Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Shame And Disgrace Of American Education

I might as well start out by saying that I bring two "biases," if you will, to writing this post.  I am, on a K-through-12 basis, a product of the public education system.  In addition, my late father, who was a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, was also on a commission whose work resulted in a significant expansion of publicly-financed higher education in the state of Maryland.  It goes without saying that he was deeply committed both to higher education and public education.  But it's worth saying anyway, because I'm more than happy to share that commitment.  Both he and I saw people's lives transformed by greater access to education.

And the transformation of individual lives, as worthy a goal as that is, is not even the greatest reward of education.  Education builds informed citizens, without which democracy is possible only in name.  In any case, none of this would be possible without education's single greatest asset; teachers.  Buildings and media can be priced out to a specific extent.  But good teachers, ones who know how to impart information, bring a subject to life for students and, above all, help their students learn to think for themselves, are as priceless as they are rare.

So, exactly what is the state of education in America today?

Perhaps it is best summed up in this unbelievably depressing article from the Guardian.  The days when teachers were as much a part of the institutional stability of higher education seem to largely be gone forever.  In its place is a world in which college and university instructors live a hand-to-mouth existence, needing to supplement their income in ways that show no respect or value for the years they have put into learning one or more subjects.  Often, even doing this does not afford even so much as a decent living, much less a comfortable one.

And their counterparts in public schools are not doing much better.  Often, they are forced to pay for supplies out of their own, less-than-munificent salaries, simply so that they can adequately give their students the education that the students' parents seemingly are no longer willing to pay full-freight for.

Instead, in both higher and public education, money is spend on shiny new construction, something that is easier to show off to taxpayers and alumni than the seemingly invisible but real process of actual learning itself.  We would, in fact, be far better off in spending capital budgets on renovations rather than new construction, and spending more money to pay teachers at all levels the incomes they've worked for and deserved.  And, of course, such an approach would be more environmentally-friendly, too.

Hopefully, one day in the near future, we can fin a way to make this happen so that, at the very least, all teachers can sleep in beds rather than cars.  I would sleep a lot better if this happened.  And so would my dad.

American Retail, Lost In The '80s

The 1980s were, in one sense, the peak era of American retail.  Not in variety of goods, or reasonableness in pricing, or in customer service that truly put the customer first.  It was the peak time to buy and consolidate existing retail businesses, while building more and more retail space, primarily in malls, for the dwindling number of businesses that resulted from the consolidations.

What was fueling all of this activity?  Was it consumer spending?  Hardly.  Despite glowing assessments of the '80s as a boom time for the American economy, the fact is that the decade was the very beginning of the wage bust that has, in the Age of Trump, reached its mature (or, if you will, most degenerate) phase.  True, people spent--but only so that they could look as prosperous as they thought everyone else was.  And, of course, they did it the old-fashioned way--by going deeply into debt.  Which is why the real economic boom of the '80s was the one enjoyed by bankruptcy lawyers concentrating their practises in consumer credit.

On the other hand, bankruptcy lawyers who focused on failing businesses made out well, too.  Because all of that consolidation and building was also fueled by debt.  Businesses were grossly over-valued, mergers were consummated based on the belief that the resulting behemoths would generate enough cash to service the debt, and costs were simultaneously expected to be driven down by virtue of the sheer size of the debt as a kind of fiscal sword of Damocles.

This approach may arguably have worked, after a fashion, for a period of time.  But it slowly began to fall apart by the end of the decade, as tapped-out consumers slowed down their spending and, in short order, the revenue was no longer enough to pay for the debt service.  Despite this, and despite the continuing decline in consumer income, businesses continued to follow this path to ruin, for themselves and customers.

And then came the World Wide Web, and the rise of Web retailers--Amazon, above all.  Suddenly, there were all of those brick-and-mortar consolidations, with too much debt and not enough differentiation among the handful of merger survivors to successfully compete with their upstart digital counterparts.  Internet retailers could (and do) provide greater variety and convenience, as well as superior service.

