Editor’s Note: Barack Obama was inaugurated as President of the United States, elected on a platform of change, on Jan. 20, 2009. He took the oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as the country confronted its gravest set of circumstances in at least a generation.
A year into the Obama presidency, the Gazette invited leaders in their fields to write about the changes still needed, nationally as well as locally. Here some of those Vineyarders focus us again on issues that matter and remind us what changes we might make, as Americans and Islanders, in the coming year.
Jobs Are Job One
By ROSABETH MOSS KANTER
To capture the essence of our first Internet President’s first year, I dreamed up a few Twitter-like headlines:
Health Care — It’s Not Dead Yet
Green Still a Dream
Nobel Prize: Make War to Get Peace
Jobs, Won’t You Come Home?
Oh dear. All of these smack of promises not yet fulfilled.
We knew when we elected him that he would need on-the-job training. Still, the rhetoric of hope was so much better than the opposition’s rhetoric of hate, and the country needed a corrective. It was also exhilarating to transcend race and preach unity.
With expectations so high and politics so nasty, President Obama has not accomplished fully the major items on his overly-ambitious Year One agenda. The economy is recovering, although places dependent on real estate and construction still suffer the most, including the Vineyard. (After all, the crash and recessions stemmed from sub-prime mortgage lending and a real estate bubble.) The stimulus package and bailout of financial firms did not reach the numerous small businesses and wannabe entrepreneurs that create jobs, and unemployment is appallingly high. Job creation is unfinished business. So is immigration reform, which would be helpful to Vineyard employers who are increasingly dependent on a flow of service workers.
But hey, this is when Kanter’s Law kicks in: Everything can look like a failure in the middle . President Obama is in the middle of the first half. He has three years left, even with the wild card of the midterm Congressional elections. Health care is on the table toward the first real national reform in decades. Regulations reducing carbon emissions are in play. Maybe troops will come home from Afghanistan next summer. Small business growth is recently a big Obama focus. He has made social innovation a priority, which acknowledges that community-based organizations are often the best problem-solvers, as we see with affordable housing on the Vineyard.
The Vineyard is fortunate to be protected from some of the unsolved problems with which Obama years two, three and four must contend. Massachusetts already has a universal health care insurance plan, which covers over 97 per cent of all citizens, as Governor Patrick told me recently. Global warming might cause faster beach erosion, accelerating the time the Island washes away, but Vineyard air is still clean, acid rain minimal, aquifer water still pure. Low-carbon energy sources from the sun and the wind surround us, although Cape Wind remains a controversy. Ferries and nine-seater planes are unlikely to attract terrorists.
Of course, since no island is an island, national and international issues affect the Vineyard even if we could live off bluefish and blueberries. Jobs are Job One, since the state of the economy shapes everything, including whether anyone can afford to be on the Vineyard, all the way up to public approval of the President, which influences support for his agenda.
Vineyarders need to make noise about a small business stimulus package. That way, the next time the Obama family comes to the Vineyard for a vacation, the President will understand how many hardworking but lower income people make those priceless vacations possible.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a Harvard Business School professor and author of the new book SuperCorp: How Vanguard Companies Create Innovation, Profits, Growth, and Social Good. She is a longtime resident of Edgartown, where she owns a home with her husband Barry Stein.
We Are In It Together
By GERALDINE BROOKS
In his spine-tingling speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and later as presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama articulated what has always been my core belief: that we are all in it together. “There are no blue states or red states,” he said. “Just the United States of America.” He promised an end to partisanship at home and to unilateralism abroad.
That promise hasn’t been kept. And although I don’t entirely blame Obama, who has met intransigent resistance to his every attempt at bipartisanship in Washington, and clenched fists in response to his open hand abroad, I do believe that the change we need will remain beyond reach until we accept that the age of the ornery, individualistic, Darwinistic America is over. For like it or not, we are in it together. On this beautiful, Balkanized little Island, in these could-be-a-lot-more United States, and on this shrinking, warming, increasingly crowded and war-ravaged planet. We are in it, alas, even with those who do not believe in “we” — those whose arid, death-seeking extremism barely has room for “I” — whose radius of humanity has narrowed so much that they can extinguish themselves along with their countless innocent victims. We are in it, too, with those who can vote against universal health care and decent spending on public schools because their notion of “we” is so exclusive it cannot encompass those with different skin, accent or income.
