Saturday, October 22, 2016

What The Cubs And Their Fans Can Teach All Of Us

I started this blog nearly eight years ago (hard to believe now), with the intention of mostly venting my political spleen, but not doing so at the expense of other subjects that interested me.  That's been harder than I thought, in some ways.  Not because politics are the only thing I think about, or because it's the thing I think about the most.  It's mainly true because my mind tends to see the ways in which politics, and what we can learn about how to better practice it, manifests itself in decidedly unpolitical areas.

Like baseball, for instance.

I started out tonight with the intention of writing a congratulatory post to the Chicago Cubs, and especially to their (no longer) long-suffering fans.  And that's exactly how I want to begin:  with congratulations to the players, manager, coaches and management for an outstanding job on and off the field.  And with an even bigger, more heartfelt congratulations to the fans, many of whom have endured decades of frustration just to be able to enjoy this moment.  Many of whom, sadly, are no longer enjoying it in this realm of existence.  May there be many toasts in Chicago tonight, and over the next several days, to absent friends.

It was, however, precisely as I was watching on TV the largely peaceful (if also appropriately boisterous) celebration by the fans in the narrow streets surrounding Wrigley Field (and, as someone who walked them last summer, I can attest to their narrowness).  I found myself thinking of other championship celebrations in other cities, which ended in senseless violence that stands in opposition to every value sports should represent.  But not tonight in Wrigleyville.  That's not how Cubs fans roll, as it turns out.  Peace, along with joy, was the order of the evening--and, behind it all, the persistence that speaks for itself over the entire course of the team's history.  That persistence was, finally, well-rewarded tonight, and Cubs fans proved that they deserved it.

Fine words.  So what the hell do they have to do with politics?

It comes down to two words I just wrote a few seconds ago:  peace, and persistence.

Nearly sixteen years ago, progressives accepted an election "outcome" that was more of an outrage than an outcome.  Put simply, a Presidential election was stolen by a cabal of elected officials, and unelected ones on the Supreme Court.  In many countries, those on the "losing" side would have responded to violence, and many would have considered that to be an acceptable response under the circumstances.  It didn't happen.  It didn't happen for one simple reason--in this case, the "losing" side had enough faith in democracy's ability to overcome a sneak attack on it to honor that faith, and wait for a better day.  Eight years later, that better day came.

It is now eight years beyond that better day, and I find myself with a troubling mix of optimism and pessimism.  Optimism comes courtesy of the latest polls:  they suggest an easy victory for Hillary, a Democratic-controlled Senate, and perhaps enough Democratic gains in the House to move the overall balance of power in Washington in the correct direction.

But polls are not votes, and that's where the pessimism comes in, courtesy of a e-mail I received this evening from Michael Moore, in which he promotes his film on "Trumpland."  He describes Trump voters as being willing to walk through walls for their candidate, and Hillary voters as being perhaps consumed with enough doubt about her to sit at home and take their chances with fate, rather than "sully" their hands with a less-than-perfect outcome.

And he may be right.  But there's one big problem here.  The choice isn't between less-than-perfect and maybe-better-than-that.  It's between less-than-perfect and disaster.  And, if we get disaster, you may not have any hands left to sully.  And neither may your family, your friends, or anyone else you might care about.

And that's why persistence has to be the order of the day.  Persistence in the face of compromised options.  Persistence in the face of voting for less than we deserve.  Persistence in the face of asking this country to kick the can on its best destiny yet one more time.  Because that kind of persistence is the only way you get to join Dr. Martin Luther King at the mountaintop, seeing the promised land. You may not join those who get their but, with persistence, your eyes will see the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Dr. King told us also that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.  It takes a long time to learn the truth of that observation.  Cubs fans, thankfully, are experiencing the truth of it tonight.  We should take a cue from their persistence, and model it in order to get America to its own championship.  Let me boil this down as simply as possible:


Friday, September 30, 2016

And Finally, To End September On A More Positive Note ...

... hmm.  Come to think about it, I headlined my final post for June in much the same way.  Perhaps this could become a quarterly thing.

Well, for one thing, I have a new daughter-in-law, who married my son this past Sunday.  So now, I have two children, two children-in-law, and two grandchildren.  (But only one wife--and, if you're as lucky as I am, you know that's enough).

And in addition, tireless believer that I am in the arts and their many benefits to our society, especially economic ones, I offer this New York Times article on the economic benefits of the arts to the little town of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, a town so small it fits neatly into a limerick with room to spare for a nearby island (warning:  NSFW).

Which once again makes me wonder:  if the arts can have so powerful a benefit on society regardless of the size of the local population (Pawtucket compared to New York City, for example), why in G-d's name can't we do more to encourage them?

