Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sorry, But I Think Maybe We Should Panic About North Korea

Speaking of articles on Slate.com, there's this, which addresses my number one concern in the age of Trump; the real possibility that there might not be any more ages after Trump.

As suggested by its headline, the article starts out calmly enough, by detailng a compelling case for why classic nuclear deterrance therory would suggest that we do not have to worry about a nuclear war between North Korea and the United States.  Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, is first and foremost a survivor, and he (as well as the people around him with influence) know perfectly well that North Korea's dozen-or-so nukes are absolutely no match whatsoever for the literally thousands of American nukes stationed all across the globe.  I have no problem accepting that case, as well as accepting the premise that much of what Kim has done recently with missle-testing is meant largely to set the interenational stage for other demands, primarily ones of an economic nature rather than a military one.

All well and good.  But then there's the other half of the nuclear equation here.  In other words, there's Trump.

To begin with, Trump possesses not only a staggering ignorance of how the world works, including the workings of international politicians, but, far worse, a staggering ignorance of his ignorance. That means he knows and cares nothing about theories of deterrance, or the state or Kim's mind, or the strategic needs of North Korea.  True, he has people around him who could tell him about those things, and who have no doubt tried to do so.  But, over and over again, Trump has shown no capacity to listtening to anything, other than to poll ratings and whatever interior dialogue that goes on in the disco that passes as his brain.

And that's where it gets even worse.  Trump is drive solely by an overwhelming need for short-term popularity, regardless of the reason or the related results.  If polls show that he would become the most popular President in history by nuking North Korea, he would want the nuclear codes on his desk, stat.  And in the ensuing worldwide nuclear frenzy that would follow, it just might be the last decision he or any President ever made.

This is why Donald Trump needs to be removed from the Oval Office without delay.  Not because he is a Republican.  Not because he got only 46% of the popular vote.  Not even primarily because (as I have written elsewhere) because of the likelihood that Putin is pulling his strings.  But because, ultimately, Donald Trump answers to no one but Donald Trump.  And he has, at his command, the most powerful weapons of mass destruction in human history.

Is There A Tomorrow For Tomorrowland?

If you haven't been to Disneyland, I suspect it may only be because you live in the Eastern half of the nation, and opted instead to go to Disney World instead, especially so that you could also explore all of the other theme parks in and around Orlando, which (amazingly) has more hotel rooms than New York City.  I did go to Disneyland, a very long time ago, during a year when my family lived in California while my father taught at Berkeley.  This was in the summer of 1971, not long before we returned to Baltimore.  I had a good time, but remember that, even then, the park had a somewhat dated, slightly shabby look to it.  At that point, it probably hadn't had a serious renovation, having just opened in the 1950s.

So it's with a sense of disappointment and dismay that I read this article on Slate.com about the current state of Tomorrowland, which was meant to be Walt Disney's vehicle for telling the story of America's unlimited, upbeat future, made better in every way by our ever-advancing technology. Most of the article deals with the inherit problems involved in forecasting the future; one who does so is perpetually chasing a moving target, one whose movements are themselves defined to some degree by the predictions themselves.  As a popular example, thing of the flip-top "communicators" from the original "Star Trek" TV series, compared to the early flip-top cell phones.

The article ends, however, on a much more cynical note.  It seems to suggest that we are already drowning in more tech than we can possibly handle, and that the fruits of all of this advancement are not exactly as beneficial as Walt, and the rest of us, once hoped they would be.  There may be some truth in that, but the antidote is not the end of technology, or human inventiveness for that matter.  It's to remind ourselves that technology is never an end unto itself.  It is a tool, first, last and always.  It is, and never should be anything but, a means to fully realize the best parts of our potential, and not the darkest of our internal demons.

So does Tomorrowland have a future?  For that matter, does forecasting the future have a future? Maybe it does.  Maybe the problem is that, in the past (for that matter, in the original Tomorrowland), the focus was on the technology itself, and less on its impact both on individuals as well as the larger would around them.  Maybe the solution is to try to come up with a vision of the future that addresses those issues head-on, and shows how many of them can be resolved in various ways.  The Slate article itself suggests something similar, such as how a "green" city living on renewable resources might work.

It's difficult to imagine how Disney's corporate heirs could come up with a way to mix social/cultural anxieties with a theme-park attraction, and then market it to middle Americans looking for a few days of fun.  On the other hand, it would certainly be a challenge worthy of Walt himself, and his vision of an attraction that, like the future, would be ever-changing.  So, how about it, Imagineers?

Israel Needs A Shimon Perez Now More Than Ever

I miss Shimon Perez.  And I miss even more the Israel he helped to found, and so nobly represented for decades.

Perez, and his vision for Israel both as a Jewish homeland and as a member of the family of nations, are described in detail both in his recently--and posthumously--published autobiography, "No Room for Small Dreams, as well as in this recent New York Post article by Perez's son, Chemi, an Israeli venture capitalist.  Both the book and the article paint a portrait of a man who was always guided not by what he thought was possible, but by what he thought was right.  A man who was willing to think outside of the highly cliched "box" in order to make what was right possible, and ultimately even real.  Above all, a man who would have been more than willing to never enter public service--but who, once he did, always served the public, and not himself.

In a handful of words, he was not Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minster of Israel.

Netanyahu's Israel is not the multicultural, democratic miracle in the Holy Land that the founders of modern Israel sought to make it in 1948, and for decades after that.  It has become a kleptocratic nightmare in which the proverbial 1% control not only Israel's ecomony but Israel's government, and in which favors are traded like baseball cards.  Even worse, under Netanyahu, Israel has become a human rights pariah.  Not only has it "solved" the Palestinian issue by effectively jailing Palestinians behind a wall, but it has now decided that Reform and Conservative Jews are not Jews with the full rights of Jews.

