Saturday, June 30, 2018

A Few Additional Thoughts About The Potential Fate of Roe

Obviously, in considering what a Supreme Court with five solidly conservative vote might do to the country's jurisprudence, almost all of the focus has been on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision that recognized a constitutional right to abortion services for women.  It was Roe, after all, that shifted the focus of the conservative moment toward the goal of changing the Court's composition so that it would, one day, overturn the decision.  Reversing Roe has for decades now been, if one may pardon the expression, the Holy Grail of social conservatives.  And now, depending on what happens not only with the nomination and confirmation process for Anthony Kennedy's successor, but also with the midterm elections and the fate of the current Republican majority in the Senate, the Grail may actually be in sight.

So it is worth pondering, for a few moments, the outcome of reversing Roe.  What happens then?  Do we suddenly, or eventually, find ourselves living in a world not unlike the one depicted in Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," where the reproductive rights of women are completely controlled by a theocracy, one not unlike the contemporary American evangelical movement?  (Full disclosure for those who have not previously read my blog:  I am what I would call a recovering evangelical, now a converted Jew, who knows a thing or two about how evangelicals think and operate.)

It's more likely than not that any reversal of Roe would be based on an analysis of constitutional rights as defined by the Tenth Amendment, which reserves any rights not explicitly guaranteed by the texts of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights to the states or the people.  As the conservative justices would probably put it, since the texts of both documents do not explicitly refer to a right to abortion services, that right must necessarily be defined by the States and the voters (i.e., "the people").  This would undoubtedly led to various levels of abortion rights in different states, depending on the views of the voters in those states and the state governments they elect.

What might be true then, at least initially, is that abortion laws in different states might tend to move even further toward the extremes.  Blue states, free of various restrictions enacted by Congress and the federal courts over the years, might end up permitting unlimited abortion on demand, while red states, no longer obliged by Roe to guarantee some level of access to abortion services would come up with levels of restrictions on women's health care services hitherto undreamed of by the Falwells and Grahams of the world.

The problem with this, however, is essentially the problem with so-called conservative efforts at health care reform, which tends to put ultimate decision-making power on providing health care at the state level.  Health care is not only a national system, but an international one, which means that any decisions made on regulating it ultimately have to be made at the national and international level.  As a consequence, even if Roe is reversed, Congress and whoever is President (hopefully, not the morally-compromised narcissist we have now) will be forced to develop some sort of federal law that will, in turn, control the level of abortion services across the country.  In other, more concise words, we may be right back to where we are now, politically, on the question of abortion.

And there is yet one more interesting, potentially complicating factor for the future legality of abortion services in America.  (Spoiler alert:  it's good news for the pro-choice side.)

The Equal Rights Amendment, which has been limping along toward ratification for decades, is now just one state legislative approval away from full ratification and becoming part of the Constitution.  True, a Democratic Congress and President would have to waive the inability of the ERA to be ratified prior to an earlier statutory deadline, but that's little more than a formality.  As someone who has long imagined (gleefully) the litigation potential in the ERA being part of the fundamental law of the land, it has occurred to me that a reasonable position in litigation on the abortion question might produce the outcome that, for the ERA to be upheld, women could not be allowed to suffer a burdening of their rights based on the disparate impact of pregnancies on women, as opposed to men whose lives are not similarly burdened.  This line of thinking could, in a post-Roe world, lead to a Supreme Court decision that, for all practical purposes, revives Roe under another name.  Then, of course, overturning that decision would become the new Holy Grail of the social conservative moment.

And, to borrow a lyric from Cher, the beat would go on.  And on.  And on.  With quite literally no end in sight.

I have rejected Bill Clinton as a political hero; however, there is something to be said for his standard for the existence of abortion services:  safe, legal, and rare.  I can't help but think that both sides of this seemingly never-ending debate would be better served by less friction in the legal/governmental system, and more cooperation toward making the Clinton standard not only the national one, but the international one.  Women and children everywhere could potentially benefit so much from that level of cooperation.

And it might not hurt our legal/governmental system either.  Maybe, just maybe, it could finally get back to focusing on making the country better, and less on who's winning the political game of chess that never ends.

Time For The Democrats To Create A New Reality

Unsurprisingly, the news of Justice Kennedy's retirement from the Supreme Court unleashed panic attacks among Democrats in Washington, and progressives around the country.  No longer, it seems, would there be a proverbial "swing" vote joining the Court's Democratic appointees in throwing liberals and their supporters the occasional judicial bone (especially major ones like the Obergefell decision on marriage equality).  Instead, thanks to Donald Trump and the ever-duplicitous Republican Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McCONnell, there will soon be a majority-for-life (however long that may be) of five conservative Justices on the Court, ready to reflexively shoot down any and all major precedents of an even remotely forward-looking, people-protecting nature.  Including--and especially--Roe v. Wade.

Or will any of this happen?

Trump holds the power of nomination, and knows that he owes his undeserved place in the White House to the support of evangelical voters who were willing to lose their souls for something less than the world (in this case, control of the highest court in the land).  As for McCONnell, he effective holds the power of advice and consent with regard to the constitutional power of confirming Trump's nominees.  He has already shown himself to be a complete master of how to abuse that constitutional power, first by inventing a "Biden rule" to deny the Obama-nominated Merrick Garland even a vote for the better part of an entire year, and then usurping the power of Senate Democrats to filibuster Trump's alternative to Garland, Neil Gorsuch.  In both instances, McCONnell was able to command the loyalty of every vote in his caucus; in the case of the Gorsuch nomination, he was even able to intimidate several red-state Democrats into "offering" their support.

So, on the surface, nailing down that five-seat reflexively conservative majority on the Court should be a political slam-dunk.

But does it have to be?

I am, at this moment, reminded of that unfortunate statement made by a member of the George W. Bush Administration, in which he famously said that the United States was now an empire that no longer needed to heed anyone's definition of reality--that it was powerful enough to create its own reality.  In the context of fighting the Iraq war, that type of assertion seems dangerously deluded at best, and dangerously meglomaniacal at worse.  However, as applied to issues of a slightly lesser geopolitical magnitude, I'm not sure that there isn't something all of us can't learn from that assertion.

History, even recent history, is filled with instances of people who successfully defied the odds, not necessarily winning victories in the short run, but helping to build them in the long run.  And, sometimes, even moments that weren't designed to be moments of triumph ended up being just that, simply because people acted on their beliefs and not on the calculations of others. 

In a way, Barack Obama illustrates both points.  The chain of victories for civil rights that was set into motion by the Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision resulted in Obama's election to the U.S. Senate.  His successful presidential campaign was another story; up until the collapse of the financial markets in September of 2008, I thought the the election was John McCain's to lose.  That collapse had almost everything to do with Obama's election.  But had Obama not entered the Democratic race that year--a race that was supposedly Hillary Clinton's to lose--he would not have been able to turn that collapse into the history-making moment of his election.

Luck, as Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey once said, is the residue of design.  And he knew what he was talking about; he knew that the major leagues would have to be integrated one day, but he also know that it would take just the right ballplayer to make it work.  He waited until he had that player--Jackie Robinson--who then went on to make it work.

So why should the Democrats--and their supporters, for that matter--simply accept the consensus odds that there is nothing they can do to stop Trump and McCONnell from packing the Supreme Court?  Yes, it looks right now like there's a glide path to that accomplishment.  But a lot could happen to destroy that path.  And it might only happen if Democrats in Washington stop focusing on the odds and start focusing on why they've been sent there by the voters in the first place--to fight for the people against the powerful (to borrow from Al Gore).

As it turns out, Democrats have regrets about not having fought harder for Garland during the pendency of his nomination.  Those regrets seem to come less from a belief that such an effort would have been successful (it may very well not have been) and more that there is more to be gained in the long run by not running away from every showdown with their Republican counterparts.

For that matter, is it true that they can do nothing?

Not everyone thinks so.  Here is one writer's list of helpful suggestions.  Here is yet another suggestion, and my personal favorite.  After all, there's no constitutional limit to the size of the Supreme Court.  And no "Biden rule" to stop anyone from expanding its membership.  True, it didn't work for FDR.  But that was in a very different era, one in which the Senate functioned in a more bipartisan way than it does now.  We may now very well be in an era in which two wrongs do make a right.

What is essential for Democrats and progressives to understand is that, in the age of Trump, there can and should be no attempt to wait for "a better moment to fight" to come.  That moment may very well never show up.  And, even if it does, nothing will have been gained by staying on the bench waiting for that moment.  If a person has never even learned how to fight by fighting, how will that person even know what that "better moment" really looks like, in order to be able to take advantage of it?