That is precisely why neither this article, nor this one, should be particularly surprising.  The truth is that we need less storefront space and more spaces for distribution centers.  And we need more retailers that are properly capitalized, with an acceptable and more traditional debt-to-equity ratio, so that they have the funds needed to adapt to rapid changes in a rapidly-changing marketplace.

Get out of the '80s and onto the Web, retailers.  That's where the action--and the money--is.

A Government Dangerous To Its Own Citizens, As Well As The Rest Of The World

My previous post outlined several of the ways by which Donald Trump's kleptocracy of an Administration was steeling from the American people.  Even more recent events, however, make it clear that Trump and his cronies in and outside of Washington are far more dangerous than a mere kleptocracy.  They are an existential menace not only to the existence of democracy, but the existence of the American people.  And, perhaps, the people of the world.

Let's start the discussion of the ways in which this menace has manifested itself with a recap of the disaster Hurricane Maria visited on the island of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory whose residence are U.S. citizens.  As such, they are entitled to every bit as much protection and assistance in a time of crisis as were the residents of Texas and Florida during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.  They are entitled to it, but they haven't been receiving it.

For starters, during the initial phase of the post-Maria recovery efforts, and at a time when it was painfully obvious that Puerto Rico had suffered losses in property and life that even dwarfed the losses from Harvey and Irma, Trump was otherwise occupied.  He was at war with the players and team owners of the NFL, over their support of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem as a protest of violence against young black men.  It was, in fact, only after Trump was shamed on social media for his gross negligence of his obligations to Puerto Ricans that he began to make serious efforts to start providing the assistance he should have focused on providing far earlier.

And, even then, he could have significantly increased the amount of aid available to them simply by signing a waiver of the Jones Act, the law that prevents foreign shipping from making deliveries at American ports.  The Act permits such waivers, and granting one immediately could have benefited Puerto Rico while at the same time making the U.S. effort easier and more productive.  Trump, however, announced that he was reluctant to grant such a waiver, because it would not make the shipping industry very happy.  I am not making us up; I almost wish to G-d that I were.  Enough lives have already been lost as a consequence of Trump's gross deriliction of duty.  Who knows how many of those lives could have been spared if he had stopped thinking about the NFL for one minute and signed a Jones Act waiver?

And what does Trump do when confronted with evidence of his perfidy?  Blame the victims, of course.  Specifically, when called to account by the mayor of San Juan, Trump blames her and other Puerto Rican officials for not doing enough with the aid they've been given.  Trump, who plays golf while the mayor in question wades through sewage to provide assistance to her people.  I have no words to express how I feel about this level of hypocrisy.

Pray for the people of Puerto Rico, and give aid, however you can; here's one way.  And, while you're at it, pray for the nine million or more children who will lose badly-needed health insurance because the current Congress allowed the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to expire as of the fiscal year that ended yesterday.  Why they would do this is an utter mystery; CHIP was conceived and enacted as a bipartisan effort to provide health care for children who might not otherwise receive it.  Of course, Hillary Clinton, back in her Senate days, was one of the legislative brains behind CHIP; perhaps its expiration is a poor substitute for locking her up.

Then again, make it easier on yourself and everyone else, and pray for the whole world; Trump may have found a way to ignite it, in the hope that the last thing that will happen before the end of the world is an increase in his poll numbers.  Today, Trump responded to statements made by his Secretary of State about the availability of diplomatic channels for addressing nuclear tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, by telling him (in lay terms) to shut up and let him handle it.  Or, as Trump put it (on Twitter, of course):  "... we'll do what has to be done!"

Does Trump really not understand that this is tantamount to a declaration of war--and nuclear war, at that?  He seems to be literally hell-bent on making the kind of mistakes John F. Kennedy feared would be made during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  For that matter, he seems to want to create his very own Cuban Missile Crisis, at the expense of the safety of his country and, quite possible, the safety of the entire world.  How is it possible for him to screw up this badly?  And is there no one around him, not even his family, who can pour a drop of sense into his walnut-sized brain?