Netanyahu's corruption is so blatant and so deep that he and his government are now being investigated by a grand jury.  In spite of this, he and his government still enjoy unquestioned support from our government.  Perhaps, considering who is currently leading our government, that should not be considered a surprise.  Rather, it is the complement one kleptocrat pays to another. But given Trump's own rampant, naked bigotry, it is a compliment Israelis--and Jews everywhere, for that matter, should reject without hesitation.  In fact, support among American Jews for the Israeli status quo has declined precipitously in the Netanyahu years.

Israel is no longer the vision of David Ben-Gurion, or Golda Meir, or even conservative Israeli leaders like Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon.  It is a corruption of that vision that is in critical danger of dying altogether.  The neshamas (souls) of these and other Israeli founders, including Perez, must surelly be shedding tears.  Where is there a modern-day Perez to deliver their dream from the fate that now threatens it?

All we can do is pray.  And I do.

Eccentricity Is No Longer An American Virtue

This article in the New York Times made me reflect on the vanishing role of eccentrics in our culture, which I take seriously, as someone who has been considered eccentric at times and as someone who tends to prefer the company of eccentrics.  I'm not writing here about people who are "different" in a way that is harmful; right now, we have that kind of eccentric in the Oval Office. Rather, I feel compelled to comment on people who are "different" in ways that benefit all of us, or at least in ways that don't harm anyone.

Eccentrics used to be a defining aspect not just of American society, but the American character as well.  When we talk about entrepreneurship in our history, we are not talking about people who in any way resemble today's slothful seekers of easy, debt-fueled deals.  People like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and George Washington Carver were more interested in solving problems than in making money, and they understood the role that knowledge played in solving problems.  They would all have been considered eccentrics by their contemporaries.  But they were mainly "different" simply because they looked at ordinary aspects of life in a way that was "different" from they way everyone else looked at them.  And, because they did so, all of us benefited in unexpected ways that are still relevant today.

Eccentricity is not just a defining feature of the sciences; it also plays a major role in the arts, going all the way back to Mark Twain and even before him.  Eccentricity has been a defining feature of our motion picture and television industry, going all the way back to the silents when, to borrow a phrase, "they had faces"--the actors, that is.  Eccentricity has been a defining feature in the production end of show business.  Think of Gene Roddenberry, whose idea for a high-concept science-fiction television series landed with a thud on NBC-TV at first, but is now a defining part of American culture more than fifty years later.  And then, there are those rare, amazing individuals like Hedy Lamarr, whose achievements were in both the arts and sciences.

My point?  We no longer value eccentricity.  We no longer even tolerate it.  I think that this goes a long way toward explaning the increasingly bipolar nature of our political system, and the increasingly sclerotic nature of our culture, with its emphasis on "tried-and-true" material. Perversely, I think this is why New York is more of a tourist attraction now than it was when Hal Willner first came to New York.  I also think that this is why I like the post-Giuliani New York less than the New York I first saw as a student.  It was grimy and dangerous.  But it was also a city in which you didn't need a six-to-seven figure bank account to find a place and flourish.

I miss Hal Willner's New York.  For that matter, I miss Hal Willner's America.  I think all of us do, more than we realize.  I hope it's not too late to find a way to reclaim it.

The Opportunity Society?

Several weeks ago, the New York Times held a contest in which they solicited submissions from its readers for a new Democratic Party slogan.  This was in the wake of recent attempts by Democrats to emerge from the debacle of last year's election and re-frame their image and ability to appeal to voters ahead of next year's midterms.  Those attempts, which included at least one notable backfire, ultimately resulted in "A Better Deal," doubtlessly attempting to mimic slogans of earlier eras (New Deal, Square Deal, Fair Deal, etc.).

The results of the Times contest can be found here.  I made a submission, but the Times chose not to print it.  Accordingly, I feel free to reclaim it and offer it in this space.

My choice?  "The Opportunity Society."  This, too, builds rhetorically on an earlier moment of Democratic triumph (The Great Society), but it also re-tools it for today's political era.  It also avoids the deficiencies of "A Better Deal," by refusing to use the Republicans as a reference point for what the Democrats have to offer. Finally, it has the advantage of taking a perfectly respectable word--opportunity--that has been hijacked by hucksters and hooligans, and reclaiming it in a way that should give hope to everyone who hears or sees it.

What do I mean by the Opportunity Society?  Basically, three things.

First, a true Opportunity Society requires an economy that is focused not on the means and methods of bygone eras, but is focused instead on the challenges and opportunities that face us.  The catastrophe brought to the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Harvey should, if nothing else, help us to focus on the nature of those challenges, if not the opportunities to which they can be linked.

As even the business and political leaders in Texas, and Houston in particular, are slowing beginning to realize, we cannot simply "grow" our way out of problems by outsourcing every public need to an increasingly unfettered private sector.  The private sector's first obligation is not to the public, but to itself, sometimes at the public expense.  Whether in Texas or elsewhere in the U.S., we have all walked a long way down the road of privatization, and found a dead end, one defined by the twin dilemmas of climate change and the reduction of traditional resources (i.e., oil for energy).  In the case of Texas, this Times article outlines what "blue skies" for Texas businesses have led to, while suggesting at the same time that the resulting problems can be corrected.

How?  By redirecting public support of the private sector to build a sustainable, green economy, one that develops renewable resources and energy sources, and lives in harmony with the limits of the planet.  I've said this before, and am happy to say it again:  one can have an environment without an economy (just ask anyone stranded on a desert island), but one cannot have an economy without an environment.  The human race has so completely dominated Earth that it needs to spend less effort exploiting the planet, and more effort taking care of it, so that it can help continue to take care of us. Some specifics of what this redirection of public energy would look like is described here.