No, the government--federal, state, and local--doesn't have endless amounts of money to front.  But why not use tax policy?  If, for example, there are people out there who think that large estates should be tax-free, why not enable that through estate donations to the arts that could be made at lower tax rates, or perhaps even be tax-free at a certain level.

Or maybe, just maybe, we can take a cue from the Pawtucket's cultural and economic affairs officer, who is quoted as saying that all artiss are small businesses.  Maybe we just need to change the insight of investors when they look at artists and the arts.

In any case, we have to do something.  Thousands of towns in this country could be enriched--in more ways than one--by a more forward-thinking policy on the relationship between arts and economic development.

See you in October!

The Inheritance Tax And The "Similarly Situated"

We should all know by now not to take economic advice from a former advisor to the George W. Bush Administration, especially one who brags about that status, as N. Gregory Mankiw does in this New York Times Op-Ed piece.  Nevertheless, the Times, being the fair-minded paper that it is (in spite of what some people might tell you) has opted to give Mr. Mankiw yet another shot at riding a favorite W. economic hobby-horse:  elimination of the estate tax, on the grounds that the tax unfairly discriminates against those who save versus those who consume--i.e., that it treats people who are otherwise "similarly situated" unfairly, because we tax income without taxing consumption.

Full disclosure:  I'm not an economist.  But some economic arguments require little more than a degree in common sense.  Otherwise, there would be a positive correlation between economic degrees and wealth (and, if you believe there is one, not only do I have a bridge to sell you, but some underemployed PhD's for hire as well).  And, quite frankly, this argument is one of them.

The Frugals (as Mankiw calls those who save) aren't just letting their money sit around.  For the most part, they are not only frugal, but smart.  They're parking their money into a variety of investment vehicles that generate returns--some of those fairly significant.  The chances that they will, under most circumstances, end up with far more money than the consumption-oriented Profligates (again, Mankiw's term).  And, luck playing the role that it does in investing, the Frugals might end up controlling 20% to 40% of society's wealth (in fact, this has actually happened).

The only thing that makes the Frugals and the Profligates truly similarly situated is the fact that, in the long run, they're both dead.  The money, temporal thing that it is, is in this realm, while they are in another.  And then, another tax principle comes into play:  the fact that money is always taxed as it moves from point A to point B.

Does it make sense to confer an essentially unearned reward on a fortunate few, simply by virtue of their gene pool, without asking them in the process to contribute some portion of it to the society that makes it possible in the first place?  Does it make sense, in a nation whose Constitution forbids a nobility, to effectively create an economic one?  Does it make sense, in an age which has taught us the dangers of entitlement, to promote a form of entitlement that cannot help but distort the relationship between wealth and the virtues by which it is supposed to be earned?

As Mankiw notes, moreover, this "onerous" tax doesn't even begin to kick in until the estate in question surpasses the level of $5.45 million.  That's million, times $5.45.  It is more money than the overwhelming majority of Americans will ever see.  For all practical purposes, there is no estate tax in America.  There is, at worst, a small speed bump designed to prevent the 1% from completing the hostile takeover of the county.  I'm happy that for Mankiw that he's in a position to regard $5.45 million as precious pocket change to be protected from Big Brother; if I had a fraction of that money, I'd spend the rest of my life counting my blessings--and my money.

Similarly situated, my assets.  Get out into the real America, Mr. Mankiw.  You'll find much bigger financial problems than the estate tax.

Evolution Is Real, And Scary, Whether We Like It Or Not

In "Things to Come," a ground-breaking science-fiction film based upon his book "The Shape of Things to Come," H.G. Wells predicted that science would grow and expand both in its knowledge about the world around us, and about our ability to master that world.  In fact, he predicted that it would grow so much that it would intimidate people who were not willing to respect or even attempt to understand it, and that they would otherwise be so intimidated by science that they would attempt to destroy it, despite the benefits that it brought to them.  The film concludes with a fateful question posed by one of the pro-science protagonists, a man who understands that the human race can always choose between the ability to rise above animals, or to live like them:  "Which shall it be?"

"Things to Come" is eighty years old as of this year, and nothing much is being done to commemorate its release.  It's viewed as an early sci-fi curiosity that mainly reflects Wells' views on the discredited ideals of socialism.  But it's more properly understood in the context of its message about science, and the fragile position science has in civilization.  We are still struggling with the answer to the film's final question.  And, as of right now, here in the United States, we are failing to come up with the right answer.