We can no longer afford the luxury of waiting for Donald Trump to grow into the office of the Presidency.  Donald Trump stopped "growing" somewhere around the age of 16.  He is not going to become "presidential"; even conceiving of what that would be like is beyond him.

If ever there was a moment for the Republicans in charge of Congress to put aside their obsession with tax cuts for the rich, it is now.  If ever there was a moment for Democrats in Congress to show a little spine and force the Republicans to face the growing menance all of us now face, regardless of party or ideology, it is now.  If ever there was a time for Trump to be removed from the position of power he sadly occupies--by impeachment, or the 25th Amendment process, it is now.

Tomorrow may be literally too late.  For all of us.

Four Signs Of Living In A Kleptocracy

Kleptocracy.  Up until the past year or so, that might be a word that most people hadn't heard all that often.  But, to those familiar with the term "kleptomaniac," it should be easy to figure out want it means.  A kleptocracy is government by thievery.  Not just of wealth, but of fairness.  Of accountability.  Even of the truth itself.  And all four forms of thievery have been on display during the past few weeks, during this "golden age" of Republican rule.

Of course, stealing wealth, the oldest form of kleptocratic behavior, was probably to be expected from this crowd, given its largely Wall Street pedigree.  In the case of the Trumpies, it seems to have manifested itself into an obsession with free airfare.  The exposure of this obsession began with the news that the Treasury Secretary wanted the U.S. taxpayers to pay for his honeymoon flights to and from Europe--allegedly because he needed "secure communications" for the trip.  Only after the request became public did it become known (largely through social media, of course) that the Treasury Secretary is not one of the government officials required to have a government plane for secure communications.  The request was then withdrawn.  But in the wake of this story came other reports of other misuse of taxpayer funds for flights by Cabinet members, ultimately leading to the resignation of the Health and Human Services Secretary (already in hot water due to the repeal-and-replace Obamacare fiasco).

Next, an example of how to steal accountability, from outside of Washington and in the Sunshine State of Florida, much of which was devastated by Hurricane Irma.  Turns out there isn't as much "sunshine" in the government as their should be, with this report of the deletion of unanswered emergency calls to the GOP governor regarding senior citizens trapped in a nursing home (a home, by the way, where 11 people died).

Back to the nation's capital now, and e-mails.  Ah, yes, e-mails.  Remember "Crooked Hillary's" private e-mail server?  The one that was supposed to get her locked up?  Well, the Trump White House has multiplied this crookedness, with Crooked Ivana, Crooked Jared, Crooked Steve, Crooked Reince, Crooked Stephen, and Crooked Gary.  All at the expense of fairness not only to Hillary, but to all of us.  What is it, exactly, about a level playing field that these people hate so much?

Finally, there's the truth.  We require public officials to perform their duties under oath so that, among other things, truth (and faith) in government can be upheld.  In the case of the President, he (or, one day, she) takes an oath to ensure that the laws are being faithfully executed.  Donald Trump took that oath.  And lied doing it.  You can find the evidence for that in any number of places.  Or, you can just take his former DEA leader's word for it.

Donald Trump is not making America great again.  He's making Americans suckers again.  And, perhaps, doing even worse than that.  I'll refer you to my next post for more information on that.

Hugh Hefner, Gone And Best Forgotten

I have no doubt that there are many men, and not very many women, who were saddened by the news of Hugh Hefner's death.  The men in question are, however, almost all adolescents either in age or spirit, unless they somehow shared in the financial wealth that Playboy magazine and its various cultural offshoots provided.  I was, however, a bit more surprised by the tributes to him in mainstream media, praising him as an avatar of the sexual revolution and/or as a shrewd businessman who caught the waive of a changing set of American mores and rode it all the way to a business empire that many men would envy, whether or not they indulged in the fantasy life Hefner promoted.