Second, a true Opportunity Society requires an economy that transcends the traditional employer-employee relationship, with its echos of the master-and-servant relationships of less enlightened eras. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, unions were the primary vehicle for balancing the economic interests of workers and investors.  Today, unions have almost no real clout, after 40 years of largely Republican economic policy.  There's an argument to be made for strengthening the rights of workers to organize (an argument that I'll save for another day), but toward what goal?

Ultimately, the wall between the working and investing classes should be broken down as much as possible, to ensure better management of enterprises as well as a more equitable sharing of economic gains.  Toward this end, public policy should be re-directed toward encouraging the formation of employee-owned businesses, perhaps by making it easier and more profitable for investors to sell their businesses to their employees rather than to outside investors.

Finally, a true Opportunity Society would address the needs of those who are not yet even members of the working class, by giving them the means to work toward joining it.  What I am proposing is what is now being tested in nations around the world, and what has even been endorsed by some conservatives here in this country:  a guaranteed income, one that would be means-tested so as to be cut off just below the level of a living wage.

Unlike our current in-kind systems of social insurance, such as food stamps and public housing, this would give individuals the flexibility to use benefits in way more appropriate to their individual needs.  Part of the income, for example, could be used for job-training, or the completion of a college degree.  A guaranteed income would also benefit the entire nation, by ensuring a minimum level of consumption, and thus be far more effective in keeping the economy on track than tax cuts squirreled away in tax shelters.

So, there it is.  The Opportunity Society.  Any takers, Democrats?  Or anyone else?  Frankly, I don't care who takes this and runs with it.  As long as someone tries.

UPDATE, 9/17/17:  Take a look.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Houston, Filled With Water, Mixed With Tragedy And Irony

Once again, as was the case 12 years ago, the Gulf Coast of the United States and its residents have had their lives disrupted and, in some cases, destroyed, by a storm of the size and fury that once would have been unexpected and even unnatural.  Once again, media stories of tragedy are mixed with media stories of personal heroism, with precious little insight into why the unexpected and unnatural is now a frequent occurrence.  One again, a President ensnared by problems largely of his own making rushes to the scene, and finds ways to make a bad situation worse with his comments. (I mean, really, even Bush knew enough to meet with people and hug them.)

I'm not saying the media shouldn't focus on the human angle in covering Hurricane Harvey.  It's essential to know when people are suffering, and to do what we can to help them.  It's also essential to appreciate and to be inspired by the heroes; they deserve the respect, and they inspire others to do more of the same.

But, before I can be accused of politicizing a tragedy, let's be clear that we're talking about a well that has already been poisoned, in particular by Donald Trump's pardoning of an unforgivable racists, former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio without any of the customary Justice Department input that normally precedes a decision to issue a Presidential pardon.  Trump used the media coverage of the Harvey tragedy to slip Arpaio's pardon under the radar, bragged about doing so when asked, and brought condemnation on himself in the process from both Democrats and Republicans.

And beyond that, real compassion and wisdom requires us to do what we can to avoid the creation of future victims, as well as the need for good people to take the risks involved in being heroes.

So, what are the politics here?  There's a lot of politics here.  All of it laced with irony.

Let's start with the old cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Here are pictures of the devastation brought about by Harvey, which have already generated millions of words.

Looks like a disaster movie, doesn't it?  Frankly, it looks even more like an Al Gore movie to me. You remember Gore; the man actually elected President in 2000 until the Supreme Court said otherwise? The man who peddles the "hoax" of climate change?  Look at either of his movies on the subject, and tell me that those Harvey photos don't fit right in to them.

It's been difficult for me to suppress my I-told-you-so instinct when it comes to looking at the news footage that's come out of East Texas in the past few weeks.  I do so out of a regard for thousands of innocent victims who don't deserve this regardless of their politics.  But I'm willing to unleash that instinct full-force on the politicans that Texans and red state voters everywhere (especially in Gulf states).  Nowhere are they worse than they are in Texas, especially when it comes to governors. From Bush through Perry and Abbott, the Lone Star State has been led by "leaders" who have lined their pockets at the expense of their public responsibilities, especially when it comes to the impact of business on the environment.

Consider, for example, the stories in the early phase of the Harvey disaster about chemical smells in the air over Houston.  The smells, of course, came from largely unregulated chemical plants, one of which burst in flames not long after the chemical smells fouled the air.  Not surprisingly, we subsequently learned that the plant's corporate owners had successfully lobbied Trump's appointees to delay the implementation of safety rules.  And, even as the flood waters begin to recede, the environmental news gets even worse; the EPA is reporting that as many as 13 Superfund sites may have been damaged by Harvey.  Superfund sites are among the most chemically contaminated sites in the nation; the fact that there are as many as 41 of these sites in the hurricane's path tells you something about the relationship between business and government, at the expense of everyone else.

And the tragedies/ironies don't stop there.  Consider the immigration issue.  Thousands of construction workers will be needed to repair all of the Harvey-related damage.  Thousands of construction workers that we do not have, thanks to restrictionist immigration policies supported and pushed by Republicans in general, and Trump in particular.  The racism behind these policies is made all the more patently obvious by the fact that Trump is refusing to accept aid offered by the Mexican government--a decision, one supposes, that goes hand-in-hand with Trump's planned wall between the two countries.  One would think that a hurricane like Harvey would illustrate the foolishness of the wall project; the next 100-to-500-year storm would easily breach any wall we build.

