Bolivia, China, and 1984

November 12, 2019

Bolivia’s longest-serving President Evo Morales was first elected in 2006, a left-winger, of indigenous background, former head of the Coca growers union. He held a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run for a fourth term. Voters said no. He ran again anyway. Typically for such autocrats, he got a packed court to legalize this. But voters said no again. When Morales tried to fiddle the election results, huge protests ensued. On Sunday, the military — Morales had not consolidated his co-opting it — finally said he must go. And Morales actually did step down; as did three others in his line of succession.

So it’s still possible for citizens to get rid of a seemingly entrenched regime. This is very encouraging. Yet the global trend is unfortunately contrary. Such regimes are perfecting the techniques for staying in power, neutralizing opposition. Look at Venezuela. The Maduro gang is literally destroying the country, impoverishing the populace, yet still it seems impregnable. There, unlike in Bolivia, the army is totally in bed with the regime. They’ve got the guns, and aren’t squeamish about using them.

It also helps to have at least some citizen support. In Venezuela, there are actually still a lot of people who actually believe the regime’s propaganda and back it. And they go into the streets and use organized violence against regime opponents.

It is indeed dismaying how so many people, everywhere, can be so misguided in their political allegiances. Look at Brazil. Its last presidential election had a run-off between right-wing and left-wing extremists — because in the first round few people would vote for the sensible, responsible moderate choice. So they wound up with an absolutely terrible person. The Brazilian Trump. Then there’s the Philippine Trump. Not to mention, of course, the American one.

But the godfather of authoritarian regimes, consummating the techniques for holding unchallengeable power, is China’s. PBS recently ran an exploration of Artificial Intelligence; one segment, titled “The Surveillance State,” focused on China’s use of AI to suppress any and all dissension. In its largely Muslim province of Uighuristan, it employs AI to intensively profile every citizen (or, more accurately, subject), and anyone suspect has been put into “re-education camps.” It’s estimated that that’s a million people. Meantime, nationwide, China is perfecting facial recognition technology to keep tabs on everyone, deploying a “social credit” system giving every inhabitant a score for subservience. Those with low scores are being treated accordingly. To make the whole system truly pervasive, China is deploying — wait for it — surveillance cameras — six hundred million of them.

Hong Kong is in revolt against all this. It’s widely feared that this must end with China’s regime violently cracking down, like in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Maybe; but I suspect that will not happen because it’s not necessary for China’s regime. There is simply no way for Hong Kongers to gain the democracy they seek. The Beijing bosses can just sit tight doing nothing. And the vast majority of China’s population is actually already so brainwashed that they support the regime — fervently —against the Hong Kongers.

Nineteen Eighty-Four may have been too optimistic. At the book’s end it was clear it was looking back on a regime that was no more.

Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy

November 9, 2019

Democrats love government; Republicans hate it. Of course that’s a big oversimplification. But in this respect Elizabeth Warren is the quintessential Democrat.

I was long a Republican, with a libertarian/conservative perspective. Not hating government, but seeing unconstrained government power as a problem. Warren doesn’t share that viewpoint.

The word “socialist” is thrown around a lot by people who don’t actually know what it means. It’s not “social welfare” or government regulating the private sector; it’s government replacing it.

Warren says she’s no socialist, and seems to mean it, actually having good things to say about the role of the private sector in creating economic dynamism. At least in concept. However, she does propose what amounts to socialism for one major economic sector: health care, prohibiting private insurance.

There’s much to hate about private health insurers. Typically in free market capitalism, a company makes money by making customers happy. But health insurers perversely make money by limiting what customers get. Nevertheless, it remains a principle of a free society for people to choose for themselves, and many Americans seem satisfied with their health insurance arrangements.

Taking that freedom away, with a government-only system, is not only wrong but unnecessary. Let Democrats instead create a government option as an alternative. If, as they believe, it’s so much better, it will outcompete private insurers and put them out of business that way. Warren’s refusal to accept that logic is politically stupid. Pointlessly so, because her plan can’t be enacted.

She targets inequality, her centerpiece proposal being a wealth tax (also impossible to enact). This reflects the standard left wing mindset of seeing the problem as what the rich have, as if it’s gotten at the expense of the rest (a basic fallacy). Thus their approach of beating down the rich rather than finding ways to uplift the others.