But let’s start right here, with that small “we” that is the year-round, voting population of the Vineyard. How can it be sensible for us not to have a common program for waste disposal and recycling? It’s wonderful that we have five towns with five separate characters, but surely we can come together on basics like trash handling. How confounding it is for our seasonal renters to learn that the cardboard that was willingly picked up in the town they stayed in last summer will be left to litter the sidewalk outside this year’s rental. Other islands such as Nantucket and Lord Howe have long enjoyed the carbon-saving benefits of an islandwide composting facility while we continue to expend massive amounts of fuel trucking and shipping this potentially valuable resource off Island to be incinerated, and bringing back expensive plastic bags full of commercial compost to fertilize our gardens and farms. Why should our every horizon be industrialized by a random scatter of private, untested windmills, thrown up by well-meaning but perhaps less well informed homeowners, when an Islandwide wind energy policy could lead to the selection of the most efficient site to place a cluster of windmills from which the whole Island might benefit.
Geraldine Brooks, a journalist and author, lives in Vineyard Haven year-round. Her last book was People of the Book.
Health Comes from the Ground Up
By JOAN NATHAN
Obama’s election brought so much hope and excitement about what can be done — nationally and even internationally — when people are engaged at the local, grassroots level. The community of American chefs, farmers, food activists and writers was certainly touched by this spirit, and we have watched, and pushed, for good food to move out of an elitist niche and into its rightful place as a common denominator amongst all Americans.
The Obama administration has been pushing this issue right along with us — from Michelle Obama’s appearance on Sesame Street, talking about the importance of fruits and vegetables, to a new farmers market just a few feet from the White House. Personally, I have been deeply involved with a series of dinners that began last year over inauguration weekend. These Art.Food.Hope dinners, which I chair with Alice Waters, symbolize a type of inauguration for the culinary community — ushering in an eagerness to come together for a greater, populist cause — 12 of America’s most renowned chefs, uniting in D.C. with 60 volunteer servers and a dozen volunteer hosts to raise over $100,000 in one night for local food banks. The event is happening again next week, this year under the banner of Sunday Night Suppers: Focus on Food. The incredible enthusiasm to participate exhibited by chefs, hosts and volunteers is proof that the hope and inspiration that began last year is in 2010 continuing to gain momentum.
Food is beginning to be understood for the powerful role it can play in creating change — healthier people, healthier economies, healthier planet and healthier communities. We need to continue in this direction — pushing our leaders to legislate for education in public schools around food and nutrition and requiring high quality school lunches for our kids. Investing in health up front, on both a personal and legislative level — through food — rather than paying out the back with health care cost of obesity and poor diet-related maladies. On a grassroots level, I believe that Martha’s Vineyard has done more as a community than anywhere else I have visited in America. With a strong slow foods movement, local farmers’ market, the Island Grown Initiative and the Farm Institute, Martha’s Vineyard is truly a model for the rest of the country to follow.
One of the most meaningful parts of my career is listening to people’s stories. As the Obama campaign showed us, incredible things can be accomplished when neighbors start to talk. This year I encourage everyone to talk to people in their communities about food and all it symbolizes for them. Conversations like these are the birthplace of ideas and undoubtedly the way we begin to work together for change.
Joan Nathan is a summer resident of Chilmark, the author of numerous cookbooks and the executive producer and host of the PBS series Jewish Cooking in America with Joan Nathan. Her upcoming book, Quiche, Kugel and Couscous: In Search of Jewish Cooking in France (Knopf) is due out in the fall of 2010.
By CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT
The night Barack Obama crossed the finish line to make history as the first African-American president, the song I repeatedly played was Sam Cook’s Change Gon’ Come. And as tears flowed down the cheeks of even the most masculine men in the room, the lyrical words spoke for our hopes on that night. Finally, maybe, with the election of a brilliant black man, black people as a whole would reap the benefits; and there would be a hard strike against racism across the globe.
