecting immigration reform? Will those of this minority also stand in the way of progress on tax reform and reducing the budget imbalance, the other big issue of Obama’s second-term agenda? If so, what will be the verdict of American voters in the 2014 mid-term elections, the campaigns for which are effectively already underway?

Right after Boston, Obama declared that, “There are no Republicans or Democrats; we are Americans united in concern.” As the innocence of spring blossoms gives way to the grimy humidity of a Washington summer, one has to expect the ideological and political battles will heat up too.

Go take a hike

Potomac Overlook Regional ParkPotomac Overlook Regional Park is soul food for this African. Walking in the park’s forests gives a smidgeon of the sensation of being in untrammeled nature and away from it all—despite being in a densely populated area close to the heartbeat of one of the world’s most powerful cities. I try to go there as often as possible, and always emerge refreshed and energized. I’ve blogged about it previously: it’s one of the places where observing deer is exhilarating rather than exasperating. Seeing them there transforms us humans from beleaguered gardeners into awestruck visitors. Park woodlands are where deer belong.

Apart from wildlife and the trees, the other appealing aspect of Potomac Overlook Regional Park is the gradient. I enjoy the way the forests slope down to the Potomac River. So it was perhaps inevitable that someone would hatch a plan to develop the park’s forested bluffs along the Potomac into a commercial zip line venture.

The suggested plans also included “expansion of the park entrance and additional parking, construction of a new amphitheater/stage area, an urban agriculture plot, a youth group camping area, and improvements to the birds of prey shelter”.

Having two thrill-loving teenagers and having experienced myself the pleasure of such canopy tours—in South Africa’s Magaliesberg—I’m not averse to zip lining. It’s great fun! However, the notion of developing so dramatically one of the remaining, relatively untouched woodlands in the metro area is simply horrifying. Washington residents, human and animal alike, need a place such as Potomac Overlook Regional Park to help stay sane. The idea of tampering with it reminded me of Joni Mitchell’s “pav[ing] paradise to put up a parking lot”.

Happily, many in the community were similarly appalled at the idea of changing so many aspects of this treasure of a park.

A meeting on March 19, this past Tuesday, in a church hall adjoining the park was overflowing with indignant, vocal, and very organized park lovers. They had flooded the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority with emails, letters, and phone calls since the NVRPA authorized “planning and implantation” of the projects at a November 15, 2012 meeting and then presented revised plans at a February 26, 2013 public meeting.

At the outset of Tuesday’s meeting, NVRPA officials announced that they rescinded their November 15, 2012 authorization to plan and implement the projects. They admitted to “eating a big slice of humble pie”, and noted the “force of the community” and the “power of public opinion”. Using a buzz phrase that the Obama administration has contributed to Washington lexicon, they promised to “hit reset”.

It is a remarkable turnaround and a breath of fresh air to hear officials admitting to miscalculation and error. Oh that all public officials or managers were so responsive to those whose interests they ostensibly serve.

In their campaign to get NVRPA board members to change their mind, the activist park users reminded all that the NVRPA itself had declared “the mission of Potomac Overlook Regional Park is to provide a protected woodland sanctuary, in order to preserve environmental quality and species diversity; to provide environmental and cultural education, stressing the relationship between all living organisms and to provide a natural setting in which to enjoy low impact recreational activities and physical exercise.”

Beware any entity that tries to implement a measure in a community such as this that doesn’t have broad-based support. In a fair generalization, many Washington area residents are over-educated, overachieving, incredibly determined people who know how to organize and get their opinion across. Don’t mess with them, or cross them. A well-informed and highly opinionated citizenry lives here.

As usual, the source of the problem was a search for revenue. Potomac Overlook Regional Park, the largest park in Arlington County, is clearly not a moneymaking enterprise. Indeed, it is documented to be one of the revenue drains for the NVRPA, although it is not the biggest money loser among the parks.

NVRPA officials acknowledged it was a mistake to pursue turning such a nature education park into a revenue stream without better community outreach and engaging earlier with the public.

The furor around Potomac Overlook Regional Park is an instructive example of the weight that public opinion should be play in policymaking. Policymakers ignore the views of those they serve at their peril. If only this type of pragmatic, consensual politics could be practiced at the federal and state level as well as it was this past week in Arlington County.

But it is not enough to merely solicit public opinion. Government officials must also listen to that public opinion and react accordingly. Public officials’ contrite apologies can be even more refreshing than a walk in the woods.