Actually, Warren does have some proposals in the latter vein, and some are actually reasonable. And I actually agree that richer people like me should pay more tax, especially after Trump’s disgraceful tax giveaways. But a wealth tax is a terrible idea, as several countries trying it have found out. Will an army of federal assessors be sent out to evaluate the worth of all rich folks’ assets — all the mansions, yachts, art collections? Which would invite stratagems to hide wealth and otherwise avoid the tax.

Far better to resuscitate the moribund estate tax. That makes much economic and social sense, and the counter-arguments are bogus. But the estate tax has gotten politically toxic. Though I cannot fathom how a wealth tax sounds better.

More broadly, a cause of inequality is corporate power, which Warren seeks to curb. And I find much to agree with here, free market champion though I am. “Free market” really means free, with open competition. With that, consumers capture the lion’s share of wealth creation. But too many big corporations use their power to squelch competition, especially by enlisting government in that effort. It’s one of the reasons I’m leery of government in general. Warren does have some plans, like stronger antitrust enforcement, breaking up “crony capitalism,” that I endorse; yet her idealization of government seems oblivious to how it’s in the very nature of big government to be captured and suborned by powerful businesses in the ways she herself decries.

And when it comes to coddling businesses, Warren herself does exactly that with her protectionist stance toward trade. Historically, Democrats were the party of free trade, understanding how that benefits consumers and the country as a whole, whereas Republicans were the protectors of businesses. But somewhere the left lost its way on this issue — while Republicans saw the light — until Trump came along and blinded them. Warren would not roll back his insane trade policies, that so harm the global economy and our own.

But most fundamentally, I don’t like the tenor of her campaign. The us-against-them stridency. That if you’re not on board with her program, totally, you stand for nothing, you’re weak, part of the problem, even morally deficient. It’s just this sort of scorched-earth partisan bloody-mindedness that’s tearing the country apart. Warren’s favorite word is “fight.” I think America’s had enough fighting; let’s have some peace.

I have endorsed Joe Biden, whose moderation and centrist reasonableness are far more in line with what we so desperately need. And, notwithstanding all the whining about Biden’s supposed electoral weaknesses, I continue to see him as the best candidate to beat Trump. (That’s why Trump viciously targets him.) National polls show Biden beating Trump soundly; with Warren it’s a toss-up. Her high-octane ideological shrillness (not to mention, alas, her gender) turns off a lot of voters. Whereas Biden is seen as a calm safe pair of hands, an antidote to the sturm und drang of Trump’s presidency.

Pete Buttigieg scores even higher on centrist reasonableness. He’s actually by far the best of all the candidates. His being gay would repel some voters, but I think most would be able to get past that when they see his admirable qualities. I believe he too would do better against Trump than Warren. And if Buttigieg did manage to rise to the top and get the nomination, it would be America at its best. Gosh how I miss that America.

And if it’s Warren nominated? What’s at stake in this election far transcends matters of ideology or policy. America’s soul will be dead if — after every monstrous vile thing he’s done — Trump is re-elected. It would repudiate every good principle this country used to embody. Warren understands those principles, and is everything Trump is not: honest, well-informed, competent, responsible, a decent and sane human being. For all I’ve said against her, we’d be far better off with her than Trump.* Another four years of him would be the end of America.

An imperfect world presents imperfect choices. If it’s Trump versus Warren, I will support her more strongly than I’ve ever supported any cause in my life.

* And if Republicans’ Trumpmania winds up resulting in their worst nightmare of a left-wing president, it will be poetic justice.

End Road Work? No!

November 8, 2019

We’ve all seen those signs along highways, saying “End Road Work.” This movement seems very misguided. I can think of many things that should be ended, but road work surely isn’t one of them. In fact, most people would consider it a very good thing if not, indeed, vitally necessary. Having myself sustained a flat tire recently due to a pot hole, count me as strongly in support of road work. What can these people be thinking, wanting to end it?

Sure, it can be an annoyance, slowing up traffic. But traffic would ultimately become a lot slower if the campaign against road work succeeds! One of the many things about modernity we blithely take for granted is good serviceable roads. But there’s no free lunch, everything has a cost.

