Sunday, December 20, 2015

You Are an Immigrant

Gravestone of Bryan Carroll,
My Great-Great-Great Grandfather
I know it's been said hundreds of times by hundreds of people, but that's not going to stop me...

This is the gravestone of my great-great-great grandfather Bryan Carroll, who emigrated, probably in the 1840s, from County Meath, in the Mid-East Region of Ireland. This gravestone was discovered this year in Upstate New York by family members, and will be repaired next year at our family's expense.

It is a wonderful discovery for our family, the insertion of one more piece into the complex puzzle of our shared history. But in 2015, 165 years after Bryan Carroll died at the age of 45 after what must have been a life of struggle, I am not reveling in this discovery as I should be. I am instead thinking about people in America today who continue to demonize citizens of the world like Bryan.

Bryan was a man who probably found himself in the midst of devastating circumstances beyond his control—in his case, the Great Hunger—which then led him to risk a perilous bid for the very survival of his family. Arriving in America, the Carrolls were probably persecuted for their faith, for their ethnicity, and for their poverty. These are all aspects of the immigrant experience that ring hauntingly true today, but what rises in my mind is the devious fact that all of those who would deny an immigrant his freedom today—all of them—have Bryan Carrolls in their family trees.

And yet, they never ask: What if someone had slammed the door on my family? What if someone had denied Mario Rubio or Rafael Cruz immigration from Cuba? What if someone had denied Mary Anne MacLeod, Donald Trump's mother, immigration from the Scottish Hebrides? What would America be today without these immigrants and the millions of others like them? Without the rich heritage they have woven into the American fabric? Without the hard work they and their descendants have put in to make America what it is today? And what would the world think of America had it denied its freedoms and its bounty to these desperate people? What would Irishmen left to starve in devastating famine think of those who denied them? What would Cubans left to suffer in Communist oppression think of those who denied them?

Fortunately, we'll never know the answers to these questions because we have opened our doors, we have woven a rich multi-ethnic national identity, and we have built a great nation and expanded and protected our freedoms, and we've done it all together.

To turn back the clock on this approach to the world—an approach grounded in generosity, an approach that is the very centerpiece, I believe, of American greatness—would be a betrayal of that very greatness and an admission of weakness and retreat.

I am thrilled that my family discovered Bryan Carroll's gravestone, and I'm anxious to learn as many details of his life as I can. But more than that, I am thrilled to be a citizen of the nation that has relieved the struggles of millions of immigrants like Bryan, and has set the foundation on which our family and the families of all American immigrants have been allowed to thrive.

Monday, December 14, 2015

My Turn as a Political Operative…

What Democrats need to do to start winning the political messaging wars.

Campaign Buttons, Mailer/Breslin Mayoral Campaign, 1969
In 1969, the author Norman Mailer ran for Mayor of New York under the infamous slogan, “No More Bullshit.” This is not only a hilarious fun fact, it is a stunning bit of history that sticks in the mind for one reason: political campaigns and operations in America are one of the least creative, most risk-averse species of messaging machine on the planet. Against that backdrop, “No More Bullshit” is a spectacularly courageous innovation. The one exception to this rule that I can think of has been the creation of a Republican Party propaganda arm (a.k.a. Fox News) that has somehow managed to convince millions of Americans that monkeys are flying out of their butts (or the equivalent thereof, anyway). As a liberal, I am frustrated daily by the ineptitude with which liberals respond, which now leads me to try some of my own ideas for political messaging out on you guys to see how they fare.

So what I’ll share here are what I think of as a couple of missed opportunities on the part of Democrats. One is outdated—waaaay after the fact—and one is quite recent. Where Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah deride the Democrats’ ineptitude, I offer suggestions, to wit…

1. Hillary – Don’t Generalize, Demonize

My first example is recent: I just saw this in my Facebook feed last week, posted by the Hillary Clinton campaign in response to the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California:

The issue here is subtle, but significant: Hillary Clinton, in pursuing her ultraliberal bona fides, has decided to take on the National Rifle Association. Key point here: She has decided to take on the entire NRA—an organization of 3 to 4 million members, depending on who you believe—with a series of social media posts and memes like this one. But one of the primary lessons Clinton should have learned by now from the success of the right wing propaganda machine is this one: Don’t generalize, demonize!

Did Fox News take on the entire documentary film industry, which they and their viewers certainly see as left-leaning? No, they demonized Michael Moore (who, incidentally, is an NRA member). Do they ever take on the entire Democratic Congressional Caucus? No, they demonize Nancy Pelosi! In other words, why take on the entire NRA when the vast majority of the organization’s vitriol, and in fact the very vehemence of its right-wing political posturing, emanates from a single monumental American asshole, Wayne LaPierre. The National Rifle Association actually began as a gun safety and education advocacy group that supported stricter gun control laws. It is an organization that has been hijacked by right wing fanatics like LaPierre and their evil financiers in the gun industry. I have to imagine that the organization has at least thousands, and perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands of members who disdain LaPierre’s incendiary and senseless rhetoric. Why lump these good people in with one of the biggest idiots in America? Why create more enemies?

