Tyranny in Tehran

At last weekend’s inaugural Tea Party Convention, there was much bloviating about “oppressed” Americans “suffering” under the Obama Administration’s “tyranny.” Judge Roy More, former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, even delivered a rousing sermon comparing our President to King George III, the British ruler overthrown in the American Revolution.

Nothing better illustrates the utter absurdity of these delusions than contrasting the Tea Party with an actual, grassroots, democratic movement created to confront real, rather than imagined, tyranny.

Last June, protesters took to Tehran’s streets, showing their support for Mir Hussein Moussavi, an opposition candidate in Iran’s disputed presidential election. Allegedly, forces loyal to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad engaged in widespread fraud at the polls, costing Moussavi his shot at the presidency.

Violent clashes ensued between demonstrators and the regime-sponsored Basij militia. Eventually, one of the Basiji opened fire on the crowd, killing an unarmed, 26 year-old woman named Neda Agha-Soltan. Instead of dispersing the masses, however, Agha-Soltan’s brutal killing galvanized them. Suddenly, the “Green Movement” was born.

More demonstrations followed, with the most recent spate of violence occurring late last year, during Shi’a Islam’s Ashura holiday. These clashes cost at least eight Iranians their lives, including Moussavi’s nephew, who was shot to death by security forces.

Today marks the 31st anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Tensions are running high in Tehran and the government’s well-coordinated clampdown is already underway. Over the last few days, security officials have rounded up dozens of journalists, photographers and students as well as women’s and children’s rights advocates.

Moussavi himself compared this suppression to the worst abuses committed under the hated Shah, who was deposed by the 1979 revolution: “Stifling the media, filling the prisons, and brutally killing people who peacefully demand their rights in the streets indicate the roots of tyranny and dictatorship remain from the monarchist era.”

Despite these draconian measures, the Green Movement’s defiant legions remain undaunted. Daily Beast contributor Jason Shams defines the group’s motto as, “Each Iranian is a media outlet.” And they practice what they preach.

As Shams observes, “the computer students are all over the place with their backpacks filled with flash drives and proxy programs, always a step ahead of the bearded dinosaurs and their dying ideologies.”

Moreover, while Americans generally use Facebook and Twitter to pour over the excruciating minutae of modern life, the Greens employ these social networking websites to disseminate information, plan operations and mobilize their organization.

Armed with camera phones, laptops and an iron will, these courageous individuals communicate their message to the world even without the journalists imprisoned by Ahmadinejad’s repressive regime.

Censorship, harassment, intimidation, coercion, mass arrests, public beatings and de-facto executions by government-sponsored death squads. These are the harsh realities of living under tyranny. If the Tea Party movement’s petulant populists want to witness its horrors first-hand, I implore them to purchase a one-way ticket to Tehran. I suspect they’ll be in for a rude awakening.

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Despicable

I founded Armchair Firebrand as a direct response to Republican obstructionism in our government and the widespread proliferation of Right-wing misinformation throughout our media. In the weeks and months since this endeavor began, those nefarious forces have only grown stronger.

Washington D.C. shut down well before last weekend’s epic snowstorm descended upon our nation’s capitol. Thursday, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) placed a “blanket hold” on nearly seventy Obama Administration nominees currently awaiting Senate approval.

Shelby’s objection has nothing to do with these qualified individuals themselves. Rather, it hinges upon a pair of earmarks, recently eliminated from our nation’s budget, that would benefit his home state of Alabama. Placing these narrow interests above filling so many vacant posts within our government is both irresponsible and inexcusable.

Shelby’s intransigence is also a sharp rebuke of President Obama’s recent request that the G.O.P. govern responsibly rather than blindly obstruct his agenda. If Senate Republicans insist on throwing such temper tantrums every time they don’t get their way, our country will soon become ungovernable.

Even more despicable is the venomous vitriol spewing forth from the Tea Party’s inaugural convention in Nashville, Tennessee. Friday, in his speech at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo fervently denounced our President as “a committed socialist ideologue” elected by “people who cannot even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English.”

Then there was Sarah Palin, an unsuccessful G.O.P. Vice Presidential candidate and half-term former governor, who reportedly received $100,000 for delivering the convention’s keynote address Saturday night. Palin began with a stunning indictment of optimism and progress, rhetorically asking Obama voters, “How’s that hope-y, change-y stuff workin’ out for ya?”