The time to fight is NOW.  Not just because of what could be at stake in future Supreme Court decisions, but also because to not even try may be what leads to a political defeat from which we may never recover.  We cannot wait for reality to move in our favor; none of the great movements in history happened all by themselves.  They happened because people who cared above all about what is right got off their duffs and pushed.  Hard.

Are you listening, Chuck Schumer?  Are you listing, Senate Democrats?  Get off your duffs and push for a better reality.  That's what your being paid for.  That's what your oaths of office require you to do.  For G-d's sake, GO DO IT!

The Seduction Of Anthony Kennedy?

The Capital-Gazette tragedy is the worst story from last week; the loss of life guarantees it that distinction.  But another story potentially presages even more potential loss of life and liberty, with more than a hint of potential corruption linking the Presidency and the Supreme Court.

Submitted, for your consideration, is the following sequence of events:

1)  Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, the supposed "swing" vote between the liberal and conservative wings of the Court, sided with the conservative majority on a trio of high-profile cases involving Donald Trump's travel ban against some Muslims,* the legal obligation of pregnancy crisis centers to provide information on abortion services, and requirements that public employees pay mandatory dues to unions that represent their interests, but in which they do not have formal membership.

2.) The aforesaid Justice Kennedy submitted to Trump his resignation from active service on the Court, in unusually smarmy language.  ("My dear Mr. President"?  Really?)

3)  Within days for the aforementioned resignation, the New York Times reveals, in a profile of Republican efforts to induce Kennedy to resign ahead of midterm elections that might shift Senate control (and the power to confirm judicial appointees) to Democrats, that Kennedy's son may have, er, *ahem*, "helped" Trump's business interests with loans in nine figures or more.

All this news, in less than a week.  You've got to say this much in Trump's favor:  his business "acumen" certainly seems to have accelerated the rate at which corruption has spread.

And the reach of that corruption as well.

Kennedy, Ronald Reagan's third choice to replace Lewis Powell on the High Court (after Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg), has generally enjoyed a favorable reputation during his three-decade career as an Associate Justice.  His reputation as the Court's "swing" vote has yielded some important victories for progressive interests, most notably the majority opinion in Ogberfell v. Hodges that established a constitutional right to marriage equality for gays and lesbians.  And, apart from political ideology or judicial philosophy, his personal and professional reputation have been unblemished by scandal.

Until now.  Now, we are left with the possibility that Kennedy, knowing that he and his family were about to be hit with some political dirt, courtesy of the Times, decided to be very un-swingy on three major decisions, and then, as an additional gift to his son's debtor, open up a vacancy on the Court that could be filled with whiplash speed by the Republicans ahead of the midterms.  All locked into place before the (shall we say) dirt hit the proverbial fan.

And, given that this is Trump that we're talking about, exactly how unlikely is that possibility?

How difficult is it to imagine Trump, in exchange for a rather sizable loan that he may or may not be able to pay back (remember:  Trump), promising to give Kennedy the most favorable possible treatment with regard to replacing him on the Court, including an exit that would help Kennedy to atone for some if the more liberal consequences, first by locking in some major conservative victories in important cases, and then exiting at a time that would theoretically put pressure on Democrats in red states to be intimidated (or, as they say, "bipartisan") with regard to their votes for Kennedy's replacement?

Not difficult at all, I'm afraid.  As several people (myself included) have said on more than one occasion, Trump has a reverse Midas touch.  He corrupts and destroys everything he touches.  Even Supreme Court Justices, it seems.

*Exceptions to the ban, of course, exist for Muslims from nations in which Trump's real estate company has or will soon have development projects.  This despite the fact that several of these nations have supplied terrorists who have attacked U.S. citizens, including, of course, those who were killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  One should reflect carefully on this, in assessing how seriously Trump takes his responsibilities for keeping the nation safe, avoiding conflicts of interests, and otherwise avoiding Constitutional violations that could provide the basis for impeachment hearings (the Emoulments Clause of the Constitution comes to mind).

Is Lacking A Conscience An Impeachable Offense?

It's doubtful that the framers of the Constitution would have ever imagined a President so wrapped up in his self-esteem that he could give no thought, and therefore no public voice, to the deaths of innocent citizens as a consequence of his own, personal denunciation of their activities--activities that are explicitly protected by the First Amendment.  Yet that is precisely the kind of president currently occupying the office that John Adams prayed would never be occupied by anything other than "honest and wise men."  (We'll overlook the sexism in that sentiment, and leave it up to Abigail's shade to straighten John's shade out.)

In a post last month, I suggested that Donald Trump might be on his way to becoming a dictator.  Well, dictators murder as a matter of course; you can't remain in absolute power unless you're willing to kill off those who rise in opposition to you.  For that reason, it might be said that the willingness to kill one's opponents--or let others do the killing for you--is the most essential trait an actual or would-be dictator must possess.

Well, as of this week, Donald Trump got there, so to speak.  We now have one more reason to think that he's on his way to being a dictator:  he's learned to kill.  Or, at least, if we are to deal in distinctions without differences, he's pretty chill with others doing it for him, once his rhetoric has opened the window of opportunity for them to do so.

Let me walk you through the steps:

In February of this year, Trump used his favorite medium, Twitter, to denounce American journalism as the "enemy of the people."  You can't dismiss this as an alternative fact; it's right here for all to see.  And it's not merely a not-nice thing to say about the press.  The phrase "enemy of the people" is a loaded piece of rhetoric with a long history of use in connection with those who opposed powerful interests willing to do anything--especially committing murder--to maintain there power.  Curiously, given the fact that Trump is nominally a Republican, the phrase has been historically a favorite of Communist rulers, especially those in the former Soviet Union.  Again, not an alternative fact.

And neither is the most tragic news of the past week:  the deaths of five reporters/editors at the Annapolis Capital-Gazette, here in Maryland.  The tragedy of gun violence on which so many journalists have reported finally, sadly, caught up with the journalists themselves.  With not a little help from the nation's highest elected official, whose rhetoric, whether we like it or not, shapes our reality by virtue of his position.

You don't think Trump isn't himself aware of this?  Why, apart from his boundless narcissism, would he be more addicted to Twitter than he is to time spent in the Oval Office?

And that's not the only means by which he betrays his awareness.

Trump, who never misses an opportunity to speak to the press he treats with open contempt, just couldn't find words to express anything about the slain Annapolis journalists.  Not sympathy, Not thoughts and prayers.  Not even a limp-wristed effort to shift the blame onto his political opponents.  Nothing, absolutely nothing (unless you count the meaningless waves).

Not even a master prevaricator like Trump can pretend that he doesn't give a damn about the professionals who give him the oxygen of free publicity.  Is it too much to hope that, in the wake of that monstrous display of public indifference toward human tragedy, the press finally starts acting like the Fourth Estate that they are supposed to be, and stop looking every morning for new and more exciting ways to give Trump a free pass on behavior that has, without a doubt, moved into the realm of the criminal.

Maybe lacking a soul is not a high crime or misdemeanor.  But the fruits of that poisonous tree surely must be counted as such.  This week produced five demonstrations of that truth.  How many more do we need before the press, the voters, and, ultimately, a Congress with a conscience, does the right thing by the Constitution and the people whose interests are protected by it?

A Few Words Of Explanation, Before June Disappears

In posting on this blog, I try to maintain a relatively steady pace of monthly postings.  In the nine-and-a-half years that I have been blogging, some months have had a steadier pace than others.  June of 2018, unfortunately, has been one of those unsteady months, due to a number of personal reasons (not all of them bad ones, but all of them time-consuming, in different ways).  Not surprisingly, the need to comment on various issues has grown exponentially along with my lack of time for doing so.  This is, after all, the Age of Trump.  And, if there is one thing about Trump on which all of us can agree, it is that he thrives on conflict, even if he has to manufacture the conflict in order to thrive.

So, put simply, there's a lot to talk about.  And, if I'm to keep on both current events and my own writer's discipline with regard to supplying a certain amount of monthly content for TRH, I've only got a handful of hours in which to do it.  Thankfully, the software on which I publish operates on Pacific time so, technically, I have a few extra hours.  And I intend to make the most of them.

So, without further ado, here goes ...