Maybe road work opponents have been confuzzled by all the rhetoric trying to soft-soap socialism, by claiming that anything government does is socialism. So they think road work is socialism. Well, I’d be happy to see it done by the private sector. But failing that, I still want roads repaired, even if it is socialism. There are a lot worse ways for government to use taxpayer money.

Fortunately, years of “End Road Work” signs seem to have had little or no impact on curtailing the practice. These foolish cranks should give up and find a different issue to protest about.

Facebook: helping to destroy civilization

November 5, 2019

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he won’t stop running political ads — even lying ones. Trump has already run ads falsely smearing Biden. But Zuckerberg says Facebook banning or censoring such ads would violate freedom of speech.

He’s wrong. Freedom of speech (embodied in the First Amendment) means government may not squelch what anyone says. Facebook — big and powerful though it is — ain’t the government (yet). “Freedom of speech” in no way obligates Facebook to make itself a platform for lies. (Twitter’s chief Jack Dorsey, trying to be a more responsible citizen than Zuckerberg, is stopping political ads on Twitter.)

We now know how thoroughly Facebook was manipulated by the Russians in 2016 to get Trump elected. It went way beyond political ads. Among other ploys, they also set up vast numbers of seeming Facebook user groups to spread disinformation and dissension.

Not only does Facebook blow it as a gatekeeper on all that, it even does so on it’s own mis-named “news feed.” More accurately a garbage feed. Because to increase traffic (and hence ad revenue) its algorithms parlay user information to show people stuff calculated to push their buttons — whether true or not. And much is not.

In fact Facebook’s system rewards falsity. I heard a radio interview with one guy who candidly explained how he cooked up a false report about Hillary vote fraud, and made thousands from it. This is called “clickbait” — whenever someone clicks on such a link, not just Facebook, but the link’s creator too, make money from ads.

Some time back, a Trumper I know indignantly distributed a bunch of quotes from leading Democrats slamming the Constitution. Obviously (to me) fake quotes. But instead of ignoring it, I did some googling and quickly found the source, a lying website, and the debunking. This was just one small taste of a monster phenomenon.

Manufacturing phony quotes or vote fraud reports is easy enough, low-tech lying. But now you can create fake video. Like the recent “drunk Pelosi” clip. But worse yet, you can even cook up footage showing someone appearing to say whatever outrageous things you want to put in their mouths. Watch for this in the 2020 campaign. How will the average voter know what to believe?

In the internet’s infancy, we naively imagined it would make people better informed. Instead, it’s a fountain of weaponized lies, and most people (like my Trumper friend above) just don’t have the capability for vetting all the stuff coming at them. This poisons the well of information influencing our voting decisions. Democracy cannot function this way.

It’s exacerbated by having a president who — instead of trying to confront the problem — is himself a big part of the problem.

We are headed toward a world where there’s no such thing as truth or reality. Or so it will seem. But, of course, no matter what rubbish fills minds, there will still actually be a reality out there. And voters with rubbish-filled minds will make for a pretty ugly reality.

Trump is just a harbinger.

Political follies across the river in Rensselaer County: Maddening, wilting, laughable, but real

November 3, 2019

Madden

Patrick Madden is the Democratic mayor of Troy. Last time he won the primary against Rodney Wiltshire, an African-American, by only a handful of votes. This year Wiltshire lost the Democratic mayoral primary again, but is running on the Green and Independence party* lines. Tom Reale, a State Senate staffer, originally wanted to run for city council but Republicans persuaded him to be their candidate for Mayor.

Wiltshire

Then the party’s local bosses, led by Rensselaer County Exec Steve McLaughlin and his henchman Richard Crist, had a meeting with Reale and bullied him to exit the race. Why? They’d decided Wiltshire had a better chance to beat Madden. In fact, they’d already previously connived Wiltshire’s Green party nomination, getting Republicans to register as Greens and write in Wiltshire’s name — not Reale’s. Other local Republicans are getting in line with this Wiltshire ploy.

Not only are these guys making themselves look terrible with these machinations, but for no purpose. Because Madden is sure to beat either challenger anyway, in now solidly Democratic Troy. How idiotic can McLaughlin and company be?

McLaughlin

Just this morning a tape of the meeting came out, in which McLaughlin, preening his power, his every other word an f-bomb, browbeats, belittles, and threatens Reale.