Fantasy.  In hindsight, that's probably the nicest thing that can be said about it.  I am of the opinion that magazines like Playboy, and their smuttier counterparts, are far from being the gateway to a more fulfilling sex life.  For far too many men, they are not a gateway at all.  They are a dead end, a one-way ticket to a life of onanism that traps them physically and emotionally, and ends up being a barrier to meaningful sex--not only for the men in question, but for the women that could be their partners.  The odds of paring off for women are statistically daunting as it is; rubbish like Playboy makes those odds worse, by training men Pavlov-style to only appreciate women who are airbushed (digitalized, later) into a "perfection" that doesn't exist.

And, in any event, Playboy was and is less of a celebration of sex than it was one of youth.  Hefner claimed to be "liberating" women at the same time he was loosening up men's libidos.  There was just one catch: the women in question had to be no older than their early 20's.  After that, so far as Hefner was concerned, women shouldn't expect any sex in their lives at all, unless they somehow miraculously or surgically managed not to "age."  Hefner, of course, didn't hold himself or other men to that standard; the more skeletal he became as he aged, the more grotesque he seemed by surrounding himself with women who were first young enough to be his sister, then young enough to be his daughter, and finally young enough to be his granddaughter and even great-granddaughter.  Eventually, he needed phamacuetical help (both for him and his partners) to live up to the trap in which his "philosophy" had put him.

It is almost certainly not a coincidence that the peak of Hefner's cultural impact (and Playboy's sales) was in the 1960s, the peak period of boomer culture, the last decade in which Americans felt that they were always going to be young and rich forever.  Hefner, perhaps, felt that way too.  Had he really been the shrewdie he was supposed to have been, he would have seen the rising tide of even dirtier competition in his wake that would doom his position at the top of the skin heap, called it quits, and set up a foundation that would have truly pioneered free expression, without trying to commodify human beings for leering consumption.

In any event, given the exploration of sexaulity that was happening in other areas of the arts, Hefner gets far too much credit for liberating Americans from Puritanism, as worthy as that goal was.  The revolution would have happened without him; all Hefner did was sell ammunition to its two greatest detractors:  cultural conservatives and feminists.

That's way I'm inclined to think this is the fairest mainstream media assessment of the Playboy "legacy."  And why I think Hugh Hefner, now gone, is best forgotten.

Health Care: When Ideology Crashes Into Reality

As the latest repeal-and-replace-Obamacare fiasco on the part of congressional Republicans fades into the mists at the end of Barack Obama's last fiscal year, it's worth reflecting on the main reason why the GOP, with unified control of all three branches of the federal government, has repeatedly tried, and repeatedly failed, to repeal Obama's signature accomplishment.

It's a phenomenally simple one:  the false free-market ideology they have promoted for decades on this issue has come crashing into reality.  Two realities, actually.

The first reality is that the law, left to work in the manner that it is supposed to, actually works.  Despite repeated attempts by Congress in the last six years of Obama's administration to sabotage the functioning of the Affordable Care Act, more Americans now have health insurance than ever before.  And, contrary to conservative predictions, the health care exchanges, national and state, have largely functioned as planned. 

That latter accomplishment is being undermined by the Trump Administration, currently engaging in subtle (and not-so-subtle) efforts to undermine the exchanges in the hope that this will destroy the exchanges and make Democrats beg to negotiate with Trump on his terms.  At the risk of being obvious about this, Trump's strategy puts him in violation of his constitutional obligation to ensure the faithful execution of the laws, and provides sufficient grounds for impeachment proceedings.  That latter point, along with related ones, can and will be re-visited in a later post.

It's enough for now to note that most Americans have caught onto the fact that the ACA is a success.  This is why Republican representatives and senators are terrified at the thought of holding town meetings with their constituents, who have gradually accepted a significant expansion of the so-called "welfare state" into their lives.  In the process, they have come to accept the second reality to which I alluded earlier.