Our political system has, thanks to our own intellectual sloth, produced politicians who are happy to reward that sloth with beliefs that, however spiritual or non-spiritual they may be, do not match up with the world we live and work in.  We want to believe evolution is a hoax, because evolution can somehow be blamed for the absence of a Beaver-Cleaver America?  Well, then, the people we put in office, who want to stay their indefinitely and celebrate their own sloth, will be happy to produce public policy that reflects that belief.

And if one consequence of that form of policy is to not only ignore scientific evidence, even if doing so leads us to ignore the mutating of viruses beyond our ability to control them?  Well, too bad. Life, to quote a TTC character, is short, hot and merry, with the devil taking the hindmost.  That is what you wanted.

Isn't it?

Turnabout Is Fair Play, Even When It Comes To Immigration

The pro-Brexit forces in Great Britain, by and large, were anti-immigration forces.  They didn't want their next door neighbors, their co-workers or (heaven forfend, one day!) their children-in-law or grandchildren to be less white, less Anglo-Saxon, and/or less Christian than their ancestors had been. They were unnecessarily scared into thinking that an increasingly mobile world of people were somehow going to destroy the traditions, the history, the nation that they had grown up and grown old knowing--notwithstanding the fact that those traditions, that history, that nation had been itself build by multicultural forces.  (Ever been on British Airways?  What other airline gives you Indian flight attendants and Scottish navigators?)

Fear, unfortunately, is a powerful if short-term motivator, one that is often used to manipulate us into making decisions that are in the best interests of some people (and by "some people," I mean not the majority of us),  So it was with Brexit.  Millions of angry non-London Englanders and Welsh voters, manipulated into voting for the restoration of a past that never truly existed, except in the narratives of those narrow-minded, hate-filled bigots who, in the tragic case of Jo Cox, showed that they were willing to rob children of a mother to get what they wanted.

Whatever they've done for the past, these bigots have done nothing to change the present, Brexit notwithstanding.  We still live in a world in which money moves around it at the speed of light--and in which people, finally, are catching up slowly to the speed of the money.  VERY, VERY slowly, but slowly nevertheless.  That is what has precipitated the refugee crisis that, in turn, led to Brexit in the first place.  Whether we realize it or not, whether we intend to or not, whether we even want to or not, we are building a new world.  One that, as it always truly has in a fundamental sense, belongs to everyone.

And woe to the anti-immigrant forces as that world takes a more definitive shape.  Today, you may be free to be left alone.  Tomorrow, you may not be free to leave yourselves.  That is the way of human nature, under attack.  And it will be the way of the world you refuse to learn to live in.

Turns Out There ARE Two Americas, John Edwards

You may or may not remember John Edwards.  If you don't, I don't blame you; I've worked really hard at putting him out of my mind, and largely succeeded.  But there is one thing he enjoyed saying on the campaign trial that came back to be recently, and it's actually worth a bit of reflection.

Edwards was the U.S. senator from North Carolina who became then-Senator John Kerry's running mate in the 2004 Presidential election.  His character issues may have made a contribution to Kerry's defeat in that election, and he was, in any case, far from my first choice for the VP spot. Nevertheless, he was Kerry's choice, and he was so in part because his own campaign for the Presidency had drawn attention to the growing income inequality in America--or, as he put it "two Americas, one rich, one poor."  (As a plaintiff's attorney, he was lambasted for knowing more about the former than the latter, but I'll leave that alone.)

If the twelve years (!) between that election and the current one have brought home anything, it is the fact that Edwards was right, at least when it comes to income inequality.  And the two Americas he talked about are exemplified by the actions or inactions of separate branches of our federal government.

There's the America exemplified by the executive branch of Barack Obama, whose early and decisive intervention on behalf of our national economy prevented us from experiencing another Great Depression.  As a consequence, even incomes, traditionally the last indicator of a recovery, are finally on the rise, despite years of obstruction and obfuscation by the not-so-loyal opposition.

And, of course, there's the America exemplified by the obstruction and obfuscation.  That would be Congress--or, at least, its ruling party.  A party that revels in the power of the purse, but uses--and misuses--that power as a weapon against the people.  A party that needs to investigate its own powers to obfuscate and obstruct, presumably to find any limits to those powers--and then destroy them. Along with the rest of us.  And, in a final burst of corruption, blaming the other side for not doing enought to save it from its own mistakes.

Will two Americas become zero Americas?  The choice is yours.  VOTE!  I can't say that enough!

The Subject Should Be Unions, Not Immigration

This recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, about a recent study on the impact of immigration in America, supposedly provides ammunition for both sides of the debate.  In fact, as the author of the piece makes clear, the only "ammunition" that the study provides for the restrictionist side of the debate is the same old canard about the manner in which immigration supposedly depresses wages for everyone.

