Sunday, July 18, 2021

The War Against Vaccines Is A War Against Science

What is wrong with us?

Once, when we faced a menacing illness like polio, we went to war against it.  We developed a vaccine.  We organized a massive public health campaign, including public information programs and vaccine distribution programs.  For boomers, getting your polio vaccine in a sugar cube is a cherished childhood memory; we actually looked forward to getting it.  The consequence?  Polio is virtually non-existent in the U.S..  And no one should mourn its absence.  It is a terrible illness that condemns those who contract it to a lifetime of physical pain and personal limitations, both of which can be unbearable, and in some cases it can even be fatal.  I have a degree of personal experience with this; one of my very best theater friends contracted polio as a child and, despite the physical hell that he endured, he managed to have a life, including a life in the performing arts.  And yet I am sure that he always wondered what his life might have been like without it.

The COVID-19 virus, like the polio virus, can have terrible consequences for those who contract it.  Like the polio virus, it can lead to either disability or death.  It can spread across a population rapidly, with little or no warning.  It is a threat to the human race, and certainly to the ability of humans to live in and enjoy the fruits of what we call civilization.  Amazingly, in record time, medical science has developed a series of vaccines that have been statistically shown to prevent humans from being seriously infected.  In fact, as President Biden said this past week, the only pandemic that we have at this point is among the unvaccinated.  True, getting "jabbed" twice isn't as much fun as swallowing a sugar cube.  On the other hand, it involves a lot less suffering than being hooked up to an ventilator and dying even with medical personnel fighting for your life.

If the man whose tragic death led to this story in the Kansas City Star could still talk, it's painfully clear that this is the message he would want every unvaccinated person to heed.  Reading the article makes it painfully clear that this is the message that those who tried to save his life would want every unvaccinated person to heed.  They would want you to know that the people who are spreading toxic lies about both the virus and the vaccine don't care about personal choice, or personal health, or anything other than their personal power and wealth.  They would want you to know that getting vaccinated is the best choice to make when it comes to not only saving your own life, but also the lives of those around you, including and especially the people you care about the most.

But that's the problem.  The lies and the liars who spread them are winning.  And, as a result, the virus is winning.  And, as a result of that, thousands of people are needlessly getting infected--and dying.

I will be on Medicare at the beginning of next month.  I have spent the lion's share of my adult life, beginning with the misbegotten birth of the so-called "Reagan Revolution," watching the slow-motion destruction of our national identity as a free and unified people systematically turned into an us-versus-them horrors show by people who understand that it's easier to make money off of creating and manipulating chaos than it is off of creating value.  I have been optimistic at various times that we were coming to our senses, and getting back to the consensus-oriented politics that allowed us to create and support programs like Medicare in the first place.  Now, I find myself grateful for getting in under the wire, before the politics of chaos managed to destroy it.  They may yet succeed in doing it, but it now seems less likely to hurt me.  Then again, who knows?

In any case, throughout all of this time, and long before the pandemic hit, I would have bet real money that a public health crisis would have been the one thing guaranteed to snap us out of our national sleepwalk towards the precipice and remind us that those who gave us our system of government believed in the concept of the common good, and expected us to use their creation to advance it.  Public health is one of the oldest, and most basic, of all public responsibilities.  One cannot expect a society, and certainly not a nation, to long endure if those who belong to it are systemically dying.

And no one should make any mistake:  the resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine is as systemic as anything can possibly be.  Erin Burnett of CNN is no one's idea of a knee-jerk liberal, but even she is (as she and all of us should be) outraged by the systemic nonsense and deceit that conservative politicians and media outlets are spreading about both the vaccine and the efforts to increase the number of vaccinated Americans.  Burnett uses a somewhat saltier term to describe this effort than "nonsense" or "deceit" but, given the grotesque nature of the phenomenon in question, I think she should be forgiven.  And one thing's for sure:  she's not wrong.

Nor should anyone pretend that this resistance is based on some sort of non-partisan, principled stance.  It's based on a belief that not getting vaccinated, and discouraging others from doing so, constitutes some sort of political victory, that somehow the "libs" will be successfully owned by the willingness of the Trump troops to spend the last moments of their lives on a ventilator that's effectively being denied to someone who is sick (whether with COVID or not) to a person whose hospitalization is not a glorious libertarian act of "choice."  Doubt me?  Take a look at this, and then tell me if you still doubt me.  Let me be clear:  any COVID death is a tragedy, but I think it's important to recognize that the choice one makes about being vaccinated is a choice that impacts, often fatally, the ability of others to make their own choices.

Are you comfortable with doing that?  Especially if the "others" are children, whether your own or someone else's?  Well, if you're not, I recommend not going to Tennessee, where the effort to own the libs has now extended to willingly exposing the lives of children to a virus that may stop them from fulfilling their own dreams and choices.  Yep, anything to own those libs.  What they're doing in Tennessee is as systemic as systemic can be; the state has even gone so far as to fire its vaccine manager, which will no doubt make it much harder for anyone in the Volunteer State to make a choice in favor of getting the vaccine.  As it turns out, in Tennessee, the only thing you can really volunteer when it comes to COVID is suicide.  All "choices" are not created equal.

And yet, for the vaccine deniers, "choice" is little more than an exercise in rhetoric.  This is demonstrated by their appropriation of pro-choice rhetoric from the abortion rights movement to justify their willingness to spread a fatal disease.  A woman's pregnancy isn't a threat to the lives of those around her; a person who has made a "choice" to get infected and become a potential superspreader is.  I shouldn't be surprised by the hypocrisy on display in the process of the deniers' willingness to steal the "my body, my choice" language of those who care more about public health than they do.  Hypocrisy is a run-of-the-mill feature of conservative politics.

So, to borrow a bit of therapy-speak, what's really bothering these people?  If this is not really about the principle of "choice," what is it really about?

I think that we actually get a bit closer to the truth of the matter when we get to the most outrageous expression of anti-vaccination sentiment.  I'm talking about the Newsmax commentator who made the case recently that vaccines are against the natural order of things, that there is some sort of moral superiority in simply letting nature take its course, even if taking its course means the needless deaths of literally millions of people.  Again, don't take my word for it; you can read all about it here.  As you can see, this assertion was egregious enough that even Newsmax, a right-wing outlet that makes Fox News seem tame, felt obliged to walk it back.  Then again, consider the fact that one of its employees felt comfortable about making it in the first place.  Call this what it is:  a reflection of the true nature of the anti-vaccination ideology--a revolt against science.

Does that seem surprising to you?  Look at it this way.  For well over a century, perhaps closer to two centuries, science has enabled us to create a level of civilization and material comfort that, in earlier ages, would have been dismissed as the wildest of fantasies.  The downside to that, however--the inevitable one, perhaps, given the pendulum-swinging nature of popular opinion--is that science defines our existence to a degree that geologies have proposed calling the present epoch the Anthropocene, given the extent to which humanity has acquired dominion over all aspects of not only human living, but the planet itself.  And that makes science an easy target when things start to go wrong in the world around us.  

This is not even a particularly new phenomenon in this century; in the previous one, H.G. Wells both saw and understood this, and incorporated it into his cinematic vision of the coming 100 years, "Things to Come," by having a petty tyrant who gained power through a devastating world war object to a group of scientist who want to build a new world order.  "Science?" he asks, and then answers:  "It's the enemy of everything that's natural in life."

Taking into account the fundamentally anti-intellectual bent in American life, the emergence of a rebellion against science, and hence against vaccines, shouldn't be all that surprising.  Many Americans have a congenital fear of people with brains and education, seeing them as comprising a kind of natural aristocracy that threatens to outthink them into submission to its wishes.  After all, anyone can acquire money or guns, but whether or not you are smart is determined at birth.  From that moment on, you are what you are.  And, if you are not among the intellectual elite, you fear those that are.

So, where does that leave us?

I don't have a comforting or even pat answer to that question.  I wish that I did.  For a lot of reasons, requiring every person to be vaccinated legally is not really an option, although scientifically it would be the best one.  The only way forward that I can see is for all sectors of society--government included--to provide as much honest information and as many positive incentives as possible in an effort to get the maximum number of people vaccinated.  And pray that, in the process, most if not all of the skeptical can be persuaded to embrace science as the only means out of the problems that science has undeniably had a hand in creating.

Pray really, really hard.

