Archive for July, 2019

Trump and the white trash syndrome

July 31, 2019

Not all antebellum Southern whites owned slaves. Most were much too poor. They lived in squalor. But they had one consolation: holding themselves above blacks.

This actually accentuated after the war, when Southern poverty was ubiquitous. Read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by Evans and Agee, a searing portrait of Depression-era Southern deprivation — among whites. And again there was one thing they could cling to: at least they weren’t black.

It’s the white trash syndrome. Exemplified by the Ewells in To Kill a Mockingbird. In their depth of degradation, it was desperately important to be able to see one group, at least, as even lower.

To be clear, poverty itself is not degradation. Poorer people are not generally less worthy. While some may be responsible for their straits, the bigger factor is mere luck, especially who your parents were. Many poor people live honorable lives. Poverty makes that harder (and so poor people who do live upstanding lives deserve extra credit), but poverty doesn’t make you white trash. It’s what’s in your head and heart that does. And if you do have white trash attitudes, you more likely are responsible for your poverty.

It wasn’t the Southern aristocracy so insistent on keeping blacks “in their place.” Their position was secure and not threatened by blacks. It was instead the white trash feeling imperiled; if blacks prospered as respectable members of society, then the white trash would be on the bottom. So it was they who fought tooth and nail against giving blacks an inch, perpetrating the hideous violence aimed at keeping them down.

We’re seeing a version of this syndrome recrudesce in Trump support. Careful studies of polling data have shown that the one factor most closely correlated with Trump support is racial antagonism. Whites who are doing fine have no cause for animus against other ethnicities flourishing. But a big segment of today’s white population is not doing fine. Especially less educated middle aged men, especially outside major cities. This demographic looms large in the opioid crisis. That’s one way to cope with feeling devalued. Another, as with the old white trash syndrome, is sticking it to a different group they can see as even lower. They need to keep blacks where they were.

But they’re failing. Where non-whites were previously marginalized, they’re now mainstreamed, America becoming less white. This messes with some people’s sense of identity. Today’s America is no longer a collective they really feel tight with. Moreover, some see the change as actually happening at the expense of whites. So compounding the economic malaise is an aggrieved resentment, scapegoating non-whites. All the more potent if you furthermore imagine them inferior.

It’s evident in the flood of comments to a blog post I wrote, titled “Why so many blacks in ads?” One might have expected critiques along lines of “reverse racism” or overdone political correctness. Instead most simply vent hatred toward blacks. A recent one actually said racial divisions are caused by blacks’ violence; you never see whites acting that way! These people are obviously desperate to have a group they can look down on. (Oblivious that they’re actually proving their own inferiority.)

Of course Trump’s never actually said ethnic minorities are inferior — though he’s come close. He did apply the words “very fine people” to the white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville. Racists, neo-Nazis, and KKKers cheered this, immensely empowered. Of course his disgusting recent racist tweetstorms play to them. And the cruel war on migrants, racialist at its core, is the core of Trump’s politics: as if he’ll at least keep the country from becoming even browner.

America’s white trash gets the message loud and clear. That’s why they stick with Trump no matter what. Not all Trump supporters are racist. But all racists are Trump supporters. If their hatefulness wins in 2020, America will be a white trash nation.

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Hey Trump —

July 29, 2019

Regarding your vile comments about Baltimore — IF YOU HATE AMERICA SO MUCH — YOU CAN LEAVE !

(I’ve been to Baltimore often. Lovely city. The Cummings congressional district includes Johns Hopkins Hospital and University.)

New York’s sick joke of a “governmental ethics watchdog”

July 28, 2019

New York State’s “Joint Commission on Public Ethics” (JCOPE) was created by the “Public Integrity Reform Act” to “restore public trust in government.”

Percoco

JCOPE is run by toadies of Governor Andrew Cuomo. His top henchman, Joseph Percoco, was convicted of bribery. The trial also revealed he mis-used public resources for political work. Did JCOPE investigate this? No. When a judge actually ordered JCOPE to vote on investigating, it first appealed, but then agreed to vote.