There's one giant flaw with this argument:  wages are being depressed across the board, even in areas of work in which immigrants are, at best, marginally represented.  If it were otherwise, you would be hearing about it everywhere, and not just in the New York Times.  Immigrants are simply more willing to accept these depressed wages because, as depressed as those wages are by historic American standards, they are still better than pay for comparable work in their home countries. Nobody flees a country for a lower salary or wage; if restrictionists really believe this, then they are even more viciously racist than I thought.

But what about those "historic American standards"?  Why aren't they being met today?  Well, a big part of the problem is simply the lack of an increase in the federal minimum wage, due to a Congress that believes such increases pick the pockets of "job creators" (i.e., their campaign contributors).  This lie has been exposed, again and again, in local economies where increases have been enacted, and employment went up.  It needs to be exposed again and again, until everyone understands that it's a lie that hurts all of us.

We wouldn't have a minimum wage of any sort, let alone any of the other benefits for workers that we take for granted, each day, if it were not for unions.  Go ahead and think it's a dirty word, but thank them for holidays, health insurance and safe work places, among other things.  And then consider what all of us might again if we reverse this trend.  Maybe we can all benefit as much as New Yorkers still do from a workplace in which unions are active.

Maybe, of course, unions need to adapt as well.  I think that they are, actually; I belong to two that have adjusted to 21st-century realities.  But I think that the rest of us need to catch up.  Fast.

Why Is This Election Even Remotely Close?

So Trump showed up for the first debate and, unsurprisingly, Hillary was there.  Equally unsurprisingly, Trump tried to bully her (bullying being his one real talent), and she refused to be bullied.  Equally unsurprisingly, he told lies, and she (for the most part) told the truth).  Perhaps least surprisingly of all, even Republicans concede that she won the debate, hands down.

All of which begs an annoying question:


It's not even a question of whether this is a center-right country.  Right now, I think it's a center-left country in many ways (gay rights, for example).  Many conservatives don't think of Trump as truly being one of theirs in the first place.  And with good reason:  the gap between his rhetoric and his reality is the size of the Milky Way.  You don't have to go any farther than his so-called signature issue, immigration, to realize the truth of this.  (I mean, come on:  exactly how many times does this have to be brought up, before even the die-hards surrender the point?)

And foreign policy?  He would have us in World War III before anyone reading this had realized that he or she had been reduced to radioactive dust.  The man is a walking bag of destructive impulses. And, above all, don't take him seriously on the Middle East.  Not everyone in Israel does.  Or elsewhere in the Middle East; if they do, they are seeking to weaponize him for their own purposes.

I can only come to one conclusion:  there are still far too many people in this country who want to hand over their rights and obligations as citizens so they can go back to what they consider to be the bigger choices in life:  fat-free or regular Cheetos.  Sorry, but, until I see real evidence to the contrary, I'm going with that.  And I'm going to fear for the democracy so many have sacrificed to preserve, until the threat of Trump or someone like him goes away.

But maybe it won't.  And maybe, instead of healing, we'll die as a nation.  In that case, I guess I'd better take some time to check out this; many of us may need something like it.

Is The Pardon Power The Path To Immigration Progress?

Maybe it is.  After all, there is a precedent for a mass pardon--Jimmy Carter's pardoning of Vietnam draft resisters.  And there is a precedent for pardoning even the highest crimes and misdemeanors--Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon's Watergate-related offenses.  See?  It's all bipartisan!

Moreover, it would be a legitimate extension of the President's authority into foreign affairs, via a specific power granted to him in the text of the Constitution.  He can exempt anyone currently charged with or convicted of a state or Federal crime, so there's no federalism problem (and immigrant activists would be totally on-board with that).  And he can then make it possible for millions of law-abiding human beings who are American in every sense, save from the perspective of international law, to lawfully adjust their status OR, if need be, temporarily relocate in order to obtain a status for lawful entry.  In turn, this would allow Congress to focus on what it really WANTS to focus on--new visa numbers for the economy.

So what's the problem?  Certainly not Obama, who seems to be, lately, in a pardoning kind of mood.

I guess it's our beloved Republican Congress, which would rather have the re-election issue than the solution that benefits all Americans.