Monday, May 28, 2018

Please Don't Let Their Sacrifices Be In Vain

It's Memorial Day, of course, as I write this.  I do so with the hope--dare I say, the expectation--that you will, in ways large and small, find a way to remember and pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice or served in uniform on behalf of their nation and the values to which it has traditionally aspired.  Many of you, including me, have family members who fall into that category.  In my case, it is a father and a father-in-law I was lucky to know, and an uncle and a cousin I did not get a chance to meet.  All of them are a source of pride and reverence for me, as I am certain that similar members of your families are for you.

Which is why I am especially outraged over the current state of America on this Memorial Day.  And why I hope and pray that you are similarly outraged.  Outraged enough to do more than grumble and tweet about the present.  Outrages enough to take action--positive action--but, if necessary, to make whatever sacrifice may be necessary not to make America "great" again, but to make America America again.  If that can be done, the greatness part will take care of itself.

For, as of right now, America isn't America.  Over the past eighteen months, the nation has rapidly moved away from being the America the world aspired to emulate, and has instead moved rapidly toward becoming more like the despotisms the world has always tried to escape.

It is, of course, a process that started when we put a professional narcissist and bully named Donald Trump in the Oval Office.  Of course, only 46% of us did that, but that's federalism and the electoral college, plus a lot of voters who looked the other way and sat at home because they foolishly comforted themselves with the idea that their vote meant nothing--an idea that Memorial Day itself stands toward in opposition.

In any case, both pro-Trump and anti-Trump voters comforted themselves with the idea that he was little more than an entertainer.  So how much harm could he possibly do to the nation and its values?

In eighteen months, plenty.

Trump has shown in that time that he is not merely an entertainer, a buffoon, a narcissist, and a world-class bully.  He has shown every intention of becoming what nobody thought that he could become, indeed what no one thought anyone could every become in the United States.  A dictator.

Does that sound extreme to you?  Its extremity, if any, is only exceeded by the nature of many of Trump's decisions and statements.  Consider the following partial listing:

As is well-known by now, Trump's favorite presidential activity is using his Twitter account to inflate his record and libel his opposition.  Accordingly, he has attempted to use the "block" feature of Twitter to silence those who respond in opposition to his tweets.  This led to a suit in Federal court and a judge's ruling that Trump's account is a public forum that cannot be allowed to exclude anyone from responding.

You might think that this ruling would be the end of the matter but, in Trump's America, you would be wrong.  In fact, Twitter itself is wrong; since the judge's ruling, the social media site has been locking out anti-Trump accounts.  Do you imagine Twitter would be doing this on its own?  I don't.  I think the impetus to do this comes straight from the West Wing.

And, at any rate, the fascism expressed in all of this is not in isolation from Trump's other recent actions.  He has demanded that the Washington Post, a newspaper that has been highly critical of him on a number of fronts, register as a lobbyist because of its supposed Democratic leanings.  Anyone who has read the Post in the decades after the paper's Watergate coverage knows that it has been anything but easy on Democrats.  Nevertheless, this is what Trump really is working toward here:  a national press that he can control, censor, and otherwise manipulate so that it will always be friendly to him, just as it is to dictatorships in other countries where news outlets are "registered."

He is not alone in his administration in attempting to censor the press.  His EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, barred reporters from CNN and the Associated Press from attending a national summit on harmful contaminants, to the point of physically restraining them from entering the EPA building.

Trump has gone, at least verbally, beyond the issue of mere restraint to suggest that, if you don't live up to his definition of patriotism, you should leave the country.  This, of course, was in the context of his opposition to NFL players who kneel during the playing of the National Anthem at games, to protest violence against African-Americans.  To protest that, and not the flag, the Anthem, or even Trump personally.

And, when Trump thinks you should leave the country, he truly thinks that should happen "by any means necessary."  You need only to look at his treatment of immigrants--the most American aspect of America--to see how far he is willing to go in his inhumanity to our fellow humans.  He has deliberately separated parents from children at our border with Mexico, on such a scale that the babies literally have their own buses, courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  He has required the use of yellow bracelets to identify the parents of these children (sound familiar?).  And even this level of efficiency hasn't prevented Trump from losing track of nearly 1,500 children who arrived unaccompanied at the border.

Trump's corruption of our most basic values has begun to destroy the fabric of other American institutions as well.  Sadly, the NFL is a prominent example; its recent decision to divide players between those who will stand for the Anthem and those who won't, with the latter exiled to the locker room for the duration of the Anthem, is an example of how to compromise the First Amendment without even talking to the affected players or acknowledging the controversy that led players to start kneeling in the first place.  Far from affirming the unifying power of the Anthem, the league has allowed Trump to weaponize both it and the First Amendment.  This, despite the fact that the NFL is a non-profit organization (!) that, by law, is constrained in its ability to express any political speech, and has so little respect itself for the Anthem that it prefers using its playing as spots for advertisers.  (It does have a few heroes in it, however; see here.)

Trump's corruption has descended all the way down to the citizen level.  allowing individuals to insult and assault people who are guilty of no other crime except that of not being white males. Oh, and Christians, of course.  Let's not forget them, especially the ones who want to make their beliefs as mandatory for the rest of us as possible.

Is this the America you want to live in?  Is this the America that those we remember on Memorial Day died for?  Do we want to ensure that their sacrifices were for nothing?

Please don't let that be the case.  For the sake of my absent family and friends, and for yours, please get out there, one way or another, and resist the tyranny that is slowly creeping around all of us, and is threatening to make the greatest experiment in the history of democracy just another failed empire consumed by the base desires of a few, instead of the hopes and dreams of everyone.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The First White President?

Given my recent experience with using articles from The Atlantic Web site as a jumping-off point for these blog posts, I'm half-tempted to just tell all of you to just ignore my blog and buy a subscription to The Atlantic instead.  Or, at least, get a subscription of my own.  Granted, I have something of a family connection to the publication, as I have previously explained, so my self-interest is already tied up in the publication to a small degree.  But that doesn't matter.  Frankly, given the current state of our country and its government (or what passes for it), I really don't care where you get your wisdom from, so long as you, and others get it.

But I digress.

Here is a link to an Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, making the case for Donald Trump as the nation's first white president.  This is a case Coates makes successfully, and as carefully and thoroughly as possible.  He starts with a discussion of Trump's own personal history, documented the racism that has been the single common thread throughout all of his public life, from keeping people of color out of his father's apartment buildings to his personal assaults on Obama's personal history and character during Obama's Presidency.  Coates goes on from there to review the data from the 2016 Presidential election, and shows that whiteness, not economic distress, was the single demographic factor against all others that identified Trump support (yes, even including gender).  Finally, Coates goes back into our history, and shows how race has been manipulated from the very beginning as a tool of both economic and social oppression.  In the process, he also shows why progressive white Democrats who want to "unify" with Reagan-Trump Democrats are doomed to fail in their efforts.  It is not possible to transcend the issue of race without directly confronting the racism that exists everywhere in our society.

And I truly do mean everywhere, based on my own personal experience.  Consider, for a few moments the fact that Trump's various raced-based political appeals, now largely but not exclusively focused on the issue of immigration, make him a slightly-more-silk-suited version of George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor who carried five states running on a third-party ticket in the 1968 Presidential election.  But Trump's a native New Yorker, you say.  How could such a blue state like New York, and especially such a blue city like New York City, produce a political clone of Wallace.

Well, fairly easily, when you consider the fact that Trump, who built his real-estate career in Manhattan, was born and raised in Queens, the home bureau of Archie Bunker from "All in the Family."  And, although the Queens of today is very much of a multi-ethic, multi-national melting pot, that was certainly not the case in the Queens where Trump came of age.

As I suggested a moment ago, a little personal experience here.

Flashback:  It is 1979, the first of my four-year sojourn in New York, largely as a civil servant and later as a would-be commercial artist.  Summer has come and, with them, summer blockbusters at the movie theaters.  I'm living on the top floor (with elevator access) of an apartment building in Elmhurst, a neighborhood in northwest Queens that had become (and may still be) the most ethically diverse zip code (11373) in the entire nation.  The hallway on which my apartment is located includes two Indian families, a single East European woman, a gay African-American and Hispanic male couple, and a Caucasian-Japanese straight couple. 

Far from being frightened by all of this, I'm enjoying the diversity, even though it includes nightly visits from that well-known New York pest, cockroaches.  I find myself, even as I write these words, aching with a sense of loss for these friends from my early adulthood.