Did JCOPE reveal the result of that vote? No! (But hasn’t investigated Percoco.)

But lest you think JCOPE is a toothless tiger on public ethics, they’re going after — with a vengeance — Kat Sullivan. Charged with “unregistered lobbying.”

Sullivan

Sullivan claimed that, while a student at Emma Willard school, she was raped by a teacher. She got a settlement from the school. And used some of it to push for legislation (which passed) extending the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims.

This is the “unregistered lobbying” JCOPE is persecuting her for, bombarding her with threatening process and forcing her to incur legal defense costs. Raping her anew. The same JCOPE that gave a pass to bribe-taker Percoco.

Did Sullivan technically violate lobbying registration rules? I have no idea. But it’s obvious what those rules were really aimed at, and it sure wasn’t the likes of Kat Sullivan. The lobbying of public ethics concern is when special interests try to get legislation benefiting them financially, often by spreading money around.* The rules were aimed at bringing at least some transparency to those swampy waters.

Certainly not at hampering or tripping up citizen advocates like Kat Sullivan urging legislative action. Which of course is integral to democracy. In fact, the First Amendment protects not just freedom of speech generally, but specifically the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” That’s what Kat Sullivan was doing.

JCOPE’s putting her through the wringer shreds the First Amendment. A brazen effort to intimidate anyone who, for public-spirited reasons, pushes for legislation. The theory could conceivably extend to writing letters or phoning legislators to urge action (if you do it enough).

This is un-American. An “ethics watchdog” that persecutes such citizen advocates on trumped-up technicalities while turning a blind eye to egregious insider scum like Percoco is what you’d expect in Russia, not America.

(I thank the Albany Times Union and reporter Chris Bragg for highlighting this story.)

POSTSCRIPT: The threshold for “lobbying” expenditures becoming subject to JCOPE regulation used to be $5000. Cuomo’s 2019 budget proposed lowering that to $250. The final number: $500. Gunning for even smaller fry than Kat Sullivan. Meantime JCOPE has published 100 pages of regulations for “grassroots” and social media advocacy. In the Democratic People’s Republic of New York.

* JCOPE has never punished anything in that realm.

How to pick up girls in ancient Rome

July 26, 2019

“The past is a different country; they do things differently there.” We often romanticize “the good old days” because we’ve forgotten what they were really like. As a history buff, I don’t. While also being keenly aware that past peoples were not so different from you or me.

These thoughts were evoked in reading Alberto Angela’s book, The Reach of Rome. It was a gift from a coin customer, John Dunn, a history professor. It’s really good (despite a few mistakes*) in depicting the actual lives of people of all classes in Trajan’s time (98-117 AD). The subtitle is A Journey Through the Lands of the Ancient Empire Following a Coin — as it passes from hand to hand.

The Roman Empire was unique in human annals, stretching from Spain to Syria and Britain to Egypt, for half a millennium. Much of our modern culture is an evolution from our Roman heritage.

The book doesn’t sugarcoat the harsher aspects of Roman life. A battle is shown in quite gory detail. Slavery was a ubiquitous feature, and wasn’t confined to ethnic minorities. Many were taken in war, but that was well short of needs, and ordinary Romans were quite commonly kidnapped and enslaved.

Lives were short, with no consolation of belief in an afterlife. It was easy to die from an illness or injury that would be no big deal today. Medicine operated with a knowledge base approximating zero.

We’re shown a top surgeon operating to relieve a child’s brain tumor; he follows the prescribed procedure beautifully, but it won’t stop the tumor killing the kid.

Women were particularly perishable. Odds of dying in childbirth were one-in-ten. Do the math for having ten kids. (My calculator says a 35% chance of survival, but that ignores all other hazards.) However, the book suggests contraception existed, though giving no details.

And speaking of bad odds, the author says one in five sea voyages ended on the bottom. This may overstate the risk, but embarkation on such a trip was definitely very scary. And there were no lifeboats. Given this picture, you’d think people would at least learn to swim. But few Romans did (perhaps realizing it was pointless).