Don't believe the polls.  Do yourself and all of us a favor, and throw out the REAL bums this fall--the ones on Capitol Hill!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

In Praise Of Eccentricity, And Of An Eccentric Named Gene Wilder

I was sad when I learned of the death of Gene Wilder, of course, as was my wife.  For each of us, he was the star or co-star of a movie that had a major impact on us as children.  For her, it was his performance as Willy Wonka in the original (for some of us, the only) "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."  For me, it was his performance as Leo Bloom, the nebbishy accountant convinced by Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) to become a partner in crime in "The Producers."  They were very different films, of course, and vastly different characters.  But Wilder's performances in each were very recognizably his.

Wilder had a way of seducing you into identifying whatever character he was playing, through a very special combination of manic behavior and utterly sincere personal warmth.  Even more amazingly, he knew how to balance those qualities in a way that you bought the idea that they could comfortably co-exist in a single performance, as well as bring the character to life in a way that unmistakably belonged to him.  And he did this again and again in films, for decades to follow.  You can read all about it here, along with a tribute from his frequent collaborator, Mel Brooks.

We still have, and always will have, his film work, so that our children and grandchild can still appreciate how special he was and always will be.  But I find myself wondering whether, in a world that increasingly rejects any sort of true creative originality, there is room for the next Gene Wilder to emerge--assuming in the first instance, of course, that such a miracle is out there somewhere.

The financial structure of our culture mirrors the structure of everything else in our country, and around the world.  We have a one-percent world of movie and TV studios, theaters, museums, galleries, concert halls, recording companies and so on owned by individuals who expect geometrically-increasing profits, year and and year out.  And to get those profits, they increasing turn to the tried-and-true--to remakes, re-issues, revisicals, reruns, and other forms of retro entertainment.

In such a world, it is harder and harder for newcomers to get the kind of break that would make a difference in their lives--to say nothing of ours.  Ah, but there's the Internet, you say?  Yes, the Internet--the electronic land where anyone can be a producer or a publisher, but very few know how to be a distributor.  Except, of course, for the one-percenters who have learned how to bend the Internet for their purposes, and dominate it at the expense of all the strivers.  And so, we are back to square one with our basic dilemma:  the slow death of cultural creativity.

I hope that we can somehow find a way to ultimately get beyond square one, to give all of the new eccentrics, the Gene Wilders who are yet to be, their chance to bring to life something we could not have imagined for ourselves, but that we will embrace as something that will feel indispensible as soon as it becomes part of our experience.  We can't afford to have a culture of Xeroxes, something that will wear down our hearts, minds and souls to nothing.  If our thoughts, feelings and perceptions aren't being constantly challenged, we lose our own individuality, and ultimately our ability in a democracy to govern ourselves.

It's not quite that bad yet.  I pray that it never will get there.  But we need to find a way to give the 99% of voices without a meaningful platform a way to speak.  We need to give the new eccentrics a chance to dazzle, inform and inspire us with their eccentricity.  I can think of no greater tribute to Gene Wilder than finding a way to do that.

In the meantime, rest in peace, Gene.  Good day, sir!

You Own 9/11, GOP. Deal With It.

Funny what a little tightening in the polls will do.  Hillary Clinton had a phenomenal August in the polls and media, thanks to a highly successful convention and a seemingly boundless willingness by Donald Trump to self-destruct.  But September has not been as kind so far and, as a result, the presidential election appears to be a statistical dead heat.  It's possible to assign the responsibility for Hillary's slide in equal parts to both candidates, but it's getting harder and harder to imagine how either of the two most disliked presidential candidates in modern history could get any kind of credit for anything at this point.

But that has not stopped Trump's party, and its agents in the media, from attempting to take advantage of the current mini-trend in favor of The Donald.  This past week, in an Op-Ed piece in (what a surprise!) the New York Post, someone named Marc Theissen takes Hillary to task for using her husband's anti-terrorist policies as the basis for explaining how she, as President, would continue the anti-terror fight.  And why is that specifically a bad thing, given the lack of terror attacks on U.S. soil during the eight years that Bill Clinton was in office?

Because, according to Theissen, this is why the September 11 attacks occurred:
... during Bill Clinton’s eight years in office, they [the terrorists] had waged a virtually unimpeded offensive against the United States.
You read that correctly, folks.  9/11 had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the Bush Administration ignored the threat of al-Queda for more than seven months, with Bush electing to spend the entire month prior to the attacks on his ranch, clearing brush, convinced that he didn't have to worry about what his family friend, Osama bin Laden, might do to destroy the country upon which he declared war after the Reagan Administration had left bin Laden and his supporters high and dry after the Soviet pull-out from Afghanistan.  Even in spite of the pre-9/11 tragedies that Theissen uses in his failed attempt to play pin-the-attack on Bill (and, by extension, Hillary).

Nope.  If it happens on the watch of a Republican, the trick is to find a way to blame it on a Democrat.  When Republicans talk about personal responsibility, they are not talking about their personal responsibility.  That's something they work overtime to avoid.