 

Tech tools: Paths to participation?

This past Valentine’s Day at my daughter’s school led me to thinking about whether all the technology tools now available really do–or do not–increase participation.

The PTA organizes staff appreciation lunches throughout the school year, one of which is traditionally on Valentine’s Day. Well before these lunches, an email from the PTA goes out to parents soliciting suggested contributions. This is linked to an electronic sign-up site, where folk can add their names to the categories of needs for the event. And then the promised items should be delivered on the appropriate day.

Do these broad appeals elicit different people participating each time? Or do the same “usual suspects” respond and contribute each time? I surveyed the current PTA school directory of family names and contact details: Nearly all families provided an email address as a contact point (only a small minority opt out of being in the directory), so the universe of potential participants in an event such as the Valentine’s Day staff appreciation lunch is very large. It would be revealing to know if the same families are repeat participants in these events or if different families step forward to contribute.

Two other experiences that same week reinforced this interest in who is engaging and who is not. Our landline rang about an hour and a half before President Barack Obama was to deliver his State of the Union address. Caller ID showed the incoming call to be from “U S Captl”. We usually ignore phone calls when it is unclear who is calling, but you can’t blame me for being curious that night. Who would be calling us at that time on that particular night—from the U.S. Capitol?

The call was from our congressman’s office. It was completely unexpected and unsolicited. A recording by an aide to Congressman Jim Moran invited immediate participation in a live telephone discussion with the congressman on various issues. I decided to stay on the line, intrigued by how something like this would work. Congressman Moran first addressed themes thought likely to be in President Obama’s State of the Union speech. And then he took about six to eight questions. Constituents who wished to ask a question were instructed to punch in a code. When they asked their question, they became audible to all, while the rest of us remained mute.

The most surprising part of this technology experience was that the outreach was routed through our landline, yesteryear’s technology.

Minutes after he had finished delivering the State of Union address to a national television audience, President Obama spoke to supporters through an online conference call. To connect to this online opportunity with the president, you had to have signed up beforehand with Organizing for Action, the nonprofit organization derived from Obama’s reelection campaign that is trying to mobilize community (and financial) support for his legislative priorities. President Obama had participated in a similar massive conference call with supporters a few days after his reelection last November.

President Obama and Congressman Moran targeted different audiences and used different tools to reach them. Nevertheless, I do wonder how many people were caught in the intersection of both these outreach efforts. How many engaged American voters participated in both of those opportunities? The congressman’s initiative was unsolicited (yes, I could have put the phone down) and participation in the president’s was self-selecting. But it would be fascinating to know who took part in both? Same old, same old? Or were people new to the political process drawn in by either outreach effort?

Since landlines were the way Congressman Moran’s office could identify who lived in his constituency, this was a feasible way to go. Yet many are now choosing to discontinue having a landline and depending exclusively on smart or cell phones.

A question about the Obama team’s outreach reflects broader concern about the digital divide. Nowadays, wealthy and middle-class urban residents take for granted Internet access and rely on the technologies that allow it. The assumption of almost universal Internet connectivity in the Washington D.C. metro area is alarming. But how many are not included? Here the digital divide may reinforce existing socio-economic inequities, with the well-connected, excuse the pun, always being favored. And the more Internet-enabled technology one has at one’s fingertips, the better and wider one’s choices.

Public libraries are critical to bridging the digital divide. They are a mainstay for those with limited or no other Internet access. Observing the rows of computer users at the terminals in libraries here is always such a pleasure (and a painful reminder of how South Africa has neglected and underfunded its public libraries in recent years). Many of the public libraries around here are hives of activity and engines of digital integration.

Notwithstanding the hustle and bustle at nearby libraries, is all this online activity really expanding opportunities for true political participation? Is political participation narrowing or broadening with the ubiquity of Internet access? Or is the noise only the reverberations of the echo chamber of the “well-connected”?

A quintessential Washington night

It was the first time for me. Never before had I attended an inaugural party, never mind an official inaugural ball, around a U.S. presidential inauguration.