And then, one Saturday night, I decide to go see "Rocky II" at a movie theater in Flushing, a neighborhood in northeast Queens that, at the time (and no longer) was still predominantly a white-ethnic conclave.  And my eyes are opened, not only to the spectacle of Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers duking it out in the ring, but to the spectacle of racial hatred that the film's climatic fight unleashed.  I was surrounded by young white men in a small, neighborhood theater, all of whom suddenly, and then for the rest of the fight scene, chanted almost in unison "GET THAT [N-word]!  GET THAT [N-word]!" 

I hated having to sanitize the memory, because it robs you of experiencing the full impact of the hatred I experienced.  But I feel that to not sanitize it is, in some real sense, to become complicit with it, which I refuse to do.  In any case, I realized that night that Queens, regardless of my Elmhurst experience, was not a racial paradise.

And neither is New York.  And, for that matter, neither is America.

So it should not be surprising that a President from Queens should be the one to unleash the inner bigot of so many Americans who attempt to sanitize their feelings with cliches about being hard-working, everyday, not-those-coastal-type, economically-left-behind Americans.  What far too many of the white people who hide behind these cliches are, fundamentally, is the thing that can never speak its true name, but must always hide behind a pretense of nobility it can neither earn nor deserve.

They are bigots.  And they now feel free, in the age of Trump, to be who they really are.  Loudly, proudly, and destructively.

You can see them doing it here.

And here.

And here.

And here.

And here.

And here.

So pervasive a pattern is this--white police attacking innocent black people--that it has been identified, researched, and reported as a systemic problem.  And that problem is reflected in our nation's prison system as well.

But why should that be surprising?  Systemic racism is openly reflected not only in public policy on behalf of "the poor" (i.e., those who are presumed to be black but very often are white), or with reference to "national security," but even within the halls of government itself, in the way that white public officials relate to their colleagues of color.

In fact, racism is the single most rational explanation for the fact that immigration, and racist attitudes against it, are at the center of the current national political debate.  Let's go back to New York for a moment here--in fact, to Manhattan, that supposed citadel of open-minded tolerance--and take a look at this incident, involving the most horribly naked bigotry being displayed against people of color, for no reason other than the fact that they are people of color.

Do you really have any doubt that this explosion of hate rests on Trump's shoulders?  Does that really seem far-fetched to you?

Well, from the vantage point of persuasion on this argument, I've deliberately saved the best piece for last.  Take a long look at this, and tell me if you still think everything I've documented here is somehow separated from our Criminal-in-Chief.

So, how do we fight it?  One thing we don't do is respond in kind, such as petitions like this one.  For one thing, people have a civil right to bigotry.  Sad, but true.  The irony of freedom is that it protects many ugly things, in no small part because freedom is what exposes the darkness to the light, ultimately killing it.

That, in fact, is what we must do.

We must expose the fundamental bigotry on which America is built to the light of public discourse and debate, and ultimately to our political process.  We must re-shape not only our politics, but also our economy and culture, to fight against and ultimately destroy hate in this country.  But do so without destroying either the haters, or the hated.  It is bigotry itself that must be destroyed because, left unchecked, it will destroy all of us.

It destroys no one, however, to simply remove them from public office, thereby preventing them from spreading the poison within them throughout all of the people.  Donald Trump has not been the first President who also happened to be white but, as Coates has so eloquently described, he has certainly been the first White President.

By peaceful means only, let's make sure he's the last one.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Forget About The Internet Of Things. What About The Internet Of People?

I'm happy to commend this article in The Atlantic by James Fallows, for a number of reasons (as well as the disclosure that Mr. Fallows is the father-in-law of one of my father's former students).  Primarily, I appreciate the fact that Mr. Fallows, in his travels around our politically divided nation, found many reasons for optimism in the ability of many small American communities to pull together and find solutions to the problems that divide our nation's capital as well as our national debate.  It offers some confirmation of my theory that the Internet has become more of an electronic megaphone through which we can shout at each other, instead (as I had once hoped) to be a window through which we could look at and honestly get to know each other.   As it turns out, virtual reality is no substitute for actual reality.

That's reassuring, all by itself.  But I can't help, in thinking about the article after I read it, that it's easier to feel reassured about what's happening around the country if you have the ability to jump around it in your own jet.  Not that I begrudge Mr. Fallows that privilege.  In this case, you're reading the words of someone who thought that, by now, we would all have flying cars that would allow us to travel around the country with the same ease that we now call each other from around the world.  Unfortunately, we can't do that at the moment.

If only we could.

If only there was a way that we could travel not only from city to city, but even from state to state, at speeds faster than are possible on highways.

If only that way provided enough opportunities to go anywhere in the country, with as much convenience as the automobile does with regard to people's personal schedules.

If only that way made use of existing infrastructure and emerging technology, so that it was feasible to finance its existence and, at the same time, create tens of thousands of temporary and permanent jobs.  And, in the process, bring hundreds of communities back to life, by providing direct investment in them and business opportunities with other communities.

If only this involved a mode of transportation this nation once used on a regular basis.  One that, in fact, help build this nation in a, dare I say, transcontinental way.  One that people still use today, on a regular basis, in the nation's most prosperous areas.  One that, admittedly, has always required a substantial degree of public investment, but has always proved to be worth it.

In case you didn't figure it out after the second "If only," I'm talking about ... railroads.

Railroads, which have the potential to be the Internet of people.

But isn't the Internet already made up of people?  Frankly, it's kind of hard to tell these days, from the way we shout at each other, as though we've actually known each other long enough to know that we can't stand each other.

If you want to experience an Internet whose members are almost unfailingly polite to each other, you're better off dealing with the Internet of things.  Simply put, this refers to the growing ability of our technology to communicate directly from device to device, with little or no human interaction to help them do so.  If you have a smart phone that allows you to connect with a "smart home," and set your cable, HVAC, and security settings, you already know what I'm talking about.  But the Internet of things goes well beyond consumer needs, and is well on its way to dominating and even controlling international commerce.

That sets up the possibility of a world in which our devices effectively run us, instead of the other way around.  Or, as Marshall McLuhan is reputed to have once said, we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.

Maybe, in such a world, shouting at each other through our online caricatures, and posturing to people we've never met, just isn't enough to keep us safe not only from natural catastrophes, but the ones that we manage to make for ourselves, through our own cleverness.  Maybe we need to spend more time in each other's actual presence, so that we can get to know each other as individuals.  Maybe, just maybe, in such a world, we would discover that we might actually like each other more than we ever before thought was possible.  And maybe, at the same time, we would find more ways to more the wealth around the country, along with ourselves.

Imagine, for example, if someone could, via high-speed rail commute from St. Louis to Chicago, bringing a large income back to a city that could use all the large incomes it could get, in much the same way that immigrants from other countries send U.S. dollars back to their home countries and support their families.  Imagine if that led to more direct investment in communities from wealthy cities like Chicago to less-fortunate ones like St. Louis.  Imagine if that made those latter communities less dependent on public support, and instead transformed them into sources of support for public enterprises.

Imagine, if other words, what would happen if we did invest in technology that created a real Internet of people, one that was made up not of bytes and impulses, but real, actual people who didn't have a technology that just encouraged them to posture, instead of one that forced them to, well, you know, actually be themselves.

Maybe, just maybe, we wouldn't be the Divided States of America anymore.

Maybe, just maybe, America really could be great again.

Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Fallows' optimism would have support from the successes of thousands of communities.

Maybe it's just a dream.  But I'm willing to bet that it could be an American one.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Road Back To Unionization Runs Through Public Schools

There are lots of books, articles, blog posts and so forth documenting the decline of labor unions in American life.  This recent article from the New York Times is probably as useful a thumbnail summary of those works as any.  Perhaps one observation from it does as much as any other fact to sum up that loss of power:  the fact that, within my lifetime, a president as Republican as Richard Nixon appointed a union man as his Secretary of Labor.  It's safe to say that Nixon took no pleasure in doing so, but Nixon was nothing if not practical (with the exception of Watergate) when it came to political moves.  He was simply recognizing the power that unions exerted back then on national elections, especially on the Democratic side, and so, as he did in other areas, he moved to co-op a potential political threat.

Today, Donald Trump has no need to worry about such a threat and, for all of his phony rhetoric about turning power back over to "the people," the reality is that his Administration is staffed with quite possibly the most plutocratic as well as kleptocratic personalities in our history.  So, in theory, there's no need to worry about a rising labor movement between now and 2020.

Or is there?