Very simply put, the go-it-alone approach to paying for health care doesn't work.

It may be enticing for some people to think that a health plan can be specifically designed for them, based on their very optimistic view of their short-term and long-term health prognosis.  But that's the terrible thing about illnesses and injuries:  they aren't trains that arrive at fixed stations on fixed timetables.  The randomness of life guarantees that they can, with no warning, affect anyone, anywhere, anytime.  Here is an example of a young man who learned this lesson the hard way.

This is why health insurance is not something that can be created and priced out like consumer goods.  They only way to calculate the cost of health insurance with any degree is to do so using the largest potential number of consumers.  And, whether insurance is public or private in nature, and whether the object is paying for medical care, or for the protection of other personal interests (homes, cars, earnings in case of death, and so forth), anyone with any experience in liability coverage will tell you that as the number of insured individuals goes up, the cost of ensuring each one of them goes down.  That is because the fixed costs of health care can be spread out over an increasing number of individuals.  And in what system do you have the maximum number of insured individuals?

That answer can also be simply put:  single-payer.

Single-payer systems are working, even now, all over the world to ensure that the citizens of the countries using these systems are guaranteed coverage for their health care needs.  Regardless of cost.  Regardless of ability to pay.  Regardless of the nature of the condition, or the circumstances under which it arose.  Everywhere but in the United States.

Well ... there are some exceptions there, too.  The U.S. does, in fact, have a single-payer system for the elderly, and the disabled.  It's called Medicare.  And, curiously enough, none of the GOP attempts to repeal the ACA have even attempted to touch it.  They know what the rest of us know:  Medicare is a form of single-payer that, like all other forms of single-payer, works.

As does the other system we have that is close to being single-payer, for the poor:  Medicaid.  In every state where the ACA's expansion of Medicaid was adopted, whether by a Democrat or a Republican government, it has proved to be enormously popular.

Is that why, in trying to repeal the ACA, the GOP tried to bribe one senator by saying that her state could keep it?  Or why some conservatives were trying to include language in the last repeal-and-replace bill that would actually forbid states from establishing single-payer systems?  So much for states as the laboratories of democracy; it turns out that there are some experiments that the GOP doesn't think you should be allowed to try.  Even supposedly "reasonable" Republicans like Lindsey Graham have blatantly and unapologetically participated in this abuse of the legislative process--an abuse that threatens to pollute it entirely.

The free-market ideology of the Republican Party and the conservative movement generally has come crashing into the reality that single-payer coverage is the only form of health insurance that works.  It doesn't matter that it deepens government involvement; it gives the people what they want and need--the ability to choose health care providers and services without worry about the cost.  It's time for conservatives to get away from worshiping ideology and get back to what liberals and conservatives should be doing together:  serving the needs of the people.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Two American Heroines, Built For The Long Haul

If you live life in the right way, then death, however inevitable it may be, need not be seen as a defeat.  Those that follow in the footsteps you created will continue to lead others in the right direction.

That's the case with two women I definitely regard as heroines of mine, and I think that all of us should treat them that way:  Edie Windsor, and Joyce Matz.  They were heroines on behalf of very different causes:  marriage equality, and historic preservation.  For the record, and for whatever else it's worth otherwise, I'm a proponent of both.  But, even if you're not a proponent of either, I still think that there are lessons that you and I--indeed, all of us--can learn from the lives these two amazing women lived.

It's probably fair to say that, of the two of them, Edie had what might have seemed like the more hopeless of the two causes.  As recently as the 2004 presidential election, marriage equality appeared to be an issue that favored the side of those who opposed it, perhaps for generations to come.  That thought was heartbreaking to many, as it should have been.  But none of this stopped Edie.  Not even the death of Thea Spyer, her spouse, and the health problems she faced in mourning her death, could stop her from fighting for legal recognition of the life and love that the two of them shared.  A fight that she and her attorneys won, against greater odds than I can calculate. And, though it was certainly a victory for LGBT rights in general, it was, as all such victories are, a victory for all of us.  Every time our society expands the reach of freedom and fairness for some, it ultimately does so for all of us.