Especially when it comes to the war of choice in Iraq which they launched, and its disastrous impact on the current state of the Middle East, including the rise of ISIL.  Oh, that's right--if you read Theissen, it turns out that one's on the Clintons as well, not on the fact that the war in Iraq eliminated the common enemy named Saddam Hussein that united rival ethnic and religious factions in a common hate.  Of course, Theissen won't tell you about the Republican role in promoting and funding that common enemy.  That would involve accepting personal responsibility, rather than assigning it.

Oh, but Hillary started the war in Iraq, all by herself, didn't she?  Nope.  That's very much on Bush, Cheney & Co..  Hillary voted for it, and now admits that vote was a mistake.  Nothing wrong with admitting that.  That's called actually accepting personal responsibility

Which leaves America waiting for your move, GOP.  And, if you want to survive as a political force, that means an end to cheesy attempts to blame others for your failures.  9/11 was your failure.  It happened on your watch.  It happened despite foreknowledge that it would happen.  It was a failure followed by more failures--massive, trillion-dollar failures for which generations unborn will pay the price.

And you're denying all of this so that you can give America Donald Trump?

Damn you.  Damn you all to hell.*  And let the rest of us take upon our shoulders the personal responsibility of finally fixing your screw-ups.

*Apologies to "Planet of the Apes," if not to its Republican star, the late Charlton Heston.

The First Amendment Belongs To All Of Us, Including Colin Kaepernick

It's funny how the reputation and perception of a celebrity can change over the course of his or her time in the public eye.  Not that long ago, Colin Kaepernick was merely known as one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks in the National Football League.  If you're a Baltimore Ravens fan, his name has a more personal meaning:  he was the guy who almost helped the San Francisco 49ers defeat the Ravens a few Super Bowls ago.  Didn't happen, which made everybody in Baltimore happy and everyone in San Francisco not so much.

But now, Kaepernick has people from Baltimore to San Francisco, and lots of places in between, hating him unappeasably because of his recent decision not to stand for the playing of the National Anthem at NFL games.  His reason:  to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and to protest the treatment generally of African-Americans generally in what he referred to as "a white world."

I have to start out by stating that, as a broad general rule, I am not a big fan of using either the flag or the Anthem as a prop for a political protest.  By design, they are powerful symbols, which is the thing that attracts their use as protest props.  But, in a way, that's the problem:  they are so powerful to so many people, and invoke such a way array of thoughts and feelings, that their use as props has a tendency to swallow up the protest, and give those who are paying any attention to the protest's message a cheap and undeserved way of branding the protestor as a traitor.  I would wager that most Americans, were you to show them a photo of a flag-burning or some similar protest, could not tell you what the object of the specific protest was.  All they would see is people who are, in their minds, disgracing their country.

I don't think that Kaepernick's protest, in this regard, is any different.  And of course, ultimately, that's not the point.  And that's because of a little thing called the First Amendment, which protects Kaepernick's right to protest and his critics' right to criticize.  Unfortuately, it's hard for me to feel that, in what is threatening to become the age of Trump, the critics' right to criticize is elevated, in the minds of too many people, over Kaepernick's rights.

Maybe it would be just as well to show those critics the photos I mentioned a moment ago, and remind them that, even if they have no interest in Kaepernick's message, this country has survived a lot of disrespect toward both the flag and the Anthem, and the flag and the Anthem still have the same place in our nation that they have for decades.  Nothing has destroyed them, or their meaning, or their importance.  So maybe the critics can afford to get over it, and reflect just a little bit instead on the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, to the effect that the flag's symbolism of the right to protest it is "poignant but fundamental."  Kennedy is nobody's idea of a knee-jerk liberal, so perhaps his thoughts on the subject can provide the critics with some small degree of comfort.

On the other hand, if those critics are agents of the state, i.e., members of the Santa Clara Police Department union, they may, along with the rest of the critics, want to think specifically about what the First Amendment does forbid:  state action against free speech, among other rights.  To extend the thoughts expressed by Justice Kennedy, to take any form of state action against free speech dishonors one of our most fundamental rights--a right that the flag symbolizes, and that gives the flag much of its power in the first place.

The critics may also want to reflect on the dubious historical origins of many of our national symbols, such as the National Anthem itself.  The poem on which the Anthem is based contains four stanzas; typically, we only sing the first one.  That is probably just as well, considering the fact that the other three have some rather provocative ideas in them.  Tea Party members have used the fourth stanza's references to God as proof positive that ours was meant to be a Christian nation. And the third stanza's language, sadly, reflects author Francis Scott Key's rancid views on race.