What happened in West Virginia earlier this year, as documented by Slate.com, was remarkable by any standards.  It demonstrated that, despite that state's to destroy union power by outlawing strikes and collective bargaining for public workers, workers cannot be denied their First Amendment rights to assemble and petition for a redress of grievances.  And make no mistake:  whenever there is an assault on union rights, it is in fact constitutional rights as well as economic rights that are very much at stake.

But it did much more than that:  it reaffirmed the reality that in the United States, while unions no longer support a significant number of manufacturing jobs, it is definitely supporting a large and rapidly growing number of service-sector jobs--in the process, redefining what it means (as pointed out by Slate) to be a "working-class" American.  And, at the same time, it identified a significant and widely supported object of government spending--education--that is also a large part of that sector.

The West Virginia strike by teachers led no less a business media outlet than Bloomberg to speculate about the possibility of similar uprisings by teachers in other states.  Well, it did not take long for speculation to become fact.  As it did in Oklahoma.  In Kentucky.  In Colorado.  And, most recently, in Arizona.

And make no mistake:  these teachers have the support of the parents whose children they educate, not only within their own states, but outside of them as well.  What happened in Oklahoma when the teachers there went on strike?  People from all around the country ordered pizzas for them as a show of support (and kudos also to the pizza shop that made all of the pizzas and all of the deliveries).  That kind of support doesn't happen to fringe movements.  And this expanding revolt of public-school teachers against red-state budgets and the corporate tools that pass them is clearly anything but a fringe movement.

You can see that in the unbelievably pathetic response to the Oklahoma strike by one Sooner lawmaker that the ranks of the strikers were filled in part with paid protesters.  He declined to name his source for this "information."  I don't see why he needed to do so; it really doesn't take that long to say "no one."  But you can see it far more clearly in the response by the Republican governors of the affected states, who are at least beginning to make real, if somewhat tepid, responses to the strikers by putting pay raises on the political and budgetary tables.

There's some suggestion that this teacher revolt might not have much impact on political issues other than education--and, given the fact that many of the affected teachers are themselves Republicans, there is at least some practical reason behind that suggestion.  Then again, it may be so much whistling past the proverbial graveyard; here is another Times piece, in which three Arizona public-school teachers, all Republicans, commit the cardinal Republican sin of--wait for it--asking for a tax increase in order to pay teachers.

For the Trump GOP, the teacher revolt is not a minor course correction.  It is very much an existential threat to the entire way of doing business over the past four decades, going back to the real beginning of the "Reagan Revolution" when Saint Ronnie, the first former union president to occupy the White House, busted the air traffic controllers' union and signaled the beginning of a war by Wall Street on the right of workers to organize in the same way that investors have the right to organize capital in corporations.

We have, as a nation and as a people, come a very long way down a very bad road since then.  I say all of this, as I have said here before, as the son of an educator who promoted public education.  But I also say it as a member of two unions with a very strong appreciation for what union power can do to make the lives of working people better.  And the only way back to where we were, back to when the American Dream was not the American Fantasy, is through organizing not only politically, but also economically.  If teachers can point the way--and I believe that they are now doing exactly that--it just makes me doubly proud.  In any case, it's time for all of us to express our American pride in the same way, to borrow a phrase, that we always have.  Together.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

And, Speaking Of Paying For Civilization ...

... we should be especially concerned about the best area of investment in our future:  education.

I have said it before, in the interest of full disclosure and (for those who came in late, to borrow a phrase from "The Phantom" comic strip) I'll say it again:  my late father was both a university professor and a leader in expanding publicly-financed higher education in Maryland.  If you wish to view my education advocacy through that lens, feel free to do so.  I advertise it with no shame and a considerable amount of pride.

And yes, it is one reason why it offends me that we have let our system of public education fall apart.  Not completely, of course.  Here in Maryland, it is still strong and well-funded, thanks to the involvement of parents who always need to be the backbone of their children's academic life.

But that is not the case in many parts of the country.  There, conditions are at a place that has to be considered below sub-standard.  I can't sum it up any more effectively that the New York Times has in this article, which you should take a look at.  And be appalled.  And resolve to do everything and anything you can to turn this disgraceful state of affairs around.  The point made in the Times article about the age of textbooks currently used in school was somewhat poignantly reinforced for me by this CBS News story.  As great as it is that this first grader is excited about reading a textbook that Blake Shelton used 36 years ago, she deserves a better text book  I'd like to think that Blake Shelton would agree with that thought.

But what can you expect when this country has school districts advocating the use of miniature baseball bats to combat the current epidemic of school shootings?  That's right--miniature baseball bats, the kind that ballparks sell or give away as souvenirs.  I'm not kidding; take a look at this, if you don't believe me.  Lest you think this is entirely about a lack of money, consider the idiotic observation in this article that "I think a bat could disarm a pistol with a nice swing."

Do we think so little of our own children, the future not just of this country but of the human race, that we have no regard for the contents of their brains or the safety of their lives?  Does having a few extra dollars in our pockets (and billions more in the pockets of special interests) mean that much to us?

Perhaps not to all of us.  Perhaps this helps to explain this year's surge of mothers running for public office.  Perhaps they're not content with seeing their children educated under conditions that would make a Third World government blush.

Perhaps this explains the recent surge in labor actions by teachers, about which I'll have more to say in a future post.  (Spoiler alert:  I'm quite sure that it does.)

In any case, it time to realize the truth I talked about in my last post:  a rising economic tide does not produce magic money for governments.  Like it or not, overall, we are not taxed enough.  That must change.  America must change.  Or it will go the way of all nations that do not adapt, and turn into dust on the shelves of history.

We Need An End, Once And For All, To Voodoo Economics

From its beginning, TRH has been, as much as anything, my personal opportunity to scream as loudly as the Internet will let me against the assault by the Republican Party on the means to pay for the civilization we've built.  Or, to use a word they regard as a curse word, on taxes.  Somehow, it seems fitting, on the day that Barbara Bush is being laid to rest, to renew my protest against that assault by recalling one of her husband's best contributions to our political discourse--the phrase "voodoo economics."

If you can recall the 1980 Presidential campaign, and specifically the New Hampshire Republican primary, George H.W. Bush coined that phrase in a debate against, among others, Ronald Reagan, who was building his campaign, as he would later build his Presidency, around advancing supply-side economics as the means to ending the financial woes of Americans.  Supply-side economics--or the concept that steep tax cuts will pay for themselves through the amount of economic activity they can generate--were correctly viewed by more moderate Republicans as being the fiscal equivalent of alchemy, and therefore not to be taken seriously. 

Despite the correctness of that view, the concept has remained popular with the American people, many of whom have never met a "free lunch" they didn't like.  Which goes a very long way toward explaining why, with a few exceptional moments of Democratic ascendancy in our national politics, supply-side economics have not lost its grip on the economic thinking of most Americans.  Indeed, it is reflected in the one and only major piece of legislation signed into law by Donald Trump:  last year's so-called "tax reform" bill.

It's worth stopping for a moment and asking the question:  exactly why don't massive tax cuts generate equally massive amounts of economic activity?  True, the expectation that they will pay for themselves is foolish on its face.  But it does seem slightly logical to assume that, if Washington takes in less money from taxpayers, the taxpayers will then turn around and spend or invest the money in ways that generates tax revenue that, arguably, might not otherwise have been generated.  Shouldn't that at least mitigate the cost of the cuts to the government?

Well, once again, the short answer is no.  And the reasons for that are twofold:  the tax rates that are created though supply-side economics, and the actual fate of the money that flows from the cuts.

Let's start with the rates themselves.  As illustrated here, the United States, over the past 60 years or so, has gone from having a systems with a series of graduated tax rates, designed to tax incomes more deeply as they increased along the scale (i.e., "progressively"), to one that has a much smaller number of rates.  The effect of this has been to tax the middle class far more heavily than wealthier taxpayers, forcing the former to pay for an increasing share of government services, while rendering it less able to generate economic activity on its own through either consumption or investment.  It also means that the folks at the top of our economic pyramid get an increasingly larger share of benefits from those cuts, especially in the case of the Trump tax cuts.

But so what?  Who cares about whether the very well-off get a lot of money from tax cuts?  Surely they would be motivated to spend and/or invest that money in ways that make up for what the middle class is no longer able to do, right?

Again, no.  Generating economic activity is not, contrary to conservative belief, what naturally motivates these people.  Rather, fear of losing their riches is what motivates them the most.  This is reflected in decades of Republican propaganda directed at working-class voters, to the effect of "Watch out, the Dems are going to find ways to take your money and give it to undeserving people!"  (And, of course, by "undeserving people," they mean people of color.)