Historic preservation is perhaps not as politically challenging a goal as marriage equality.  Who's against history, you might ask?  Well, real estate developers, among others.  Especially in New York, the city that got its start with what is still perhaps the biggest real estate swindle in history.  New York is a city that, even now, is filled with history almost everywhere you look.  But none of that is an accident.  Indeed, it took the destruction of the old Pennsylvania Station, a loss everyone now laments but was not lamented enough at the time it happened, to get people to understand that history is a gift that has to be consciously cherished in order for it to endure.  Like Edie, Joyce did not face an easy road.  But that never stopped her from walking it.  As the Times article points out, she walked it right up to the end, even though she needed a walker to do it.

Edie and Joyce's lives, individually and together, tell us that life's greatest accomplishments belong to those who do not chose easy paths, and who do not abandon them no matter how difficult those paths get.  And, if they walk far enough down those paths, they help to point the way for the rest of us.

Guns, Global Warming, And Growth

Speaking, as I was just a post ago, about rage ...

I feel that I can do little more than cry and be angry when I read a story like this one (note:  you may need a Washington Post subscription to read it).  We don't seem to care at all about gun violence, a problem that can and should be addressed by better public policy at all levels of government, even when a child is accidentally shot (or, in this case, accidentally shoots themselves) thanks to the careless, utter stupidity of the gun's adult owner.

We worship guns in the same mindless way that we worship the flag and money.  We worship things because, fundamentally, we don't have enough self-respect to see these things as little more than inferior means to a hopefully better end.  We view ourselves not as a people capable of self-governance, but as a pack of animals who values being stronger than all the other animals, which is why we are drawn to worship tools of power than than wisely contemplate their use.  Power, not reason, is the "living" G-d of 21st century America.

It's bad enough that, when Hurricane Irma approached Florida, some lunatic took to the Internet and encouraged people to "shoot the storm" out of "stress and boredom," which ultimately created a social media craze encouraging people to do just that, as a way of repelling the invading storm.  No, I am not kidding; I wish with all my heart that I were, believe me.  But here it is.

Hurricane Irma, and the ones that have followed it (like Jose, Katia, and Maria, and, of course, Harvey before it), like gun violence, are topics that are important to me, but also topics about which I almost feel "written out."  The solutions seem so blindingly obvious.  And yet, so many of us go out of our way to blind ourselves to them.

Climate change, to paraphrase Carl Sagan on the subject of evolution, is not a theory, but a fact. You don't have to be in a coastal state to experience it.  Anywhere there are forests in North America, you can see it happening.  Take a look.  Take still another.  And, all the while, our focus on consumption is costing us our most basic resources, even sand.

I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that they only way to turn this around is to make the case for linking the environment to economic growth.  You can't have an economy without an environment, as I have said many times before.  It's just that simple.  The key for Democrats and other progressives to get everyone else on board with this line of thinking is to stress the possibilities (including job-related possibilities) of building sustainable, renewable economies.  Use rhetorical carrots, instead of sticks.

As for gun violence, I've run out of ideas for turning things around.  But I'm open to suggestions. Send me some, if you think of any.  It's too late for the Florida girl and her family.  Hopefully, it many not be too late for others.

The Real Danger We Face (Or, What I Learned From Mark Levin)

It's difficult to do so--in fact, at times, it's a little nauseating--but I'm a big believer in keeping tabs on what the right-wing is thinking and feeling, as well as doing, if for no other reason than my subscription to the old cliche that forwarned is forarmed.  Even so, once in a long while, doing so allows you to learn something that is actually useful.  And that happened to me this past week, as I was driving home from a document production project I'm currenly working on in Virginia.