Meanwhile, Palin’s political paradigm or, to employ her preferred populist parlance, presumably, “that fear-y, status quo thingy,” seems to be working out just fine, at least for her. This self-centered strategy has proven extremely effective in the short-term, upping Ms. Palin’s media profile while lining her pockets at the same time.

However, appealing to people’s irrational fear of change generally brings out the worst in them (a fact demonstrated by the many misguided and offensive slogans spouted at tea party events last summer).

And assuring voters that we can continue consuming resources at or above our current rate is as reckless as it is dishonest. To use a tired metaphor, at a time when Americans must get leaner, Palin is scoring political points by telling us we can eat ice cream every night for dinner and never gain weight or run out of milk.

Journalist Jacob Weisberg recently bemoaned this cheap brand of political charlatanism in his piece for Slate.com, “the politicians thriving at the moment are the ones who embody this live-for-the-today mentality, those best able to call for the impossible with a straight face…Middle-class Americans really don’t want to hear about sacrifices or trade-offs—except as flattering descriptions about how ready we, as a people, are, or used to be, to accept them.”

As Weisberg notes, in our democracy, the buck stops with us: the American People. We’re the ones enabling the despicable words and actions of cynical charlatans like Shelby, Tancredo and Palin by failing to expose the obvious flaws in their logic. Instead, we’re left with a public unwilling or unable to separate fact from fiction and make the tough choices necessary to bring our country back from the brink.

Separate but Equal?

When Major Alan Rogers was killed by an Iraqi insurgent’s roadside bomb in 2008, the U.S. Army lost a gifted intelligence officer and dedicated soldier. Rogers made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, but the same military he devoted his life to also compelled him to live a lie for nearly twenty years. Just because he was gay.

Unlike their counterparts in Israel, Canada, and the United Kingdom, homosexuals are not allowed to serve openly in the United States Armed Forces. President Clinton attempted to rectify this inequity in 1993 but the backlash from the Right was so severe that he was forced to compromise, leading to the infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The time has come to repeal this insufficient half-measure and honor the contribution of courageous, gay Americans like Major Rogers by inviting them to come out of the closet.

Preparations for this breakthrough are currently underway. On Tuesday, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee,

“I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens…For me personally, it comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.”

It’s refreshing to hear this sentiment expressed by our nation’s top military brass, especially since not everyone shares Mullen’s broad-minded perspective. Earlier this week, the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol fiercely defended “don’t ask, don’t tell” in an editorial,

“There is no basic right to serve in the military. That’s why forms of discrimination we would ban in civilian life are permitted… Advocates of repeal will say sexual orientation is irrelevant to military performance… But this is not clearly true given the peculiar characteristics of military service.”

Not only is Kristol’s argument eerily similar to the rationale for defending segregation during the 1950’s, it’s also very misleading.

Brave men and women like Major Rogers, Marine-of-the-Year recipient Sgt. Justin Elzie and countless others have already proven him wrong with their exemplary service. On the contrary, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is clearly costing us some of our best and brightest soldiers.

Kristol goes on to claim that Democrats have, “No sense that not every part of society can be treated dogmatically according to certain simple propositions.”

He would do well to recall the certain, simple, self-evident proposition that, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This idea, so eloquently expressed in our Declaration of Independence, forms the very cornerstone of our republic. Mr. Kristol is fond of using the term “American patriots” to describe his conservative colleagues. I suggest he examine what that term actually means.

For instance, contrast Kristol’s words with those of Leonard Matlovich, a decorated Vietnam veteran and Air Force sergeant who challenged the military’s stance on gays back in 1975, “It was just great pride to be an American, to know I’m oppressed but able to stand up there and say so.”

Now, you tell me, which one of these Americans is more patriotic?

Live Together, Die Alone

For me, last night’s State of the Union address will forever be entwined with next week’s season premiere of Lost, and not just because of the much publicized scheduling conflict between the two television events. As strange as it sounds, ABC’s sci-fi inflected drama and the President’s moving oration share a common theme.

By imploring Congressional Republicans to cooperate with Democrats on confronting the many, critical concerns facing our nation, President Obama echoed the rallying cry of Lost ‘s motley crew of castaways: “live together, die alone.”

Following the crash of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815, the survivors find themselves marooned on a mysterious island in the South Pacific. Several days pass and cabin fever begins to set in. As tensions run high, a scuffle breaks out, prompting former trauma surgeon Jack Shepard to assert himself as the group’s leader.

