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Shadows and Light

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BEN BERNANKE DEBT CEILING

Want to be a cynic? You've got plenty of material to work with, that's for sure. But if you want to be an idealist, a practical idealist who can get things done, cynicism would be a tragic mistake. Lately all I've been hearing - and, frankly, most of what I've been saying - has shed too much heat and not enough light.

Here's the cynical view of what's going on in Washington right now: This whole "debt ceiling crisis" isn't real. Choose your metaphor: It's a Wild West show for gullible rubes, a Kabuki dance, an Indonesian puppet play that's nothing more than shadows on a dirty screen ...

That last image is ideal for the cynically minded. Matchstick puppets dance before a candle or a naked lightbulb, casting images on a bedsheet to enact an ancient epic of good over evil. But they're really only pieces of wood in the hands of puppeteers, masters of illusion who use light and shadow to bring life to dead dolls and make them seem larger than they are.

Or maybe you prefer the Wild West metaphor. That's the one where our politics is a show, a traveling theater troupe that draws in the townsfolk with melodrama just to sell them snake oil. Each player's a selfish actor who only cares about getting top billing on the marquee. They'd burn the theater down to light a producer's cigar if that's what it took.

When Frank Zappa said "politics is the entertainment division of the military-industrial complex," he was aiming too low. The financial system of big banks and mega-corporations makes the military-industrial complex look like a Mom and Pop grocery store.

The cynical reading of this debt ceiling crisis is this: The Republicans pretend they want to cut the deficits, but their plan would actually extend their decade-long record of making them bigger. Democrats in Congress proclaim their unwavering support for Social Security and Medicare, but they refuse to rule out specific cuts. And the President secretly wanted this crisis so that he could resolve it with a 'grand bargain' that life him "above left and right," even if that leads to hurtful and unnecessary cuts.

In the cynic's view, each of them is acting out a melodrama or a ritual, a script they've written for themselves out of vanity and self-interest. And each of them is ready to burn the theater down to get top billing.

The problem with this cynical interpretation isn't that it's wrong. On the contrary, there's a lot of truth in it. But it doesn't reflect the whole picture. Yes, each of our national politicians is capable of acting with shocking selfishness. Each of them has sometimes kept on playing their self-assigned role long after the scene has changed. And we've seen all of them do it this week.

Over the last few years I've seen cold-hearted betrayals and delusional thinking where I would've least expected them. Politicians in both parties have done infuriating and foolish things. I'd be lying if I didn't admit to getting angry with most of them from time to time. But it would be wrong to dismiss them, disparage them, resent them, or give up on them, even when they're at their worst. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit: They're not bad, they're just drawn that way.

I suspect that most of the country's leaders, especially those outside the radical cult of corporate conservatism, also want to do good. That impulse may be stronger or weaker in any given politician but, like most of us have done at some point in our lives, they've probably rationalized their behavior with an epic script that casts them as a hero. And it gets increasingly unreal: "Liberals" want to cut Social Security. "Conservatives" would deepen the debt. "Pro-business" politicians would hurt all but the biggest and most powerful businesses.

But if they're drawn that way, who's drawing them? More than ever, the corrupt hand of corporate America holds the pen. Corporate power has weakened the voice of the people in Washington, and made the always-compromised game of politics more compromised than ever. The media buy into the myths and narratives of the corporate crowd, confusing and dividing the public in a way that prevents them from responding effectively to this corporate takeover.

But the public holds a pen, too, and we haven't used it enough. I wish the President didn't think it was a good idea to cut Social Security. But consider this: There were stories (later confirmed) that he intended to announce Social Security cuts in his State of the Union address. Instead, thousands and thousands of citizens took the time to call and write their Senators and Representatives and the White House. As a result, those plans were shelved.

The reasons for this reversal don't matter that much. If we're going to feel disappointed in the President's approach to Social Security, we should also be grateful that he responded the way he did. A different President wouldn't have felt the pressure but, whatever the reasons, this one did.

The same thing's true on Capitol Hill. The Democratic leadership felt the pressure of its base during the health reform debate, so it tried harder than it otherwise might have to pass the public option. It succeeded in strengthening provisions for community health clinics and other valuable services. As long as the Progressive Congressional Caucus keeps speaking for the right policies (and the majority's opinion) on economic matters, it deserves high praise.

Even the Republicans are not without the possibility of redemption, as crazy at that may sound to some. Sen. Jim Bunning supported the derivatives bill. Sen. Tom Coburn was a profile in courage for defying his party and issuing a scathing report on Wall Street with Democrat Carl Levin. And several Republican Senators crossed the aisle to support some truly important and tough bank regulations. In the end Scott Brown, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins braved the wrath of their own base to vote for the final bill. And together, Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders took the first step toward achieving transparency at the Federal Reserve.

Why did these Republicans act? Because citizens demanded it. And maybe, just maybe, because some of them want to do the right thing, too, when they can. (Ron Paul certainly acted out of conviction.) If there's one area where conservatives and progressives should be united, it's in reforming our broken financial system.

The President defended stimulus spending clearly and forcefully this week, explaining that employment at the state level is falling because stimulus funds for states have run out. In a rational world, that kind of thing wouldn't require an explanation. But it does, and he provided it.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't be prepared to bring the heat down on any politician who's doing the wrong thing. That's exactly what we should do - along with rewarding them when they do the right thing. But it can be tough, at least for me, to bring the heat without getting burned myself.

An Indonesian puppet show is an interplay of light and shadow. Corporate America's endgame is the dismantling of our social contract, and they're playing dirty to get there. A little cynicism can be a good thing, if it makes people angry enough to do something about it. But too much cynicism leads to despair. The right balance of the two should lead to a mobilized and active citizenry. Sometimes it takes anger to enlighten us and idealism and hope to project us onto the field of action.

If we want to rewrite the drama unfolding all around us, we'll need the shadows - and the light.

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(This Thursday and Friday are call-in days for defending Social Security, and there's even a toll-free number - 1-866-251-4044.)

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