Now, one year on, while President Obama is still held in high esteem the world over (especially in Africa which claims him as its own), ironically it fell to a young black child at a Louisiana town hall meeting to provide a reality check on his standing at home. He asked the president: “Why do they hate you?” For some, the answer to the question had nothing to do with race and was all about policy. But even before the question was asked, former President Jimmy Carter had already “waded into the murky waters of racism,” as New York Times columnist Charles Blow put it. Murky waters they may be, but Carter was crystal clear about why he thought Obama was hated in his own country. “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward him is based on the fact that he is a black man.”
To be sure, the verbal temperature on race has risen dramatically and virulently since Obama’s election. For example, when he was elected, 70 per cent of Americans believed his presidency would lead to improved race relations. But a recent Gallup poll has indicated that people in the United States have essentially the same attitudes about race as they did in 1963. And blacks are more pessimistic about race relations since Obama’s election, according to Gallup. Their pessimism is fueled, in part, by the fact that even when everyone is suffering from the shrinking economy, blacks are suffering the most, their unemployment rate twice that of whites. Moreover, a shrinking economy has always tended to be a trigger for narrow-mindedness and self-preservation. People feel expansive when the economy is growing, but they withdraw when it contracts. And whites, already believing themselves the victims of affirmative action, also tend to feel the heat of rising immigrant populations. Some of these attitudes have led to a dramatic rise in racist hate groups.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented a more than 50 per cent increase since 2000. And those who are most vicious and vocal are finding kindred spirits on the airwaves, where their ratings from racist rants are skyrocketing. When on-air personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck question Obama’s citizenship, for example, blacks as a whole feel attacked. At the same time, when a white Louisiana justice of the peace recently refused to marry a black man and a white woman because “there is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage,” it adds red pepper to the bubbling cauldron of racism in the U.S. A beer summit at the White House may have eased tensions between Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the white policeman who arrested him despite Gates having proved he was lawfully in his own house. But it highlights what is a common experience of black men all over the U.S.
Here are the numbers. Research suggests that one in 100 Americans are behind bars. Of these one in 15 are African American. One in nine black men in prison are between the ages of 20 and 34. Most of these are nonviolent criminals, arrested for arbitrary disorderly conduct — the initial charge laid against Gates. Outside of prison, civil rights organizations are still being confronted with cases like a recent one in Rockford, Ill. Here two white police officers shot an unarmed black man in front of a group of children at a church. The case is still under investigation, but the optics feed the perception that black men are at greater risk than whites from the police. The good news is that the demonstrations against the shooting in Rockford were interracial, as was the attentive audience at various panel discussions on race that I have chaired recently. Also, the Louisiana justice who turned down the interracial couple wanting to wed resigned under pressure. And some whites have told friends of mine in the South that they are a lot more comfortable talking openly about race with blacks than before Obama’s election a year ago.
And workshops and sensitivity sessions on race are springing up around the country. Moreover, it appears through anecdotal evidence that increasingly African Americans are moving in to the middle and upper classes and also reaching the top rung of ladders in the corporate world. But this is only a start.
Much has been made over the past year of Obama’s constructive policy of engagement with Africa, his tough-love approach to some of the continent’s rogue states and his recent historic visit to the continent during which he spoke of the lasting and destructive legacy of slavery. But back home the jury is still out on how much the Obama presidency will change the dynamics of race and racism — itself a painful legacy of slavery — and lead to a truly postracial society. Over the past year, Obama himself has rarely confronted the subject at home, believing that it is as critical to address class as race issues. As a solution to both, he continues to push for a revival of the economy. One just hopes he might appreciate, if not agree with, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd who wrote recently: “It’s nice to talk about change, but you can’t wipe away yesterday.”
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is an American journalist based in Johannesburg who contributes to National Public Radio and other media. She was formerly the Africa bureau chief for CNN, and is a longtime seasonal resident of Oak Bluffs. This article first appeared in the January-March edition of the BBC Focus on Africa magazine.