But the thing that all of us should reflect upon, at least a little bit, is the fact that much of the progress of our nation has been instigated by a single act of defiance that was, contemporaneously, deemed to be disrespectful or unpatriotic.  There is very much of a straight line from Rosa Parks to Barack Obama, a fact that the President would be the first to acknowledge.  Kaepernick's protest may have already begun to extend that line even further.

And he may have started a conversation that we can continue without flags or songs.  Consider the case of Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles.  Nobody's idea of a protestor or a traitor, and no disrespector of the flag, yet someone who, in his own quiet but firm way, added painful but needed truth to the discussion.

To sum up, all I am saying is this:  stop labeling people, listen to their ideas, and give freedom a chance.  I cannot say this enough:  freedom is what the flag is meant to symbolize.  And freedom is not something that sits well on a shelf, adored but not used.  It's meant to be used.  Use it.  And respect its use by others.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Hypocrisy And Futility Of Phyllis Schlafly

I'm well aware of the admonition not to speak ill of the dead.  As a rule, I observe it, whether or not the deceased was someone I admired or abhorred.  I've lived through the deaths of enough family members and friends to know well that other people's feelings should be considered.  Nevertheless, when it comes to individuals who chose the political limelight in ways that devastate the lives of others, I'm not going to be a hypocrite for the sake of those feelings.

In the case of Phyllis Schlafly, I'm simply going to say this:  if you were a close friend or family member of hers, stop reading here.  And, even having said that, I'm going to exercise a little restraint, if only to avoid turning her into a martyr.

Schlafly, who passed away this past week, could fairly be called the godmother of modern conservatism, going all the way back to 1964 when she published "A Choice, Not An Echo," supporting the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater.  Her particular focus, however, was on the role of women in American life.  And she made no bones about what she wanted American women to be:  barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen.  Not surprisingly, most of the obituaries about Schlafly focused on her role in organizing the successful opposition to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, which she saw as a threat to the supposedly "traditional" and subordinate role of women to men in virtually every aspect of living.

It's precisely that opposition, however, that best illustrates what Schlafly essentially was:  a bald-faced hypocrite whose life illustrates the ultimate futility of American conservatism's efforts, in William F. Buckley's words, to halt the progress of the human race against those who would tyrannize it from within.

Schlafly was anything but a stay-at-home mom.  She was a writer, a candidate for office, a political activist, an attorney, and, ultimately, an anti-feminist lobbyist.  She was, in effect, a liberated woman who used her wealthy husband's money to achieve her liberation, as noted by Gail Sheehy in a quote featured in the New York Times obituary found in the link above.  As Sheehy put it, Schlafly's brand of liberation was "based on marrying a rich professional, climbing the pedestal to lady of leisure and pulling up the rope ladder behind her."

The campaign to thwart the ratification of the ERA was Schlafly's major attempt to pull up that ladder. She claimed at the time that the ERA was unnecessary, and that there were few if any laws directed against women's equality.  At the same time, she invented a parade of "horribles" that would come to pass if the ERA was ratified:  from "homosexual" marriage to same-sex bathrooms to women in combat to state-controlled child care.

But, if the ERA was unnecessary, why had women made so little progress toward equality, despite other efforts at legal reform to promote that end?  Why were so many women who didn't have the option of being liberated by marrying into wealth still being held back in so many ways? Asking Schlafly those questions would have been a waste of time; she would not have provided honest answers to them.  Her anti-ERA activism, like so much conservative activism, was based on one principle alone:  the need for conservatives to feel special based upon the undeserved suffering of others.  It makes a certain perverse sense:  if you can't accomplish anything of value on your own, hold back those who can.  It makes you feel better about yourself.  It sure as hell doesn't make the vast majority of us feel better.

Schlafly's hypocrisy, moreover, wasn't limited to the issue of women's rights.  Like most conservatives, she professed suspicion of any sort of "one-world" or global movement--provided, of course, that the movement in question was progressive in its leanings.  But this did not stop her from doing her own, "one-world" organizing on behalf of conservative ideology.  Here, once again, Schlafly is exposed as someone who believes that freedom and opportunity are the exclusive province of conservatives; liberals, on the other hand (paraphrasing George Orwell's "1984") only deserve to have a conservative boot on their faces--forever.  To grant liberals the same degree of opportunity that conservatives claim for themselves is, in effect, to grant them "special rights."

