Monday, June 26, 2017

The Overlooked Benefits Of The Draft

The Op-Ed pages of the New York Times never fail to yield something that provokes my thinking in a positive way (and, of course, much of that ends up here in this blog).  Here is a very recent example.

I did not turn 18 until 1974, a point at which the American involvement in the Vietnam conflict was winding down.  But I vividly remember going with my mother to register for Selective Service (i.e., the draft), and, while signing in, seeing the signatures and information of some of my high-school classmates.  I found myself wondering what it would be like to actually be drafted, to serve in uniform, to put myself in harm's way.  At the time, I'm forced to admit it was not an appealing concept.

Having read the Times' piece, however and, otherwise in retrospect, I'm forced to agree that the author is 100% correct.  Mandatory service, whether in combat or in other forms, is a great leveller of Americans from all backgrounds, and perhaps serves as a way of tempering the political desire to use combat as a way of scoring electoral points.  I'm also forced to agree that reinstating mandatory service is probably a political non-starter.  A shame.  It might provide a number of not-so-obvious benefits, such as reducing the general level of friction among Americans with different viewpoints, and helping young people searching for a personal and professional identity to find one.

At the risk of grinding my professional ax, and that of my wife, I'd also like to point out one other overlooked benefit of mandatory service:  the opportunity to travel, to learn about other cultures and to share those cultural experiences domestically.  Once upon a time, we were at war with the Vietnamese people; now, many of them are here, working in a variety of roles to claim a share of the American dream.

As the long-term outcome of a war that painfully divided this country, and many of its families in particular, there is a measure of solace in the Vietnamese presence in America today. Our way of life is a lot stronger than we think.  This is why, for my wife and me, the current state of the immigration debate in this country is a tragedy and a disaster.  If war does nothing else in a positive sense, it does teach us that there is more to humanity than ourselves.

Even if reinstating mandatory service is a non-starter at this point, it would be a worthy goal for an ambitious leader, or perhaps a new generation willing to reinstate in this country a sense of common purpose, of obligation to one another and to the rest of the world.  I don't look forward to that happening while Trump is in office.  But, maybe, one day ...

Stabbing On Stage--Violence Or Justice? Depends On Who's The Victim

The shootings in Alexandria two weeks ago, the subject of my previous post, unleashed (as I noted) a wave of fake news by the right-wing press about left-wing violence.  As I also noted, the Alexandria tragedy is, thus far (knock on wood) an isolated cased, in contrast to the waive of shootings by white males of young, mostly male, mostly African-American over the past eight years. And, by the way, does anyone doubt for a second that every one of those young African-American men was, effectively, a surrogate for Barack Obama?  That's what so-called "stand-your-ground" laws are really all about; standing one's very white ground against the progress of the oppressed.

But never underestimate the paranoia of the American right, or its talent for self-publicity, no matter how hypocritically or stupidly executed.  This summer's Public Theater productions of Shakespeare in Central Park included a recently-ended production of "Julius Caesar" done in modern dress, with Caesar and Calphurnia made up to look like the Trumps.  This led the conservative noise machine denouncing the Public Theater for encouraging violence against the First Family and conservatives in general, and even to an incident in which people attempting to peacefully watch the production almost had their night ruined by a pair of Internet trolls looking for their 15 minutes of fame.

Why all of this?  Well [spoiler alert], Caesar is of course assassinated in the play.  But anyone who has even seen or read the play knows that its point is not the endorsement or glorification of assassination, but the exact opposite.  Conservatives used to revel in their knowledge of the classics; now they revel in their utter ignorance of them, as in the case of the trolls.  Corporate sponsors, unfortunately, are not much better; two of them withdrew their support for the production after the "controversy" surfaced.  It's not much more encouraging to know that the captains of what's left of American industry don't know how to read, either.

But perhaps the richest irony in all of this is the fact that, not too long ago, a modern-dress production of the same play was done with a Barack Obama stand-in as Caesar.  Not only was their no right-wing outrage over this, but one of the corporate sponsors of that production was one of the ones that withdrew their support from the Public Theater production.  Not to name names, but it'll be a very cold day in July before I fly on Delta Air Lines again.

Once again, it's OK if you're a Republican, and you're the oppressor, not the oppressed.  Never forget that.  They sure as hell don't.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Like It Or Not (And I Hate It), The Battle Has Been Joined

I have warned many times in this space that we as a people have for some time been headed to a state of civil war.  In fact, I suggested in a recent post based on election-related events in Montana that this war had already started.