On these drives, I set my radio for FM stations, and then set it to scan.  If I find something I want to listen to, be it music or politics, I'll stop the scan and do so for a while.  Usually, I'll stop it for music. But, as it turns out, "The Mark Levin Show" is on WMAL during the times I'm usually on the road, and, sometimes, I'll steel my stomach to stop and listen.  With Levin, if you have any sanity at all, steeling your stomach is a requirement for listening to his show.  He's a former low-level bureaucrat in the Reagan Adminstration who's managed to take that minor credential, combine it with the most irritating vocal intonation in the world, and become a low-level success on the right-wing screaming circuit.

But, as I said at the top, you can sometimes learn lessons even from people like Levin.  And this past week, I did so.  Or, rather, a lesson I had already learned to some extent was reinforced.

Levin had a caller, obviously a Trump man through and through, who was going off on North Korea and its recent provocative displays of military force (provocations that are working, by the way, because they are getting Donald Trump to say and do what Kim Jong-un wants him to say and do). The caller, being a Trump man, was all but parrotting Trump own "fire and fury" words about North Korea, arguing for a surgical use of military power that would take out all of the country's military installations without hurting any of its people.

When you listen to someone like this, especially if you've been in combat (I have not, but have known many people who have), you know right away that you are listing to someone who (a) has never been in combat, perhaps never in uniform, for that matter, and (b) processes all incoming information at the level of an action movie.  Wars are not surgical, not even in the operating rooms, a the TV series "M*A*S*H" taught us.  It is chaotic, dangerous, bloody, and utterlly unfair in every possible way.  Nevertheless, knowing what I knew about Levin's cartoon-version of the world, I expected him to largely agree with the caller.

Only he didn't.

Instead, he took great pains to talk the caller down from his rhetorical heights of fury.  He himself made the point that I just made about the unprecise nature of combat.  He even added a point that I did not expect to come from someone with a Reagan background:  the fact that the U.S. had previously fought a war in Korea against Communist forces, and came away, at great human and financial cost, with little more than a political tie, one that has persisted (also at great cost) for more than 60 years.  Beyond that, Levin made the argument for the use of non-military means, e.g., embargoes and diplomacy, in conjunction with the international community, as away of backing North Korea down from the nuclear brink toward which it was pushing the world.

I could scarcely believe what I was hearing.  Was he switching sides?  Had John Kerry, or Michael Moore, found a way of invading his brain?  What was going on?

And then, a few days later, I heard Levin heap praise on Trump's bellicose U.N. speech, a speech which could just have easily been given by the caller he had previously taken to task for his bellicosity.  Now I was really confused.

But then, I got it.

Levin liked the speech not because he agreed with Trump's approach to North Korea.  He liked it, purely and simply, because it was a finger in the eye of the U.N., an institution he despises (even though he might grudgingly admit a need for it) because it promotes progressive thinking and ideals, and therefore the interests of liberals.

Levin, like his fellow travellers in the vast right-wing conspiracy, hate liberals.  They hate liberals more than they love conservatives, or even conservatism itself.  They hate liberals even more than they hate liberalism itself; Levin's willingness to argue a liberal position to a conservative caller reflects all of this.  In fact, personal hatred of liberals is the only glue that now holds them together. And it is the only thing they like about Trump; he made liberal cry, and that' enough for them, even if he pushes the world to the brink of war in the process.

This reflects, in one sense, the ultimate collapsed of 1950s-style movement conservatism as a governing philosophy.  But it also reflects the extent to which the movement that supported it is now a movement completely corrupted by hatred.  And hatred, as I have said before, is not a philosophy, a policy or a program.  It's just hatred.  And it destroys everything it touches.

That's the real danger we face today.  So thanks, Mr. Levin, for helping to point it out.  And may you and your colleagues get over your hatred in the New Year, before it destroys us all.  Shannah Tovah .