So, what do they do?

First of all, they buy out the government and the major political parties.  This goes a long way toward explaining why political campaigns, and election spending generally, has increased in cost (but definitely not value) over the past several decades.  It also goes a long way toward explaining the presence of corporate cash in Democratic coffers, and its subsequent "centrist" effect on traditional Democratic politics.

Second, they engage in bidding wars for various trophy items in our consumer culture, especially real estate, the last refuge of people looking to squirrel away money.  Once upon a time, no one could find a decent place to live in New York City because of rent control, or so it was said by people who had an interest in destroying rent control.  Now, no one can find a decent place to live in New York because the wealthy have bid up the price of real estate to a level at which only they can afford it.  In the case of New York, this has the unfortunate ripple effect of pricing a lot of up-and-coming artists and arts organizations out of the supposed cultural capital of the nation.  And the ripple effect of prices in New York eventually affects the price of real estate elsewhere, as people move out and bid up the values of other locations.

Third and, in some ways perhaps worst of all, they simply send the money out of the country altogether, into overseas business or into pure (actually, impure, given their purpose) tax shelters.  I have said for many, many years that the Reagan tax cuts, and all similar tax cuts that followed, were little more than a foreign-aid program.  The Trump tax cuts, however, illustrate this point to a spectacular degree.

So, unfortunately, we don't get massive benefits from the massive cuts.  What most of us get, frankly, is the laughter behind closed doors of wealthy Republican donors and their economic fellow-travellers, as they gleefully celebrate pulling a fast one over on the rest of us.  Once upon a time, the rich mocked the poor with so-called "poverty parties."   No doubt nowadays, they're coming up with even more creative ways to mock the rest of us.

But wait a moment.  Is it possible that the rest of us are finally catching on, that we're finally ready to stop being played for suckers?

Maybe.  Consider, for example, this, especially coming, as it does, from a media source deeply invested (pardon the pun) in flattering the business community.

Or, speaking of business-oriented media, consider this, straight from the old Capitalist Tool itself.

Or, speaking specifically of Forbes, consider this.  We are staring down the face of an annual federal deficit that has increased almost threefold in just a year.  And we can't count on other countries to help us; they have their own problems.  That's probably in no small part because they have followed our own bad example.

Is it too late to do anything about this?

Of course not.

We have an election coming up this fall.  We absolutely must use it to tell Washington to stop comforting the comfortable at the expense of the afflicted.  We must tell them that we are willing to pay for the civilization we have all worked together to built, in a manner that is fair in the paying and not spendthrift in the result.  We must ensure that they take the steps needed to undo the harm that Trump and his Congressional cronies have done.

In short, we must put an end to voodoo economics.  Once and for all.  And remember that everything worth having has a price tag that has to be faced.  And paid.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Why It's Time To Stop Being So %$#*@! Nice

Like water to a wilted flower in the desert, so was this Slate article to me.  And yet, almost as quickly, this New York Times article almost stomped the flower deep into the sand.

The Slate article first.

In "It's Time to Fight Dirty," David Faris makes the case that Democrats should, at long last, play hardball not only in fighting the Republicans on issues and policy, but also do so in order to make structural changes in the system that would undo much of what the GOP has done over the past decade to give themselves a perpetual advantage in national elections.  He goes so far as to advocate expanding the number of Supreme Court seats, and adding additional states in various ways, such as breaking up California,  and admitting Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

Some of these latter ideas seem, at the moment, to be beyond the boundaries of political possibility, and may not even be necessary, in the short run.  After all,  if there is a Democratic wave this fall big enough, the party may have sufficient clout to deal with a President hobbled with crises and scandals of his own making.  But Faris' larger point is well worth making over and over again.  I know, because I've made it many times myself, here and elsewhere.

And that larger point is this:  over the past thirty years, the Republicans have shown an expanding willingness, sometimes brazenly, to destroy many of the political norms that ensure a level playing field in both elections and in the process of governing.  During the Obama administration, this willingness reached epic proportions, as the Supreme Court's destruction of campaign finance reform combined with Mitch McCONnell's abuse of the filibuster rule, and state governments' unprecedented use of gerrymandering, to shred any sense of fairness in our political process.  As noted by Faris himself in the Slate interview, this culminated in the abuse of the advise-and-consent process with respect to Merrick Garland's nomination to replace Antonin Scalia on the High Court, as well as the penetration of the 2016 presidential election process by Russian political/business interests.

On this, I agree with Faris 100%.  The Republicans have shown beyond any doubt a complete willingness to shred any and all political norms for the sake of maintaining and expanding its power.  In such an environment, there is no justification or requirement for their opponents to play according to Hoyle.  When one's opponents have shredded the rule book, they forfeit the right to object to any violations.  If there is one principle that is absolutely fundamental to a truly free society, it has to be this:  either the rules apply to everyone, or they apply to no one.  And, since the Republicans have decided that the rules do not apply to everyone, the Democrats need not worry about violating them.

This does not mean, however, that Democrats should behave as badly as Republicans.  Far from it.  It simply means, as Faris suggests both in his book and in the Slate interview, that they should stop approaching the GOP on their knees ready to make major political and policy suggestions for the practical equivalent of crumbs.  They should act, in the first instance, with confidence in what they believe, in part because history has time and time again shown that confidence to be justified.  Then they should set goals that go beyond what they think they can practically achieve, in order to bend the public perception of what is possible.  Finally, they should not be afraid to not give in.  The people who voted them into power, including me, did not give them a mandate to unilaterally surrender.  We gave them a mandate to win.  They should act like it, and stop being afraid of their own ideas as well as their opponents.

On the other hand, that doesn't mean that the Democrats should be afraid to be edgy.  Let's take the Garland case for example.  You know what I would have done if I had been in President Obama's shoes?  I would have, as the leader of a common-law nation, invoked an ancient common-law maxim:  qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit.  Put simply, silence equals consent and, since the Senate never took an official position on Garland--in fact, they refused to do so--they were deemed to have consented to his nomination, and I would have wasted no time in having Garland sworn in.  Would the Court object?  Unlikely; the Court's jurisprudence in disputes of this nature is to allow the executive and legislative branches to sort out their differences.

So, in the end, it's not a question of who has the angriest voice, but who has the sharper mind.  The Democrats should not be afraid to use their advantage in this regard.  They should not be, above all, afraid to win, for the sake of their supporters and, ultimately, the sake of the nation.

Now, sadly, to the Times piece.

Being mindful of another Latin maxim, de mortuis nihil nisi bonum, I grieve with the family, colleagues, and friends of David Buckel in morning his death.  His legacy of fighting on behalf of LGBT rights is a noble one, and deserves to be honored and remembered.

But that is what make his choice of political suicide all the more puzzling and, ultimately, upsetting in light of my view of the need to fight.

Our opponents are not inspired by noble examples of good behavior, no matter how honorable and sincere those examples are.  I certainly do not question Mr. Buckel's honor or sincerity.  But I am forced to question his judgment, and question whether or not it was clouded by the despair that our current political situation naturally inspires.

Simply put, we cannot afford to lose people like him.  We don't need them to sacrifice themselves; we need them alive, well, and able and willing to fight the fight that must be fought against opponents who sacrifice nothing and demand everything.

If you out there are reading this, and feel the level of despair that Mr. Buckel obviously felt then, by all means, get whatever help you can.  And stay with us.  And band with us together.  And fight like hell for the sake of a nation built on the sacrifices of far better people than our opponents.

It's time to leave sorrow and politeness in the past.  There's a future to be won for the sake of the greatest nation in the history of the human race.  Let's go win it.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Future Of America Is Finally On The "March"

I have said here on at least one occasion that all politics are not so much local as they are generational.  To a degree, that fact explains at least some of the left-right shifts in political history, including our own. 

The generation that came of age during the Great Depression and World War II benefited by, and therefore believed in, the power of government to save us from our own excesses and to create a world in which our most dangerous tendencies are restrained, and subjected by national and international institutions to the power of reason, debate, and peaceful resolutions of conflicts and crises.  So it could be said that they moved the world in a leftward direction.  On the other hand, Boomers--i.e., my generation--took all of this for granted and, in seeking an ever-increasing level of self-gratification, reached the limits of what hard work could accomplish and began to see those institutions as nothing more than consumers of their resources.  So they listened to the Republican siren song of tax cuts, deregulation, and "family values."  And we started moving in a rightward direction.  And, with the exception of a few brief course-correction years during the Obama Administration, we've been headed that way ever since.