Mail service did not exist. To send a letter to another town, you’d have to find someone going there. If overseas, you’d go to the docks looking for a ship sailing there, and pay some passenger to take your letter and (hopefully) deliver it. If the ship makes it.

Yet it’s not all bad. These were again human beings, just like us, and one remarkable characteristic of the species is a capacity to cope with adversity and make the best of things. The book shows how Romans enjoyed themselves.

Specifically, there’s a lot of sex in it. While the punishment for adultery was severe (sealed in a sack with a snake, a chicken, and a dog, and thrown in the river), it wasn’t imposed too often, and Romans tended to be pretty easygoing and freewheeling. Prostitution wasn’t illegal and was everywhere. The author seems to skirt the issue of homosexuality, I suspect because the book was originally published in Italy. But homophobia was not a thing, and men were expected to want sex without it mattering much who or what was on the other end.

As to picking up girls, the book quotes at length from the poet Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, which was a pretty detailed instruction manual. Ovid explains where to go (the Circus Maximus was ideal), and how to go about it; where to sit, how to strike up a conversation, how to find excuses for touching. In the guise of helping to keep a gal’s hem undirtied, Ovid says, you could get a look at her legs.

Sure wish I knew about Ovid when I was a lad.

The Romans also had jokes, and the book includes a selection, presumably weeding out those that might baffle modern ears. Here’s one: A guy goes to a doctor and says, “Doc, when I wake up I feel dizzy for half an hour, then it goes away. What’s your advice?” The doctor: “Wake up half an hour later!”

Well, there’s been progress on the humor front over these two millennia.

And progressives will be glad to know that while we think of welfare as a fairly modern concept, the Romans actually had it. In fact, food stamps. Or the near equivalent. When Juvenal spoke of keeping people pacified with bread and circuses, this was literal. Every Roman, bar the wealthiest, was given a card entitling them to a monthly grain distribution. The card even specified the number of the arch where you were to line up. The eligible population was a couple hundred thousand, and the grain ration for each amounted to around half a ton annually; so organizing and administering this dole was a massive undertaking. And remember, computers were very primitive then.

Another thing the Romans had was globalization. Well, hemiglobalization; the Western hemisphere was of course unknown, but there was a vast trade in goods all over the Eastern. Roman coins have been found in Southeast Asia.

And something they did not have was racism and xenophobia. They welcomed immigrants from everywhere, reveling in a diverse society. There was at least one African emperor (very successful), Septimius Severus; a contemporary painting shows him rather dark skinned.

And history records no demands for his birth certificate. Nobody said, “Go back to Africa.”

* Angela talks of sestertii broken in half for change. A smaller coin, the As, worth a quarter sestertius, was often thusly halved. But I don’t recall ever seeing this with a sestertius, a big thick coin.

The Golden Door slammed shut

July 24, 2019

A traveler was robbed and beaten, left half-dead beside the road. Two passers-by ignored him. Finally another stopped to help, treated his wounds, took him to an inn, fed him. This story of the Good Samaritan was told by Jesus.

In 2015 I wrote about Germany generously throwing open its doors to take in about a million Syrian refugees. I criticized the Obama administration for taking only a handful. My daughter (working in the Mid East for a refugee NGO) chastized me, reminding me that no other nation has welcomed more refugees than America.

That was then.

Last week, in what The Economist calls a calculated pattern, while Trump distracted us with the “go back” outrage, his administration snuck in a big policy change that went almost unremarked. Trump’s mind is actually not organized enough for such cunning; his outrages so frequent that the timing is mere coincidence. In any case, the new policy is also an outrage.

It decrees that no refugee may apply for asylum at the border without first having been rejected by some other country. In practice this means, for most Latin Americans, the end of U.S. asylum.

To be clear, this is not about “illegal immigrants.” People have a legal right to cross our border to apply for asylum, in cases of home-country persecution or endangerment, to be adjudicated through a formal hearing process. This is codified in the 1951 international Refugee Convention and in America’s 1980 Refugee Act. Trump’s new policy (being challenged in court) violates both. Refugees will simply be turned away regardless of the legitimacy of their asylum claims under (previously) universally recognized standards.

