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  • "What Went Wrong?"--Assessing Obama's Legacy

    • Posted on Aug 18, 2015
    This appeared in Sunday's (8-16) Waterloo Courier, and probably is the first of two installments, as you'll see if you read to the end.  Yes, Obama didn't do what he might have done, but. . . 

    Now that the end of President Obama’s second term looms, pundits of all persuasions have begun to ponder his presidency.  How good is/was he? 

     Did he fix problems?  Did he create new ones?  In what ways has he been good and bad for the country?  Did he forsake more promises then he fulfilled?    

     Granted, answers to these questions will no doubt change over the years. Presidents’ reputations rise and fall depending on unpredictable events and issues.  So current assessments of Barack Obama’s presidency are tentative at best. 

     Still, pundits need to work, and Presidents’ policies and personalities provide it, nonstop.  This applies especially to Obama, our first Black president, and a man whose actions have been endlessly scrutinized by a deeply hostile opposition.   

     The latest and most interesting assessment comes from David Bromwich, a Yale English Professor and political commentator.  His essay in the June Harper’s magazine,  “What Went Wrong?” offers a critical analysis of Obama, and deserves reading, especially for the President’s longtime supporters. 

    Bromwich is no hard left or right ideologue, as so many political commentators seem to be.  He offers a balanced, serious, and important analysis of Obama’s “centrist” approach to issues and problems.  

    Very likely, “What Went Wrong” will serve as a reference point for future historians looking to assess Obama’s legacy.  

    Essentially, Bromwich measures the President against an implied ideal leader—and Obama inevitably falls short.   For Bromwich, events since 2008 called for a decisive personality with no fear of conflict and political manipulation.  

    The ideal Obama would have handled an obstructionist GOP immediately, raised hackles to the skies, and proceeded through political mayhem to get a single payer health care system, closing down Guantanamo, and would have avoided getting bogged down Afghanistan.   

    That’s the powerful, decisive Obama who never appeared, insists Bromwich.  
    Instead, his unshakeable belief in working from consensus and agreement led to paralysis and indecision with too little follow-through, which would have taken serious political courage. 

     Issues like gun control and climate change have gone by the wayside because of vicious and organized political opposition that he might have confronted, especially during his first two years, when Democrats controlled both houses.   

     Bromwich ends his analysis with the damning assertion that . . .”Much as
    one would like to admire a leader so good at showing that he means well, and so earnest in projecting the good intentions of his country as the equivalent of his own, it would be a false consolation to pretend that the years of the Obama presidency have not been a large lost chance.”

    Because Bromwich compares Obama to what so many voters expected and wanted, rather than what we got, he falls short, and this frustrates supporters as much as detractors. 

    Yet there’s another way to measure him, and that has to do with comparing him to what he actually did accomplish.   That comparison yields a different result. 

     As an example of comparing ideal vs. real, consider measuring America by its ideals—its rebellion against an oppressive regime and founding documents based on enlightenment ideas of freedom, rights, equality, and justice. A shining city on a hill indeed.  

     But measured by how it actually treated indigenous peoples, slaves, women, and non-propertied citizens, it’s no better than any other country, and in some ways worse. 

    Ideal vs. real always yields such different results.   So too with Obama.   

     In fact, Bromwich himself asserts at beginning of “What Went Wrong?”   “His predecessor was worse, and his successor most likely will also be worse.”

     So compared to recent past and near-future Presidents, Obama stands tall. 
    Indeed, I would hope for another article soon from another pundit, “What Went Right?”  

    Plenty did, in spite of a shamelessly hostile GOP.  

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Conservatives/Liberals
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    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • On Suffering: An Exchange with Lynn Nielsen on Buddhism and Christianity

    • Posted on Jun 15, 2015
    My old friend and colleague Lynn Nielsen, who died of multiple myeloma in late April, took lunch with me every month or so for a good decade.  He was a Christian, a serious one.   I'm closer to Buddhism, and certainly far removed from his beliefs. 

    Nevertheless, we remained good friends, and spent many a happy hour over lunch pondering all sorts of issues from politics to religion--and never once getting upset about anything.  That's what made our friendship so special; it was based on mutual respect and appreciation.  

    On January 17, Saturday, we lunched as usual at Famous Dave's, drank our requisite two glasses of wine, and talked about the idea of suffering.  I put forth the idea that Buddhism dealt with human suffering in more depth and detail than Christianity--showing its followers how to live in a world that contains so much suffering, on so many levels.  I asserted that Christianity was less effective in helping its adherents deal with suffering.   

    Lynn didn't agree, but didn't say all that much until the next week, when he wrote a reply, to which I replied, and he replied again.  

    I just reread our triple exchange and thought I'd share it here, along with the last photo I took of him before he died.   

    FROM LYNN:  JAN 20 2015


    Good thought-provoking discussion last Saturday regarding suffering within the context of Christianity and Buddhism.  You asked for some kind of summary regarding my view of this question--what place does suffering hold in Judeo/Christian theology and practice.  

