Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

27 July 2013

Our Own Jackie Robinson

[For an embarrassing but necessary confession of error, click here. For a recent post on the Zimmerman matter and the President’s response to it, click here.]

We Yanks have a saying. “Pioneers are the ones with arrows in their backs.”

The saying comes from our formative years, when people of European descent poured across the Great Plains to settle our Louisiana Purchase. As their numbers increased, the original settlers, misnamed “Indians”, began to see a growing threat to their land tenure and their way of life. So the wagon trains of pioneers came under increasing attack. By that time, many of the “Indians” had firearms, too, but folklore tells us they still used arrows.

And so it is with race. As virtually everyone with a pulse now knows, Jackie Robinson was the first major-league baseball player of African-American descent. He was a great baseball player, permanently ensconced in the Hall of Fame long before anyone even thought of using drugs to enhance performance.

But he was much more than that. He was a great human being and a superb pioneer.

He received death threats regularly during his first few years of play. People booed him and jeered at him. They threw things at him from the stands. Some even spat at him.

He never let any of it get to him. He played under incredible pressure, not just to be the best that he could be, but to show the world that racism—no matter how open, vile and bestial—would never faze him.

He played in an era long before footballers spiked the ball, and long before “trash talk” became accepted. The personality he presented to the world was a humble and modest player of great talent, who loved the game, played it well, and honestly acknowledged the skills of his teammates and rivals. In Jewish terms, he was a mensch.

If any sportsman can be said to have transmuted hate into love, it is he. Of all the great baseball players in the Hall, he is probably the greatest. For he not only played superb baseball, consistently throughout his career; he also fought strong headwinds, having nothing to do with the game, that no one else before or since has had to overcome.

Kinda reminds you of our President, doesn’t he?

You could say, as many do, that they hated Bill Clinton, too. But there was a difference, a big difference. No one hated Bill Clinton from the day he took the oath of office. No one set out, from the first day of his presidency, to make him fail. No one was willing to let the ship of state go down just to drown the captain. They gave the new guy a chance—something that used to be an American tradition, just like pioneering.

They only started to hate Bill Clinton when he began to throw his superior intelligence in their faces, transparently gloating over his own political triumphs. Then, when he had a White-House intern perform oral sex on him and lied about it (who doesn’t lie about illicit sex?), they went ballistic. They paralyzed the whole country for two years while they set out (unsuccessfully) to impeach him. (They would have crucified him if they could, but that punishment had gone out of style.)

Barack Obama did nothing of the kind. He never flaunted his superior intelligence or gloated over his successes. His mother and Plains grandparents raised him to be respectful, modest and understated. Although seldom remarked, his empathy, even for his enemies, is one of his most shining qualities. And his family life and sexual morals are as impeccable and admirable as those of any occupant of our White House, ever. (Compare, for example, Thomas Jefferson, who kept his black slave Sally Hemmings as a mistress for most of his career, and who never freed any of his many slaves but her and their children.)

So why did so many hate Obama, from the moment he became our President? Why did they call him a socialist, although none of his policies even remotely resemble socialism? Why do they still? Why did they call him about every other name they could think of, including “Nazi,” Communist, “empty suit,” terrorist, Marxist, terrorist sympathizer, and “angry black man”?

Barack Obama? Angry? You’ve got to be kidding!

We all know, deep down, where this hatred and mindless opposition came from. We all know what bottomless font of ire the GOP, having wrecked the nation under Dubya, sought desperately to tap. The vociferous denials by Fox and its bullies, and by GOP leaders who should have known better, just prove the wisdom of Shakespeare: “methinks the [racist] doth protest too much.”

But race is far from the only respect in which Barack Obama is a pioneer. He’s the first president ever to enact comprehensive health-insurance reform, although his predecessors tried for a whole century. He’s the first President to get serious about internal industrial changes to fight global warming. For example, he has doubled the fuel-efficiency standards for cars and small trucks, declared CO2 a pollutant, incentivized installation of windmills and solar arrays all over the nation with mostly private money, and is in the process of phasing out coal, the most horribly dirty fuel known to industry and the cause of about 40% of our Yankee contribution to global warming.