Special rights.  This is what conservatives like Schlafly used as their description of the goal of gay-rights activists:  to live their lives openly, yet still be able to live and work where they choose and marry the partners of their choice, just like other Americans.  These were, of course, rights formerly reserved to heterosexual Americans.  And Schlafly was just fine with that, as she saw the LGBT community as hostile to conservatism; this despite the fact that many members of that community self-identified with many conservative positions.  If the LGBT community is largely in the pocket of the Democratic Party today, it is in no small measure because right-wing activists like Schlafly effectively put them there, because the Democrats were and are committed to expanding opportunity and not restricting it.

And that is only one part of the ultimate futility of Schlafly's activism.  All of the things listed above as part of her parade of "horribles" are now everyday part of American lives.  That's because history has shown a rather nasty bias against people who try to hold back opportunity for others.  And so, every time a conservative tries to stand athwart history and cry "Halt!", he or she will get nothing but the tire tracks of history across his or her body.  History is all about opportunities for advancement, and people seizing and then making the most of them.  One might just as easily believe in one's ability to change the course of the sun as to believe in one's ability to stop history.

Phyllis Schlafly, like so many of her ilk, never understood any of this.  That, combined with her rank hypocrisy, is why her political career will ultimately be little more than a footnote in history.  And the best way to minimize that footnote, to reduce it to its proper place of unimportance, would be to at last enshrine in our basic law the principle that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.  And to ensure that this guaranty covers the LGBT community as well.

Apart from all of that, Phyllis, well, rest in peace.  In your case, it'll be a change of pace.

Monday, August 29, 2016

It Takes Time But, Eventually, They Catch Up

I have long been familiar (and weary) of the old line that "a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged."  I recently found a nice counterpoint to it, however:  "a liberal is a conservative who's been arrested."  Very true.

But, mainly, in my experience, a conservative is someone consistently behind liberals when it comes to catching up to reality.  Whether it's the need for paid family leave, or even their own perfidy in creating an environment in which there is no framework for debate, they catch up and fess up.  It takes time. Sometimes, an unconscionable amount of time.  But, sooner or later, they get there.

The trouble now is, however, that, in a digital age, it may not be possible to be patient with the slowness of their ability to catch up.  Sometimes, they may do it just on time.  Sometimes, not yet, but sometimes in the future, it may be too late.  For some of us.  For all of us.

This may be another way of saying that, in an age in which events and our responses to them move at the speed of light, democracy may just accelerate the pace at which one or more dictatorships spring up.  Or, more optimistically, it may be another justification for having a system of government like ours, where power is divided, and "speed bumps" are built into the pace of change.

What I do know for certain is that there is no excuse for dropping out, and hoping for a better candidate, party or leader.  In a democracy, you are always your own best leader.  And, when you use your voice in combination with others, and without giving up, you do have the power to prevent the devil from taking the hindmost.  You thus bring the hindmost along with you, into a future that you have believed in and one that they could never have envisioned.

So don't give up.  Not in 2016, and not ever.  As Barack Obama once said, you are the change you seek.  Don't sit on it.  Make it.

Cities And Countries Are Built, And Rebuilt, From The Ground Up

The Berlin Wall was not taken down by governments, or ideologies.  It was taken down by people, people who were tired of being separated by hatreds and misunderstandings cooked up by politicians they no longer trusted.  Today, thanks to their courage and resolve, Berlin is one city again.

Something similar needs to happen here in the United States, here in Maryland, here in the city of Baltimore.  Where walls between black and white citizens truly do exist, even if they are not always physical in nature  And where "leaders" in both communities are, in fact satisfied with the status quo, simply because of the way in which it allows them to obtain and remain in positions of "leadership."

Baltimore became a deeply segregated city decades ago, when the then-ruling white power structure zoned the city in such a way so as to keep African-Americans together, but separated from the economic opportunities that might have changed their lives for the better.  The zoning system thus created still rules the city with a heavy economic hand, despite decades of attempts at urban renewal in the Monumental City.

A large part of that stems from the fact that much of the money has gone into maintaining the prosperity of areas that were already in relatively strong shape.  The Inner Harbor is perhaps the most obvious example of that.  But at least part of it stems from the unwillingness of African-American leaders to open up their own communities to outside development, for fear that doing so would rob them of the minimum political power that they maintain from the gerrymandering effects of zoning.

Until Baltimoreans on both sides of the color divide can reach out and see themselves as city residents first, and peoples of differing colors second, there will never be any hope for Baltimore. And, one day, there may not be a Baltimore itself.

So, if you care about the city, and perhaps about the future of the state and the nation, do yourself and all of us a favor.  Pray for this family.  Pray that there will soon be many more like them.  And pray that, together, they will dismantle Baltimore's Berlin Walls.