Add this to the inhuman cruelty of separating thousands of children from parents (many impossible to reunite) and imprisoning them under horrific conditions, some dying for lack of care.*

This is America? My God, what has happened to this once-noble country? My heart is torn out. Yours should be too — if you have one.

The real point of the Good Samaritan story was that he was Samaritan. The two who passed by the injured man were pillars of the Jewish community. And Jews despised Samaritan people — the “other.” Jesus was saying that maybe their hatred for Samaritans was wrong. Maybe those “others” were at least as good as them.

Go back, you tired, you poor,

You huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost away.

I shut the latch upon the golden door!

* By people who say every child’s life is so sacred they oppose all abortions. Who call themselves “Christians.” Who call their critics unpatriotic.

Now it’s official: Republicans don’t know right from wrong

July 22, 2019

Michael Gerson is a Republican, former G.W. Bush speech writer, and columnist. Please read his latest column below. (I have condensed it considerably.)*

Susan Brooks. Brian Fitzpatrick. Will Hurd. Fred Upton.

These four Republicans supported a resolution condemning President Trump’s plainly racist “go back” taunt. The only House Republicans for whom decency still has a political application. The last, scattered exceptions to the rule of malice and bigotry in the GOP. They (along with ex-Republican Justin Amash) refused to rationalize.

Rationalization is the default setting of the human mind. We can’t reconsider our whole view of the world with every new piece of information. So we tend to accept evidence that supports our predispositions and filter out evidence that does not.

But in politics, rationalization can harden into a rigid ideology in which all questioning is disloyalty. And this cult-like ideology, if all the maleficent stars align, can become a cable network like Fox News.

In the mid-19th century, prominent ministers in the South employed the Bible to justify slavery. There were very few examples of unexpected or heroic resistance. Instead, ministers built a complex series of arguments to rationalize a system based on theft and abuse. And the issue was not eventually resolved by the triumph of superior arguments. It was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.

I am not equating slavery to the rise and rule of Trump in the GOP. I raise the example to show how hard it is — and how important it is — to examine the settled convictions of your own community and resist them when they are wrong.

July 16, 2019, should be remembered for its up-or-down vote on political and moral decency. The rationalizations in this case — that Trump’s statement was not technically racist, that the resolution violated House rules, that Democrats are guilty of similar offenses — had nothing to do with the morality of the situation. They were transparently self-serving and political.

As a society, we would punish racist taunts of this type if done on school grounds or a playing field. We can’t accept them in the president of the United States without doing great damage to public norms of respect and inclusion.

There is a point when rationalization reaches the soul and human beings lose sight of simple right and wrong. And 187 House Republicans have now officially reached it.

* His original text: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/187-house-republicans-have-lost-their-moral-compass/2019/07/18/7301f3b4-a980-11e9-9214-246e594de5d5_story.html?utm_term=.95dd56dee317

 

Go back to the sewer you came from, Trump

July 20, 2019

America was built by people coming here from all over, to take part in our great enterprise. That’s central to what America means.

But some Americans perennially forget this. So every wave of people coming here has been slapped with that hateful insult: “Go back where you came from.”

Especially non-whites. “Go back to Africa.” Forgetting the little detail that they were kidnapped and dragged here on slave ships. Yet they too have built this country.

Since 2016 I’ve considered it a duty to call out every bad thing Trump does. Because this is a crisis of America’s soul. I’ve kept saying it will get worse. And so it has.

“Go back.” The favorite line of racists forever. If you deny it’s racism — who do you think you’re fooling?*

Never mind that three of those four Congress members were born here. The fourth, Ilhan Omar, grew up in a squalid African refugee camp. Coming to America, she earned citizenship, became a useful and beloved member of her community, which elected her to Congress. A great American story of which we should be proud.

You don’t agree with everything she’s said? Fine, neither do I. That’s called public debate. It’s what we have in a democracy.

But Trump says she should “go back” to Africa because she criticizes America. Actually it’s him and his policies being criticized. It’s the job of a Congressperson to spotlight things about America that need changing. This again is public debate in a democracy.