And he’s the first president ever to fight terrorism successfully and economically, with massive surveillance, ninjas and drones. These things may now be controversial, but they have worked. And they worked without the pain, enormous expense, and vast unintended consequences of invading and occupying two mostly innocent sovereign nations, which is what Dubya did.

If President Obama has had any serious failing at all, it was being too much like Jackie Robinson. Jackie’s role was playing baseball: fielding and hitting. Public speaking was not his job, although he did it extraordinarily well for a baseball player.

In contrast, public speaking is a large part of the President’s job. He is our Educator in Chief. For a former professor, he’s neglected that role far too long.

But Barack Obama is also among the best of our species, Homo sapiens. He learns. He adapts. He changes. He accepts and accommodates new information and new circumstances. He may be one of the quickest studies ever to sit in the Oval Office.

And so it is with public speaking. The President has apparently decided—at long last!—that someone had better counteract the virulent lies spread by Fox and the abstract, simplistic ideological dogma that passes for practical GOP policy these days. And in this noisy world of 24-hour blowhardry, the President apparently has decided that the best antidote is his own bully pulpit.

So in less than a week, he has surprised us twice. First, he appeared impromptu in the daily White House press conference to teach us about race. He told us straight out what it feels like to be a “black” man in America, even as President of the United States. He spoke without notes or a teleprompter, right from the heart.

David Brooks, one of the few remaining GOP pundits who can respond to fresh events honestly, said the President’s impromptu talk was “just great.” It was.

Not only was it effective on a basic human level. It was effective politically, too. It was unannounced and unexpected, so it made news easily. The President broke through the ennui of jaded reporters by doing the unexpected, the non-routine. Surprise works in politics as well as in warfare.

Just days later, the President appeared, again without warning, in a full-throated defense of his modest health-insurance reform, so-called “Obamacare.” With recent statistics and smiling, live people on camera behind him to back them up, the President carefully explained how the Affordable Care Act will not only bring millions more into the system but will: (1) lower premiums for individual buyers, (2) force insurers to provide greater value for your money, and (3) provide incentives for keep health care costs low.

Both unrehearsed talks were new and powerful in three respects. First, they were short: less than 20 minutes each. They each addressed single subjects. They hit the highlights, without burrowing into the weeds. So they accommodated the attention spans of twittering Americans. They were bite-sized servings of information direct from the most authoritative voice in our nation, our President.

Second, by using different and unexpected venues and formats—and therefore surprise—these informal talks made sure they were not ignored. Reporters flock to an unexpected story like lemmings with their tails on fire. So in a culture of 24/7/365 blather, surprise is an essential tool.

Finally, these talks did what the President should have been doing for the last five years: refuting the lies of Fox and the rigid and useless GOP dogma with facts, rational analysis, common sense, and patience.

You can’t do that with long-winded complex major policy addresses. You have to speak directly to the many ordinary, persuadable people who don’t fully credit (or like) Fox’ bullies but don’t know any better. And you have to match (or overcome) Fox' key strategy: constant, mindless, relentless repetition—the very same strategy that Nazi propagandist Goebbels invented for the “big lie.”

The second talk, on health insurance, also showed the promise of the President’s personal style. With friendly, smiling and occasionally laughing faces just behind him, on camera, he used a bit of humor to make his points. He also, quite briefly, lapsed into a resentful tone, which was not helpful. But if he can bring his humor and personal charm to bear, he will make great progress. The best way to bury fools is with laughter.

Now that the President has started speak directly to his people, I hope he will do so regularly. Like FDR’s “fireside chats,” his informal talks could get us Yanks back on track and change the course of history.

But our own generation’s Jackie Robinson is not the only pioneer with arrows in his back. Consider the plight of Elon Musk, our generation’s Thomas Edison.