Well, it takes a minimum of two opponents to make a shooting war.  And eleven days ago, on a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, the other side finally shot back, as a deranged gunman who had supported Bernie Sanders opened fire on members of Congress and others as they were practicing for a charity baseball event.  The gunman lost his life; his would-be victims were more fortunate in that all of them survived, thanks in no small part to the heroic efforts of Capitol Police who were on the scene because Rep. Steve Scalise, one of four who were injured, is part of the House of Representatives leadership.  Fortunately, Scalise's condition has been upgraded over the past eleven days from critical to serious to fair.  I pray that he and the others will fully recover, as many of us already have prayed.

But, even if they do recover, it still leaves us with the fact that, after a long string of violent incidents and threats by those on the right against those they thought of as easy targets on the left ("snowflakes," I believe, being the epithet of choice), it appears that the days of easy targets are over.

Make no mistake.  If there is one person out there like the Alexandria shooter, in a nation of 300-plus people (and at least one gun for every one of them), there are many, many more.  And they will not be deterred by the prospect of death.  Desperation will do that to people.  If an incident like this is any indication, I fear that we many not have to wait very long for the next Alexandria.  I do not stand along in thinking this way; John (son of Norman) Podhoretz, no one's idea of a bleeding-heart liberal, recently made much the same point I have made about the level of division in America.

Let me be as unambiguous about where I stand on all of this as possible.

I do not condone violence.  I do not advocate violence.  I cherish our democratic ideals and institutions, and I pray that they will continue to serve the nation and the world for many, many centuries to come.

But ideals and institutions are only as strong as the commitment that they receive from the people--from all of the people.  It has, however, been obvious to me for decades that one side of our political divide lives by those ideals, while the other is content to pay them lip-service.  Lip-service that has disguised the libel, the threats, the behind-the-scenes manipulation, the outright bribery, and the damnable lies for which, in the name of the Republic for which all of us should stand, they and they alone are solely responsible.

For years, the practical aspects of the relationship between Democrats and Republicans have best been summed up by many through the running gag in the comic strip "Peanuts" in which Lucy holds a football for Charlie Brown to kick, but pulls it away just as he is about to kick it, causing him to slip, fall, and feel foolish.  Over and over again.

We saw this happen once again, sadly, in the aftermath of the Alexandria shooting.  While Paul Ryan attempted to take a bipartisan tone of congressional unity and support for the victims, and Donald Trump was once again using someone else's tragedy to call attention to his foolish self, Democrats once again issued calls for unity and bipartisanship, taking yet another run at that fickle football.

And, unsurprisingly, it got pulled away from them again.

It got pulled away by the anonymous phone calls to congressional Democrats, threatening them with thinly-veiled promises of violence

It got pulled away by the Georgia Republican Party, which bragged about how the shooting would help them win a special congressional election in Georgia.  (Sadly, they were right).

It got pulled away by the return of Hillary-hatred, pumped up to the level that Trump pumped it up during the campaign (when he suggested a "Second Amendment" outcome for the election).

It got pulled away by ridiculous suggestions that the shooting reflected some kind of epidemic of leftist violence.

Really?

Oh, to be sure, there's been an epidemic, all right.  But one would be hard-pressed to honestly call it "leftist" violence.  More like "rightist" violence--or, to truly put cards on the table, racist violence.

Think, for a moment, about the dozens of victims of gun violence during the Obama years.  What did many of them have in common?  Did someone say "African-American"?  Well, that would be me, because, if the other side was equally honest, they would use a less-attractive phrase.

I sum it all up in a single name:  Philando Castle, gunned down by a police officer while he was peacefully and lawfully sitting in his car committing the unpardonable crime of being a black man with a lawful firearm.  If the word "black" could honestly be removed from that sentence, the NRA would be (no pun intended) up in arms over his fate.  The fact that they are not speaks volumes about the real motives of the NRA and their fellow-travellers.  The fact that the National Review (again, no commie-pinkos here) denounced the shooting speaks volumes about how much Castle's tragic death undermines the entire conservative position on guns.

But it won't stop conservatives from pandering to gun-toting voters.  I'm reminded by this fact of a quote by Lenin, to the effect that if the Communists announced a plan by which they would hang all capitalists, the capitalists would trip over each other to sell the rope.