Rethinking the Inedible
By JESSE H. AUSUBEL
I learned to fish in the 1950s from the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority pier. About 100 yards from shore, we used to catch black sea bass, blowfish and the occasional tautog while watching the SS Nobska and other ferries dock and cast away.
Seafood is astonishingly delicious, and tastier and more varied in markets than ever, owing to improved storage and transport. Before the advent of refrigeration, fresh sushi was a delicacy for the emperor of Japan. Allowing a part to stand for the whole, we may say that the democratization of sushi has changed everything. Survival is hard, even if you can leap at 60 mph like a swordfish.
For the past decade I have participated in the largest study of marine life in history, the first worldwide Census of Marine Life. The census covers microbes to mammals, near shore to mid oceans, and abyssal mud to foaming waves. The results on about 250,000 forms of marine life will be reported in October 2010. The motto of the census is making ocean life count. Most scientists involved in the census believe there will be less to count in 2020 and a lot less in 2050.
Humans do hunt plants and animals to extinction. Consider a terrestrial example. Many types of contraceptives have always existed in the form of vegetables and seeds that contained hormone mimics. The Greeks and Romans extensively used a plant similar to fennel for contraception. The plant grew wild in Libya. To stress its commercial value, the Romans minted its image on coins, so the plant can be exactly identified. It was harvested to extinction.
Complete extinctions are harder to achieve in the ocean than on land, but locally many species are disappearing. Who would have guessed in 1960 that buck-toothed blowfish would become rare in Vineyard waters?
We can understand that in a world of seven billion human tongues aquaculture must largely replace hunting of the wild animals for many, maybe all forms of marine life. We are accustomed to the reality that even vast America does not produce enough wild ducks or wild blueberries to satisfy our appetite. Fortunately, farming of oysters, tilapia, and other herbivorous species spare other marine animals from doom.
But perhaps humanity must range further during this century to provide food that spares land and sea for nature. I am a backyard farmer and love my cherry trees, but obviously feeding an ever larger crowd only by means of agriculture or aquaculture is a complicated business. In fact, it is already being circumvented. Look at what shoppers actually pick up in the food aisles and outlets. For sure, the cows are incidental.
Back to basics, we depend on the hydrogen produced by the chlorophyll of plants. Once you have hydrogen, for example, produced by means of nuclear energy, a plethora of microorganisms are capable of cooking it into the variety of substances in our kitchens. Researchers for decades have been producing food conceived for astronauts on the way to Mars by cultivating hydrogenomonas on a diet of hydrogen, carbon dioxide and a little oxygen. They make proteins that taste like hazelnut.
A person consumes around 100 watts. A current nuclear power plant has a power of a couple of gigawatts: enough to supply food for a few million people from, say, 2,500 acres for the power park. A spherical fermenter of 100 yards diameter could produce the primary food for the 30 million inhabitants of Mexico City. The foods would, of course, be formatted before arriving at the consumer. Grimacing gourmets should observe that our most sophisticated foods, such as cheese and wine, are the product of sophisticated elaboration by microorganisms of simple feedstocks such as milk and grape juice.
Globally, such a food system would allow humanity to release 90 per cent of the land and sea now exploited for food. As in West Tisbury and Chilmark, humanity might maintain artisanal farming and fishing to provide supreme flavorings for bulk tofu.
If values permit. Recent video of a veined octopus building a shelter from coconut shells shows intelligence in my eyes comparable to a dog. Human rights entered the vernacular in the 1970s and animal rights in the 1990s. Not only the octopus, but microbes may have a case, too. Consciousness and intelligence exist in bacteria. A slime mold presented with two food sources systematically connects to the food sources through the shortest route. We may define intelligence as the capacity to solve problems in a changing context, which requires memory and computing power. Both are essential, and single cell organisms seem to have them.
Eating will get tougher during the 21st century.
Jesse H. Ausubel is director of the Program for the Human Environment at the Rockefeller University in New York city, an adjunct scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and a seasonal resident of Oak Bluffs since 1955. Acknowledgement: Cesare Marchetti.