I do.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Joe Manchin And The B-Word

As the For The People Act heads to a vote in the Senate, it seems likely to die at the hands of an expected Republican filibuster--and, with its death, quite possibly the end of representational democracy in the U.S., and the beginning of a new authoritarianism for which there is no real precedent in American history.  It seems safe to say, given political history in general and current events around the world, that there are enough foreign precedents to cause even the greatest optimists about our 200-plus-year old "experiment" with democracy to collapse into despair.  I should know.  I've been one of those optimists for most of my life, and I now seem to spend most of my waking hours fighting off despair.  As are most of us.

And our despair has a name. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Despite the fact that the Democrats, for the first time in my lifetime, have both unity and a popular agenda, and despite the fact that the FTPA is an especially popular part of that agenda, Manchin is bound and determined--as of this writing, at least--to allow both the unity and the agenda, and the FTPA in particular, to die on the altar of his perceived need for support from both parties in order to pass it.  More specifically, Manchin wants 60 votes from Democratic and Republican senators to allow the FTPA to even come up for a vote, based upon a rule--the so-called filibuster rule--that has no support in the Constitution, was created by accident, has a name based on a word that translates into English as "pirate," and has been largely used throughout its history in a series of attempts to thwart the progress of civil rights in America.

That's right.  Manchin is willing to sacrifice a genuinely bipartisan bill, a bill designed to provide maximum protection for democracy's most fundamental personal right, for the sake of maintaining a supermajority requirement that the Framers wanted to avoid at all costs.  Why?  Because of a political fiction that the filibuster rule promotes compromise and thereby ensures that the will of the majority in put into effect even in controversial legislation.

There's one problem with that fiction:  to wit, the fact that it is a fiction, and the history of filibuster usage proves it.  The lion's share of filibusters have occured within roughly the past decade, with the Republicans leading the way in using the rule to block progress of any sort for the American people.  Not surprisingly, especially given the rise of the use of filibusters in conjunction with the rise of the progress of the civil rights movement, this exponential increase closely tracks the emergence of the nation's first African-American President, and the changing demographics of a nation in which white people will soon be in the national minority.

And the majority of Americans see through that fiction, which is why they support abolition of the filibuster rule, on a bipartisan basis.  That's right.  Bipartisanship, the goal that the filibuster is allegedly tailor-made to support, should logically lead to the abolition of the rule.

Notwithstanding all of the foregoing, Manchin, defying any reasonable definition of common sense, continues his search for votes from his Republican Senate colleagues that will never exist.  There's no reason to doubt it; Mitch McCONnell, their leader, has effectively guaranteed it.  McCONnell is not someone whose word, as a general rule, should be taken at face value.  The exception, of course, is when it relates to his grip on power.  In this case, his word is as solid as the grip that the filibuster rule gives him on power.

And McCONnell has even been openly disrespectful of Manchin's efforts to bridge the Senate's partisan divide.  Recently, Manchin suggested several modifications to the FTPA designed to attract support from red-state Senators.  In the process, the only support he attracted was from Stacey Abrams, who already supports the bill in its current form.  No sooner did that support become public knowledge than McCONnell immediately shot the compromise down--and made a point about identifying the compromise not by the name of the man who proposed it, but by identifying it with Abrams.  This is yet another transparent appeal to white nationalism from a party that can only build a future around white supremacism.  Which means that this is the only message that Manchin should take away from this failed effort at bridge-building:  

All that matters to McCONnell about Manchin is that he's a Democrat.  All that matters to him about Stacey Abrams is that she's black.

And it gets worse, folks, as you go back and look at the history of Manchin and the filibuster.  Believe it or not, time was that he advocated at least making changes in the way the filibuster role worked, because even he was frustrated by the abuse of the rule and the way it prevented problems from getting solved.  I vividly recall one night a little over four years ago, as the then-Republican Congress was jamming through Paul Ryan's tax giveaway to the 1%, I was driving home and listening to the Senate debate and amend the monstrosity.  I heard Manchin begging for the Democrats' right to offer amendments, sounding like a hostage victim pleading for his life.  Even now, from time to time, he occasionally offers up a media bite about making changes in the rule, as he did recently.  And then, he retreats behind op-eds like this one.

In short, everybody's in on the nature of the game, and the current rules of the game, except (seemingly) Manchin.  Which is why it's time to take a hard effort to answer a simple question:  why?  Why does Manchin continue to seek partners for a dance Republicans don't want to do?

Given that the facts outrule a number of possible explanations, let's consider the ones that are left.

1.  Manchin is just heeding Tip O'Neill's mantra that all politics is local, and the provisions of the FTPA are deeply unpopular in West Virginia.

Initially, this seems like a pretty plausible explanation.  West Virginia, once a reliably Democratic state, has arguably become the most Republican state as defined by voting patterns.  Trump defeated Biden by nearly 40% of the state's popular vote, and Manchin is currently the only West Virginia Democrat currently holding statewide office.  It therefore stands to reason that Democratic priorities would poll badly in the Mountain State, and Manchin is just trying to maintain his unicorn status in its politics.

There's just one problem:  that's not what actual polls show.  In fact, they show that West Virginians not only support the FTPA, but also the COVID-19 relief bill enacted earlier this year, as well as President Biden's proposed infrastructure bill, which is also currently being legislatively hamstrung by Manchin's professed desire to find 10 Republican Senators who will sign "Kubaya" with him.  Numbers don't lie, folks, especially in this case, and here they are.

In fact, given the support that Manchin's bipartisan fetish has gotten support from another Democratic Senator, Kyrsten Sinema, here's a poll that shows the popularity of the FTPA in both West Virginia AND Arizona.  Specifically, among conservative voters.  Maybe we've been defining bipartisanship the wrong way, folks.  Maybe it shouldn't be defined by Republicans in Washington.  Maybe it should be defined by Republicans in the states you represent.  Seems like a pretty good idea to me.  How about it, Joe?

I'll ignore the crickets (or, this year, cicadas) that responded to that, and move on to the next possible explanation for Manchin's futile loyalty to the filibuster rule.

2.  Manchin is motivated to oppose the FTPA by the "whiteness" of his state.

Again, initially, a pretty plausible explanation.  Over 90% of the state's population is white, and many politicians in states with predominantly white populations have been known, in the past, to tap-dance around legislation that would have the effect of making it easier for people of color to vote.  And again, the filibuster rule has been used to block such legislation.  MSNBC contributor Joy Ann Reid has advanced this line of thinking about Manchin's position.

I like Ms. Reid's work very much and, in many cases, would tend to respect her thinking, but I'm not quite as certain as she is that Manchin's unwillingness to change the filibuster rule for the sake of enacting the FTPA is motivated by a desire to dog-whistle the white supremacist vote.  I say that not so much because of his recent willingness to accept a modified version of the bill, but primarily because of his willingness to support its companion legislation, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which, although also tethered to support for the filibuster rule, has seemed to me somewhat more determined and proactive than his views on the FTPA.  That doesn't seem like the posture of someone who is going out of his way to avoid offending hard-core white bigots in his state.  I'm open to changing my mind on this, but I'd need more practical evidence to do so.

3.  Occam's Razor:  Is this simply about the need for the publicity, and the corruption of the political press in abeting it?

If, as Occam's Razor holds, the simplest explanation is the one that is most likely to be true, than perhaps Manchin is simply trying to exploit his position as the 50th vote in the most tenuous possible Democratic majority to do what all politicians of any stripe crave doing:  getting their names in the press as often as possible, as more press mentions equates to more successful fundraising and, ultimately, to more political power.

This, too, is superficially plausible.  As the most conservative Senator in a government where Democrats control Congress, as well as the presidency, by the thinnest of margins, Manchin is incredibly well-positioned to turn his every trip to the men's room as a moment of national importance.  And, with regard to his ability to do so, he has an amazingly willing assistant in a national media environment where four decades of right-wing browbeating about liberal "bias" has reduced the political press from a forum of ideas and a search for truth into a balls-and-strikes, who's-up-who's down scorecard.

Once again, this doesn't completely stand up to scrutiny.  Playing the publicity game requires having an endgame, and Manchin doesn't seem to have one.  Or, if he does, or thought that he did at one point, McCONnell is bound and determined to take it away from him.  As I said, McCONnell would rather mention Stacey Abrams name than Manchin's.

So, what's left, folks?

4.  Blackmail.

Yes, I'll admit its a pretty ugly word.  But, since "Let's Pretend" went off the air a while again, we might as well admit that its on the take for discussion.