After separating the two combatants, Shepard admonishes his newfound flock, “We can’t do this. Every man for himself is not going to work. It’s time to start organizing. We need to figure out how we’re going to survive here. If we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.”

Likewise, speaking on behalf of all Americans last night, President Obama declared, “They are tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness. They know we can’t afford it. Not now…we face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope – what they deserve – is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics.”

A similar sentiment arises from both of these appeals. Each leader is beseeching his people to resolve their superficial or ideological differences in the interest of ensuring their mutual survival and shared prosperity. Like the American people, the Oceanic survivors came from diverse backgrounds and represented a wide-range of beliefs. And like us, they faced “big and difficult challenges.”

But, out of necessity, they banded together to divide labor, delegate responsibility and otherwise forge the bonds of a functioning society. Over two hundred years ago, a bold group of Americans from throughout the thirteen colonies made a similar pact: the Declaration of Independence. It’s time for us to renew those vows.

Retaining our position as global hegemon in this burgeoning century will require a massive investment in our future. We must fix our country’s crumbling infrastructure by repairing our dilapidated roads, bridges, dams and public transit systems. We must amend our unsustainable economic, environmental, energy and health care policies. And we must fight against the growing culture of distrust and cynicism that is suffocating our democracy.

Unless we unite to overcome these obstacles, our nation will collapse under “the numbing weight of our politics.” Live together, die alone. It’s that simple.

Waterloo or Dunkirk?

Last summer, Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) predicted that if Republicans were “able to stop” passage of a comprehensive health care reform bill, the defeat would be President Obama’s “Waterloo” (a reference to the French Emperor Napoleon’s final battle). In the months that followed, health care industry lobbyists and their GOP counterparts engaged in a shameful campaign of scare-tactics, disinformation and outright lies against reform.

This cynical crusade proved brutally effective, turning public opinion against the bill and helping to sweep Senator-elect Scott Brown (R-MA) into office. Consequently, Democratic leaders are considering scrapping the legislation and starting from scratch. Some even advocate walking away from the issue entirely. That would be a huge mistake. If Congressional Democrats abandon health care now, DeMint’s statement may very well come true.

On the contrary, by coming together and successfully salvaging some semblance of reform, this battle may prove to be President Obama’s Dunkirk rather than his Waterloo. For those who slept through history class, the “miracle of Dunkirk” occurred in 1940, prior to U.S. involvement in World War Two. Following a disastrous offensive against Nazi Germany in France, over 300,000 retreating British troops were rescued from the beaches around Dunkirk and ferried back across the English Channel to fight another day.

Ever since, the term “Dunkirk spirit” has been synonymous with Britain’s stoic resolve and tendency to band together when faced with tremendous adversity. Democrats can learn much from this quintessential “disaster turned to triumph.” If they answer the call of history and rally to pass comprehensive health care reform, it would provide a psychological boost to Democratic morale and build momentum heading into the 2010 midterm elections.

According to Politico.com, the most likely scenario for passage involves the House approving the Senate’s bill word-for-word, while House leaders make limited changes to appease certain, key constituencies. These revisions would then be passed by the Senate using a parliamentary maneuver known as reconciliation, generally reserved for budget measures, that requires only 51 votes.

Opponents of reform will inevitably argue that invoking reconciliation amounts to subverting the people’s will. However, that opinion fails to acknowledge the underhanded tactics employed by the GOP to influence public opinion. It also ignores the precedent set by the Bush Administration when they used reconciliation to push through their tax cuts for the wealthiest one-percent of Americans in 2001 and 2003.

As Democratic strategist David Plouffe noted in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post yesterday, “Americans’ health and our nation’s long-term fiscal health depend on” passing, “a meaningful health care reform package without delay.” The status quo, in regard health care and many other issues, is unsustainable. Congressional Democrats must approve the reform bill and let the American People judge it on its own merits instead of Republican propaganda.

The British experience at Dunkirk demonstrates how an inspiring moral victory, snatched from the jaws of demoralizing defeat, can quickly transform into an enduring, rallying cry. Although, as Prime Minister Winston Churchill cautioned after that epic rescue, “wars are not won by evacuations.” President Obama and his fellow Democrats must win major, decisive, legislative victories in the coming months and years. Passing a comprehensive health care reform bill by any means necessary is the first step towards achieving those goals.

What Happens Next

Tuesday’s Republican victory in Massachusetts proved only one thing: voters are angry. And when people are angry, they often make irrational decisions, like electing a former nude model to the United States Senate. Less than 48 hours after his unlikely win, senator-elect Scott Brown is already raising eyebrows across the nation.

