The title to this piece is from John Mellencamp's "Peaceful World," a song he
wrote and recorded more than a decade ago. It became something of a song of
comfort after the 9/11 attacks, when it was performed at the Concert for New
The title is deceptively nice. It's actually a somewhat radical song with a
refrain that repeats, "It's what you do, not what you say. If you're not part of
the future then get out of the way." This refrain is on my mind as I read about
all the Monday morning quarterbacking after the so-called fiscal cliff deal.
Prior to the deal, there was enormous angst, hang-wringing, criticism and
rhetoric for months about going over the fiscal cliff, what it would mean, what
even the threat of it would mean, for our economy. Once we averted the cliff by
a few seconds, all the critics started in on how bad the vehicle was that didn't
go over the dreaded cliff.
Well. I'm no fan of the way things get done these days in Congress. I'm no
fan of the ultra-conservative members of the House that, though perhaps losing
power, still seem to have some sway over at least the timing of what happens in
the House. But having worked in the Senate, having seen firsthand members who
hate the gamesmanship just as much as we all do, I'm not exactly sure what can
be done to fix it. I'm not giving up on it; far from it. But I like John
Mellencamp. I'm imagining him saying, "If you don't have something to add to the
discussion or solution, get out of the way."
A couple of my readers like to tell me I am na´ve and "Manichean" (I had to
look that one up). Then I discovered Manichean is a combination of some great
spiritual philosophies that contend with the eternal struggle between light and
darkness, though calling someone Manichean is supposedly disparaging, as if they
are simplistic. I take none of this personally. I truly appreciate the
education. And frankly, I think anyone who doesn't see a continuing struggle
between light and darkness, good and evil -- call it whatever you want -- in
this world is na´ve. This is a slight aside I will come back to, I promise.
So now we have this process that drove everyone crazy in getting a deal
before crashing over the cliff, which really wouldn't have been so good for our
economy, seeing as how about 90 percent of us would pay almost $3,500 more in
taxes. Now we have a deal, a lot of people are yelling about how bad it is. A
lot of others are saying it is a great New Year's present. I think it's one of
the safest bets that if we didn't have a deal, people would be screaming about
Back to Mellencamp. Can all these people just get out of the way? Are they
part of the future? Call me simplistic. Please. But if they have something
constructive to add, jump in. If they just want to hear themselves talk, why do
we listen? Have we become a nation of cynics, complainers and whiners?
I like to think that commentators E.J. Dionne and Howard Fineman are in the
Mellencamp camp with me on "Peaceful World." (That is not to say they are, of
course, but if so, feel free to email me, PR people!) Dionne wrote a column
Wednesday that calls the deal "not-so-bad," pointing out that the top income
rate is back up to 39.6 percent. Who thought that would happen? The estate tax
is higher, not dead like we thought it would be for a long time. Refundable tax
credits for low-income individuals and families and children are saved. This is
what we liberals call progress (now that 'liberal' is no longer a bad word).
Progress. Progress is good. Sometimes it is slow, achingly slow, but it is still
good. Sen. Ted Kennedy spent 30 years on health care reform. Now we have a ways
to go on the deficit and spending cuts and further tax fixes, but we have hope.
And we have progress. That may sound Manichean, but so be it.
A few days ago, Fineman wrote a powerful piece about his visit to New
Zealand, "View From Abroad: Undone by Political Gridlock, Gun Violence." He
talks about the bewilderment from abroad over a system that "elects a guy but
doesn't let him lead." He mentions a British couple who "couldn't believe I
could tolerate living in a country with at least as many guns as people (not to
mention some 2 million inmates)." One sentence almost knocked me over: "Maybe I
had to get this far away to see Washington for what it is these days: the world
capital of small-minded, cowardly, selfish thinking."
Disagree if you want, but I have yet to read something from Dionne and
Fineman that does not contribute in some way to the future. They speak
common-sense truth. They and others like them call out what is wrong but offer
assessments of what can be better. They offer ideas for progress.
Whether your job is at home, in front of a computer, in a classroom, in a
manufacturing plant, on TV, or wherever, we all need more progress and less
empty criticism for its own sake. What if everyone who wasn't part of the future
"just got out of the way"? Wouldn't that be amazing? OK, I'm really being
Manichean now. Or even simplistic. But I can think of some other really
simplistic statements (not that I'm comparing myself to the purported speaker of
these words, please note that): "Heal the sick." "Feed the hungry." "Clothe the
naked." "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the
kingdom of heaven belongs to such as them."
Simple statements. Maybe things are simpler than we make them. Maybe it's so
much easier to make them almost impossible so we don't have to do the hard work
of fixing them. In any case, I'm with my man, John Mellencamp. If you're not
part of the future, then get out of the way.