Especially when Twitter has posts like this.

Or this.

Or, worst of all, this.

None of this is proof that he's being blackmailed.  On the other hand, it's the only explanation for which there is no evidence to the contrary.  And, since democracy is hanging in the balance, maybe a few reporters out there can recover their journalistic muscles just long enough to see if this is in fact the answer.

And then, perhaps the American people can decide whether voting rights, the filibuster rule, or anything else should be allowed to be held hostage by those whose only fighting cause is their own power over the rest of us.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Is Evangelical Christianity Destroying America From Within?

Recently, in writing about the current situation in the Middle East (which may change at least slightly for the better, with the formation of a new Israeli government), I touched upon my unhappy past as a fundamentalist Christian.  I did so to use it as a jumping-off point into a broader discussion about religious extremism, by both Israelis and Palestinians and its sad contribution to the escalating violence in the Holy Land.  On further reflection, specifically with regard to religious extremism, the escalating partisan divide within our own country, and the extreme tactics being deployed in the process, merit my returning to what is personally a very sore subject for me.  

I do so not purely for autobiographical purposes, but to comment on the contribution that fundamentalist Christianity has made both to the Middle East crisis and the crisis affecting democracy within our nation.  It should be painfully obvious by now that here in the U.S., hitherto the platinum standard for the world for the functioning of a free and open society, democracy is no longer a given.  For all of us, it's no longer a question of whether we will continue in the future to call ourselves a democracy.  It's increasingly a question of whether we can call ourselves a democracy right now.

One way to understand democracy is that it is a contract among the citizens who live under the protection of its laws, by which the citizens agree to openly debate their concerns and proposed solutions for the nation's needs, and then submit to a formal neutral process--in our case, the election of public officials to act on the outcomes of those debates in the form of periodic elections conducted in an open and fair process.

But that contract is slowly accruing a lot of "fine print" that effectively defeats the fundamental goal of democracy--to give every citizen an equal share of power and an equal say in the direction of the nation.  And, however partisan it may be for me to say this, it is painfully clear that the authors of that "fine print" are Republicans in state houses and governor's mansions all across the country.  By now, whether in print or on electronic media, you have seen accounts of how GOP-controlled states are changing election laws to not merely protect, but to advance the interests of white nationalists in keeping people of color out of the corridors of power.  But it goes much further than that.

These states are making it legal for anyone to openly carry firearms, regardless of their background or makeup, run over protesters if feeling "endangered," and enter a private business without needing to take any pandemic-related precautions.  For a detailed and (as of the moment) comprehensive list of these sledgehammer blows to your constitutional rights, take a look here.

These disgusting efforts to undermine your freedom and mine share many things in common, but perhaps the worst of these commonalities is a complete untethered connection to the reality you, me, and the rest of us actually wake up to every day.  Voting restrictions in the absence of voter fraud.  The denial of protection for peaceful protestors, based on an entirely personal perception of being menaced.  The threat of increased gun violence, making a mockery of any alleged conservative concern for the "thin blue line," as if their response to the Jan. 6 insurrection wasn't enough of a mockery.

And, as we have all seen over the past twelve months, an utter disregard for the realities of medical science.  Republicans at every level of government, in every corner of the American landscape, have treated the reality of a deadly airborne virus as something that can be stopped by their personal feelings about science and the alleged liberal "bias" of those who study it.  They have willfully ignored the fact that viruses have no politics, no agenda, no allies or adversaries.  They just have the same will to live that all living beings have.  And, in the case of viruses like the COVID-19 virus, its will to live is stronger than your body's ability to fight it.  The result?  Hundreds of thousands of Americans dead.  Millions more with their health compromised.  And all of us living with a lessening sense of our ability to face the reality--the sheer raw fact--of a common enemy that doesn't care how you feel about it.

On a personal basis, the rejection of medical science by so many allegedly adult, educated fellow country-people has come close to breaking my faith in the ability of Americans not merely to agree on politics, but to even agree on facts.  Without the latter, political agreements, and even a political system in which everyone has a stake, simply are not possible.

And yet, I shouldn't be so terribly surprised.

Why?

Because I spent the first twelve years of my adult life in the belly of the beast that has swallowed the Republican Party whole, and is now threatening to do the same to the United States.  Specifically, evangelical Christianity.  I know how it operates.  I understand the nature of its appeal.  And I understand why the political power it has accumulated over the past six decades must be destroyed.  And, to begin my explanation, I must indulge in a tiny bit of what I promised earlier I wouldn't touch:  autobiography.

I got involved with evangelical Christianity in the middle of my freshman year at Oberlin College, a school that, although avowedly secular at the time (and now), had its roots in Christian revivalism.  I was, for reasons better saved for any memoirs I might publish, at a directionless point of low self-esteem in my life.  This, coupled with the narcissism that comes all too naturally with being a baby boomer, made me ripe for a theology that effectively told me that I could be part of a spiritual elect, with a special inside knowledge of the realities of the universe, and all I had to do was put my common sense and tolerance in deep storage, and tell everyone that I'd been "born again."

Sad to say, I was hooked.  That's how low my self-esteem was.  But, again, it's also how strong my narcissism was.  Let's be blunt:  it takes a phenomenal amount of narcissism to believe that you've somehow stumbled onto everything you need to know about everything, provided that you accept being force-fed a line of allegedly biblical theology that is often shallow at best and dishonest at worst.  After all, finding all that out, as others have done before you, takes what John Houseman used to describe on Smith Barney commercials as good-old-fashioned hard work.

And, after all, isn't it easier just to believe?  Especially when you've got all of these supposedly credentialed pastors, TV hosts, and whatever else they may be telling you how special you are?  Of course it is.  After all, it's not like any of these people would abuse the tax-exempt status to lead you down a dead end in your life while they are using your blind obedience to help pry open the doors to power in Washington, D.C..

Right?

Wrong.

I have to admit that, in my case, it took my twelve years to come to terms with the fact that being a born-again Christian was just denying me the ability that everyone should have:  to chart my own destiny, to learn how I might fit into the world around me and do the hard work of fitting in, by getting outside of myself and into the world around me.  As arrogant as it my be for me to say this, in the end, it was my intellectual abilities, the things that brought me to Oberlin in the first place. that saved me from a life of being nothing more than an empty vessel for the craven designs of the evangelical Christian movement and its leadership.

But not everyone's that lucky.

A combination of underfunded educational systems and exporting of livable-wage jobs have left millions of people without a reliable means of support.  Without hope for a better life for themselves or their posterity.  Without a clue as to how to make their lives better.

What better fodder for a system that offers the keys to the Kingdom of G-d in return for unquestioned belief, plus 10% of your meager financial reasons, than these people?

So it has been over the past four decades that the Grand Old Party, supposedly the party of Lincoln but in fact the party of money, has been gradually taken over by the boomingest business there is in Main Street America, in what we like to call the "heartland"--fundamentalist theology.

Is it any wonder that so many Americans are untethered from the most basic facts necessary for their immediate, personal survival?   Doesn't matter.  They're covered in Jesus' blood.  Just ask them.

Is it, for that matter, any wonder that politics has ceased to be about the art of compromise, because one party is filled with people who believe that they have the answers to everything, and that everyone who disagrees with them is not merely a political enemy, but also a spiritual one?  It shouldn't be.  This outcome was forecast a long time ago by none other than the later Mr. Conservative himself.  Take it from here, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.

Evangelical Christianity is the reason--I would go so far as to say the sole reason--that American democracy is at the brink.

Can we walk it back from there?  Honestly speaking, I don't know.  I wish I could respond with an unqualified "yes."  But history is not an encouraging guide.  On a macro-level, history is a litany of empires that thought they had what it took not to crumble, before they crumbled.

I will go so far as to say this.  It cannot happen, and it will not happen, unless millions of Americans can be deprogrammed.  Until they can be weaned from the easy nectar of false theology.  Until they can look the harsh realities of contemporary American life--a burning planet, a historically oppressed people, a kleptocratic economy, and other external facts more powerful and dangerous than any internal feelings--right in the eye, and stop pretending that they're part of a spiritual elect that doesn't need to care about anything except the Rapture.  

The Rapture, in fact, is why they were so enthusiastic about Trump's pro-Netanyahu policies toward Israel; they saw those policies as speeding up the time when they can be in Heaven and forget about everything else.  I can assure you that it is not about their feelings concerning Jews.  I regret not saying more about this in my earlier post.  I hope that I can successfully make amends here.