In his victory speech, Brown offered up his daughters to “anyone who’s watching throughout the country.” Now, that’s family values. This bizarre incident even prompted conservative demagogue Glenn Beck to speculate that Brown’s career, “could end with a dead intern.”

The Senator-elect’s strange behavior isn’t my only reason for questioning voters’ judgment, however. Rather, The Bay State’s decision to send Brown to Washington is irrational because his statements clearly contradict the political values of those who elected him.

The sentiment I’ve heard expressed most often by disgruntled tea partiers is animosity directed at “too big to fail” financial institutions (for wrecking the economy) and the federal government (for bailing out those banks with taxpayer money). If that’s the case, they elected the wrong candidate to stick it to Wall Street’s fat cat financiers.

Martha Coakley, the defeated Democrat, enthusiastically endorsed a temporary tax on banking behemoths to recoup taxpayer losses from the TARP fund. Brown denounced this tax and vowed to vote against it in the Senate. So, I’m not sure what petulant populists gained by electing a man who openly opposes their expressed interests.

Perhaps, the reactionary wave sweeping across our country crested with Brown’s victory and the tide of hysteria is finally beginning to recede. Now that they’ve blown off some steam, maybe frustrated independent voters are ready to come back to their senses and get down to business.

Meanwhile, Democrats need to recalibrate their message. A recent NY Times article on the subject offered some useful advice. First, they need to aggressively confront Wall Street. Since the days of Andrew Jackson, Democrats have been the party of the people. They need take back this mantle by ensuring that taxpayers are made whole again.

Their strategy must also include stronger financial regulation of investment banks, especially those dealing in the exotic, derivatives market. Establishing a new Consumer Protection Agency to curb the worst abuses of the credit card industry is essential as well.

Finally, Democrats need to address our mounting national debt and budget deficit. The Bush Administration saddled us with a $482 billion deficit and the highest national debt in American history. It’s time to bring those numbers back under control and Democrats have a solid track record of doing so. After all, President Clinton left office with a $230 billion budget surplus.

What happens next will determine our nation’s future. The status quo is unsustainable, especially in regard to our economic, environmental, energy and health care policies. The American People elected President Obama with a strong mandate for change. We can’t afford to let the irrational decisions of an angry mob distract us from achieving our goals.

Buyer’s Remorse

As the saying goes, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Unfortunately, it appears that the people of Massachusetts have an extremely short memory. Little more than a year after Americans relegated the hapless Bush Administration to the dustbin of history, voters in The Bay State seem ready to make the same mistake that brought George W. Bush to power in 2000: choosing style over substance.

Riding a wave of misplaced, “populist outrage,” an obscure state senator and darling of the Tea Party set named Scott Brown stands poised to upset Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in today’s special election; a contest that will decide the Senate seat vacated by Democratic icon Ted Kennedy when he passed away last August.

The media’s preferred narrative for this campaign depicts Brown as an exciting, charismatic, crusader who understands the public’s dissatisfaction with President Obama and his “big government” agenda. Meanwhile, Coakley is characterized as a hopelessly bland, liberal, bureaucrat who’s lost touch with “regular folks.”

If this storyline sounds familiar that’s because it bares a striking resemblance to one that made the rounds during the 2000 Presidential Election. As some of us still remember, that contest quickly devolved into a referendum on which candidate voters would rather have a beer with, George W. Bush or Al Gore. The ensuing decade provided ample evidence that relatability isn’t always the best criterion for governing.

As far as I can tell, Brown’s most notable accomplishments include driving a pick-up truck with over 200,000 miles on it, posing nude in a 1982 issue of Cosmo and raising a daughter who once competed on American Idol. While these experiences have (for some reason) endeared him to the citizens of Massachusetts, they hardly qualify Brown for admission into our nation’s most exclusive governing body.

More troubling still are the remarks Brown made during the 2008 campaign, when he implied that then-candidate Obama was born out-of-wedlock and made disparaging remarks about his deceased mother (like most tea partiers, Brown is a real class act).

The most frustrating aspect of Brown’s rise, however, is that he’s ideologically bound to oppose the interests of the blue-collar and middle-class voters who comprise his base. Should he prevail, Congress can forget about passing essential legislation like health care reform, improved financial regulations, enhanced consumer protection laws, a cap-and-trade climate change bill and a second round of economic stimulus. The only policies Republicans like Brown are willing to say “yes” to these days are tax cuts that disproportionately favor the wealthy.

