Blow, Kristof and Collins

In “Obama Reboot” Mr. Blow says President Obama’s Inaugural Address was a progressive manifesto of domestic policies.  Mr. Kristof suggests “For Obama’s New Term, Start Here.”  He states the president said equality for all is a main goal of his second term, and that he could begin by helping to make sure a child’s potential for success isn’t limited by a ZIP code.  Ms. Collins, in “Arms and the Woman,” says it’s about time women in the military get to serve in combat. That opens up some 200,000 job opportunities.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

President Obama’s Inaugural Address was an unapologetic, unequivocal progressive manifesto of domestic policies.

I needed that.

The president wasted no time on hollow talk about fixing a broken Washington or taking on the toxic tone in our politics.

He seemed to have come to — and grown more comfortable with and accepting of — the conclusion that many have always understood: that his very presence, his existence, his achievement is what far too many others find objectionable.

He is the embodiment of their discomfort. He is the manifestation of their fear. He represents a current and future America — more socially liberal, more ethnically diverse, more the offspring of unconventional families — than they can accept.

He is generally effective, not troubled by scandal, pragmatic and patient. He’s not perfect, but he is exceptional.

During his address, the president challenged us to examine our ideas of America, to see today in the context of yesterday, to rise on the winds of change and not be afraid of them.

He put change itself at the center of the message and talked about how American constants like equality and altruism and stewardship are not static but dynamic, forever in need of care and maintenance and updating and refitting.

As the president said:

“What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.’ Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”

The speech was ambitious and aimed for the history books and may well have found its mark.

No speech can do all things, but a good one does some things exceedingly well.

This speech eschewed seasonal issues — economic ups and downs, international conflicts — for the everlasting concepts.

He could have delivered a great speech with the emphasis inverted, and no one would have balked.

The economy is still sluggish. People are still anxious about their jobs, if indeed they have a job. It is unclear how, or if, we can get back to prerecession prosperity.

And the world keeps getting smaller and more hazardous. Europe remains in a precarious economic state. The Middle East remains a mess of volatility. And as we saw last week with the hostage crisis in Algeria, Islamic extremists seem to be broadening their influence in northern Africa.

And yet the president focused on America, the meaning of America, the promises and truisms of America, the aspirations of and challenges facing America. And he did so through a progressive lens, tying liberalism to America’s historical idealism. He offered a liberal anchoring, that it is not a disavowing of American values but an affirmation of them.

In the president’s words:

“We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

And he went further, placing the gay rights movement in the context of the women’s rights and civil rights movements:

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall …”

He continued:

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

The most striking phrase in that passage, aside from the fact that it was included in an Inaugural Address at all, is “the love we commit.” In a time when so many conservatives talk ad nauseam about the differentiation between rights granted by God and those authored by governments, this phrase, the commission of love, the root of many religions, reframes gay rights as God-given rights like other human rights and therefore beyond the right of governments to restrict.

And that was only one of the things that made the speech special.

The president also acknowledged the value to our society of caring for the poorest and most vulnerable. He called on America to address climate change. And he took a sideswipe at those opposing any and all new gun regulations, saying,

“Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.”

This was a great moment in progressive politics.

Unapologetic, defiant even, and true to the core values of our country.

It remains to be seen if the feral children on Orange John’s side of the aisle continue to try to drag the country down…  Next up is Mr. Kristof:

Point to a group of toddlers in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in America, and it’s a good bet that they will go to college, buy nice houses and enjoy white-collar careers.

Point to a group of toddlers in a low-income neighborhood, and — especially if they’re boys — they’re much more likely to end up dropping out of school, struggling in dead-end jobs and having trouble with the law.

Something is profoundly wrong when we can point to 2-year-olds in this country and make a plausible bet about their long-term outcomes — not based on their brains and capabilities, but on their ZIP codes. President Obama spoke movingly in his second Inaugural Address of making equality a practice as well as a principle. So, Mr. President, how about using your second term to tackle this most fundamental inequality?

For starters, this will require a fundamental rethinking of antipoverty policy. American assistance programs, from housing support to food stamps, have had an impact, and poverty among the elderly has fallen in particular (they vote in high numbers, so government programs tend to cater to them). But, too often, such initiatives have addressed symptoms of poverty, not causes.

Since President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty,” the United States has spent some $16 trillion or more on means-tested programs. Yet the proportion of Americans living beneath the poverty line, 15 percent, is higher than in the late 1960s in the Johnson administration.

What accounts for the cycles of poverty that leave so many people mired in the margins, and how can we break these cycles? Some depressing clues emerge from a new book, “Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance,” by Susan Neuman and Donna Celano.

Neuman and Celano focus on two neighborhoods in Philadelphia. In largely affluent Chestnut Hill, most children have access to personal computers and the shops have eight children’s books or magazines on sale for each child living there.

Take a 20-minute bus ride on Germantown Avenue and you’re in the Philadelphia Badlands, a low-income area inhabited mostly by working-class blacks and Hispanics. Here there are few children’s books, few private computers and only two public computers for every 100 children.

On top of that, there’s a difference in parenting strategies, the writers say. Upper-middle-class parents in America increasingly engage in competitive child-rearing. Parents send preschoolers to art classes and violin lessons and read “Harry Potter” books to bewildered children who don’t yet know what a wizard is.