    As I thought more about this I came up with a series of familiar events or stories from the Bible (both OT and NT) that illustrate how suffering is central to the message of the Bible:

    • Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden for disobedience--Genesis 1-3
    • The world was destroyed while Noah and his family survived--Genesis
    • Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac only to have the Angel of the Lord intervene at the last minute--Genesis 12
    • Joseph was kidnapped and taken for dead only to become a Christ figure saving his family and friends from famine--Genesis 40-50
    • The Hebrews were held as slaves in Egypt for 400 years--Exodus 
    • The narrative of Job is entirely about why good people suffer--The book of Job
    • The Psalms are filled with pleas for deliverance from suffering
    • Central to the the Prophetic books are the two captivities (Assyrian and Persian) that destroyed much of the Jewish culture and traditions
    o Jesus came to suffer and die for the sins of the world.
    o Christians are called to suffer (though few of us really do very often).
    o Being a Christian is counter-cultural and thereby invites some suffering depending on the environment.  Identifying as a Christian in Iran clearly invites more suffering than identifying as a Christian in Nashville TN.  
    o Jesus was crucified for supporting counter-cultural concepts and beliefs.
    o Even after his death and resurrection, his followers were subject to the worst kind of persecution and social rejection.    
    None of this level of Biblical suffering should be confused with the kind of "suffering" that has lately become popular among right-wing, Fox-news-watchers.  For example, Duck Dynasty members do not get a pass because they reject homosexuals.  Christian business owners who refuse to serve homosexual clients and other marginalized populations do not receive the blessing of God even though many profit from these negative attitudes.  After all, bashing "fags" in America can be loads of fun.     

    Just my perspective,

    My reply on 1-25-15

    Hi--thanks for your reflection on suffering--have been pondering it off and on lately.  Thought I'd offer a few thoughts, just random and immediate.  

    The myths that Christianity sets forth are designed, from my perspective, to allay suffering, and work for its adherents pretty well. It offers the premises that suffering comes from a fall, and that God (who seems to think like a petty tyrant in the OT) in his anger at mankind's disobeying Him, cast mankind from paradise.  

    In that casting out, we suffered abandonment and must constantly seek to find ways back to God.  For Jews, this is an ongoing challenge and 
    problem, since there is no other answer than the seeking. 

    For Christians, who following the teachings of that greatest of all Jews, there's another answer:  Believe in Christ and all suffering is relieved--no need to do much more than that--and the joy lies in living forever in paradise with Him.    Not a bad deal.  

    That's the story, anyway, and if you can buy it, life's sufferings get considerably smaller.   It's called Faith, of course, aligned with Grace. 

    Now, for those of us who can't buy the story--just too obviously mythical in the sense of "false," there are other paths to relieving and understanding 
    suffering. I have found Buddhism is helpful especially in its emphasis on mindfulness and awareness--deep awareness of our true nature, which comes 
    during meditation, especially after long practice.  

    It involves recognition of our common "Buddha nature,' that we are all part of the same whole, that we all seek larger awareness of our loving nature, and suffering comes from our attachment to, well, everything.  Attachments are nothing more than illusions of permanance, and our need for permanence pervades our lives.

    Of course nothing is permanent--everything is in a constant state of flux, 
    and there's nothing to be done but live in the present, aware of the constant shifting going on everywhere at all times.  Underneath all that, of course, is our own awareness, the clarity that comes from realizing that our awareness does remain, recognizing that our thought-streams, while real to us, are not really true--merely illusions that we can choose to follow or not.  As Gandhi put it:  

    Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
    Your thoughts become your words, 
    Your words become your actions, 
    Your actions become your habits, 
    Your habits become your values, 
    Your values become your destiny.”

    That rings true to me—


    Lynn’s reply: 1-27-15  

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the response to my response.  I don't see Christianity and Buddhism to be competitors for the religious mind of modern thinkers to the extent you might.  The entire mystical wing of the Catholic Church for example, is built on very parallel premises.  As far back as Hildegarde of Bingen (and before) Christian mystics supported the concepts put forward by Ghandhi:

    Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
    Your thoughts become your words, 
    Your words become your actions, 
    Your actions become your habits, 
    Your habits become your values, 
    Your values become your destiny.”

    This is expressed somewhat in Romans 5:1-5 where Paul writes:
    Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access[b] to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we[d] also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

    Concerning the issue of "stories" from the Bible, most modern Biblical scholars readily accept the concept that stories carry multiple  purposes and often the question of "myth or not-myth" simply gets in the way of the message the story is designed to tell.  Deciding what is drawn from historical fact and what is simply mythological will in the end be an individual belief.  But simply because a particular part of a story reflects the "paranormal" does not mean it is categorically and "obviously mythological."  

    I have had almost no experience with paranormal phenomena but the little I have had strongly suggests there is indeed a "something other" that is beyond and bigger than me. 

    --Lynn Nielsen, Easter Sunday, 2015; two weeks before he died.   

    Go comment!
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