But bullying is McLaughlin’s style. Previously a state legislator, he was then recorded being loudly and vulgarly abominable toward a female staffer. But in the age of Trump, such behavior no longer matters — among “family values” Republicans. So they promoted him to County Exec. He continues to spew out bombastic Trump-like tweets.

Reale

Reale initially bowed to McLaughlin’s pressure and stopped his campaign. But then, with just a week to go, Reale reversed himself, publicly calling out McLaughlin’s bullying tactics, which we already knew about.

Meantime, the state has now instituted early voting. Rensselaer county’s population is concentrated in the city of Troy, which has a lot of non-whites and Democrats. But the county government, thanks to rural votes, is still controlled by Republicans. And, following the Republican playbook of striving to deny minorities the vote, they put the county’s early voting site not in Troy but out in the boondocks, difficult for city dwellers (especially the many without cars) to get to.

In Troy, in 2016, a black motorist, Edson Thevenin, was killed in a hail of bullets by a white cop, Randall French, under dubious circumstances. The Republican District Attorney, Joel Abelove, quickly brought French before a grand jury with no waiver of immunity, guaranteeing he couldn’t be prosecuted. Abelove was criminally prosecuted himself, by the state attorney general, for his role in this. Meantime the local police department also whitewashed French. But then, due to widespread public outcry, a Troy police captain, Joseph Centanni, was engaged to review the case. He courageously wrote a report concluding that the killing was unjustified, French lied about it, and the Troy police department conspired in a cover-up. (This was also the conclusion of the state attorney general, in prosecuting DA Abelove.) But Mayor Madden didn’t like the Centanni report, so not only did he hide it, even from the city council, but he also hired yet another guy to conduct of a review of it. And guess what? That second report tried to poke holes in the first one. But Mayor Madden refused to release that report too, refusing even to reveal how much the city government spent on it.

I don’t live in Troy, but if I did, I’d vote for Reale.

* There’s nothing “independent” about it, this is a shill party actually cooked up by Republicans.

Two kinds of Trumpers

October 31, 2019

He famously said he’d lose no votes if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. Recently one of his lawyers actually argued in court that if he did it, the law could not touch him.

I’ve written a lot about confirmation bias, an aspect of human psychology whose importance seems growing. It’s the proclivity to embrace information agreeing with one’s beliefs, and shun anything contrary. Smarter people are actually more susceptible. Education makes some think they’re know-it-alls. And they’re more skilled at confabulating rationalizations to justify their stances.

We see this in anti-vaxxers. The more science proves them wrong, the more they dig in. And these are not dumb people. Again, smarter than average. Too smart for their own good. “The greatest deception from which men suffer is their own opinions,” wrote Leonardo da Vinci.

Groupthink also operates. You get yourself in a group of like thinkers, and they reinforce each other. In fact, studies have shown a tendency for such groups to be pulled toward the views of their most extreme members.

All this is epidemic among Trump supporters. Like some relentless commenters on my local newspaper blog — fountains of what they think are facts and information, talking points from the right-wing groupthink echo-chamber. These guys are all full of the Steele Dossier*, FISA warrants, spies, Hillary-this and Hillary-that, demonizing Adam Schiff, deep state conspiracy theories, all soon to be proven, dastardly Democrats demolished, Trump totally triumphant.

All foolish fantasy.

Just as they’re blind to Trump’s big con, equally are they impervious to actual facts. Like his disgusting business history of rip-offs, Trump University fraud, inheritance tax fraud, charitable foundation fraud. Everything in the Mueller report proving how Russia subverted our election, and how Trump conspired to obstruct justice. Now the shocking proof about his mis-use of Ukraine aid. Trump’s blatant brobdingnagian record of lies and other swineries. And so on and on and on, it would fill many ghastly pages. All dismissed as “fake news.”

Nothing will break the spell. They’ll go their graves waving their arms still bleating about the Steele Dossier and all, while the rest of the world has moved on. History will look back on them like we look back at flat earthers and The Inquisition.

John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Mindful of that quote, and the phenomena of confirmation bias and groupthink, I strive to avoid those pitfalls. I was a lifelong conservative Republican. But when in 2016 the Republican party, and what went by the name “conservative,” drastically changed, I changed my mind. I don’t laud myself. It was forced upon me, by reality.