The deprogramming needed would, to be successful, have to be a massive undertaking.  I don't know if it can be done without tremendous upheaval, and that is putting it as mildly as I can.  And the hour is very late.  Democracy is hanging in the balance.  How much longer can it hang there, before it falls and is replaced by a theocratic autocracy?

I don't have any comforting answers.  I hope and pray with all my heart that it is enough to ask the question.  If you care about the future of the America you've taken for granted, I hope you will start to ask it as well.  And I pray that, together, we will come up with answers that renew our national democratic contract, a contract without elites and built around objective truth.

After all, as Will Durant once said, a great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Subpoenas Should Start With McCONnell

When it comes to describing what we saw on the floor of the Senate this week, I literally don't know where to begin.

It's tempting to say at the beginning.  And, ordinarily, I might do that.  But I'm going to start at the end, because, in some ways, that's the aspect of this legislative tragedy that's the most revealing.

I am, of course, talking about the effort by congressional Democrats to create a bipartisan committee, with members from both houses of Congress, to investigate the January 6 assault on the Capitol and make recommendations based on their findings.  The template for this effort was a similar commission created in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  The creation of that commission was relatively uncontroversial, as the public response to that horror was somewhat more unified than the response to the Capitol attack.

What a sad, sick difference nearly two decades make.

This time, the bill died by way of a filibuster, the first successful one during Joe Biden's presidency.  And not even everyone showed up to vote.

I am willing to give Patty Murray, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican, both of whom would have voted for the commission, a mulligan if they (as both of them said they did) had family issues to address.  I have no idea what to give Kristen Synema, nominally a Democrat but otherwise whatever else she wants to be; even if she helps Democrats keep control of the Senate, it's still hard to care when it comes to her.

But I think no mercy should be shown to the eight Republicans who couldn't be bothered to show up.  Who showed the lack of courage behind their lack of conviction by using the Memorial Day weekend as an excuse to avoid doing the job the taxpayers are paying them to do.  Who showed complete contempt for the Capitol Police and others who put themselves completely on the line to save their worthless skins.

Let's put this another way.

They ran away from doing what the country wanted them to do, and what their Trump-addled voters don't want them to do, in a desperate attempt to hang onto the power they don't want to use.  And, while this dance goes on, the nation slowly rots.

Now let's work backwards from this shameful outcome.

This is what happens when the moral and intellectual level of Republicans in Congress sinks to the point that they care only about keeping the jobs they no longer want to do.

This is what happens when they are willing to surrender their responsibilities to everyone except themselves, and the person running interference to ensure that they keep the jobs they no longer want to do.  They betray their obligations to the people, and even perhaps to their own personal safety and the safety of their staffs and Capitol visitors, to do that person "a personal favor."

They're not so keen on doing favors for the people who put their safety, and even their lives, on the line to protect their increasingly worthless existence.  The proposed commission would have ensured that we knew who organized the attack, how badly our security was compromised, and what steps we need to take in order to ensure that it doesn't take place again.  We will probably still be able to learn what we need to learn about all of those issues, as the Democrats in Congress and perhaps the Biden Administation as well will undoubtedly conduct their own separate investigations.

But we could have, and should have, done this as a united nation, with a united front.  And we won't.  Which certainly explains why the Capitol Police officers feel that the Republicans regard them with contempt.

I almost think that they may be guilty of giving the Republicans too much credit.  I think that the Republicans aren't thinking about the Capitol Police at all.  They are only thinking about themselves.  They are, in fact, acting like people with something to hide.  And, perhaps they are.  Which only makes the need for a full investigation of the January 6 attack all the more urgent.

Because there's a very good chance that at least some of the perpetrators are still in the Capitol.  That many of them, in fact, have been there all along.  And that, as some have suggested, what happened on January 6 was basically a dress rehearsal.  Something that could be instigated and then, over time, normalized through an increasingly complicit media.  Something that could be a "dry run" for a much larger, much more effective attack at a point when our government might even be more vulnerable, and an attack on it much more successful.

When a political leader asks that a crime against an instituation for which he bears official, indeed constitutional responsibility, not be investigated, and does so because he's requesting a "personal favor," it begs the question of how much that leader knows.  It screams, in fact, the possibility that he knows who he's protecting, and why.

And I'm not just talking about Donald Trump.  Yes, Mitch McCONnell is protecting him, but not because he wants to do so.  Even he has openly condemned Trump for his transparently obvious role in the attack.  But, that being the case, why would he regard squelching an above-board, even-handed, full investigation of the attack as a personal favor?

It begs that old, Watergate-era question immortalized by the late, great Republican Senator Howard Baker:  what does he know, and when did he know it?

I don't for a minute believe that McCONnell's posture on a bipartisan investigation of the attack is all about protecting Trump, given that he's already effectively hung Trump out to dry.  It's been obvious from the very beginning that the thugs who assaulted our national legislature knew what they were doing.  They knew where to enter the building, and where to go once they got inside.  They succeeding in effectively holding members of Congress and their staff hostage in their offices.  They made off with sensitive data vital to protecting and advancing the interests of our nation.

There are very few accidents in life.  January 6 wasn't one of them.

What do you know, Mitch?  When did you know it?

Regardless of who investigates January 6, their first subpoena should go to you.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Purity, Or Progress, In Religion And The Middle East?

I'm in my law office, taking a break from relatively routine work on behalf of a client, to do something that I've neglected to do for a few weeks:  update this blog.  It's been one of those very busy months with a lot going on, including a Mother's Day get-together, a wedding anniversary celebration, and no fewer than five auditions for various acting projects.  Funny how finally getting around to adding a reel to your acting web site can stir up interest in you.

But, before that digression goes any further, let me explain what made me take a break here.

Lately, as the age of 64 prepares to give way to the age of 65 on my personal calendar, I find my mind working like an old fashioned Rolodex operating on an automatic pilot, bringing up memories that may or may not by prompted in some ways by current events.  But there are themes.  Religion, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been one of them.  I was, as has been frequently mentioned here, an evangelical Christian for far too much of my early adult life, and, more recently, I underwent an Orthodox conversion to Judaism, having found in it far more wisdom and tolerance, and thus far more of the actual presence of G-d, than I ever did in what I have recently come to refer to as my "Jesus" days.

Current events in the Middle East--specifically, of course, in Gaza--combined with the routine nature of my work, got my mental Rolodex to randomly flip through my current state of affairs, and reminded me of the fact that, down in our terrace-level basement, where my wife and I have literally hundreds of books currently barricaded by mounds of other possessions (some junk, some of lesser degradation), I still have a number of books from my "Jesus" days.  These cover a wide variety of topics--sermon writing, biblical research, marriage, and various aspects of what now would be referred to as "the culture wars."

As I remembered this, I couldn't help thinking that, were I perhaps ultra-orthodox rather than merely Orthodox in my spiritual orientation, I would be on a holy tear sweeping the junk out of the way, finding every last "Jesus" book that might still be on one of our shelves.  But, I've been there before--on the other side of the fence, of course.  In my evangelical era, I would go out of my way to avoid people, events, and things (including movies and books) that I thought might somehow undermine my faith.  This went hand-in-hand with the you're-a-sinner self-loathing that forms the foundation of this religious system, and should make you wonder whether it's possible to have "faith" in God when you have no confidence in yourself, a being made in G-d's image.  Again, I'll have to save a fuller exploration of that for another post.

My point?

It's simply that I've seen how destructive it can be to orient your life around a search for perfect purity in a world where nearly everything, spiritually speaking, is something of a mixed bag:  a spark or more of the divine, shot through with impulses of a lesser nature.  In the end, you find yourself in a corner in which faith in anything, even G-d, or yourself, seems nearly impossible.  Nearly thirty-five years ago, I found myself in such a place--and it ended up being the moment at which I realized I couldn't wait for the "perfect" life to find me.  I understood that even G-d, who had given me the gift of life, expected me to step up and play the leading role in the drama of my existence.  And I realized, to extend the theatrical metaphor, that I could only navigate the stage by learning to make the most of its advantages while not being daunted or defeated by its limits; to accept the good and the bad, without being defined or overwhelmed by either.

So, the "Jesus" books stay.  Along with many, many volumes expressive in various ways of my new faith.  Along with yet others that have nothing to do with either.  These days, my spiritual search is not one for purity; only G-d can provide that.  It's for balance within myself, as well as sharing with others the blessings that I have been given.