And thus, we have one of the targeted members of Congress advocating already for yet-looser gun laws.  We also have another one who voted against background checks wanting to know more about the background of the Alexandria shooter (you might have known, you fool, if you hadn't cast that stupid vote).  We have yet another one denouncing DC gun laws while simultaneously admitting that the threat of guns is the reason that Republicans aren't holding town halls during congressional recesses.  And, of course, we have one of my personal favorites, Senator Rand (named after Ayn) Paul neglecting to take off of Twitter a seemingly embarrassing-in-light-of-recent events quote.

Or did he neglect it?  Maybe the threatened loss of gun voters outweighed the embarrassment.

Perhaps the most honest comment from a congressional Republican is this one.  Yes, it's no longer safe to chase the gun vote.  Like it or not, and I take a back seat to no one in hating it, the battle has been joined.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Handel To Workers: Drop Dead

OK, not a particularly original headline.  If you don't know already, I stole it from the New York Daily News, who its original version of it to savage then-President Ford for promising to veto any legislation that would bail out then-cash-strapped New York City.  Still it's hard to know how else to react to the moment in the recent debate between the candidates in the special election for Georgia's 6th Congressional District when Karen Handel, the Republican candidate, decided to put her foot in her mouth in a major and irreparable way.

How?  In response to a moderator's question about whether the candidates supported an increase in the minimum wage, Ossoff offered a measure of qualified support for it, but Handel offered something else:  "I do not support a livable wage."  As if that weren't bad enough, she made it clear that she felt it was more important for government to enable businesses to maximize their incomes than it was for government to require that they share a certain amount of that income with their employees, who are the real maximizers of the incomes of their business and (in their roles as consumers) the incomes of other businesses.

Wow.

I'm not surprised that she feels this way.  I know for a fact that most, if not all, Republicans feel that way.  I'm surprised by her candor, although I think that it's such an inherently un-politic thing to say that I don't think the statement was birthed by a desire to be candid.  Rather, I think it's a reflection of her inexperience in politics.  Seriously, who comes out and says that they are not going to support a level of wages that would allow people to live?  Who believes anymore that business people have any reason to avoid paying the lowest possible wages they can get away with, absence some form of government coercion?

Not the majority of the American people, that's for damn sure.  And not the Democratic Party. Which is something to remember, the next time someone tries to tell you that there's no difference between the two major political parties.  There is a difference.  An enormous difference.  It is, quite literally, the difference between life and death.

So get off your you-know-whats and VOTE NEXT TIME for the party that cares about whether your wages keep you alive or not!  Especially if you're in the 6th Congressional District in Georgia on June 20.  Go Ossoff!  May the voters tell Handel to "drop dead."

The (Expletive Deleted) Narcissism Of Donald Trump

In my last post for May, I noted that I was writing on Memorial Day weekend, and mentioned the fact that I have three family members--my uncle, my cousin, and my father-in-law--who all served our country in uniform.  My uncle, in particular, stands out in my mind, even though I never knew him. He was a successful athlete and scholar in high school, but was drafted, shipped out to Europe and killed in action during the Battle of the Bulge.  My father-in-law also served in Europe, on D-Day and in the Battle of the Bulge.  He came back, and lived to the age of 90 with two broken vertebrae broken in combat.  He never complained, and always told me (and others) that he wasn't a hero, that the real heroes were the ones that didn't come back.  And my cousin served in Vietnam; although he came back, he ultimately died from cancer he likely developed through exposure to Agent Orange.

I take issue with my father-in-law's assessment.  They're all heroes.  They put their lives on the line for all of us.  They all had to make varying degrees of compromise with life as a result.  I know the pain that leaves behind; for my mother and aunt, the loss of my uncle in World War II was a life-defining experience.  I think all of us need to find ways to make the dreams of those who didn't get to pursue them come true, however we can do that.

Which is why I find the self-absorption of our current pathetic excuse for a Commander-in-Chief beyond belief and beneath contempt.  For his first D-Day in the Oval Office, he went on Twitter not to commemorate the fallen and the sacrifices made by their families, but to vent his various and largely imaginary grievances at the media, the part of our society that put his miserable life on the map in the first place.  It's all here.

With this insult to those members of our society who should have respect above anyone else, on top of the muddled, likely criminal mess that he's made out of his Administration, Trump should no longer be given any benefit of the doubt.  He has no true constituency--only 46% of the voting public who would vote a turnip into office if it had an "R" after it's name on the ballot.  That, and a lot of sad, desperate people who were willing to believe his promises just because they sounded so go.