So why don’t most Republicans see what was so clear to me? Are confirmation bias and groupthink really that powerful? Apparently so, and it’s extremely disturbing. An unprecedented extreme of political loyalty — to a man of unprecedented vileness. There’s no Trump depravity they won’t defend or excuse, no idiotic attack of his they won’t parrot.

It’s partly explained by that very muscularity of badness, all previous politics seeming weak tea in comparison. Between a strong horse and a weak one, people by nature prefer the strong horse (said Osama bin Laden). Even if the strength is in monstrousness.

Then too, hate is stronger than love. These folks are infused less with Trump love than with hatred for the other side.

And for the people I’ve described, Trumpism has become central to their human identity, their very existence. It’s the reality they’ve constructed for themselves to inhabit. Like the religious beliefs most of them also hold. Oliver Cromwell told an opponent, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” These people cannot think it possible, neither regarding religious faith nor Trump faith.

But such zealots are actually a small minority of Trump voters. Most are just, well, ordinary normal people. For whom politics just isn’t that important. The Steele Dossier? Never heard of it. It’s all just a blurry buzz in the background of their lives. To them, Trump may appear to be doing a good job. Shaking things up like he said he would. The economy is OK. He’s not a politician — a good thing. A “successful businessman” — ditto. All the arguing is just a lot of noise. Democrats are all effete socialists.

The world order that Trump’s blowing up is far outside their consciousness. The basic American ideals he’s shredding had become so commonplace, so deep in the background, they’re no longer even visible — hence their destruction doesn’t even register.

So, unlike those who actually refuse to see how horrible this is for America, most Trump voters don’t see it because . . . they simply don’t see it.

The first type are a lost cause. But not so the latter. I continue to believe that the great majority of Americans are (like humans everywhere) good people. While we must, alas, write off the former group, the latter we must embrace, as our neighbors and fellow countrymen, to find commonality, to get us all past this ugly interlude of our history. We need a new president for whom this reconciliation is a top priority. In the words of Lincoln, “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . . let us strive . . . to bind up the nation’s wounds . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

* For the record: The claim is that a dodgy dossier, paid for by Democrats, was behind the Russia investigation. Steele was a former officer with Britain’s intelligence service who’d previously given ours much useful material. Democrats hiring him in 2016 didn’t taint his work. When he gave it to the FBI, it fit with what they were already seeing. Though allegations of Trump hotel sex hijinks couldn’t be documented, Steele’s detailing how the Russians had long been working Trump certainly merited investigation. It would have been a scandal if the FBI had not followed up. And there was loads of other evidence for Russia’s efforts to manipulate our election, justifying the investigation — which proved it. This was no hoax or witch-hunt. It’s Barr’s investigation of the investigation that’s a hoax and witch-hunt.

What is humanism?

October 28, 2019

Some religious voices assail humanism as a belief in nothing. Thus blamed for (supposed) moral rot; as if morality needs some supernatural basis. While labeling humanism just another religion or faith, no more provable than any other.

Humanism is not a religion or faith, but a philosophy, originating in ancient times with thinkers like Epicurus and Lucretius, with a rebirth in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It’s a way of understanding life and the world, anchored in reason and reality. This does mean eschewing religious superstitions, all the deities, immortality, etc. But humanism is not simply nonbelief; it’s not believing in nothing.

To the contrary, humanists have strong beliefs — strong indeed by virtue of requiring no leap of “faith,” no suspension of disbelief. Humanism’s truths are self-evident:

All of existence comprises natural laws and processes; there’s no such thing as “supernatural.” Nature has no purpose; it just is. We ourselves are products of nature, evolved with minds enabling us to use reason and science to understand it, tackle our problems, aspire to justice, and shape our own destinies. Thus humanism believes in progress, taking pride in what we strive for and have achieved. Humanism is love for humanity.

Our earthly life is the only one we get; and nothing can ultimately matter except the feelings of beings that feel. This tells us our purpose is to make them as good as possible. Which gives our lives ample meaning, as well as providing the bedrock of morality — to enable every person, oneself included, to live fully and attain happiness. This means equality of human dignity, democracy, freedom of thought and expression.