My revision of the messaging would go something like this:

And it mustn’t stop there. Once the campaign is launched, each and every public statement Clinton makes about gun violence and the critical need for more reasonable gun laws should include prominent mention of LaPierre.
“These tragedies that are now occurring weekly in our towns and cities make it clear that the vast majority of Americans are right on this issue and Wayne LaPierre is wrong.”
“A lot of us have been trying to tackle this issue for years, but when Wayne LaPierre commands the amount of gun industry money that he does, it’s just impossible to get Republicans in Congress to do the right thing.”
“Wayne LaPierre has lied to you again [about guns in Israeli schools], and that shouldn’t surprise anyone. We know the vast majority of NRA members are law-abiding citizens who favor commonsense gun regulations, but unfortunately their mouthpiece is a right wing extremist who buys off Republicans with weapons industry money.”
See what I did there? A la the second meme above, I shifted the conversation to divide and conquer the NRA itself, an approach that has at least a fighting chance of succeeding, given the NRA’s history as a gun control and safety advocacy group.

And the key here is consistency, not just from Hillary, but from anyone on her staff who is authorized to speak to the media. There must never be a public statement made about gun violence without mention of Wayne LaPierre. He must become the face of the mass killer, so that when the next incident happens (and, tragically, it most certainly will), the first thing voters will think about is his ugly mug, his incendiary statements, and most importantly, his unconscionable position on gun control.

2. Mitch McConnell and the Boon that Never Was

Just before the 2010 mid-term elections, at a point where President Obama had not yet completed two years in office, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made this statement:

Senator Mitch McConnell
“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Setting aside the potential extremes of a statement like that, made by a U.S. Senator from a southern state and directed at the first African-American president in U.S. history (and if you think that’s hyperbole, take a look at what happened to gun sales in the U.S. after each of President Obama’s elections, in 2008 and 2012), and setting aside the Republican Party’s abysmal failure in achieving its leader’s “single most important” goal, what McConnell actually did that day, by laying it out in stark terms the way he did, was present Democrats with the talking point of all talking points—a gift that, alas, they somehow managed to squander.

With the exception of a few statements made by Democratic Party leaders like Senator Dick Durbin and President Obama himself, not many others mentioned McConnell’s statement, and when they did the mentions were minor. What the Democrats should have done—in fact, what the memo sent to each and every Congressional Democrat and Democratic state governor should have read—was, each and every time they spoke to the media on any issue whatsoever, they should have led their comments with either direct or indirect mention of McConnell’s statement, to wit,
On the budget (state or federal): “Well, first off, we’re doing our best to work with an opposition whose sole objective is to prevent any progress from being made…”
On national security: “Given that our friends on the other side of the aisle have pledged themselves to the goal of obstructing any progress, I think we’re doing as well as we can…”
On gun control: “The Republican Party, which I think we can all refer to now as the Obstructionist Party, has committed itself to preventing any progress, but we’ll continue to work hard…”
On tax policy: “Our caucus continues to work very hard to find common ground with the Obstructionists, but they’ve been remarkably determined in their single stated goal of preventing any progress, so…”
See what I did there? I created a new term by replacing the term Republican Party with the term Obstructionist Party, which, after all, is exactly what Republicans have grown into over the past eight years. And even without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, one could easily have seen, back in 2010 (and you don’t have to believe me, but I actually did), that McConnell had provided Democrats with the means of rightfully placing the blame for all government intransigence—no matter what the issue or crisis at hand—squarely at the feet of Republicans.

Yes, this is another old Fox News / Republican technique, “truth by assertion”—a.k.a., say something enough times, and people start to believe it. The Republicans’ most successful example of this was the replacement of the term rich people with the term job creators, which of course has no basis in fact. The difference with McConnell’s statement, though, is that it did have basis in fact: McConnell actually said the words, and the comment actually received reasonably wide media attention. It was in the public consciousness, just waiting there for Democrats to snatch it up. As distasteful as it might be for some to lower themselves by taking up devious rhetorical techniques like this, techniques embraced by Neanderthals like Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, the fact of the matter is, the techniques work, and liberals in this country need to start speaking that language if any minds are ever going to be changed.

More importantly, liberals should see the clear difference between job creators and “make President Obama a one-term president,” which is that one is a complete lie and the other is a completely accurate quotation from one of the country’s most prominent Republican leaders. Using aggressive rhetorical techniques might tarnish one’s reputation slightly among the rest of the choir, but in the marketplace of ideas, doing so offers the chance to get the truth out there loudly, thereby getting it into the conversation. And the one thing the obscenely well-funded right wing propaganda machine has accomplished over the past decade is to dominate the conversation.