And this is why, in addition to the horrific and senselessly tragic loss of life, is why I have spent much of the past week torn apart by the resumption of missile attacks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas.  It seems as if, in the current climate, both sides have lost the ability to believe that co-existence in any form is impossible, while clinging desperately to the idea that the only solution is for one side to completely obliterate the other--a goal that is as despicable as it is impossible to achieve.

How did the Middle East reach the brink of destruction once again?

When one delves into the most sensitive, complex human conflict on the planet, one owes one's audience an approach that is as balanced as it is well thought out.  That's why I began with my discussion of the desirability to take a balanced approach in matters of faith.  So here goes.

I am a Jew.  A convert, to be sure, but a proud Jew who, even in his Gentile days, supported the right of Israel to exist and defend itself as a permanent, international homeland for the Jewish people.  Centuries upon centuries of the worst persecution in the history of humanity, capped by the nightmare of the Holocaust, along with the origins of the Jewish faith and people in the region, is all that is needed to justify this goal.  Likewise, the state of Israel has the right to defend its existence and its people.

But the modern state of Israel, while founded on the existential principle that it was to be a Jewish state, was founded by men and women who understood the complete history of the region as one that is regarded as holy by the three major faiths of the world, and that has, over centuries, also become a homeland for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Muslims.  The founders of Israel understood that, for Israel to be a land of peace, it needed to be a land that accommodated the needs of those who were not Jewish, but who were also living in the land of their ancestors.  It understood this in the face of relentless hostility from Arabs both within and without Israel's borders to the existence of a Jewish state.  That is why they organized the nation as a democracy, with rights for people of all faiths, and that is what has undergirded bipartisan support within the United States for Israel's right to exist for decades.  I am proud to have maintained that support for my entire life.  In the face of the current conflict, I proudly maintain that support now.

With that said, I am sorry to say that I also am maintaining that support in the face of facts that test that support in the most extreme of ways.

I am maintaining it in the face of conduct by a segment of the Israeli public that can only be fairly described as ethnic cleansing.  Take a look, and see if you agree with me.  Or disagree.  Better yet, take another look, just in case you weren't sure the first time.

And when the current government of Israel--a far cry from the government of its founders--attacks the terrorists, terrorists are not alone among the victims.

In fact, far too many of the victims are children who have absolutely no idea of what is happening or why, but who are, by the indiscriminate nature of the current Israeli bombardment, effectively being trained to be the next generation of opponents to Israel and its right to exist.

Come to think about it, how is the current Israeli government dealing with these inconvenient truths?

By launching physical instead of merely verbal hostilities on the news media, based on flimsy justifications that they were hiding the enemy.

And its fiercest supporters in the United States are reduced to launching ad hominem attacks against those who would dare to criticize them or the government they support.   Why, Mr. Dershowitz, if I were to play dirty pool like that, I would be forced to remind you that dirty pool like that is a pool that no one can swim in safely.

So, once again, how did we get here?

Two words:  Benjamin Netanyahu, and his willingness to compromise the original vision of what Israel was to be for the sake of advancing his personal wealth and power, in no small part by taking advantage of tragedies and turning them into political opportunities.  This has been his pattern since he first came to power in the 1990s, after the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  It remains his patter through the present day. 

And there is straight line that has, as its origin point (at least its publicly stated one), a statement that Netanyahu made years ago, in reference to the U.S. and its decades-long, unwavering political and military support for Israel:

America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction. They won’t get in their way.

America is a thing you can move very easily.  That's real appreciation for the political, military, and even physical risks that this nation has taken on behalf of Israel, even an Israel under the thumb of a man who clearly can't tell the difference between his personal interests and his nation's interests.  Or doesn't care.  Go back to the article linked above for a few moments, and take a look at his comments about the Oslo peace accords.  It goes a long way toward explaining who Netanyahu is, and how he operates.

In fact, this guy sounds awfully familiar, doesn't he?  Sure he is.  Not long ago, we made the forever mistake of electing a President who is just like him.

Donald Trump is, in fact the straight line that runs from Netanyahu's earlier-stated opportunism to the naked aggression that the Israeli Prime Minister is now displaying as he fights to hold onto power in a nation increasingly skeptical of the "security" that he promises, and the price that has been and may be paid for it, especially in the wake of a criminal investigation by his own government of  his conduct, an investigation not unlike the onslaught of investigations the former President is staring at from his Mar-a-Lago hideaway.

During Trump's four miserable years in the White House were filled with giveaways to Netanyahu, who must have felt like every day of Trump's presidency was like the eighth day of Hanukkah.  Recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel?  Check.  Recognition of Israeli control over the Golan Heights?  Check.  Unlimited amounts of military aid for a nation that has between 80 and 400 nuclear warheads?  Check.  And the list goes on.  Under Trump, American was not merely a thing you can move, it was a toy you could play with morning, noon and night.  And, even prior to the current resumption of hostilities, it was becoming painfully clear that the U.S. was going to be paying a serious price for Trump's obsequious support for his doppelganger.

The result of Trump's toadying has been to make Netanyahu regard the U.S. not as a thing that can be simply moved, but as something he can carry around in his hip pocket, ready to be used as he wishes whenever his political position is threatened in the least.  Just prior to the recent exchange of missiles between Israel and Hamas, that position was under two direct threats:  the previously-mentioned criminal investigation he faces, as well as the prospect that, after several general elections and failed attempts to form a government, the prospect of a unity government that would not only have cut across party lines, but (for the first time) across Israeli-Arab lines as well.  

For Netanyahu, even without the spectre of the law coming after him, this might well have been the political kiss of death.  And it might have not been any better for Hamas.  Both Netanyahu and Hamas are zero-sum players in the Israeli-Arab conflict.  Each of them needs to completely defeat the other in order to be successful.  And suddenly, the prospect of an unprecedented coalition government threatened the interests of them both.  Suddenly, improbably, they needed each other.

And, just as suddenly, a very unpleasant question is on everyone's lips:  is this a war, or a collaboration?  Is this a fight to the death, or a perverse short-term alliance against the prospect of real peace?

If it is, it's yet another Trump parallel--Netanyahu putting his personal self-interest ahead of the interests of the nation he's responsible for leading, even at the expense of other people's lives.  Trump did it with the pandemic.  Perhaps Netanyahu is doing it with the missile attacks.  If he is, there is, sadly, evidence to support the view that it is working.

Advancing a possibility like this one is something I don't enjoy doing.  I'm generally not a fan of conspiracy theories, and theories like this one should make every decent person cringe.  And yet, sometimes, there's real fire behind the smoke. In this case, Tom Friedman of the New York Times says he sees it.

And so do not one, but two columnists in Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper.  If that doesn't raise the prospect of fire behind the smoke, nothing does.

There is a clear lesson for all of us in the U.S., one that transcends conflict in the Middle East.

We are living in an age where the swinging pendulum of history has taken us from a time when universal democracy seemed inevitable to one in which global capitalism has failed to share the wealth it has generated, unleashing justified anger that unprincipled leaders around the world have unjustifiably manipulated for their own benefit, primarly through the use of ancient ethnic hatreds.  Trump and Netanyahu are two such leaders.  And, as a consequence, the U.S. and Israel are both struggling to rise above hate and find a path to peace and economic justice.

The nature and state of our own struggles in this respect are obvious.  Even with Democrats, for the moment, in charge of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the hate-mongers in and outside of the GOP are still trying to raise the temperature of the nation past the breaking point.  The last thing we need to do, for our sake and the sake of Israel, is to satisfy Netanyahu's desire to do the same thing--assuming, of course, that he can continue to stay out of jail.

In other words, it's time for the money we provide to Israel, especially military aid, to come with verifiable expectations that such aid will be used, and will ONLY be used, in a matter consistent with the expectation that Israel will function in a manner consistent with the conduct of a democratic country.  Turning this goal into practical political action will be difficult, given the long history of solid support in this country for Israel.  But American expectations of Israel have changed, and it now appears that the behavior of American politicians is prepared to change as well.

It's time, perhaps past time, to abandon the dead-end of zealotry and reclaim the practice of virtues that help us coexist and even move toward some degree of unity:  tolerance, a willingness to learn, an appreciation of what we have to offer each other in spite of our difference, and, perhaps above all, an optimism about the future, a faith that it can be better than the past.  We need to stop searching for a purity that doesn't exist in the world we wake up in, and focus on progress.  After all, that's all that G-d expects from each of us.  And it's all that we should expect from each other.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

A Belated Ode To Fritz Mondale

I have a confession of sorts to make.