It’s what our Declaration of Independence says. The Constitution’s preamble similarly targets human flourishing, with no deity mentioned. Thus was America founded not as a “Christian nation” but a quintessentially humanist one.

The humanism elucidated here is the essence of rationality and sanity. Most of us, even if professing other creeds, actually live our lives, most of the time, in accordance with these common sense humanistic concepts. And they’re not necessarily incompatible with a religious faith. Believers act humanistically in battling for social justice. Even if you believe in an afterlife, nobody can be sure, and contemplating the possibility of earthly life’s finality spurs one to cherish it and improve it for all of us. Aiming to solve problems ourselves by confronting earthbound realities — rather than putting the whole burden on a deity who, if he does exist, probably has plenty to do.

It’s when we deviate from these humanistic paradigms that trouble brews. Religions, rooted in different cultures, with irreconcilable claims to ultimate truth, are unending sources of conflict. Humanism offers a universal philosophy to unite us.

Death is tragic, but to live at all is a glorious gift. Only by coming to terms with the reality of our existence, as embodied in humanism, can we live authentically and meaningfully. “Being at one with everything” is a cliché of Buddhism; but I get a similar feeling from how my humanism grounds me in my engagement with life, the world, and humankind. It’s better than religion because it’s true.

Trump and Republicans: how vile can it get?

October 25, 2019

Before Trump took office, I wrote that power doesn’t make bad men better. Since, I’ve kept repeating: it will get worse. And so it goes.

Trump’s every word about the Syria situation perverts reality. He now says he’s lifting sanctions on Turkey because they’ve “agreed” to stop their military action. The action Trump green-lighted, and called a great victory for civilization. Actually, Turkey is ending it because it’s achieved its aims. But Trump boasts Turkey’s “agreement” means the picture in the region is now one shaped by America. Actually, it’s a Turkish agreement with Russia, America removed from the picture.

Trump meantime pats himself on the back for “bringing our troops home.” Actually, they’re redeployed elsewhere in the Middle East.

He says he’s saved thousands of lives. Actually, hundreds have been killed and over 160,000 forced to flee. Trump has oceans of blood on his hands. The atrocities apparently continue despite the supposed cease-fire. It’s a horrific human tragedy. He says it’s a U.S. foreign policy triumph. Actually, it’s a giant foreign policy debacle. Betraying our long time allies*,  rewarding the mass murderer Assad and dictatorial Erdogan. ISIS ranks are replenished. Others in the world will now think twice before trusting America about anything. Trump’s betrayal is explicable, if at all, only as serving the interests of our enemy Russia. It is treason simpliciter, and merits impeachment.

But Trump’s being impeached for a different abuse of power. Though one Trump apologist is quoted saying abuse of power is not a crime.

There’s an old lawyer line: if the facts support you, pound the facts. If the law supports you, pound the law. If neither, pound the table.

With facts and law increasingly leaving Trumpsters with no place to hide, they’re pounding the table, frantically, attacking the legitimacy of the impeachment process. Trump says it’s a lynching. Lynching entailed a mob hanging a usually innocent black person, normally with hideous torture, including cutting off genitals and forcing the victim to eat them.

But speaking of mobs, a mob of Republican congressmen literally stormed a secure room to disrupt for hours a committee hearing therein. The hearing was being conducted behind closed doors in a secure facility to protect sensitive national security information under discussion. That’s standard congressional practice. The Republican mob used actual violence and breached security by bringing in forbidden electronic devices. Their pretext was bogus, as if Republicans were being somehow shut out of the hearing; in fact, of course, Republican members of the committee were always in the room, with full rights to question witnesses and otherwise participate. And open public hearings on everything are scheduled to follow.

The more undeniable Trump’s monstrousness becomes, the more unhinged do Republicans become in their denial. Their mob violence was intended to distract attention from the testimony of Ambassador William Taylor, which was devastating and shocking. Taylor was a professional brought out of retirement by Pompeo to man the Ukraine embassy after our ambassador, Marie Jovanovich, was improperly removed at Trump’s order. Taylor’s testimony detailed how Trump improperly outsourced U.S. Ukraine policy to a rogue actor, Giuliani, because nobody in the proper chain of command would do the slimy stuff Trump wanted. Namely, extorting Ukraine’s complicity in smearing Biden and Democrats as a quid pro quo for releasing $391 million in Congressionally-mandated military aid that Trump was improperly withholding. (Aid to help Ukraine fight  Russia!)