Consider, also, the immigration issue as it relates not only to race but also to religion.  Houston's largest evangelical megachurch initially closed its doors to displaced victims of Harvey, and only opened them when social media shamed them into doing it.  Not so the case with Houston's mosques and synagogues.  Something to think about, the next time someone from an evangelical church or organization claims to have a monopoly on ultimate truth.  Or the next time you hear that claim from the political puppet of evangelicals, the Republican Party.

Finally, consider the Republican Party itself, the party of as-little-government-as-possible.  Well, there are now a whole lot of Republicans, and people who voted for them in good faith, who will need a whole lot of government to get back on their feet.  And, I'm happy to help them.  But I would be happier still if we could finally have an acknowledgement that, for a nation as big and as complicated and as important as ours, tiny government is not only unrealistic, it is downright dangerous.  Government spending, and (per Oliver Wendell Holmes) the taxes that support it, are the price we pay for civilization.  Harvey shows that they are also, sometimes, the price we pay for survival--and renewal.

There are faint signs already to support the view that there is an emerging new definition of a liberal:  a conservative who has been mugged by global warming.  Maybe there will be more. Maybe, this time, after Katrina and Sandy and now Harvey, the tragedy and irony are finally overwhelming enough that people will be willing to listen.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

I May Not Be Pro-Antifa, But I'm All For Self-Defense

And I don't give a damn what anyone thinks about it, or thinks about me as a consequence.

You have probably read quite a bit by now about a loosely-organized group of anarchists called "antifa," who first came to national attention when they fought back against the violence fomented by neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members in Charlottesville earlier this month.  Most of the coverage of antifa (short for "anti-fascists") has been negative, and that has especially been the case with the right-wing media echo chamber, which has led the charge to find some sort of moral equivalency between the violence on the right and the violence on the left, in the hope that the current status quo, in which violence on the right is tolerated and used as an excuse to tell Democrats to move to the right or they'll be shot, can be successfully maintained.

I'll have a little more to say about that status quo in a moment.  First, a more personal perspective.

I despise violence, and I despise even more the ad hominem hatred of "the other" which drives so much of it and threatens to drive democratic discourse into oblivion.  Hatred is deceptively easy.  It requires no research, no debate, not even any thought.  It's a seemingly cheap and convenient substitute for the kind of thoughtful analysis and consensus-building that our system of government is built upon and designed to encourage.

Except that, ultimately, it is neither cheap nor convenient.  It eats away at the heart of the hater even as it pretends to fill it.  It warps the mind even as it pretends to fill it with arguments.  It ultimately destroys the soul, even as it fills the body with the illusion of energy and vitality. Ultimately, even without an actual nemesis, hatred destroys the hater.  If it does not actually kill the hater, it isolates him or her from the rest of the human race.  Hatred is not a philosophy, a policy, or even a program. It's just hatred.  And it destroys everything it touches.

I believe all of this as surely as I know I'm typing these words.  So, I should just join in the great moral equivalency hunt, and condemn antifa with the same passion that I condemn the neo-Nazis and the Klanspeople.

Except I can't.  I just can't.  And here's why.

For the past three decades, I have seen a relentless rise in organized violence by the political and social right-wing.  I've seen it devolve from the militia movement to the drive for concealed-carry (and even open-carry) permits for handguns, to the utter carnage instigated during the Obama Administration by the NRA and its relentless push against any and all handgun restrictions (even ones designed to make weapons less accessible to terrorists), and its instigation of "stand-your-ground" state laws that allow a shooter to kill an unarmed person based on the shooter's subjective sense of fear (which, in turn, can even be based on an article of clothing).  Dozens of young people (even an entire school) will never come of age, never live out their dreams because of this wanton, mercenary lust for violence.  And the survivors?  Their hopes and dreams live under a perpetual shadow of violence, and even death.

And worse?  I have seen government at all levels so scared of looking "lefty" that they have abdicated the most basic obligation of government--public safety--for half of the population.  From Waco to Charlottesville, there has been a straight line of abdication, egged on by the aforementioned right-wing media echo chamber, against denying "dear, good, Christian people" their Second Amendment rights.  This is the result, along with every preventable death from Waco to Charlottesville.  Ask yourself:  what did the police do in Charlottesville to save the three lives lost there to right-wing violence?  Answer:  nothing.

Who has antifa killed so far, in contrast?  Answer:  no one.

I hold no brief for antifa as an organization.  Not everyone involved with it is an easy villain, but it seems to be so loosely organized as to defy having any governing or limiting principles.  As such, I can't be their advocate, or even their supporter.  And it is easy to imagine, in a violent confrontation, how principled self-defense can be transformed into unwarranted aggression.

But self-defense, in the Age of Trump and with the rise of his white-nationalist support, is not simply a good idea.  It's an essential one.  Let there be no doubt, based on thirty-some years of evidence: there is a war going on, in their minds and hearts, there is an enemy, and that enemy is to be destroyed by any means necessary.  The ballot-box is and never will be enough for them. Bullets and bombs do their most potent, and lethal talking.

As I said earlier, I despise violence.  But, frankly speaking, I despise inaction for the sake of looking "classy" or "dignified."  It's not just your right to live that's at stake; its the right to live of everyone you care about, present or future.  Non-violent resistance only works against a sufficiently civilized aggressor.  There is nothing civilized about the so-called "alt-right."

So resist the urge to find a moral equivalency.  If you don't like antifa, work with others to come up with a better form of self-defense.  We desperately need some form of it.  Otherwise, the United States of America will become little more than a Fourth Reich, built on the graves of you and me.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Black Gun Owners: The Best Path to Gun Control?

That's not a rhetorical question.  I'm hear to tell you that I think the answer is yes.