By most reckonings, the last members of the Boomer Generation were born in 1964, the last year in which a Democrat won a landslide victory in the presidential election.  Fifty-four years ago.  Since then, three more generations have come of age in this country--Gen X, Gen Y, and Millennials.  In which direction are they headed?

Up until now, that hasn't been clear.  And Boomers have been a big reason for that.  For a long time, they have so dominated the American landscape by shear force of numbers and the intensity of their various demands that I suspect succeeding generations--their children and grandchildren--all decided to quietly give up on politics.  For a very long time.  During that time, we have had a succession of Boomer Presidents--Clinton, W, Obama, and Trump--pushing and putting the needs of their generation ahead of everything else (again, with the exception of a few of Obama's years).

I write today to tell you that, in case you haven't noticed, Boomers, our time is up.  And, quite frankly, I couldn't be happier about it.

Yesterday's nationwide "March For Our Lives" event was much more than a response to the wave of school shootings over the past two decades since the Columbine tragedy.  It was much more than a political event, and was certainly not a partisan one, given the failures of Democrats and Republicans to take serious action against gun violence.  More than anything else, it was a primal scream against an entire political and economic culture that has been consciously designed to value their very existence far less than the supposed "right" of anyone to have a military-level arsenal.  A scream, I might add, fully supported and endorsed by their parents and grandparents around the world.  (And I suspect that Paul Krugman is right:  the #MeToo movement among women fighting sexual abuse is somewhat of an allied movement, as both are directed against many of the same targets.)

So, since young people are the future of this country, and they are prepared to challenge Republican orthodoxy on an issue key to Republican campaigns in the past, what have Republicans done in responding to the rise of the MFOL movement?

Why, just what you'd except from a highly-adept, well-oiled political machine ready to respond to public opinion shifts on a moment's notice.

Sarcasm.

And not even particularly bright sarcasm at that.  Here, for example, is Rick Santorum, whose 15 minutes of fame expired somewhere in the 1990s.  His advice to students being mauled to death by semi-automatic fire?  Learn CPR.  As if that would make a difference to someone whose heart and lungs have been punctured by multiple rounds of bullets.  As if everyone would have the time necessary to even do that when they were under attack.

Santorum's "advice," sadly, is not an outlier.  Over the past several weeks since the shootings in Parkland, Florida, I have spend a good deal of time on social media looking at and gauging the conservative response to the accumulation of gun tragedies that can no longer be brushed aside with empty wishes of "thoughts and prayers."  I have been hoping against hope that a majority, even a plurality, would finally wake up and accept the reality that facts overwhelming confirm:  sensible gun restrictions save lives, even in locations with a reputation for violence like New York.

And instead of promises to help provide safety, the first duty of any level of government, and admittedly with a tiny handful of exceptions, young people are being told that the thoughts and prayers of children don't matter at all.  Only the thoughts and prayers of adults matter, especially if they are part of the Republican establishment, in and out of government.  See if you can survive the awesome power of the G-d-given Second Amendment coursing through school systems in exactly the way the Framers intended, and, IF you survive, maybe, just maybe, by then we'll listen to you.  And hopefully, if you're anything like your parents, you'll have become a "sensible" Republican by then, with your own arsenal, ready, eager, and willing to let your own children become cannon fodder.

Or, to put it another way, "SHUT UP." 

In fairness, it should be pointed out that this intolerance extends not only to adults, even within electoral politics.  In at least one case, there's a little more than a hint that "SHUT UP" might be followed by an "OR ELSE."

That's the mindset of a party that knows it's already lost the future.  That's the mindset of a party that, like its "leader" in the White House, cannot and will not think beyond the next fifteen minutes, so afraid are they of what might happen to their control of power after that.  That's the mindset of a so-called "conservative revolution" that ran out of gas long ago, and has been subsisting on fumes while being in denial about the changing world surrounding it.

But it's too late.

For one thing, the "children" are not that far away from being adults.  Those who survived the Sandy Hook shooting are now teenagers.  The Parkland students are literally on the cusp of being able to register and vote.

And not all parents are as idiotic as most Republicans seem to be on this issue, as well as others.  Indeed, many of them are surprising sensible, even in the case of those educating Donald Trump's youngest son.  (That poor kid.  Oy.)

Even among the "children," it seems that there is an ability to defend differences of opinion on guns, while finding common ground on solutions.  Take a look.

And, when it comes to thinking about solutions, there is new ground to be broken.  We can, for example, require firearms manufacturers to be strictly liable, and force them to eat the costs of the tragedies they help to create.  We already do that with the manufacturer of explosives, which are every bit as much "arms" as are pistols and rifles.  We can also require gun purchasers to purchase insurance each time they buy a firearm.  Not only would this help to pay for the cost of the carnage, but it would also slow down the number of purchases, due to the extra cost.  As conservatives themselves are fond of saying, "freedom isn't free."

So, to my fellow Boomers, I have a suggestion.  Let's stop standing in the way of the future.  Let's spend some of our own time and treasure giving back to the world that has given us so much.  Let's think more about a legacy, and less about our leisure.  Let's work with those who are walking in our footsteps, trying while we do to remember what it once felt like to care more about the future than about the present.  Let's do what our parents once did:  whatever it took (and takes now) to take care of our children and grandchildren.  If that means "moving to the left" so be it.  Moving to the left nearly a hundred years ago launched an American Century.  Doing it now might yet launch another one.

*****

I'll be spending the next two weeks preparing for, and observing, Pesach, and will be back here after that.  Happy Pesach, Easter, or whatever you observe, and an early spring for all of us.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

"We, Not I"

"There's no such thing as society."

Those words were famously uttered by Margaret Thatcher, the first prime minister of Great Britain, who, during her time in office, used the power of government (which would not exist in the first place if there were truly no such thing as society) to destroy the individual lives of many in order to enhance the individual pleasure of a few.  As Ronald Reagan did shortly thereafter here in the U.S., she justified the sheer magnitude of her cruelty on the grounds that the rights of the individual to do whatever he or she wants are always paramount.  Always.  Unless, of course, you need to boost your popularity by fighting the splendid little war here or there (see:  Grenada, the Falkland Islands).

But then, except for the occasional war, why have a government at all?  If there's no such thing as society, why not just return to the days of our most primitive ancestors, where everybody did nothing but kill each other for the sake of short-term survival?  It might actually solve a lot of problems.  Aside from eliminating a lot of the administrative overhead for services we take for granted (police, fire fighters, schools, hospitals, emergency weather services, etc.), and therefore the need to pay any taxes at all for them, it might also help to reduce a lot of modern problems--overpopulation, pollution, and the steady gaze of an entire world at their cell phones.  Above all, no taxes--for there would be no government that would need them for support.

Taxes, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, are the price we pay for a civilized society.  When Margaret Thatcher was attempting to deny the existence of society, the thing she was really trying to attack was government, and the taxes that support it.  Because, with both of those things, all of us are better off, whether we want to admit it or not.  Thatcher had her own self-interested reasons for not wanting to admit it.  Like most of her peers in Britain's Conservative Party, and the then-Reagan wing of the Republican Party, what she really wanted was a world that catered not to all individuals--i.e., "society"--but the handful of people who suffered (then and now) from the same blinkered form of narcissism that currently resides in the White House.

Lately, though, at least a few of them are re-thinking their position.  Here's one example.

Last year, former Fox News anchor Eric Bolling lost his son to an accidental overdose of opioids.  You can read about it in some detail here.  Although the article doesn't go into extensive detail about what happened, there's enough in it to surmise that nothing had taken place which would have led Bolling or his wife to think that their son was in any danger.  The news hit both of them with stunning suddenness.

It should go without saying that Bolling's loss demands our sympathy and support for their loss and their overwhelming grief.  But it's almost impossible to overlook the fact that Bolling was, up to the point of his son's death, someone who, like his employer, disdained thinking about human suffering in the aggregate, and failed to see that individual tragedies can occur at a rate that ultimately demands that we think about their impact on all of us.  In saying this, I am not making argumentum ad hominem; I am simply reflecting on Bolling's own words in assessing the way forward from his loss. They are as follows:
Not-my-kid syndrome is a killer. Because you just don’t know. It could very well be your kid. So do us all a favor. Do yourself a favor. Do your family a favor. Do your children a favor. Have the discussion with them and do it again. And again. Get involved in your kids lives. …You could save a life.  (emphasis added)
Bingo.

