I want to give a great, big Hoosier hug to Mitt Romney.
Yes, Mitt Romney.
If it weren't for Mitt's penchant for saying one thing and then another — you know, like the one about how he hates Obamacare, yet invented it as Romneycare; or that he respects a woman's right to choose, but has never considered himself pro choice — I'd be feeling like the Bill Murray character in the movie Groundhog Day.
In case you haven't seen it, Bill plays a weatherman stuck in Punxsutawney, Penn. Every night he sets his alarm and every morning he wakes up to find that the same day is starting all over again.
Or, as the French are famous for saying, the more things change, the more stay the same.
If it weren't for Mitt's flip flops, the world would be almost too predictable to bear.
Take, for example recent testimony by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno. The general told the House Armed Services Committee that planned cuts to the Army's budget will reduce troop strength down to 439,000 over the next five years. He said he's confident the Army can meet its commitments over this period of time, but ... there's a catch.
"The risk that we are accepting is that we will not get into long-term, simultaneous operations again as in Iraq and Afghanistan over a 10-year period."
Did you get that? Gen. Odierno says that cuts to troop strength will make it impossible for us to go and do what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan again. He calls this a "risk." It appears the philosopher Santayana was wrong. Even if we remember the past — in fact the past doesn't even have to be past — someone in the government will be hellbent on making sure we repeat it.
They call that national security.
That's not all. Here in Indiana we've just muddled through another legislative session. Once again, the city-hating yucks elected by a majority of registered Hoosiers have concluded that what's holding down the state's below-average income level isn't its unwillingness to embrace new ideas or the paranoia so many of us seem to feel at the sight of anyone who doesn't look like we do. No, the problem is gay people.
Just like last year and the year before that, Indiana Republicans made gay-bashing part of their agenda. Not content with having made it impossible for gay people to marry or form civil unions in this state, Republican legislators went after the Indiana Youth Group's specialty license plate. Nine years ago, NUVO presented IYG with a Cultural Vision Award for its "emphasis on building youths' self-esteem, personal skills and leadership potential, while still providing an array of health, counseling, education, substance abuse and advocacy services."
But we can't have that in Indiana. As Micah Clark of the American Family Association of Indiana put it: "The Indiana Youth Group promotes dangerous lifestyles that run counter to state law."
The idea, I guess, is to do all we can to make Indiana a gay-free state. There must be a secret study somewhere that says Fortune 500 corporations are longing to set up shop in Indiana, but are hanging back because we're so damn gay. Yeah: that's it. I wonder what Republicans will go after next year? Maybe they will ban those touring companies of Broadway musicals.
Meanwhile, here in Indianapolis, we've had another downtown shooting spree. This is getting to be an annual occurrence. The latest one happened on a Saturday night; a bunch of teenagers were hanging out near the downtown canal and somebody in a car decided they made handy targets. Fortunately, no one was killed. But, as usual, none of the victims was white, which means that nothing to speak of is likely to be done about it.
There's been a lot of hand wringing, of course, about parental responsibility, the scourge of gangs and cultural breakdown. There always is when these shootings take place.
But, just like always, no one in official circles is saying anything about how easy it is to for teens — or anybody else — to get their hands on guns in this city. Although gun advocates never tire of complaining about how everyone is always trying to take their beloved weapons away, the fact is guns might as well be fashion accessories in parts of this town.
Sadly, there's about as much chance of our doing something constructive about guns here as there is of seeing our streets finally being well-paved. The city is crowing about how the mild winter weather has lightened our pothole census. The trouble is that the surfaces of many of our busiest thoroughfares have been so bad for so long nobody seems to notice anymore. Think I'm kidding? Cruise past the headquarters of the Indianapolis Foundation on Alabama St. some time. The last time I tried it, I thought I head a voice calling, "Wagons Ho!"
So I say bless Mitt Romney's flip floppery. We may never know where he stands, but at least it'll be different from wherever he stood before.
A recent report on environmental grantmaking is bound to have anyone who's ever written a check in support of an earth-saving cause tearing their hair.
"Cultivating the Grassroots: A Winning Approach for Environment and Climate Funders," is, in spite of its upbeat title, an indictment of green philanthropy. Written by Sarah Hansen for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, the report argues that the environmental movement is not keeping up with the current pace of social change. "At a time when the peril to our planet and the imperative of change should drive unyielding forward momentum, it often seems as if the environmental cause has been pushed back to the starting line," writes Hansen, noting that that the movement has failed to score any significant Federal policy changes in the United States since the 1980s.
Hansen asserts that this lack of impact has been due to environmental funders' predilection for a top-down approach. "In 2009, environmental organizations with budgets of more than $5 million received half of all contributions and grants made in the sector," writes Hansen. "In short, environmental funders are expending tremendous resources, yet spending far too little on high-impact, cost-effective grassroots organizing."
Hansen's solution is for environmental funders to increase funding for "grassroots communities that are directly impacted by environmental harms and have the passion and perseverance to mobilize and demand change."
History, she says, supports this strategy, and she cites the women's suffrage and civil rights movements. She notes that on February 1, 1960, there were only four African-American students who chose to sit at the "Whites Only" lunch counter of a Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina. "Although those may not appear to be impressive metrics, consider the scale and scope of the movement they helped launch."
Hansen offers four ideas to correct this top-down bias and "create broad public demand for change."
She notes that by 2042, a majority of Americans will be people of color; half of all U.S. children today are black, Latino or Asian American. She calls on environmental funders to dedicate 20 to 50 percent of their total giving to these communities.
Hansen thinks a quarter of environmental grants should go "for social justice purposes, specifically with a focus on grassroots advocacy, organizing and civic engagement led by the communities most affected by environmental ills and climate change."