I felt that way even before I saw this article in the Washington Post, about a post-Trump-election rise in the level of gun purchases by African-Americans, even as gun sales were falling among white purchasers.  The increased number of gun purchases during the Obama years among whites, and the subsequent increase in the level of armed violence against young African-American men (and the resulting fatalities), make the Post article the least surprising piece I've read in a long time.

And I'm happy that what the article reports is happening.

If history teaches us anything (and it can, frankly, teach us quite a lot if we're willing to admit that we need to learn), it's that periods of peace among nations, and among peoples within nations, depend on a balance of power.  The more evenly power, including and especially firepower, is distributed throughout a society, the lesser the temptation there is for one group to attempt to subjugate another. And, when you stop and think about it for a moment of two, isn't that the argument that gun rights advocates make in the first place?  That private ownership of guns by citizens is necessary to reduce the temptation governments might have otherwise to subjugate their own people by force?

Personally, I don't completely disagree with that argument.  I don't think that, Antonin Scalia notwithstanding, the Second Amendment was created for that reason, and I certainly don't think it requires every citizen to have an arsenal that could outfit an entire battalion of soldiers.  Actually, the Second Amendment is a tricky platform on which to build an argument for unlimited handgun or rifle ownership.  The Amendment only refers to "arms."  Well, then, don't I have a constitutional right to a nuclear arsenal?   Maybe that's what I need to feel really safe.

Frankly, when you consider the level, intensity and duration of white racism in this country against African-Americans, I'm surprised that there isn't more advocacy for an H-bomb in every black household.  However, if the Post article is a reasonable guide (probable), more conventional firearms seem to be good enough.

I mean, seriously, what is the white gun-owning community going to do?  Advocate for more stringent regulation of gun purchases?  Admit that the adoption of the Second Amendment had as much to do with the ability to hunt down runaway slaves as it did with militias?  Stand up and say "OK, you've got us.  We were flaming hypocrites all along.  Can you ever forgive us?"

I wouldn't bet on any of those alternatives becoming reality.  If the last one did, however, I would hope and expect the answer of the African-American community to be something like "No thanks, we'll just keep arming ourselves.  After all, it's good enough for you.  And we promise not to be trigger happy when your kids wear clothes we don't like."

The Good-And-Bad Dynamic Of Politics And Culture

In a free society, it is both natural and desirable for politics and culture to influence one another. The basic philosophical foundation of our government, that power should be divided and yet function in a co-dependent manner, is one that can be found outside of government itself. Sometimes, our culture provides those who govern with a means for inspiring the public, or at least making an emotional connection with it.  Think about the Kennedy Administration and "Camelot," or the Carter Administration and "Annie."  Sometimes, the dynamic works in the other direction; the culture finds a way to take aspects of the political climate and turn it into art--or, at least, into entertainment.  It therefore was not surprising that, when Carter was elected, that ABC created and (briefly) aired a TV series that was meant to celebrate, in its own way, the new president's Southern roots.

As someone deeply interested in politics and culture, I have a strong appreciation for this dynamic. At the same time, in the present political climate, it's all too easy to imagine the perverted results to which it can lead.  As it turns out, however, one doesn't have to use any imagination at all.

HBO has let the world know that it has under consideration a potential series called simply, and as of the moment, "Confederate."  At this point, it is little more than a proposed title and a concept, the latter being a species of what has come to be known as "alternative history."  Alt-histories, literary and otherwise, are essentially build around the question of how subsequent events would have played out had a given historical outcome not happened (or, at least, not happened they way they did in fact happen).  Perhaps the best known of these is "The Man In The High Castle," which describes what happens to a particular set of characters in a world where Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire won World War II, and more or less divided the United States as territories of conquest.

So it is proposed to be with "Confederate."  But, as this article in The Atlantic points out, for all practical purposes, the South did win.  Apart from the end of slavery, the Confederate states were re-admitted to the Union, their leaders and citizens given full citizenship, and they were still allowed to treat former slaves as second-class citizens, even while building the monuments to the "Lost Cause" that are at the heart of clashes such as last weekend's conflict in Charlottesville.

Even worse, the larger culture glossed over the sin of slavery by portraying the South as some sort of rarefied, gallant society where slaves treated as property somehow got better treated that "wage slaves" in the North.  "Gallant Cavaliers and their Ladies Fair," I believe, was the terminology used in the opening credits to the film version of "Gone With The Wind," a book written to explicitly mourn the loss of antebellum Southern society.

Does anyone doubt that the racism embedded in the very concept of this proposed series is meant to serve the same purpose it served in Mitchell's book and in its film version?  For that matter, does anyone doubt that the white nationalist currently sitting in the Oval Office made HBO think that now is the time to revive the sickening romanticism many still feel for a society that was evil at its core, and did not deserve to survive, much less win?

What would have happened if the South had managed to become a separate nation?  Slavery would still have somehow died, one hopes.  To think of it going on for centuries, debasing all who came into contact with it, is insane.  To try to turn that thought into entertainment is beyond insane.  At the very least, they should consider a new name for this series if it ever becomes reality:

"Trump Country."

The Beatable Larry Hogan (And Why He Needs To Be Beaten)

This article in the online version of The New Republic makes a surprisingly compelling case for the "beatability," if you will, of Larry Hogan, the unlikely Republican governor of Maryland.  Basically, it focuses on the fish-out-of-water nature of Hogan, a former businessman who largely wants to cut taxes more than anything else, operating in a state with a strong politically blue climate.  He doesn't speak out in cases where speaking out would put him at war with that climate and, on those occasions when the Democratic supermajority in the Maryland General Assembly overrides one of his vetoes, he just says nothing.  Just as he does when Donald Trump or other national Republicans do or say something that might compromise his popularity among Democrats or independents (or even Republicans), Hogan just gives his best what-me-worry imitation of MAD's Alfred E. Newman, and shines it on.