Aspects of last night will stay with me forever, but the subway ride back to our car at the end of the evening provided some memorable moments. The juxtaposition of riders reflected the assorted diversity of America in snapshot form. The bejeweled, glamorously clad attendees of inaugural celebrations contrasted with other riders. Some were journalists in jeans pushing carts laden with equipment. Others too had clearly put in an extra-long day’s work and seemed drained, relieved to be finally heading home. Some already seated on the train when we boarded had the dazed, weary look of folk who had been on the job all day. Perhaps they had worked since sunrise, preparing to cater to throngs of inauguration viewers? Or maybe they were cleaners who had just finished a shift dealing with the aftermath of the day’s revelry? They looked with seeming indifference at the black-tie folk in their midst. Or was it with bemusement? Disgust? Or even envy? It was hard to read their minds as they surveyed the groups of loud, fancily dressed partygoers standing in the train.

The eclectic combination of people thrown together in our subway carriage included a statuesque woman with an incredibly tall and dramatic gold hat. She seemed Nigerian—or at least her hat did. Perhaps she had attended the widely promoted charity ball that ambassadors from various countries had put together? This lady with the imposing hat didn’t look at all tired. She looked ready for a regal procession or to be part of a family wedding photo.

Men in formal military dress wear, with all kinds of medals filling their lapels, also stood out. They and their wives or dates were clearly fresh from the “Commander-in-Chief’s Ball”, one of two official inaugural balls. One such gentleman, in a splendid Southern drawl, had immediately offered me his seat when we boarded. Such gallantry is not generally expected at that late hour on Washington public transportation.

Like the passengers on the subway last night, Washington encapsulates diversity. The powerful coexist with the relatively powerless, the haves with the have-nots, the chivalrous with the rude. The scene had me thinking about the inaugural speech President Barack Obama delivered earlier that day. He had observed, “For we the people understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it… We do not believe in this country that freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few.”

D.C.’s Metro system was the great leveler last night. The subway was definitely the most efficient way to get around. The gridlock was as bad as forewarned. Unless you were the president or vice president and travel with police escorts in a motorcade, you were foolish to be wedded to a car. I’m not sure if other chauffeured, limousine-riding VIPs were able to beat the traffic odds. The many road closures around the National Mall where President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were publicly inaugurated earlier in the day were partly to blame. Backups were also due to the sheer volume of vehicles on the road, especially around the Washington Convention Center where the two official inaugural balls were held.

Walking was also extremely popular—despite the frigid weather. A regular sight earlier in the evening was people walking hand-in-hand, bundled in coats, heading toward the Convention Center. Surprisingly often, a man might have been carrying a woman’s pair of impressively high-heeled shoes, with a woman ambling alongside in a pair of flats, holding a clutch bag. Guess the flat shoes were going to be stuffed into coat pockets at the coat check, and the showy, sexy, high pair then given the chance to strut their stuff. Trust ever-practical Americans! Have to get to the event comfortably, but then look good when there!

An inaugural ball myth was exploded for me: Most people DID wear coats, given the fearsome, wind-chilled cold. One is warned about the long coat-check queues at the end of such events, so the recommendation is not to bring a coat to check. The chilliness of the evening showed most to be sensible though. Only a minority seemed to be “underdressed” despite being in black-tie and ball-gown finery.

We attended two events: A sponsored party at one of the Smithsonian Museums, plus one of the two official inaugural balls at the Convention Center. The former was a cocktail party, with delicious food, a wide-ranging bar, quiet music so conversation with fellow attendees was possible, and, most remarkably, the possibility to sit down. The latter was not exactly an intimate affair—we were part of the reputed 40,000 who attended the two official balls. We missed the fleeting appearance and dance of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, but it really didn’t matter. With so many people present, I doubt we would have been able to get close enough to actually witness the moment with the naked eye. Giant video screens provided a sense of what was happening on stage. That was how we were able to enjoy Stevie Wonder giving his all, belting out his familiar songs while weaving characteristically to the rhythms. No food was available at this event, but champagne, wine, and other sundries could be purchased for a princely sum.

People watching and celebrity spotting were most rewarding. The whole kaleidoscope that is America was present. Local Washingtonians danced in delight to honour Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday it was yesterday, plus to celebrate the re-inaugurated Obama. Many of those filling the expansive dance floor were grassroots activists from out of town who had worked to reelect Obama. Seasoned, older political operatives mingled with young activists. Pride and joy were palpable.

That is the overriding impression: Folk really had fun and enjoyed themselves. And the buzz of happy people was infectious. Even when they were outside in the mind-numbing cold, traipsing from one event to another, they were laughing, smiling, and full of joy. People in Washington are typically intense and usually take themselves too seriously. Last night was different. There was an appealing lightness to the mood.