Another effort to distract from Ukraine is Attorney General Barr’s now opening a “criminal investigation” of the Mueller probe’s origin. Trump always called it a hoax and a witch-hunt, based on various absurd conspiracy theories. Now his stooge Barr is resurrecting all that nonsense, launching an investigation of his own Justice Department. This  is a hoax and a witch-hunt. “History repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce.”

If Trump’s actions concerning Ukraine weren’t wrong, then the word has no meaning. No president before ever did anything remotely so malign. The impeachment inquiry is being lawfully conducted by the lawfully elected House of Representatives, pursuant to express constitutional provisions. There are no violations of due process or anyone’s rights. What is being revealed, rather, is destruction by Trump and Republicans of every principle this country used to stand for.

I was a Republican for 53 years. What has become of the party is tragic. It must be defeated.

* Correction: I wrote previously that the Kurds had lost 11,000 men fighting ISIS on our behalf. Should have said “men and women.” Sorry.

 

Impeachment, Nixon, and me

October 22, 2019

I watched Nixon’s 1974 farewell speech live, with tears in my eyes. Not tears of sorrow; it was actually a bizarre speech. But at the moment’s poignancy and historical weight.

I’d been a fervent Nixon supporter in 1968, and he was my friend. A slight exaggeration, but I did feel a personal connection. In my teens I would write to famous people for autographs. This was before celebrity culture; they weren’t inundated and would often reply. I wrote to Nixon several times about politics while he was in New York exile after his dual election defeats. Looking toward a comeback, he was working the Republican vineyards; probably didn’t realize I was a kid. Anyhow, he would respond to me not with form letters but meaty disquisitions that seemed obviously personally dictated.

He was my dream presidential candidate, which seemed a pipe dream at first, given the GOP’s crushing 1964 defeat. I was very active in Republican politics, both on campus and in the real world. I signed up with Nixon’s campaign. A huge Nixon poster adorned my bedroom. On Election Day (my first vote), I was a poll worker, then stayed up through the night watching returns. It was a nail-biter.

I remember my elation the next day, commuting to my law school. My classmates were mostly radical left, with only a handful of “out” Republicans. Sixty-eight was such a tumultuous year. But in the end, it was my guy who’d won. I was over the moon.

Later I was actually appointed by Nixon to a minor federal commission.

As Watergate unfolded, I followed events closely. Carefully read the transcripts of White House tapes, and was appalled. The man there revealed was not who we’d thought he was. Most Republicans had the same reaction.

I was as partisan as anyone. Indeed, at the time, deeply engaged in the political wars locally, as a ward leader. But I saw no animus by any Republicans against Democrats over impeachment. It was not a partisan issue, it was about the facts. Nixon resigned because his own party could not condone what he’d done.

Certainly they were not demonizing Democrats as “traitors,” as trying to mount a “coup” to overturn the previous election, or any such nonsense. Even Nixon himself, in that mawkish farewell speech, did not impugn his opponents’ motives.

Trump’s offenses are far worse than Nixon’s. Nixon tried to cover up a “third rate burglary.” Trump, the mis-use of hundreds of millions in U.S. aid, perverting our foreign policy, for his own base political ends. Mulvaney saying this is normal, and we should just “get over it,” insulted our intelligence.

But not only do Republicans defend Trump, their idea of a defense is cooking up false smears against Democrats, like their meritless attack on Adam Schiff for supposedly lying — he didn’t — as if Trump isn’t the biggest liar ever. What a sickening disgrace.

Trump’s behavior shows he’s trying to prove he can get away with absolutely anything. Our president is literally an insane out-of-control monster, a patsy for dictators, yet Republicans still have his back. When Senate Republicans vote to clear him, it will be their final, ultimate degradation. While Democratic presidential canmdidates are off on another planet somewhere fixated on the minutiae of health care plans. If Trump is re-elected, America will need mental health care.

In 1974 we were all Americans, first and foremost. Not blinded by partisan tribalism. We could tell right from wrong. Truth from lies. And true patriots from Russian stooges.

What a different country that was. I mourn for it, with tears of sorrow in my eyes.