Donald Trump's entire history has been a study in epic self-absorption.  He doesn't care, and never will care, about anything and/or anyone except Donald Trump.  He is a menace to all of us, even to his supporters.  He would just as soon blow the world up, if he could somehow convince himself that the survivors (if any) would serve him with unquestioned loyalty.

The fallen spit on you, Donald Trump.  And so do I.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Politics Is Now Generational AND Financial, Not Local

All politics is local, according to Tip O'Neill.  Well, perhaps not, in a globalized world.  Perhaps there are other benchmarks we can and should use.  Especially if by "we," we men (as I do) progressives.

Less than 48 hours ago, the British political system received the second of two major shocks in less than a year.  The voter approval of Brexit, the departure of Great Britain from the European Union, has now been followed by not simply the loss of a Conservative majority in Parliament, but an absence of a majority by any one party to replace it.  I'm prone to push against exaggeration, and yet I can't think of a point in my lifetime at which British politics has seemed so muddled.  Despite that, I think that it's possible to look at the muddle and find some signs of the future's likely direction.

Apart from the Tory loss of its parliamentary majority, the most notable feature of this election is the increase in the number of MPs elected from the Labour Party, which has shared a kind of political duopoly with the Conservatives for much of the past 70 years.  Labour is far from a majority, and could not form a government even with the help of its two likeliest coalition partners, the Scottish Nationalists and the Liberal Democrats.  But the party nevertheless enjoyed a major surge in support through this election, and it did so in spite of the fact that its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has long been regarded as a pariah by the political/economic establishment in Britain.

How did Corbyn and his party pull this off?  How,  in particular, did they manage to do so despite the fact that the weeks leading up to the election included two major terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, attacks that in theory should have played to the Conservatives' perceived advantage on law-and-order issues?

Corbyn did this in part by a response to the attacks that was as overdue on substance as it was direct in style.  He did so by connecting the dots between terrorist attacks at home and the Conservatives' foreign policy abroad, although (IMHO) he could have gone much farther by connecting the dots between that policy and the Western dependence on oil-producing, terrorist-financing nations. That, however, will have to be a subject for a future post (and it may well be).

But, mainly, he did by recognizing what was happening to the generation that will inherit nearly four decades of conservative economic policies (yes, Tony Blair, I'm including you).  That generation is broke, with many debts and few prospects.  And its members are angry at a system that they feel is rigged against them.  That anger was palpable even in their culture; now, it has been translated into votes.

Could the Democrats do something similar here, in 2018?  Or, perhaps, even sooner, since there are special elections for Congress and gubernatorial elections to be held in 2017?  There's nothing that's standing in their way--except, perhaps, their addiction to Wall Street money.

Despite the success of Howard Dean, Barack Obama, and Bernie Sanders in relying on individual donations to help build national campaigns, Democrats have not yet shown any significant willingness to abandon their corporate donor base.  That played a major role in last fall's disaster. Hillary Clinton and her campaign staff thought that they could successfully run for the White House on the strength of identity politics.  They overlooked the fact that Obama won two terms in it based not on his personal demographics (which he actually soft-pedaled), but as an apparent advocate of progressive policies.  The fact that he was not as strong an advocate of those policies as he appeared to be played a large role in the midterm losses during his Presidency, as well as last year's rise of Bernie and fall of Hillary.

In the process, it may have helped to feed the rise of Donald Trump; voters that were looking for the kinds of policies Democrats used to offer routinely, and thought they found them by listening to the self-absorbed ramblings of a New York real estate developer.  The proper way to view that is as an act of desperation, based on a despair that Democrats have inadvertently fed by running away from their natural base toward a political "center" that has largely disappeared.  European history has lessons for American politicians on the dangers of doing this; Trump is proving to be perhaps our first such lesson.

Frankly, Democrats don't need money nearly as much as they need voters.  Badly.  And not all economically-stressed voters are voting for Trump.  Many of them are just staying home, with the majority of Trump's voters coming from higher-income brackets--exactly the people most likely to vote Republican anyway.

The young and the poor:  those are the demographic benchmarks the Democrats should use to strengthen their voting base and start winning elections again, especially given the now-historic overlap between the two groups.  The British election proved it; now it is up to the Democrats to learn it and act on it.  Perhaps they already have:  take a look.  And another one.

The Democrats' future lies in the economic populism of the past, not the middle-of-the-road corporatism of the 1990s.  The country's future--especially its young people's future--lies there as well, not in the pseudo-populist white nationalism of Donald Trump and the we'll-do-anything-for-power Republicans.  Let's hope the Democrats learn all of this in time to save the nation, as well as the rest of the world.