For Trump to slime those Congress members as somehow “unpatriotic” for their criticisms would be a grotesque outrage even if Trump himself had not, throughout his campaign, and even his inaugural speech (“American carnage”) wallowed in hyperbolic bombast tearing down this country. Was he told, “If you don’t like it here, you can leave?” It’s his playing the “unpatriotic” card that’s totally un-American, a vicious assault on our fundamental democratic values.

At his rally, he repeated his “go back” garbage, and when the crowd chanted “Send her back!” he stood there smirking, basking in it, for thirteen long seconds. Next day, momentarily jarred by the backlash, he claimed he didn’t like it and had quickly tried to stop the chant. The video showed he’s a liar. And the day after he went back to praising the chanters.

Equally ghastly, he actually had the brass to call the four Congress members, and the whole Democratic party, “divisive” for daring to criticize him. Every accusation he flings at others applies more to himself. Divisiveness is the very heart of his politics. This latest hate-filled “go back” claptrap could not be more divisive. Tribal partisan hatreds are tearing America apart, destroying the country, and he keeps pouring gasoline on the fire.

Polls show two-thirds of Republicans agree with Trump. House Republican leader McCarthy, squirming to avoid criticizing him, said they’re “the party of Lincoln.” Who’s spinning in his grave. These Republicans have lost their moral minds.

On November 3, 2020, America must tell Trump, and all his deplorable fans: Go back to the sewer you came from.

* News media aren’t saying “allegedly racist” or “comments some call racist.” They’re just plain saying “racist comments.” Good for them. Case closed.

Who’s really a citizen?

July 17, 2019

Trick question: what’s the world’s second biggest Muslim country?

If you said America, shame on you. Everyone (who’s reasonably informed) knows Indonesia has the biggest Muslim population; and coming second is India — even though Hindus are a large majority there.

Trump insists we should find out who, living in America, is really a citizen. Seem reasonable? And what’s India got to do with it?

Keep reading.

In India’s 2014 election, I endorsed Narendra Modi, despite blood on his hands from Gujarat’s anti-Muslim pogrom and his BJP party’s Hindu nationalism. He seemed to understand how India’s still very anti-business economic structures kept people poor. And he has done some good in that regard, though not nearly enough.* Meantime, though it may be too soon to quite give Modi the “authoritarian” label, he’s working on it.

Meantime too the Hindu nationalism has become increasingly central. This is bad. Recall some history: Pakistan was traditionally part of India, but was hived off at independence in 1947 to create a Muslim state. Many millions caught on the “wrong” side of the new border migrated — amid appalling bloodshed. But most Muslims stayed put, and their population in India exceeds Pakistan’s.

Given this background, you might think any Indian government would strive for intercommunal emollience, so Hindus and Muslims can live together equably. You would be rational. But religion never is, and India’s BJP government, under Modi, is doing the opposite. Trying to make Muslims second class citizens — if that.

Assam, an Indian state bordering (Muslim) Bangladesh, has a concentration of Muslims. Unsurprisingly, few Muslims vote for the BJP. Which would rather they didn’t vote at all. So now there’s a big push to find out how many are really proper Indian citizens.

Is this beginning to ring a bell?

They’ve created a “National Register of Citizens” (NRC). If your name’s not there, you’re summoned to a bureaucratic tribunal, with the burden of proving your citizenship. It’s mainly Muslims, of course, targeted for this. Realize it’s a region of endemic illiteracy and poverty, with public records something of a shambles. The Economist’s report headlined with the word “Madness” and invoked the ghost of Kafka. And get this: anyone can file an official objection to a name on the NRC. In Assam, 220,000 such poison letters were filed — all ostensibly by a very small group of objectors.

Failure to “prove” citizenship (to the government’s satisfaction) can put you in jail or in one of the archipelago of detention camps they’re building, for “foreigners.” Their fate is uncertain; they cannot be deported to Bangladesh, which won’t take them. But they will be stripped of citizenship rights — including the vote. Which seems to be the real point.

Now this Assam model is being extended to the whole country.