Hansen also suggests that funders support the creation of a supportive intellectual infrastructure to share strategies, develop leadership and communicate their message.
Finally, Hansen urges funders to take the long view and embrace "the slow, patient process of movement building."
It is tempting to look away from Hansen's report and say, "So that's why things keep getting worse, instead of better!" Those top-down elitists, with their Patagonia Nano Puff hoodies and their North Face Triclimate jackets are the ones behind our belching smokestacks and fertilizer-engorged water tables. If only they'd learn to reach out to a different crowd, everybody would benefit.
There is some truth in this. Our society is expansive and diverse and, given the magnitude of our environmental problems, the more kinds of people mobilized to effect change, the better.
It is also true that funding institutions are, by their nature, inclined to talk and, yes, give their money to people that look and act like they do. This undoubtedly limits the scope and effectiveness of how monies are used.
But it might also be instructive to take a moment to consider the funding story of a parallel universe — the arts.
The arts and the environmental movement actually have a lot in common. Both have spiritual dimensions and carry hefty cultural freight. They stand for values that transcend market assessments. How we, as a society, treat the arts and the environment says a lot about our priorities, how we relate to time and tradition, and what passes for our collective wisdom.
Twenty or so years ago, the arts were getting hit. The federal government was cutting funding and, worse, the field was beset by concern about aging and elitist audiences.
Since then, arts institutions and funders have undertaken countless initiatives aimed at reaching underserved audiences, broadening constituencies and building grassroots support. In some cases this has meant reimagining missions and challenging the purpose of art itself.
These tactics have certainly sharpened many individual arts initiatives. Nevertheless, the arts' larger struggle for public relevance continues, with no end in sight.
Concern about the arts' institutional future, of course, lacks the urgency of calculating the likelihood of contracting an environmentally borne disease like lung cancer in a neighborhood down wind from a coal-burning power plant. This is why supporting grassroots efforts like those called for in Sarah Hansen's report make immediate sense.
But what we see in both arts and environmental stories is that a larger crisis is upon us. This crisis is cultural. It has to do with what we consider important and whether we're willing to model our behavior to fit the size of the challenges bearing down on us. While grassroots organizing is necessary and, in specific places, effective, how much time must "the slow, patient process of movement building" take?
What will be standing when it's done?
The leading question of this electoral season will be why nobody serious wanted to be the Republican candidate for president.
For months, the media has been obsessed with the horse race between Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, Paul and the other also-rans who tossed their hats in the ring prior to the caucuses in Iowa. The story, seasoned with a never-ending round of televised candidates' debates, has resembled nothing so much as a reality series like Survivor. Whatever substance the debates might have had quickly took a backseat to candidates' gaffes and calculated one-upmanship.
Pundits have spent weeks eagerly handicapping the odds as various candidates have risen in the polls and then fallen away. First there was the Rick Perry phenomenon (remember him?), then Herman Cain's "9-9-9." Newt Gingrich had a surge before Rick Santorum elbowed his way into the limelight.
Meanwhile, the improbably named Mitt Romney has managed, by dint of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cash, to remain, more or less, the frontrunner.
But it is clear that if Romney becomes the Republican nominee, he will have not so much beaten his opponents as outlasted them. He will not have been chosen, but anointed.
What should be vexing to Republicans and, I would say, to the much wider swath of voters calling ourselves Independents, is that all this happens at a time when the presidency of Barack Obama is less than robust.
True, Obama deserves credit for grinding out the clock during his first term. He prevented the country from falling into a major depression, cut taxes for most Americans and tracked down Osama bin Laden. He also presided over an increase in domestic oil production, in spite of a calamitous spill in the Gulf, and passed a major health care bill that promises to be a boon for insurance and pharmaceutical companies. On his watch, corporations have experienced record profits and amassed over $2 trillion in cash. Finally, not a single CEO has been sent to jail for the shenanigans that precipitated the crash of 2008.
If Republicans were to be honest about it, they would admit that Barack Obama looks more like one of them than, well, a Democrat.
This, I suspect, is why most serious Republicans have chosen to sit this election out. It's hard to debate someone you tend to agree with.
It's also why those who have ventured into the ring have been reduced to calling Obama a socialist, communist, or worse, and why the Republican campaign has devolved into a battle for a fraction of a fraction of the American constituency.
The perverse thing about this is that America supposedly has a two-party political system. Therefore, what the candidates of one of those parties — in this case, the Republicans — have to say about how they would govern the country gets taken seriously. So, out comes the press, recording the candidates' every move and taking down their quotes.
Unfortunately for everyone but satirists, those quotes have included such pearls as Mitt Romney's, "I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that's the America millions of Americans believe in." Or this, from Rick Santorum: "One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country. Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that's OK; contraception is OK. It's not OK. It's a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be."
Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum both claim to be Republicans. This enables them to run for the presidency as if they stood for roughly half of us. That neither Romney nor Santorum are what any thinking adult could call truly serious is beside the point. They get the attention anyway.
This reminds me of the way media covers what is arguably the most important issue of our time: climate change. First, the press divides the issue into two opposing camps — those believing that human-inspired climate change is happening and those who deny this. Then, in the name of "fairness," a story will include quotes from both sides.
The trouble with this method is that scientific research finds overwhelming evidence of the human role in climate change. There is no room for a fact-based debate about this fundamental point. The debate, instead, should focus on what we should be doing about it. Covering both sides as if they are equally serious keeps us from getting down to a serious discussion about policy.
The same thing is happening in the coverage of our politics. As long as the media invests unserious candidates like Romney and Santorum with an attention they have neither earned nor deserve, debate about policies that might actually help this country is stifled.
And politicians with serious ideas stay at home, watching TV like the rest of us.