The Reagan-Thatcher era has been all about not only a denial of "society," but a denial of any collective responsibility to help individuals in need.  Far easier to say it's someone else's problem.  Far easier to push away the person who begs you for help.  Far easier to claim a false sense of superiority in the process.  Far easier to overlook the reality that all of us, not matter where or how we are situated, are vulnerable to the changing, churning world around us.  Including the people whose lives collide with each other, often without any concern for the impacts of those collisions.

Arthur Miller, the American playwright who did more to speak about our social obligations than any other dramatist in our country's history, understood this very well.  His first major success on Broadway, "All My Sons," is precisely about those obligations.  A defense contractor sells faulty engine parties for military planes, justifying his crime by the need to keep open his business and take care of his family.  He later learns that one of his sons, who had dissappeared and was thought to be lost in action, actually committed suicide because of his anger over his father's perfidy.  It is in that moment that the father realizes that all of the men killed by the faulty engine parts were, in fact, "all my sons."

Former New York Yankee Bob Watson understands those obligations as well, refusing to accept a life-prolonging kidney from one of his children because he wants them to be able to live their life to the fullest.  As for Watson himself, it's enough for him to have had, as he put it, "a real good life."  I'm not a huge fan of sports metaphors, but I'm enough of a baseball fan to see how it illustrates the need in life for all of us to strike a balance between the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, or the one.  (And, of course, "Star Trek" illustrates it as well; I'm enough of an ST fan to see that and share the previous link.)

So consider the case of Dallas Green, who took over as manager of the underperforming Philadelphia Phillies during the 1979 season.  Green, who had played for the Phillies and was working in the team's front office at the time he took over, saw a locker room full of players more concerned with their individual statistics than they were about winning or losing games.  His response was to post a sign in the clubhouse that contained a simple message, one that Green drilled into the Phillies for the rest of the season and the one that followed:  "We, Not I."  As for the results of that message, it's enough to point out that, in 1980, the Phillies won their first World Series in the team's history.

But Green's story does not end there.  After the 1980 season, he was hired away by the Chicago Cubs, operating under new ownership.  In this case, Green was taking over a team with far less individual talent than he had to work with in Philadelphia.  In this case, Green saw the need to build up the confidence of the individual players, so that he could lay a foundation for making the types of trades and free-agent signings that would be needed to make the Cubs contenders.  So he flipped his message, de-emphasizing "We" while trying to build up the "I" in each player's mental approach to the game.  And the result?  In 1984, the Cubs made the postseason for the first time in nearly 40 years.

My point, ultimately?  It's never always about "We."  It's never always about "I."  Contrary to what Ayn Rand tried to tell the world in "Anthem," both words matter  Human beings are wired for both solitude and connectivity.  We all have areas of our lives which are exclusively ours, and we all have areas of life that we need--I can't emphasize this enough, need--to share with others.  We all have needs that demand individual attention, and needs that can only be addressed on a mass scale, requiring us to be viewed as a unit, not a collection of disassociated individuals.

And we have spend 40 years overdosing on "I."  As a consequence, our country is falling apart--physically, financially, and culturally.  Soon, there may indeed be no such thing as society, because we will have destroyed it, and all of the good things that society creates.

We need to get back in balance.  We, the people of this country, need our own Dallas Green to walk into the national locker room and put up a sign that says "We, Not I."  Time is short.  And getting shorter all the time.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Billy Graham: The Original Televangelical Sinner

It's impossible for me to comment on the death of Billy Graham without violating the principle of de mortuis nil nisi bonum.  At the same time, it feels more than a little dishonest to let the news of his death pass without saying something about it here, especially since, at one time in my life, I would have had a dramatically different take on this news than I do now.

I was an evangelical Christian between the ages of 18 and 30, primarily due to the influence of a group of Oberlin friends who provided my social life with a structure that the college otherwise did not afford me.  I ultimately realized that, as a spiritual (and otherwise) guide for my life, evangelical theology was not a good fit for me, made peace with the decision to walk away from it, and did so.  Although I still regard as friends most of the people I befriended during this period, I have never looked back at this decision, and am completely at peace with having made it.

During this period, I went from seeing Graham as a slightly sinister figure, due to his association with Richard Nixon, to accepting the mainstream evangelical view of him as the central leader of a spiritual revolution that America desperately needed.  I even got an opportunity to hear him speak in person, at a missionary conference in Urbana, Illinois in 1976.  As an actor/attorney, and therefore as a connoisseur of public speaking, I have to say that, when it comes to sheer rhetorical skill, I still regard Graham as one of the leading public figures of the 20th century, without regard to the content of that rhetoric.  That evening I listened to him is the main reason I feel that way.  True, I had seen him many times on television.  But seeing and hearing him in person took the experience of listening to him to another level.

Even so, there in one moment in that evening that telegraphed, in a way, the downfall of the evangelical movement his ministry launched.  He told a story that, subsequently, I learned he was fond of telling often in sermons and in speeches.  As told by him, he was having lunch on Capitol Hill one day in the Senate dining room.  One of the Senators with him mentioned a conversation he had with his colleagues about the world being divieded between optimists and pessimists.  He asked Graham whether he was an optimist or a pessimist.  Graham replied "I'm an optimist.  I've read the last page of the Bible, and I know that God's going to win."  The audience at the conference roared with laughter, and otherwise with approval.

That mix of humor and conviction was obviously what Graham was hoping to express in telling this story, and it obviously worked for the audience on that evening, and I'm sure on many others.  But there's something else about the telling of it that struck me, then and now.  Graham was obviously very proud of his political connections, even though he recognized through his experience with Nixon that those connections had hidden dangers that could manifest themselves at any time, dragging him down in the process.  The lessons of Watergate had not stopped him from trying to serve Caesar and Christ at the same time.

Billy Graham's marriage of televised preaching and political networking, like it or not, has to be viewed as the topsoil from which the modern televangelical movement began to sprout in the late 1960's, beginning with Pat Robertson and the "700 Club."  He liked to dissasociate himself from some of the more extreme political views of that movement, but not from all of those views.  Simply put, he helped to plant in the minds of a large number of Americans the idea that evangelical Christianity and political conservatism were in every sense joined at the hip, despite obvious points of departure between the two such as the issues of poverty and civil rights.  To paraphrase both the Gospels and the epistles of Paul, Graham helped to popularize the idea that one can serve both G-d and Mammon, and that politics demands that believers be "unequally yoked" with unbelievers.

Fast forward several decades to the present.  The White House is now in the hands of a man who works doubletime to enhance his well-earned reputation as a moral reprobate, both financially and sexually.  This is not fake news, or fake anything else.  These are facts against which any efforts at denial die on contact with them.  Who helped to elect him?  Who, in fact, make up his most durable constituency, one that simply shrugs off the daily litany of scandal oozing out of the Oval Office?  Evangelical Christians, based on little more than Donald Trump's latter day status as a "anti-abortion" President.

And who is one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent, "spiritual advisor" to this President?  None other than Franklin Graham, Billy's son and heir to his ministry.  And, while his father made at least some nominal attempt to separate himself from the seamier sides of politics, Franklin's effort in this regard feel even more half-hearted.  Perhaps the best illustration of that fact is the following quote, taken from a New York Times article that assesses the differences in the lessons that father and son learned about mixing faith and politics:
“In my lifetime, he [Trump] has supported the Christian faith more than any president that I know,” Mr. Graham said. “That doesn’t mean he is the greatest example of the Christian faith, and neither am I, but he defends the faith. There’s a difference between defending the faith and living the faith.” (emphasis added)
Someone needs to tell Franklin that the sophistry in that last sentence is fooling no one, at least no one who is thinking for himself or herself.  Personally, the best and most concise rebuttal to that statement came in a letter to the Times' editorial page in response to the article:
Yes, it is called hypocrisy.
That, however, is a purely secular perspective.  For a more spiritual one, perhaps for many a more devine one, it might be worth considering the words of another source:
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.' (Matthew 15:8-9, ESV)
I do not condemn the Grahams and their broadcast descendants for their failure to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.  The Gospels and the First Amendment both do that for me.  At this point, it's up to these televangelical sinners to stop talking out of both sides of their mouths, and to stop using that which is held as sacred by many as a vehicle for empowering a few.  And its time for the followers of these sinners to remind themselves and each other that G-d does not choose political sides, but only asks who is on His side.  And that He expects us to treat everyone, regardless of their political views, with humility and respect.