The result?  According to one survey, as mentioned in the TNR article, Hogan is the second most popular governor in the country.  His re-election next year would seem to be all but re-assured. Except for the fact that there were some peculiar dynamics at work in his 2014 victory.

Hogan ran against an inept Democratic candidate, in a year when the national Democratic party was at a low political ebb and had no candidated for national office on the ballot to energize the largely Democratic voting base.  His focus?  Martin O'Malley's alleged "40 tax hikes," most of which were fee-for-service increases such as the ones pushed by Hogan's Maryland political godfather, Robert Ehrlich during his one term in the governor's chair.  (The less said about Hogan's national political godfather, Chris Christie, the better--for now.)  And here's the kicker:  even with all of this going for him, Hogan just squeeked by in the popular vote with a margin of victory of less than 4 percent.

None of this is going to work for Hogan in 2018.  The national climate will no longer be dominated by six years of weariness with Barack Obama; it will be instead burdened by two years of despair generated by Trump.  There will be a U.S. Senate race to galvanize the bases of both national parties, and to force Trump into the political debate at the state level, something Hogan has dreaded for months. And Hogan's re-election campaign will need to be a part of that debate.  If he wants to spend all of his time on debate stages saying "I have no answer for that" or "I don't need to have an opinion on that," he might as well do what his 2014 Democratic opponent, Anthony Brown, did for one of the debates that year:  fail to show up altogether.  Sure worked well for him, didn't it?

But the TNR article overlooks one area of Hogan's administration where he most definitely does have an opinion:  his relationship with the city of Baltimore.  And that opinion is most definitely not a positive one.

Even back in 2014, if one read carefully between the lines, it was painfully clear that Hogan's comments about "getting spending under control" and "rolling back those 40 tax hikes" were code for balancing the budget on the backs of the citizens of Baltimore, a jurisdiction where the problems of poverty, and the public expenses required to address those problems, were higher than they were anywhere else in the state.  The voting population of the city was overwhelmingly Democratic, and rapidly shrinking, and therefore of no practical political assistance to a Republican running for statewide office.

Above all, without putting too fine a point on it, that population was overwhelmingly African-American.

I tread carefully in saying what I say at this point.  I have no reason to believe that Larry Hogan is racist personally.  He has an Asian stepfamily, as I have a Jewish one.  He also has an African-American Lieutenant Governor, as did Ehrlich.  But it's false respect to Hogan's tolerance in this area, including his denounciation of the white nationalists in Charlottesville last weekend, to pretend that much of his Western Maryland and Eastern Shore constituents have a great deal of fondness for the population of Baltimore and its needs.  How much of that is about race, and how much of it comes from other factors, I am not in a position to say.  But I have had far too many conversations in both parts of the state to pretend that the feeling isn't real.

My point:  as a Governor, and therefore as a politician, Hogan is forced to take that negativity into account to maintain his popularity and his power.  Obviously, the riots in Baltimore in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray gave Hogan an unforced opportunity to punish the city for its failures in the area of public safety.  Equally obviously, those failures have continued to the present day, without any help from Hogan at all.

But Hogan's penny-wise, pound-foolish response to all of this has proved him to be more bean-counter than business man.  Even the most thrifty person in business understands that, sometimes, you need to spend money you don't have to both deliver services and generate revenues for your customers.  You take out a loan to build a new factory that builds a new product that makes people's lives better and soon, the loan is paid off while the factory enhances your bottom line.

That's the way businesses used to think.  Not today.  Everything is all about cut, cut, cut, cut, and, when all else fails, cut some more.  Thus, Hogan throws away $1 billion in federal transportation money and over a decade of planning, and cancels the Red Line, which could have been the beginning (with the Metro and light-rail) not only of a true metropolitian rail system for Baltimore, but the beginning of an intercity system between Baltimore and Washington, DC, with free transfers between the two.  Anyone who has seen what the Metro has done for the D.C. metropolitan area and the District itself knows that such a system could literally help bake a larger economic pie for everyone in the state.

One could go on and on along this line, beginning with the cancellation of the planned new state center for Maryland public employees.  But this, as much as any other reason, is why the beatable Larry Hogan needs badly to be beaten next year.  Maryland needs and deserves a governor who understands that a healthy Baltimore is the key to a healthy Maryland.  Divide-and-conquer politics have come close to destroying our country; we desperately need to keep them out of the Free State.

Ross Douthat Rewrites History

I have, for the most part, tolerated Ross Douthat's presence on the New York Times' Op-Ed pages. One could easily do worse in the search for conservative "balance" to a paper's opinion section. And, between David Brooks' neverending search for goodness and mercy in all of us, and Bret Stephens' wholesale rejection of climate science, it has sometimes seemed as if worse was exactly what the Times was trying to do.  In any case, Douthat writes well, occasionally gives points to the other side, and has, for the most part, been fairly resolute in his status as a Never-Trumper.

But, like most Never-Trumpers on the right, Douthat can't quite resist the temptation to use this period of Republican dominance with which we have been cursed in an attempt to score a few unearned points for his side.  Even if it means using a little reverse hagiography in the process.

In this case, the subject of decanonization is John F. Kennedy.  In what appears to be a badly misguided effort to make Donald Trump's threats to incinerate North Korea seem, well, not-to-bad,
Douthat's column attempts to reconstruct the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis so that readers will believe that Kennedy was the real bad guy from start to finish.  His congenitally belligerent instincts, in Douthat's retelling, led him from slandering Richard Nixon to botching the Bay of Pigs invasion to placing Jupiter missiles in Turkey so that Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet Union were all but begged to sail first-strike missiles over to Cuba.