DeRay Mckesson and Black Lives Matter

October 20, 2019

DeRay Mckesson is a Baltimorean who got activist during the Ferguson protests and is prominent in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. He wrote a book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope. I wanted to like it.

The opening chapters reminded me of when an opposing lawyer called my first major brief a “Proustian stream of consciousness.” It wasn’t a compliment. (I was the sidekick on that brief; the next I wrote alone, more coherently.) Mckesson seems to string together a flood of thoughts as they occur to him, with no organization or clear line of argument.

The third chapter is much better, focusing on police vis-a-vis blacks. Mckesson’s basic point is that the police have little accountability. We hire them to uphold our laws but they become a law unto themselves. The book explains this in detail, examining local police contracts, negotiated by their unions, geared toward protecting cops against any misconduct charges, by creating roadblocks for complaints.

But a point strangely missing here is that while many cops are sincere public servants aiming to do good, too often police work attracts the wrong sort. Who see the badge as a license to assert their manhood by swaggering with weapons, to be a bully, to vent what are really antisocial proclivities. Or just plain racist ones. Whites may be oblivious to this police brutality because they don’t bear its brunt.

Which brings us to the chapter on white privilege. Here again, unfortunately, the author throws together a welter of ideas, many really rhetorical non-sequiturs, with no coherent line of argument. The “white privilege” trope is polemical jiu-jitsu. It’s not that whites enjoy some special status. What they get is what everyone should get — human privilege. The problem is blacks not receiving it. A simple concept unspoken in Mckesson’s treatment.

“Black Lives Matter” is not a negation of other lives mattering. It’s black lives mattering as much as others. Recognizing the reality that for most of our history, and even now in many places and many hearts, they matter less. Mckesson never says anything so straightforward. The point, like so much else, gets lost in all his verbal gymnastics.

Nearing the book’s middle, I realized that two words in particular were weirdly absent: slavery and lynching. They finally did get a passing mention. But Mckesson first unfolds a bizarre analogy to a stolen lottery ticket, enriching the thief and his descendants, while the victim’s remain poor. As if losing an unearned lottery windfall is remotely comparable to the suffering of slavery and lynching.

A Martian reading this book would not realize that enslavement was the foundational experience of African-Americans. And that during the Jim Crow century, thousands of blacks, often (or mostly?) innocent, were lynched, often with hideous barbarity, to “keep them in their place” through plain terror. In Georgia in 1918, Haynes Turner, an innocent man, was lynched. His wife protested to authorities. She was then arrested, and turned over to a mob, stripped, hung upside down, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death, her belly slashed open to pull out her unborn child, who they stomped to death.

It’s as though Mckesson can’t bring himself to talk plainly about such things. Odd, considering all his assertions that America isn’t truly confronting its race situation, actually one of his key themes. He ends the chapter saying this: “Whiteness is an idea and a choice. We can choose differently. We can introduce new ideas to replace it.”

What?? Maybe I’m too dumb to grasp what he’s talking about there. Or maybe it’s just meaningless word spinning.

Mckesson too often gets tangled in such rhetorical knots and convoluted concepts. He says Charleston racist killer Dylann Roof didn’t get called a “terrorist” to somehow avoid holding him accountable and to “preserve this lie” that crimes by blacks reflect racial pathology whereas white people’s crimes are “just the errant actions of individual actors.” What??

The author’s indictment encompasses most whites, few (if any) meeting his stringent wokeness test, hence being part of the problem in his eyes. Too broad a brush, methinks. Meantime, notwithstanding his mention of Dylann Roof, he says little about burgeoning white nationalist ideology, egged on by Trump, which is coming to be recognized as the nation’s number one terrorist threat. Even absent continued shootings, this poison’s spread could tear the country apart. Mckesson has no answer.

The antepenultimate chapter is a breath of fresh air. Starting it, I sat up and realized this immediately. No more cutesie rhetorical pyrotechnics but clear eloquent honesty — about his growing up gay and how he’s come to terms with it.

But thinking about the book as a whole — this may seem strange for me to say now — what it really is is poetry. Poetry isn’t necessarily linear. It’s more about feeling than argument. I can see Mckesson performing a lot of what he wrote in a poetry slam. But as a book trying to actually elucidate a subject, it really didn’t work for me.