Back to Trump: insisting we must find out who’s really a citizen. If that may have sounded reasonable to you before, think about India, and what the long range Republican game plan is. They already have a despicable record of winning elections by denying the ballot to targeted groups through discriminatory voter ID laws. This citizenship gambit is the logical, and frightening, next step.

And Trump has now said some U.S.-born Congress members should “go back” to some other countries. Is the next step actually to declare them non-citizens (as India is doing)?

Can you prove you’re a U.S. citizen?

* And he did one economically terrible thing, demonetizing the bulk of India’s circulating currency.

 

Another day, another protest

July 14, 2019

I attended Friday’s Albany protest against Trump’s inhuman cruelty to migrant people. Some things one has to do.

Quite a few asked to take pictures of my sign. Maybe I should copyright it. (“Make America Great Again: Dump Trump”)

One speech I really didn’t like. Assemblyman Phil Steck started by saying, “This is no aberration,” that America has always committed villainies, so we shouldn’t be surprised. He went on like that at length; got applause.

No. He spoke before a statue of Washington — a very noble man. I’m proud to be part of a nation conceived in nobility, standing for the highest ideals and human values. Have we been perfect? Of course not. But America has always striven for, and achieved, progress.

Until 2016. It breaks my heart to see my beloved country so degraded. Forced to join a protest against vile atrocities committed in its name.

Many present were veteran protesters. There was a very nice comradely vibe. At the end we all sang, “This Land is Your Land.” Yet there was an air of going-through-the-motions. I felt like an alien. Not just because of Steck’s speech; others said the right things; yet for all the outrage expressed, it somehow seemed inadequate to the seriousness of this moral crisis.

Churchill said America will always do the right thing, after exhausting all the alternatives. I hope he was right and I don’t have to attend many more such events.

Social disconnection and Trumpism

July 11, 2019

“Grab them by the pussy.” I’ve striven to understand how any Americans could vote to put such a reptile in the White House.

Columnist David Brooks keeps saying America is insufficiently community-centered. Recently I critiqued one such column. But subsequently he wrote another more on target. Doesn’t mention politics, yet it seems very relevant.

Brooks says a market economy emphasizing competition and self-aggrandizement needs to be balanced by a social culture of “cooperation, stability, and committed relationships.” But that’s not where many working class men are at, according to a recent study.

Economic change is driving social change. Less educated working class men don’t fit into the kinds of lives they used to. This is a big factor in the opioid crisis. Also in the explosion of single motherhood.

“Nearly all the men” in the study, Brooks notes, “viewed the father-child tie as central while the partner relationship was peripheral.” Seeing women like they see jobs — cycling from one to another. And of course their own parenting roles are undermined by weak bonds with their children’s mothers.

Cause and effect here is a tangle. While a working class man used to be a family’s anchor, that breadwinner role has eroded, and meantime women are better able to support themselves. They flourish in service-type jobs, like in healthcare, that less educated men don’t adapt well to. A lot of women see such men as okay sexual partners but pretty useless as husbands.

A single mom may be heroic and all, but their kids mostly do worse than dual-parented ones. So their male children tend to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, repeating the story.

Brooks thinks these economic dynamics are aggravated by the cultural zeitgeist emphasizing personal autonomy, aiming for a life “lived in perpetual flux, with your options perpetually open.” Again inimical to lifetime attachments.

All this subverts broader social cohesion too. Brooks’s basic point is that the sort of men we’re talking about don’t have the connectedness, the embedment in societal structures, like they used to. Seen even in declining church attendance, for example. Many still believe in god, but being part of an organized congregation is not for them.

Brooks’s column again doesn’t touch on politics, but a lightbulb went on in my political brain. The social culture he vaunts includes the body politic — one’s role as a citizen participant in a collective, with government part of it, and seen as embodying our values. And this too suffers from the disconnection Brooks laments.

It partly explains why some Americans, at least, could vote for a vulgar creep and continue backing him. They’re disengaged from and no longer invested in our civic institutions. It used to matter to Americans to have a president we could look up to, a role model for our kids, an avatar of our highest ideals. But pussygrabber’s voters don’t give a shit.