Meanwhile, partly by necessity, working-class families often take a more hands-off attitude to child-raising. Neuman and Celano spent 40 hours monitoring parental reading in the public libraries in each neighborhood. That was easy in the Badlands — on an average day “not one adult entered the preschool area in the Badlands.”

When I was a third-grader, a friend struggling in school once went with me to the library, and my mother helped him get a library card. His grandmother then made him return it immediately, for fear that he would run up library fines.

The upshot is that many low-income children never reach the starting line, and poverty becomes self-replicating.

Maybe that’s why some of the most cost-effective antipoverty programs are aimed at the earliest years. For example, the Nurse-Family Partnership has a home-visitation program that encourages new parents of at-risk children to amp up the hugging, talking and reading. It ends at age 2, yet randomized trials show that those children are less likely to be arrested as teenagers and the families require much less government assistance.

Or take Head Start. Critics have noted that the advantage its preschoolers gain in test scores fades by third grade, but scholars also have found that Head Start has important impacts on graduates, including lessening the chance that they will be convicted of a crime years later.

James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, argues that the most crucial investments we as a country can make are in the first five years of life, and that they pay for themselves. Yet these kinds of initiatives are underfinanced and serve only a tiny fraction of children in need.

We don’t have any magic bullets. But randomized trials and long-term data give us a better sense of what works — and, for the most part, it’s what we’re not doing, like improved education, starting with early childhood programs for low-income families. Job-training for at-risk teenagers also has an excellent record. Marriage can be a powerful force, too, but there’s not much robust evidence about which programs work.

So, President Obama, to fulfill the vision for your second term, how about redeploying the resources we’ve spent on the war in Afghanistan to undertake nation-building at home — starting with children so that they will no longer be limited by their ZIP codes.

Last but not least here’s Ms. Collins:

Women in the military are going to get to serve in combat. They killed the Equal Rights Amendment to keep this from happening, but, yet, here we are. And about time.

“I think people have come to the sensible conclusion that you can’t say a woman’s life is more valuable than a man’s life,” the retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught once told me.

Vaught is the president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. She retired from active duty in 1985, so she remembers a different era entirely. “I went to Vietnam, and when I found out I was going, the first thing I wanted to know was if I’d be trained in weapons. They told me I didn’t need to be. That’s unheard of today,” she said on Wednesday when I caught up with her on the phone.

“And,” she added, “I wore my skirts.”

Now they wear fatigues and tote rifles. So the Joint Chiefs of Staff have bowed to reality and told Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that “the time has come” to stop excluding women from combat positions. The transformation won’t happen immediately, and it might not be universal. But it’s still a groundbreaking change. When the recommendation became public Wednesday, except for a broadside from the Concerned Women for America (“our military cannot continue to choose social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness”), the reception seemed overwhelmingly positive.

It’s hard to remember — so many parts of recent history now seem hard to remember — but it was the specter of women under fire that did more than anything else to quash the movement for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in the 1970s. “We kept saying we hope no one will be in combat, but, if they are, women should be there, too,” recalled Gloria Steinem.

The fear of putting women in the trenches has been dispelled on two fronts. One, of course, is the change in the way the American public thinks about women. The other is the shortage of trenches in modern warfare, when an officer on the front lines is not necessarily in a more dangerous position than a support worker. Shoshana Johnson, a cook, was shot in both ankles, taken captive and held for 22 days after her unit was separated from a convoy crossing the Iraqi desert. Lori Piestewa, a Native American and, like Johnson, a single mother, was driving in the same convoy full of clerks and maintenance workers. She was skillfully steering her Humvee through mortar fire when a truck immediately ahead of her jackknifed and her front wheel was hit by a rocket. She was fatally injured in the ensuing crash.

The biggest safety concern for women in the military is actually not so much enemy fire as sexual attacks from fellow members of their own service. Because the crime is so underreported, it’s impossible to say how many women suffer sexual assault while they’re in uniform, but 3,192 cases were recorded in 2011. Allowing women to get the benefits of serving in combat positions won’t make that threat worse. In fact, it might make things better because it will mean more women at the top of the military, and that, inevitably, will mean more attention to women’s issues.

The military’s idea of what constitutes a combat position is more about bureaucracy than bullets. Today women are on armed patrols and in fighter planes. But they can’t hold approximately 200,000 jobs officially termed “combat,” which often bring more pay and can provide a stepping stone for promotions. The system is complicated. But cynics might wonder if some of the military brass fear women’s upward mobility more than the danger.

“We only have one four-star general who’s a woman,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who cheered the recommendation from the Joint Chiefs. It was, she said, “a great step forward for our military,” and one that wasn’t really expected. Only recently, Gillibrand recalled, she and her allies declared victory when they merely got language in the defense authorization bill requiring the Defense Department to study the question of women in combat.

Women now make up almost 15 percent of the American military and their willingness to serve made the switch to an all-volunteer Army possible. They’ve taken their posts with such seamless calm that the country barely noticed. The specter that opponents of the E.R.A. deemed unthinkable — our sisters and daughters dying under fire in foreign lands — has happened over and over and over. More than 130 women have died and more than 800 have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House of Representatives includes a female double-amputee in the person of the newly elected Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a former military pilot who lost both her legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq.

We’ve come a long, sometimes tragic, heroic way.

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