Hopeful hints of change

When Barack Obama is re-inaugurated as president of the United States this long weekend, the weather is expected to be chilly, bright, and clear. This forecast is symbolically appropriate, as President Obama is beginning to articulate his vision for America with greater clarity, vigor, and purpose.

The team President Obama is assembling around him for his second term suggests an agenda stressing domestic priorities. World events will always compel a U.S. president’s attention, but Obama is signaling clearly that his focus will be on domestic issues. As he emphasized during his reelection campaign, “It’s time for nation building at home”. This is true. The world needs a strengthened America. The world needs an America that has reprioritized and balanced its budget, and bolstered its economy to create more jobs. The world needs an America that has rededicated itself to supporting its citizens with better education, improved infrastructure, accessible healthcare, and other tools to get ahead and provide for themselves and their families into the future.

The administration’s battles with Congress have acquired a different hue lately, hinting at a new dynamic. Despite itself, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted for that anathema—tax increases—for those Americans with annual incomes over $400,000.00. Wary of authorizing further spending, Republicans reluctantly also agreed to extend $50 billion in aid to those devastated by Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey last November.

A slim minority of House Republicans breaking with their party and supporting the Democrats to provide the winning votes was essential to passage of these two bills. This is the formula Obama and his team will have to use repeatedly in coming months to get measures through the House of Representatives. Obama will have to keep coaxing such splits in the Republican monolith to enable passage of his legislative priorities. This type of bipartisan behaviour is, of course, how effective democracies should operate.

There is yet another new approach from House Republicans: They announced yesterday they will support extending the government’s borrowing authority for three months, rather than force another fabricated crisis now. This action will give more time to craft agreement on budgets for the new fiscal year, including possible tangible deficit reduction. This extension of the debt ceiling is a most positive and practical concession from the Republican side.

President Obama is also a more seasoned politician and strategist this time round. This past week, he showed how much he has learned from past battles with Congress when he presented very particular proposals for executive and legislative action to curb gun violence. The horrific murders of twenty first-grade students and six adult staff members at their Newtown, Connecticut elementary school in mid-December have galvanized opposition to America’s loose gun laws. Newtown has created the opportunity for changes to America’s permissive gun culture like no other recent mass tragedy involving a gun—and there have, unfortunately, been too many. Shifts in public opinion show majorities of Americans now support, in differing degrees, various specific measures to curb guns.

Since the day of the massacre, which he has described as the “most difficult day” of his presidency, President Obama has appealed for action in common sense, reasonable, and nonpartisan terms. He says Americans will have failed in their duty as parents to keep children safe if they do not act to curtail gun violence.

In making his very specific recommendations for action this week—derived from Vice President Joe Biden’s task force—Obama promised he will “put everything [he’s] got” into getting the announced measures adopted. Having been criticized for “leading from behind” on other issues, his fast, impassioned, and firm response to the gun control challenge is the essence of presidential leadership.

Obama has thrown down the gauntlet to members of Congress and the National Rifle Association. He challenged the American public to put pressure on members of Congress to state their position on the measures “on record” and “…[I]f they say no, ask them why not. Ask them what’s more important: Doing whatever it takes to get an ‘A’ grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off to first grade?” He added, “There will be pundits and politicians and special-interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty—not because that’s true, but because they want to gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves. And behind the scenes, they’ll do everything they can to block any common-sense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever.” He has urged members of Congress to “examine their own conscience.”

The NRA’s capture of the legislative process concerning guns at federal, state, and local levels of government has been alarmingly successful until now. Its disturbingly effective modus operandi is to bully legislators to do its bidding. In elections, it spends millions to bolster proponents and, far more importantly, oppose those who reject its viewpoint. The NRA ferociously pursues those who vote against its narrowly defined interests. Republican members of Congress who oppose it have been vulnerable to primary challenges by NRA-sponsored candidates, while Democrats have been vulnerable to general election challenges. Gerrymandered voting districts across America that limit diversity in opinion have further strengthened the hand of the NRA and other special interest groups.

Until now, the NRA has been ruthlessly effective in furthering its agenda. Might the debate about gun control be different after Newtown, especially with such strong presidential sponsorship? How the gun violence prevention debate plays out in Congress could have an enormous impact on President Obama’s second term.