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Case For Self-Defense

Not very long ago, I wrote a post about antifa, the "anti-fascist" demi-organization that opposed the white nationalists in Charlottesville, and used its activities there to make the case for self-defense against the wave of racist violence that Donald Trump's Presidency has helped unleash across the country.  As I pointed out at the time, I am not an advocate of antifa.  Like most people, I know too little about it to make any kind of case for or against it.  I did note, and do note again, that they are not the ones creating the casualties in this country right now.  In the case of Charlottesville, it is at least theoretically possible that they may have saved some lives.  And that's the point I wish to focus on in making the case for self-defense once again.

Let's start by talking specifically about events in Charlottesville for a little bit.

The right-wing media have attempted to portray the white nationalists in the city on that day as people who were just upset at what they perceived to be the "political correctness" of removing public monuments to the Confederacy.  In this narrative, they were engaged in legitimate protest, and had no intention of offending the rights of others.

But nothing could be further from the truth.  They weren't there to protest.  They were there to intimidate anyone who wasn't white and male.  Especially Jews.  Take a look.

And what if this type of threat wasn't just limited to one day in Charlottesville?

What if Trump, facing serious legal trouble, and having already shown a willingness to use the Second Amendment as bait to stir up a well-armed crowd, calls upon the member of that crowd to act as his last line of defense when everyone else, even the Republican establishment, has turned against him?  Sound far-fetched?  Well, all I can tell you is that I'm not the first one to raise this concern.

I hate raising such a concern, just as much as I hate violence.  I'm tired of discussing it.  But I'm unbelievably tired of the need to discuss it because, seemingly, every day brings the name of another victim of right-wing anger that seems to find no other outlet.  Violence is now a predictable part of our political lives.  Our lives, period.  I for one can't be a pacifist in the face of that violence.  Not knowing that that pacifism will only be likely to lead to more violence.

And then I see a story like this one, and am forced to wonder:  who should I be more afraid of, the side that's armed, or the side that put itself at risk to help others?

I'm not afraid to defend myself.  And you shouldn't be, either.

When A Police Officer Comes Out Of The Closet

The one full of racial skeletons, that is.  Or, perhaps you missed hearing or reading about this.

It's hard to know which aspect of this is worse:  the fact that the officer in question will not be disciplined in any way for his unbelievably egregious behavior, or the fact that both he and his superior officer attempted to treat that behavior as an attempt to "de-escalate" the situation. Beyond the fact that there was no evidence in this case that the situation was one that required some degree of "de-escalation," there's a more blindingly obvious question:  in what universe do you use racial "humor" to calm things down?

One is forced to wonder how this would have been handled if a black officer had made some attempt at racial humor in stopping a white driver.  Or, for that matter, if the same officer had said something similarly offensive to a black motorist.  Of course, in that latter example, the officer would clearly have been more inclined to draw his gun rather than try to "de-escalate" the situation in any way at all.  For that matter, not only would he have been inclined to draw his gun, but to use it--even without any attempt of the part of the motorist to "escalate" the situation.

This is obviously an indictment of the Cobb County police.  But it's also an indictment of Cobb County, and who know how many other cities and counties throughout the country, as well as their local police departments.  Who really knows how prevalent the mindset of the offending officer is among the members of those departments?

Actually, there's a pretty easy way to answer that question.  Just ask any African-American, anywhere in the country.

You'll find out very quickly that any African-American has either, personally or through family or friends, experienced some degree of police harassment.  They have been made to feel guilty of the crime of being black in America, even though they are part of the only ethnic group in this country that is not here as a matter of choice.  The history of slave-owning and slave-hunting segued into the history of discriminatory policing without missing a beat--or a beating.

And the police, just as in the Cobb County case, are never truly held accountable.  They are always let off the hook, usually after a slap of the proverbial wrist.  Which leads to more distrust.  More unnecessary violence.  More victims.  And a cycle that never, ever seems to end.

The Cobb County officer at least did us a small favor.  He broke the blue wall of silence.  One can only hope and pray that it will ultimately do us all some good.

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?