There's just one problem with all of this.

It didn't happen that way.

The belligerence that led to those thirteen days in October of 1962 did not come from Kennedy.  It came, in fact, from Nixon and his anti-Commie fellow travellers in the early days of the modern conservative movement.  Kennedy, astute politician that he was, understood the need in the nuclear age to co-opt the "toughness" issue, and he did.  That was what led to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and required (over Kennedy's better judgment) the decision to place the Jupiter missiles in Turkey. Neither the invasion nor the missiles were actions by Kennedy on his own; they were actions taken out of short-term political necessary in a climate he neither wanted nor created.

Somebody needs to send Douthat a copy of Robert F. Kennedy's "Thirteen Days"; it would improve his understanding of the history of this period.  It would also help him appreciate the Kennedy brothers' commitment to maintaining a respectful, truthful, even-keeled dialogue even with our seemingly most intractible enemies.  I have enough respect for Douthat to believe he can learn.  I despair of that ever happening with Trump.

And, Before I Leave Charlottesville For Now ...

... one more thing.  And it's not about Trump.  It's about all of us.

"Like it or not, and I hate it, the battle has been joined."

I wrote and published those words in this blog nearly two months ago, in the aftermath of the shootings at a practice for a charity baseball event between members of Congress.  If you or anyone else think that those shootings comprise an isolated, never-to-be-repeated moment in our culture, I am forced to tell you after last weekend, then think again.

The march on Charlottesville by white nationalists was largely fueled by a recent trend across America to take down statues and other monuments to the Confederacy.  Needless to say, those who still believe in the so-called "Lost Cause" are not happy about losing their "safe spaces" for expressing their hatred of anyone who isn't them.  And never mind, for the moment, how ironic it makes their criticisms of leftist college students who want to be protected from such expressions with safe spaces and trigger warnings.

I have, frankly, never understood why these monuments exist in the first place.  We, the people of the United States are almost certainly the only nationals around the world that allow public commemorations of an armed insurrection against that nationality.  Call it "heritage" and "state's rights" and even "Northern Aggression" if you must.  None of that claptrap rhetoric disguises the fact that the insurrection was treason motivated by a desire to treat humans as chattels.  It neither erases history nor diminishes the First Amendment to remove these ugly items to historical societies and museums.  It simply removes them from places of honor and public participation in society, where they do not belong.

The effort undertaken by cities to do the right thing by these items has hitherto been peaceful and marked by due process, public debate, and a respect for the interests of everyone.  If you're a white nationalist, however, none of that means anything, becuase none of that has anything to do with the America they believe in.  That America has been defined for them by Nazi Germany:  blood and soil.

That is why they are willing to use violence at the drop of a Trump to take control of what they believe, exclusively, is their country.  And the response by the majority, in Charlottesville and elsewhere,  shows that it has concluded what I concluded long ago:  that the time for peaceful demonstations is over.  Tom Courtenay, in one of most famous roles, might agree.  Especially when official law enforcement appears to be split on how to respond:  either do nothing, or plot the unthinkable.

While the rest of us ponder the question:  is it unthinkable any longer?

The Most Dangerous Nazi Wasn't In Charlottesville

His name is Donald John Trump, the Terrorist-in-Chief who somehow managed to win a presidential election against the clearly lesser evil with a minority of the popular vote.

And, although he wasn't in Charlottesville last Saturday, he might just as well have been.  These are his people.  They are, in fact, the minority that is spread out over enough states to put him in the Oval Office.

To take a step backward from the anger and the carnage (to use a favorite Trump word) that left three innocent people dead, and an entire community mortified by the stain placed upon it by a public demonstration of white nationalists marching through their streets chanting the Nazi slogan "Blood and Soil," it's worth asking:  why now?

Racism has always been a feature of American life, including American political life.  And it's hardly a secret that one major American political party (not mine) has spent decades manipulating American racism, successfully, for its own benefit.  But a key to that success has always been keeping public, blatant displays of racism bottled up, so that mounting a frontal assault against it has always been difficult.

All of a sudden, last weekend, it was out of the bottle, never to return.  And boy, oh boy, were a lot of dog-whistling Republicans embarrassed.

They said all the right things, when asked by the media to do so.  They made sure they complied with the demands of the digital age by taking to social media (Twitter in particular) to clarify that the Charlottesville tragedy can only be blame on white racism that cannot and should not be tolerated.

I read many of those statements.  As words, they are all that can be said, and credit goes where credit is due to those who said them.  But will they stand by them, when the going gets tough?

And, by "tough," I'm referring to next year's midterm elections.

In this context, I am reminded of a quote from the late, great James Baldwin, who would not have been surprised by any of the events in Charlottesville, or many of the ones related to it:  "I can't believe what you say, because I see what you do."

What's significant here is what the Republican Party, and the elected officials affiliated with it, do not do.

And that is to renounce not only the poisoned fruit that desecrated the streets and the peace of Charlottesville, but the poisonous tree that allowed them to feel free to desecrate.  The tree that has sunk its roots at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

All of this nonsense about how the history and the responsibility of the office would force Trump to "pivot," and all of this additional nonsense about how the "guardrails" of the American political system would keep his proto-Fascist tendencies in check, has finally been exposed as the nonsense that they are by Trump himself.

In his first public statement about Charlottesville, Trump attempted to place the blame "on many sides."  This despite the fact that one side clearly initiated not only the hatred, bu the violence that flowed from it.  The same embarrassed Republicans who verbally denounced the hatred and violence then denounced Trump, forcing him (48 hours later) to bury a slightly more pointed condemnation of racism in an otherwise upbeat assessment of his inability to destroy the Obama economy.  So far as Trump's reputation in this and all matters related to race, the damage was effectively done, beyond all undoing.