If the people of Massachusetts ignore history by electing Scott Brown to the Senate, I anticipate a serious case of buyer’s remorse setting in shortly thereafter. It won’t take long for citizens of that notoriously blue state to realize that they’re stuck with an obstructionist, GOP hack eager to repeat the tragic follies of the Bush-era. When that happens, we’ll see if anyone still wants to have a beer with him.

Filibusted

If you thought the hard-fought battle to reform our nation’s woefully inadequate health care system was already won, think again. Republican Scott Brown has vowed to cast the decisive, 41st vote against the Democratic health care bill in the Senate, should he upset Democrat Martha Coakley in a special election in Massachusetts next Tuesday. That this coup de grâce could come from a seat once held by the late Ted Kennedy, health care reform’s greatest champion over the last several decades, only adds insult to injury.

There is more to this story, however, than just the special election. As columnist Gail Collins pointed out in today’s NY Times, the way the Senate currently does business is fundamentally flawed.

As we all learned in civics class, every state has two senators, regardless of population size. Hence, there are 100 senators in all with 40 of them representing America’s 20 least-populated states. According to Collins, those states account for only 10.2 percent of our total population.

However, if the senators from those states stick together, they only need one more vote to invoke a tactic known as the filibuster. This strategy exploits a Senate procedural rule requiring 60 votes to end debate and bring legislation to a final vote. As long as 41 senators refuse, they can effectively kill any bill they don’t like by extending debate indefinitely.

For fellow film enthusiasts, this parliamentary maneuver probably brings to mind the principled stand taken by Jimmy Stewart’s character in the 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. These days, however, the mere threat of a filibuster is enough to get the job done. So, you won’t see Minority Leader Mitch McConnell collapsing from exhaustion on the Senate floor after delivering a moving oration about the evils of “socialized medicine” anytime soon (as amusing as that spectacle would certainly be).

There’s something inherently wrong with a system that allows senators representing little more than 10 percent of our population to subvert the will of an overwhelming majority of Americans. I implore the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration to put an end to this chicanery by amending Rule 22 regarding the Precedence of Motions. Revising this requirement is necessary to ensure that the American people’s voice is heard in Washington and would also help cure the legislative paralysis currently crippling Congress.

The Shape Of Things to Come?

Republicans are already salivating over their prospects for the 2010 midterm elections. According to the narrative they’ve concocted, patriotic, “real Americans” are fed up with the socialist policies imposed on them by liberal Democrats whose radical, Big Government agenda has cost millions of people their jobs. If this story sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard it parroted by conservative mouthpieces like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or any Fox News commentator.

Never mind the fact that the Great Recession we’re now experiencing was caused by the Bush Administration’s profligate spending along with their quixotic obsession with tax cuts and financial deregulation. Instead of allowing this inconvenient truth to impede their return to power, the GOP has cynically calculated that since most people don’t pay attention to the news, they can just make it up. And this strategy is proving to be extremely effective.

Now we’re stuck with the growing tea party movement, which began as a project of FreedomWorks, the conservative action committee founded by former House Republican leader Dick Armey. This loosely affiliated network of tea parties has no central leadership and seems to lack any coherent ideology other than “guns good, government bad.” So, it’s certainly cause for alarm that their group is threatening to make a significant impact on our political landscape.

NY Times columnist David Brooks predicted today that this movement will define the politics of our coming decade. According to Brooks, the tea party outperformed both Democrats and Republicans in a recent Rasumssen organization poll and right-wing members of Congress are scrambling for the chance to lead the burgeoning faction. If this trend continues and the tea party’s ultra-conservative fiscal policies are allowed to disrupt our fragile recovery, then we’re headed for a double-dip recession.

The fact is, in order to pull ourselves out of this economic downturn we need more government intervention (specifically a second stimulus package) not less. At least, that’s the conclusion reached by most economists, including Nobel Laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. I’m inclined to believe these experts over a group of loud-mouthed malcontents with no formal economic training and no ideas to offer other than vague rhetoric gleaned from an Ayn Rand novel.

From what I’ve gathered about their intentions, these tea party brigades want to take us backward to some idealized version of 1950’s Americana that never existed in the first place. Democrats want to take us forward toward a new era of prosperity built on a foundation of sound economic, social and foreign policies. If the tea party wins, we all lose.