I don't know if it means anything to anyone but, if you've been reading TRH for a while, you've probably gotten the impression that I've always been a knee-jerk, very-left-of-center Democrat.  And, if that's the case, I can't say that I blame you.  Today, especially in the age of Trump, that's definitely the case.  But, in no small part, that's because it is the age of Trump.  In truth, if I had a default position, which could only exist in a perfect world, I would probably still be leaning to the left, but I'd also be more willing to listen to the other side.  Once upon a time, they were worth listening to, because they trafficked less in personalities and more in issues.

In fact, back in the 1970s, my first meaningful decade of political engagement, I started out as a McGovern Democrat, and, after that particular debacle, became more of a middle-of-the-road Democrat, one who wanted to change the world for the better without scaring people who disagreed with me to death.  Also, during this period, I made the mistake of becoming an evangelical Christian, a topic I've touched on lightly in previous posts, and may discuss more extensively in the near future.  I mention it here mainly to help explain why, because of those two traits, Jimmy Carter appealed to me a great deal.

And so did his running mate, Walter Mondale.

Like Hubert Humphrey, his fellow Minnesotan and mentor, Mondale seemed like someone who was focused on results, and not on grandstanding.  Like Carter, Mondale seemed to understand that politics, like football, is a game of inches, and that victory goes to those who stay the course long enough to put together enough inches.  And, like both of them, Mondale understood that politics was meant for those who cared more about public service than power.

And that's why I was elated by the narrow victory Carter and Mondale eked out in the 1976 presidential election.  And why I was bitterly disappointed by their defeat four years later, a defeat to which the defection of many fashionably liberal Democratic voters to John Anderson's independent candidacy contributed mightily.  Spoiler?  What's their to spoil?  That's what Anderson asked voters, and a large chunk of votes that Carter and Mondale should have gotten gravitated to Anderson's doomed crusade.  Instead, four decades of steadily regressive policies and politics have pushed the American experiment to the brink of extinction.  The sad irony of this catastrophe is that, as conservatism began to successfully undo much of the New Frontier and even the New Deal, many of those same fashionably liberal voters would have killed to have even some of the Carter-Mondale proposals turned into reality.

So, as the 1980s began, I felt very much like a voter without a political home.  I still cared deeply about politics.  I still believed in the power of the political process to make other people's lives better.  And I still believed that left-of-center approaches to political issues were the better way of achieving the results.  But I also believed in the need to take small steps and, where possible, to do so in concert with a broad coalition.

The Democratic Party, however, didn't agree with me.  Its leadership managed to learn exactly the wrong lesson from the 1980 debacle.  The departure of so many liberal voters to the doomed Anderson campaign led those in charge of the party to decide that Carter-style centrism threatened its future success.  At the same time, the success of conservative Democrats in winning back seats in the House of Representatives in 1982 convinced those conservatives that the party needed to keep up with the rightward lurch that Reaganomics had given the nation.  And thus it was that the coalition of Blue Dogs and coastal liberals Carter and Mondale had managed to assemble fell apart, and the Democratic Party assumed its familiar posture:  disarray.

By this time, my own life was in a similar posture of disarray.  I was unemployed, and forced to move back from New York, a city I loved, to my parents' home in Maryland, a state that at the very least had blueness going for it, among other things.  Professionally, personally, and even spiritually, my life had completely run aground, and my interest in politics was at an all time low.  Not long after, however, I entered graduate school, and returned to some semblance of a normal life.  

And, as I did, and began to pay attention to the 1984 presidential campaign, I began to notice that, as Mondale's own campaign for the White House moved forward toward the nomination, he began to move away from the moderate politics he had embraced for most of his career, trying to appeal to pure liberals at the expense of the less-than-perfectly liberal.  My guess is that he concluded that this was the only way he could even come close to holding the party together for the fall election.  To put it mildly, it didn't work:  the Democratic Electoral College total went from 49 in 1980 to 13 in 1984.  Mondale had rolled the dice toward the left--and lost.  With that loss, America began its deepening slide into the morass of right-wing ideology.

For my part, I can't say that I helped.  In my own way, I wasn't much better than the Anderson liberals I castigated for abandoning Carter in 1980.  I could not, would not, under any circumstances, vote for Reagan, but I succumbed to a purity test of my own.  I could not, and did not, vote for a party with no ability to put the brakes on its liberal tendencies even when those tendencies might benefit from a good set of breaks.  So, for the one and only time in my life, I did not vote for a Democrat in a presidential race.  I wrote in a Republican:  Mark Hatfield, a liberal Senator from Oregon who was, like me, an evangelical.  I did so knowing that I was throwing my vote away, but I didn't care; at that point, I felt the need to inflict my own purity test on the outcome.

It was not too many years later that I realized that, like the Anderson Democrats, I had in fact betrayed the sort of tactical moderation I thought I was advocating with my write-in vote.  Had I voted for Mondale, it would have had no effect on the outcome.  But I knew that a lot of moderate Democrats voted for Reagan because they somehow saw him as less extreme than what Mondale was offering, even if that was more a question of voting for style rather than substance.  Rather than throwing away my vote, or sitting the election out, what I should have been doing was reminding everyone that, even though Mondale's rhetoric may have moved toward the left, he had not fundamentally changed in temperament or tactics, that he was still the same game-of-inches guy that Carter had felt comfortable with.  

Putting it simply, I should have forgot about looking for perfection in the highly imperfect world of politics, and thought tactically.  I didn't.  Many of us didn't.  And all of us were the losers for it.

And, frankly, Mondale deserved better.  We all deserved better.  He was a decent human being, who genuinely believed in public service and in the possibility of building a better world.  That Reagan defeated him, and launched our current descent into madness in the process, only underscores the tragedy of his defeat, and the losses that every American has endured as a result.

And so, I began to refine my political thinking.  My goals, as a result, are still idealistic, but my thoughts about how to advance those goals are far more tactical in nature.  Indeed, this is why I have moved much further to the left, almost to the point I occupied in my McGovern days.  I have done this not because I feel it is absolutely necessary to move the country that far in that direction, but because I see this as the only way to counter-act the most egregious effects of the Reagan era.  We may not need perfect liberalism, but we definitely need a great big whopping dose of it.  Maybe, just maybe, if we're lucky, we'll need to put the brakes on liberalism.  But we're nowhere near close to being at that point.

You don't need me to give you a list of Mondale's accomplishments.  You can get that out of his New York Times obituary, which, whether you lived through his career or not, is well worth perusing.  I will take a little space here to emphasize two major contributions to the office of the Presidency that outlasted him and benefited all of us:  the partnership he created with Carter that gave future Vice Presidents a meaningful role in the government, and his selection of Geraldine Ferraro as his 1984 running mate.  Both of these accomplishments are reflected today in the presence of Kamala Harris as the nation's second-in-command.

And, despite losing to a candidate who was falsely being lionized by conservative evangelicals as the one true Christian running for the Oval Office, Mondale, the son of a preacher, consistently demonstrated the one character trait that matters more in the practice of Christianity, perhaps in the practice of any faith, than any other:  humility.  There could be no greater illustration of that humility, in the service of a moment that would be sheer agony for many a lesser politician, than the grace and humor that he demonstrated on January 6, 1981, when, as Vice President, he announced the results of the Electoral College vote in the 1980 election--in effect, presiding over his own bitter defeat.  On the day after his birthday, no less.

And yet, in the process, finding humor in doing so.  The response was a bipartisan standing ovation from a joint session of both houses of Congress.  You need only compare that January 6 to the horror show we all watched on that date this year to see how much our politics, and we as a people, have lost in the past 40 years.

Despite the lesson that I learned from my failure to support him in 1984, I still feel a deep sense of regret that I didn't vote for him.  It didn't change the outcome.  It didn't affect him personally; we never met, so he had no idea of what I was doing in the voting booth.  And, in spite of the mistakes I made, and that all of us have made, we are still striving together toward a more perfect Union, still overcoming tremendous obstacles, still working toward a reckoning with our deepest sins, still trying to find enough divine grace to bless not only each other, but the whole word.