And no one--absolutely no one who made any attempt to honestly investigate Trump's character on this and other issues--had any reason to be surprised.  After all, his racism both before and during the campaign was about as well-documented a thing as anything can be.

But the unchecked power that Republicans now wield in Washington and around the country is the undeniable result of that racism.  As I noted, Trump is simply the logical conclusion of decades during which barely-closeted racism swallowed any chance of making progress on the problems all Americans face.  And even Fox News is willing to come out and say that Trump has no qualms about reaping the benefits of racial politics.  Doesn't get more blatant than that.

On the other hand, if all of those Republican officials and supporters meant their Charlottesville condemnations with every inch of their beings, there are two things they can do:

Dump Trump, using either the impeachment process or the 25th Amendment.  And guarantee that, no matter what, next year's midterms and the 2020 presidential election will be held on time.

To paraphrase Mr. Baldwin, I'm watching what you do.  And I'm hoping, for the sake of healing in Charlottesville and beyond, that I can ultimately believe what you've said this past weekend.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Why Do They Still Hate Jimmy Carter?

This question came to mind through an Op-Ed catechism in the New York Times recently.  First, as part of a broader analysis of the contemporary Republican Party's ability to win elections but not produce results for the American people, Ross Douthat decreed that Mr. Carter, the last president elected by the old New Deal coalition of Democratic voters, "got nothing done."  Second, in response to this statement, Carter's former domestic policy adviser, Stuart Eizenstat, wrote a letter the Times published that listed Carter's many achievements in office.

The "got nothing done" analysis by Douthat is curious on its face.  After all, the conservative critique of Carter back in the day was something to the effect that Carter was destroying America by pushing it too far to the left--in other words, the same sort of rhetorical drivel they have been delivering for the past 70 years, up to and including today.  You can agree or disagree with that rhetoric--I'll leave it to your imagination to decide how I feel about it--but you can't say it's the same thing as getting "nothing done."

On the other hand, Eizenstat's entirely accurate and concise description of Carter's accomplishment's in office only begs my titular question even further.  Usually, the answer you get are (a) stagflation, and (b) the Iranian hostages.  Both of these crises were outgrowths of bad foreign policy decisions encouraged by conservatives that had the effect of making the United States unusually dependent on oil-producing (i.e., Arab) countries for the maintenance of our way of life.  And the hostage crisis was deliberately manipulated, and even prolonged, by Republicans and their conservative supporters for purely partisan purposes.

And Carter devoted much of his presidency to ending that dependence, describing the struggle to do so as the moral equivalent of war.  As we subsequently saw on 9/11, it was in fact the literal equivalent.

I think the ongoing Carter-hatred is based largely on a recognition even by conservatives that the critique of Carter that emerged during the 1980 election campaign was and remains a gargantuan lie--and that this lie is coming back to haunt them, now that their own coalition is fracturing just as the New Deal coalition fractured during Carter's term.  Despite that fracturing, Carter pulled off a number of significant legislative and diplomatic accomplishments, accomplishments that still benefit the American people even today.  Trump, meanwhile, apart from one purloined Supreme Court seat, is bereft of anything that could be called an accomplishment--unless attempting to install a kleptocracy in the White House counts.

And yet Trump, like Carter, clearly appears to be a president of preparation for a major change in the politics of this country.  The question is, can the Democrats produce a Reagan to make that change a reality?  I wish I had a positive answer to that question.  I pray that such an answer will emerge before 2020.

Mitch McCONnell, Contra Deum?

One is seriously forced to wonder.

McCONnell does not lack for ambition.  His ambition--his only ambition--is and always has been to accumulate as much power as he can in the Senate.  The only limitation on that ambition is an apparent lack of ambition to become President.  One is forced to wonder whether that comes from an honest appraisal of his own limitations, or from some sort of character flaw (perhaps a recognition, which Donald Trump clearly does not have, that as President he would be forced to care about people in whom he has absolutely no interest at all.  A leader of a legislative body has a broad ability to set an agenda; an executive responsible for the day-to-day administration of public business will find his or her agenda-setting ability limited, often by what we used to call, in legal terms, acts of G-d.

But G-d does indeed work in mysterious ways, sometimes inserting His will into the legislative process.

Consider the fact that the Affordable Care Act only survived repeal by a single vote.  Consider further the fact that said vote was cast by a man, John McCain, who sadly has been given a diagnostic death sentence while the repeal debate was in process.  Consider still further the fact that Senator McCain, through a lifetime of military and civilian public service (the former of which included torture at the hands of the Viet Cong) has benefited from public forms of health insurance that are as generous as they are comprehensive.  And consider also the fact that McCain, never shy about being at the center of events, clearly relished what might be his last chance to make a major difference on the national stage.

I think it's entirely fair to view McCain, in this instance, as an instrument of divine intervention.  G-d saw in McCONnell a man who is, in his present position, a clear and present danger not only to the interests of the American people, but to democracy itself.  And, when the very health of the American people, the federal government's most sacred responsibility along with public safety, was directly endangered by McCONnell's ambition, G-d used an American hero one last time to save his country.

Which means that Mitch McCONnell, who has spent the last seven years firing broadsides at legislative processes and traditions for the sake of his own overweening ambition. now, in a very real sense, has John McCain's blood on his hands.

How much more blood will he shed before the American people cry "Enough"?  And how much longer will a righteous G-d allow His justice to tarry before not only McCONnell, but all of us, experience a taste of wrath that we cannot nor should not be able to stand?

As I said at the beginning, one is seriously forced to wonder.