Already he has two enormous accomplishments under his belt. He has run the world’s first fully private, commercial space missions. And he has developed, completely from scratch, a superb electric car, and the first car of any kind to win both Motor Trend’s “car of the year” award and Consumer Reports’ highest rating. His car company, Tesla, just recently turned profitable.

You would think this man would be a national hero. But no. Many jeer at him, too.

His rivals in the auto industry chide his alleged “inexperience” and “naïveté.” This mindless opposition is understandable: his rivals want him to fail because they compete with him, and because his success would make self-evident how stodgy and uninventive they have been.

But then there are the politicians and innumerable online commenters who want Musk to fail simply on general principles. They like fossil fuels. They like their gasoline-powered muscle cars and big pickup trucks. They don’t want any of that to change, and they certainly don’t any of that wimpy clean energy in their country. They want their energy as obsolete, expensive, noisy, polluting and hazardous to future generations as it can be. They love oil and coal.

As your read their loutish online comments, you perceive a level of disgust and even hatred for this pioneer that that they theretofore had reserved for Al Gore and our President.

This revulsion at pioneers is, of course, fundamentally un-American. Without the pioneering Pilgrims, who endured dangerous month-long sea voyages to get to an unknown land with bitterly cold winters, our nation would not exist. Without the real pioneers who brought their families to settle our Louisiana Purchase, on foot and by wagon, we might be fighting the same kind of incessant border wars that held Europe back for so long. Without our strong industrial pioneers—Carnegie, Whitney, Edison, Sloan, Ford, Rockefeller, Grove, Gates and Jobs—we would be neither strong nor rich.

Not only that. When the odds are long, we Yanks are supposed to root for the underdog, aren’t we? Don’t we want to see clever and strong takers of big risks win the industrial lottery, propel us forward, and make us stronger? Why are so many of us supposedly forward-looking people jeering at our very own pioneers and innovators, wanting them to fail, and wanting things to stay just the same?

Fortunately, these louts are yet a distinct minority. But we cannot let their numbers grow or their attitudes prevail. As the President recently reminded us so eloquently and personally, we are hardly a homogeneous nation bound together by common ties of race and ethnicity. We are a rainbow with hues, shades and cultures from every corner of the world.

Common genes and common handed-down native cultures don’t bind us together. Ideas do. Among those ideas are not just life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but innovation, progress and positive change.

When we start jeering at change and the agents who make it, we are jeering at ourselves. We are jeering at what makes us American and what has made us the world’s strongest and richest nation. We are wallowing in cultural self-hate.

Having grown up partly in Hawaii, the President is no doubt familiar with the metaphor “crabs in a bucket.” When crabs fill a bucket and one tries to crawl out, the others pull him back in. Our citizens in Hawaii, about one-third of whom are descendants of Asia, use this image as a metaphor to contrast Asian with American culture.

The naysaying crabs tried to pull Jackie Robinson back into the bucket. But he prevailed. I have no doubt that the President and Elon Musk will, too.

Yet as the President’s stock in trade is words and persuasion, not hitting, fielding or industry, he will have to do a lot more talking to bring our national culture back to its historic norm. Now that he has begun to do just that, we who want our nation and its best cultural norms to last for the ages can breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Footnote: I personally am both a beneficiary of those incentives and an investor in clean energy. Next Tuesday, they will begin pouring concrete for blocks to hold up our personal solar array. Next April, we will receive combined federal and state tax credits amounting to 40% of our investment, but 60% will remain our own money. In two or three weeks, the solar array that we have paid for will begin selling power back to the grid—power that comes from sun, without smoke, noise, rotary motion, pollution or greenhouse gases.

Erratum: Whoa! Talk about an over-50 moment! Previous versions of this post confused Jackie Robinson with Mickey Mantle. My thanks to three commenters, including Doug in DC, for pointing out my gigantic blooper, probably the worst in this blog’s history.

My “Change and Removal Policy” is to point my errors out, not erase them. That helps keep me humble. And so here. But I'm going to take a break from blogging for a while and then refocus more on energy.

All I can say in my (weak) defense is that I am not now, and never have been, a Yankees fan. A sportswriter I will never be!



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