But Fritz Mondale, a man who embodied the best of what this nation has to offer, and a man who absolutely deserved my pulling the lever for him back in that lonely voting both in College Park, Maryland, deserved better from me.  He deserved better from all of us.  For that matter, all of us deserved better.

So here it is, Fritz.  Here's my vote for you.  Even if it's too late to shape an election, I know it's not to late to set the record straight on who you were, and how you will be remembered.

Rest in power, sir.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Fight Or Flight Against Fascism In Georgia (And Elsewhere)?

It says a great deal, and none of it good, that a seemingly innocent phrase like "voting reform" has become a mask for behavior that is less about voting, and even less about reform, than it is a last gasp of a political party that has morphed not just into a personality cult, but one that has no greater or even other purpose in life than white male power--and power for its own sake, and not for any greater good.  

Nevertheless, this is where we are today in the U.S..  At the mercy of politicians, and their fellow travellers in white maleness, who have concluded that their only hope to remain relevant is to take away from their opponents the power to govern by way of the ballot box.  The power for which thousands of us, over centuries, have suffered and died for, in order to create a more perfect Union.  Union, and unity, are not what gets them out of bed every morning.  Victory is.  Victory, by any means necessary.

The last time the Republican Party lost control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, they conducted a postmortem that was referred to as an "autopsy," one that lend them, at least on paper, to conclude that they needed to adapt to the reality of a more diverse country, and stop the wink-and-nod form of Ku Klux Klan politics that it had been practicing since 1972.  For a few months, they went through the motions of heeding the postmortem's message.

But, when you've been living for decades on the political equivalent of crack cocaine, it's hard to go cold turkey, especially when something happens to convince you that you don't need rehab after all.  It didn't take long for the Tea Party, and its take-the-country-back anger, and Donald Trump with his "questions" about Barack Obama's birth certificate, to take control of our country's agenda, and lead us down the road that has lead to pandemic, poverty, police violence, and a planet on fire.

And how have they responded to that?  Now that the lethality of their politics has been so exposed to the American people that even voters in Arizona and Georgia gave up on them last year, how do they plan to get on the comeback trail?

Stop people they don't like from voting, that's how.  And do it, or at least try, on a massive scale.  Even as I type this, state legislatures across the county are now considering no fewer than 300 bills designed to restrict, by one means or another, the right of the people to exercise the franchise and have a say in their own governance.

The right of certain people, that is.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Georgia, where the 2020 election outcome gave Democrats control of the Senate, and made Joe Biden the first Democratic Presidential candidate in nearly 30 years to carry the state.  And, like the coward he undoubtedly is, Trump has rhetorically pushed back against this result by pretending (even after three audits of the votes) that this outcome is based on fraud.  These allegations, in fact, are the plutonium that led the Republican state legislature and governor to enact a so-called "reform" of Georgia's laws, to "protect" the right to vote in the state.

No one, absolutely no one, should take Trump's allegations of fraud seriously.  The political supplicants in Georgia who helped enact this sham of a bill are, of course, publicly relying on these allegations, because they come from Trump, who has become the personality at the center of a party that is now, operationally, a personality cult.  But there was no fraud in Georgia's election results.

Have some doubts about that?  Just listen to Georgia's governor, the one who ran for the office while he was Georgia's secretary of state, with the power to manipulate the outcome of the election, a power he didn't hesitate to use.  He's admitted it on tape.

And, if you doubt that Trump is at the root of the whole "fraud" charade, take a look at this.

And the content of the bill?  A hodgepodge of restrictions that range from the merely obvious to the outrageously arbitrary.

Most of the bill's defenders in the right-wing media corner focus on the former.  What's the big deal about making it harder for people to vote?  Stacey Abrams even advocated shortening the period for early voting, as a Georgia state legislator.  And voter ID?  Who doesn't want this?  Why isn't this related to stopping voter fraud.  Shouldn't we all want this?

Abrams' "advocacy" seems to have been governed more by short-term budgetary considerations than any philosophical aversion to limiting the number of days for early voting.  This is one of the problems with advancing the hypocrisy argument against your philosophical opponents; if you are advancing it, you'd better make sure the facts line up with your accusation.  Unless Rich Lowry has some sort of inside information showing that white voters in Georgia primarily vote during early voting--and that Abrams knew this--he would due well to take his flights of op-ed fantasy elsewhere.

In fact, early voting benefits those who have difficulty finding time off from other responsibilities to vote--those who are, disproportionally, women and people of color.  This is beyond dispute, and the so-called "reformers" know it.  Which is why they mix limits on early voting days with limits on the number of polling places, artificially lengthening lines at the polls and making it harder for those whose children or jobs will not allow them to wait.  This is also why they restrict, as the new Georgia bill does, the ability of individuals to provide water to voters waiting in line.  This is not fraud prevention; this is naked harassment.  The same can be said about the bill's restrictions on absentee ballots and drop-boxes.

As for voter ID restrictions, also a feature of the Georgia bill, despite the seeming reasonableness of such restrictions, they have a history of being used for discriminatory purposes, which the ACLU has neatly summed up here.  Perhaps the most important part of this summary, something that could be said about all of these "reforms," is the observation that they are a solution in search of a problem.  Voter fraud is rare.  The only numerous aspect of it is the accusations of it--which almost always seems to come from Republicans.

And the problems with the bill's provisions don't end there.  Its cutbacks on mail voting and dropboxes force a reliance on electronic voting databases which, as we've already seen, are vulnerable to hacking even under the best of circumstances.  And note the fact that the voting period for special elections has bet reduced by more than half.  This is particularly relevant in understanding the basic motivation behind the bill, because the original length of this period was dictated by the desire to make sure that as many white people as possible got to the polls.  The Senate special elections last fall showed them how badly that strategy can backfire on them with a more racially diversified electorate.  The strategy is now being changed, because the underlying racism behind it hasn't changed.  

Ultimately, the best evidence for that proposition is also the single worst feature of the new Georgia law:  the fact that it takes ultimate control of the administration of state elections out of the hands of non-partisan local boards of elections, and gives it to the highly partisan state legislature and governor.  If the current governor and legislature thought that there was any chance, even a microscopic one, that they would be replaced by Democrats at some point, this provision would never see the light of day.  They know, and will nevertheless not tell you, that this is being done because it gives the Republican Party in Georgia not only the power to manipulate election results in any manner that suits them, but the power to conceal that manipulation as well.

This illustrates why, in the hands of Republicans, the word "reform" can only be viewed as Orwellian in nature.  Their "reforms" are not for the purpose of creating a better world for everyone; they exist soley as tools to perpetuate their own power, and solely for the purpose of ensuring that anyone they don't like, for any reason, has absolutely no power at all.  They can talk about so-called "cancel culture" until they are green-eggs-and-ham in the face.  But they are its greatest proponents, and the greatest practitioners of using political power to advance it.

So, what to do in opposition to it?  Fight or flight?  Boycott, or stand our ground?

On a personal level, I have very mixed feelings about boycotts, because they can, if not properly targeted at the people whose actions are being protested, end up creating a lot of collateral damage.  Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, historically speaking, probably conducted the most effective boycotts in no small part because the targets of their boycotts, primarily government officials, were the people they wanted to challenge.  In contrast, the economic boycotts that are currently being urged against Georgia-based corporations, such as Coca-Cola and Delta, have the potential to harm the day-to-day well being of the people whose political interests are supposed to benefit from the boycott in the first place.  Abrams herself, whose activism and organizing was the key to the Democrats' recent success in Georgia, has made it clear that she is no fan of boycotts, and for precisely the reason that I just cited.

On the other hand, these corporations, and others, like Major League Baseball, have consumer bases that are not merely local, but national and international as well, and it's clearly in their capitalistic self-interest to consistently act in ways that reflects the value of consumers.  It's easy to lose sight of the fact that contemporary marketing is not, strictly speaking, a matter of making a lawyerly case for product or service benefits ("So-and-so cleans better than Brand X") as it is about making more personal associations between what is being sold and the people doing the buying.

And large corporations, in part by virtue of their size and global reach, have multiple constituencies to respect and accommodate.  In the case of Major League Baseball, and its decision to move this year's All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver, I suspect that it was motivated as much as anything by a desire to protect its players from constantly being bombarded with questions about whether or not they would participate in a boycott of the game, as well as protecting itself from the scenario where the game itself might be boycotted by both players and sponsors, decisions that they could do little if anything to prevent.  In the end, its decision was made to remove itself from the ongoing debate, as much as it was to reflect the values the sport is supposed to emulate.

What this reinforces is a simple reality about contemporary America, and a harsh one for those who celebrate white supremacy, and white male supremacy in particular, as the basis for the nation's existence and greatness.  Manipulating the machinery of elections, whether by voting restrictions, gerrymandering, unlimited corporate fundraising, or any other means, as a last resort for maintaining the political power of a minority, is a doomed strategy, and will become even more so in the coming years as the minority in question--uneducated white men--continues to shrink in size.

If nothing else, this should serve as a well-earned comeuppance for Mitch McCONnell, whose longtime advocacy of treating corporations and people equally when it comes to allowing unlimited campaign contributions from both sources.  This embodies the pernicious combination of two lies:  that corporations are people, and that money can be considered political speech that merits the First Amendment's protection (whether or not in the form of a bribe).  In response to the relocation of the All-Star Game, and other corporate criticisms of the new Georgia voting law, McCONnell once again illustrated his willingness to speak profusely, if not effectively, out of both sides of his mouth.  In the view of the minority leader of the World's Greatest Deliberative Body, money is speech, but speech is not speech.  Once again, we need Orwell to come back from the dead and say, "Hold my beer."

Someone needs to step in and tell Mitch that it's not working.  Boy, is it not working.  If anything, it looks like it's going to cost his party money.  Which means its going to cost it votes.  Too bad (not really).

In the end, if Georgia Democrats and their political allies can find the right mix of boycotting and direct action via organizing--and they'll need our help with both--the efforts of Republicans in the state and in other states will produce the political outcome that they, and their opponents deserve.  Fight or flight?  It's a false choice.  We need to do both.  And, for those of you who haven't started already, you need to get started right now.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Now We Are Engaged In A Great Civil War

How do you write about the most recent gun violence, without saying the words "again" and "enough"?  You can't, and you shouldn't.

But where do we go from there, with only one political party committed to taking action that would sensibly save lives without infringing on any honest understanding of the Second Amendment, while the other one looks away from the funerals with "thoughts and prayers" while the NRA, a gun-manufacturers' lobbyist group that ironically started life as a gun-safety organization, stuffs campaign cash in its pockets?

The debate we're having now is not about guns generally.  If that was ever a battle, and I don't think it was, it ended a long time ago, and gun-ownership advocates won it handily.  No one objects to the personal defense of one's home or business.  No one (or, at least, almost no one) objects to hunting.  And no one objects to the existence of firing ranges.  I don't object to any of these things.  When it comes to hunting, well, I eat meat, so I would be a hypocrite to object to that.  I shot air rifles in summer camp, and enjoyed it very much.  And, if you live or work in a rough patch, no one's going to object to you taking steps to protect yourself--provided that the steps you take include making sure that any weapons you owned are secured in such a way that someone can't gain access to them in order to misuse them.

Guns are dangerous.  They are weapons.  They are dangerous by design.  This is why they need to be regulated in the first instance.  And the Constitution explicitly fails to blink at this need; it not only recognizes the need to keep arms regulated, but "well-regulated."  Moreover, the Second Amendment provides for regulation even in the context of military use, i.e., the "militia."  Militias are organized.  Militias exist and operate under color of state law.  Militias are not randomly-summoned groups of people who think of firearms as a fashion or party accessory.  Militias are meant to act in response to specific threats against the general public, not members of a particular political party.  

And, when that threat is vanquished, militias are meant to stand down, permit the resumption of civilian life, and be ready for the next threat.  That is why the right to the personal possession of firearms is recognized as a constitutional right in the first place.

Indeed, that is why then-Justice Antonin Scalia struck down, on behalf of the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller, a D.C. statute that forbade all private ownership of guns in the district.  That law went too far; under any understanding of the Second Amendment's terms, it could not pass constitutional muster.  As an attorney, I disagree with the reasoning in Heller, primarily because it strove to diminish the import of the clause regarding regulation, and then left the broader question of whether any gun regulation is constitution to dicta that states, outside of the ambit of the Court's legal holding, that there are many reasons why government should be able to regulate guns.  This was based on a cramped philosophy of statutory construction, which somehow treated the "well-regulated" clause as purely introductory, while failing to construe that the right preserved in the Amendment is a right of "the people" and not of individuals.

Heller is worth a law review article all by itself, but that's not my purpose in bringing it up here.  Rather, I want to emphasize that at least some conservative voices, like that of the late Justice Scalia, understand that the right to own guns and the power of the state to regulate them exist in our constitutional structure, as do many other seemingly contradictory provisions, in order to balance each other and to ensure that neither is being misused for purposes other than the formation of a more perfect Union.

In other words, weapons of war fall outside of the protection of the Second Amendment.  There is no Second Amendment right to own explosives.  There is no Second Amendment right to own artillery.  There is no Second Amendment right to own missiles or missile-launchers.  And there is no Second Amendment right to own an H-bomb.

And that's the problem we have.  That's why the lost souls of Atlanta and Boulder join those of far too many other communities across the nation.

They were killed by weapons of war.  Specifically, by assault rifles.  By guns that have no essential, or even practical use in civilian life.   By weapons designed to be lethal on such a massive scale that their regulation is a matter of public safety, not tyranny.  Any individual with deadly intentions or an inability to control their intentions, deadly or otherwise, only needs one such weapon, and one magazine with which to load it, to become a public menace.

That is, to become a menace to the peaceful operation of society.  To become the exceptional moment, not the everyday one.  To become a source of righteous outrage that demands swift, effective action by public officials, regardless of their party affiliation and, above all, regardless of who is paying their bills.

Thoughts and prayers don't cut it.  Thoughts and prayers with a willingness to enable the circumstances that ensure more opportunities for them amount to the worst sort of virtue-signaling.  It doesn't wash the blood off the hands of those doing the signaling, any more than it washes it off the hands of the people who pull the triggers.

Once upon a time, back in the 1990s, a period that was no stranger to partisan culture wars, we managed to muster enough combined outrage and common sense to ban assault weapons.  It worked.  There is absolutely no reason that it can't work again.  It won't stop every mass killing, but it would stop many of them, and it would be a far more fitting memorial to those we've already lost.  It would be absolutely more appreciated by the survivors of those we've already lost than "thoughts and prayers."  And there are additional steps that need to be taken, that would help to ensure fewer lives lost without violating anyone's right to keep and bear arms.

If it were up to me, we would, as a nation, emulate Japan, which has one of the lowest rates of deaths by gun violence in the world.  Take a look at the video here, which outlines in detail the steps that a private individual needs.  Maybe you think it's too restrictive.  Frankly, I don't.  But, that could just be me.  I measure the burden that it imposes on the lives of prospective gun owners in Japan as far smaller than the burdens that the deaths of victims imposes on the victims themselves.  Good news:  they have no need to worry about government forms and tests.  Bad news:  they're dead, and any dreams they had are with them.  This doesn't even begin to get into the burdens imposed on their survivors, and on society when it comes to the costs of caring for the victims and the survivors.

If you have any doubt about the costs on all of us that the Wild West of the current status quo imposes, take a look here.  At the very least, gun manufacturers and gun owners should be required to be insured against the harm that comes from being a paradise for gun-toting.

And the extent of gun-toting that we now have isn't even enough for the gun-toters.  Once upon a time, I used to joke that they wouldn't be satisfied until everyone is required to own one.  Well, the joke is now on me.  But, sadly, now it's on all of us.  And death may be an inevitability, but that doesn't give anyone the right to make it more likely.

Strictly speaking, this should not even be a partisan divide.  The New York Post, whose owner has done more to support Donald Trump than anyone else has, has consistently taken a position in favor of an assault weapons ban.  It recently re-affirmed that position.  But the Post appears to be an isolated case.  The Washington lobbyists masquerading as office-holders, and the investing class that funds their perpetual re-election, prefers to allow the merchants of death to rake in the big bucks, even while proclaiming themselves to be "pro-life."

To borrow from Lincoln, and as the assault on the Capitol demonstrated, we are now engaged in a great civil war.  Between a party that respects the Constitution, including its provisions on guns, and a party that treats the Constitution as a slogan, and views guns as both a means and an end.  Ultimately, the type of society we will have, the type of society your children will grow up in, will depend on which one of those parties wins, and keeps on winning.

That's up to you.  But, if you really want to choose life without upsetting the Constitution, you should know by now which one you need to vote for.  Next year, and after that as well.