Archive for July, 2020

News objectivity in the time of Trump — telling it like it is

July 30, 2020

The New York Times published an “op-ed” by Republican Senator Tom Cotton advocating a military crackdown on protests.

Arguably a vile view. But, in a spirit of open discourse and Enlightenment rationalism, The Times thought it merited publication. Especially, you might think, with mainstream media under assault for alleged left-wing bias.

Yet many Times staffers thought differently, objecting to publication. The Times was forced to apologize; the editor responsible forced to resign.

This is today’s “cancel culture.” The paper issued a statement saying the Cotton piece did not meet its standards. What it actually transgressed was the politically correct woke catechism. With dissenters not just countered with arguments, they must be suppressed, not permitted to be heard, banished from society.

I recently reviewed Robert Boyers’s book The Tyranny of Virtue, calling out this illiberal censorship mania on America’s campuses. Now it has infected our wider culture, when not even an institution like The Times can stand against it.

Another Times staffer, Bari Weiss, resigned in protest at the paper’s capitulation. Echoing Boyers, she criticized what she saw as its new ethos, “that the truth isn’t a collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”

We’re between the Scylla of the left’s intolerance of divergent viewpoints and the Charybdis of Trumpian “fake news” rhetoric trying to destroy the public square from the other direction.

Journalistic objectivity is a modern concept. When I researched events circa 1920 for my 1973 book on Albany politics, I was surprised at how overtly partisan newspapers were. That soon gave way to neutral reporting, with opinion confined to editorial pages. This model enabled the public to shape views based on facts and reality. How quaint that sounds today.

We also once thought the internet would make people even better informed. However, while mainstream news outfits feel both an obligation to play it straight and that this serves their commercial interests — information being the product they’re selling — that doesn’t apply to internet platforms whose product is propaganda, and which can make money by feeding red meat to narrow audience slices.

Meantime, America’s public square used to be dominated by two political sides each also pretty much playing it straight, with issues debated honestly and rationally. Journalistic neutrality fit such a landscape. But that has changed, causing the objectivity standard to be questioned even for mainstream news media.

A recent article in The Economist spotlights the problem by quoting a December Times report about an impeachment hearing: “the lawmakers from the two parties could not even agree on a basic set of facts.” Comments The Economist: “Which facts were real? Readers were left to guess.”

But the magazine says a new paradigm is emerging, based on “moral clarity,” a sense of right and wrong. It quotes Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, that in lieu of an objectivity obsession, reporters should “focus on being fair and telling the truth, as best as one can, based on the given context and available facts.”

There’s been a running debate over using the words “lie” or “racist” in covering Trump. I’ve long watched PBS’s  Washington Week where journalists discuss the news, without slant. Often this means dancing around the obvious. Like always dissecting Trump actions on the pretense that there’s some rationality behind them. At last, recently, The Times’s Peter Baker actually used the word “insane.”

To exemplify the emerging standard, The Economist, quotes this start to a Times front page news story:

“President Trump used the spotlight of the Fourth of July weekend to sow division during a national crisis, denying his failings in containing the worsening coronavirus pandemic while delivering a harsh diatribe against what he branded the ‘new far-left fascism.'”

I’d call this telling it like it is. Indeed, every word is factual reporting. Some, like “diatribe,” are loaded words, but even that usage conforms to its dictionary definition.

Of course right and wrong can always be a matter of opinion. And “moral clarity,” for too many today, translates into the oppressive politically correct orthodoxy Boyers described.

But I keep coming back to our being in an unprecedented national crisis. It predated covid. A crisis of this country’s soul — what it stands for, what it means. Whether our pluralistic democracy can endure. This, right now, is crunch time. Journalists and the news media are on the front lines. Their responsibility transcends he-said-she-said neutrality. They must tell it like it is.

Demise of the dinosaurs

July 28, 2020

I heard a talk by Frank Wind (pronounced as in “gust of” rather than “wind up”), a retired geologist, on the dinosaur extinction.

Frank started by saying Darwin is his patron saint. He also cited a book by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction (concerning the one currently underway), and a New Yorker article by Douglas Preston, The Day the Dinosaurs Died. That was actually the fifth and (until now) last mass extinction of species on this planet, 66 million years ago (MYA); the first occurred about 440 MYA. The most severe was the Permian Extinction, about 250 MYA, killing over 95% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial ones.

Those early creatures must have really pissed off God. Except, of course, that he created the whole shebang a mere 0.006 MYA. To be exact, in 4004 BCE. On October 2. At 6 PM. That was the calculation of Bishop Ussher, by parsing the Bible’s chronology, in 1650. Which Biblical literalists today still take as gospel. They place Noah’s flood at 2348 BCE, which did for the dinosaurs. But even that theory is a bit problematical, unless you suppose every dinosaur species literally missed the boat. Indeed, Frank showed a cartoon with the ark departing, two dinos standing ashore, one saying to the other, “Oh, crap! was that today?

And the dinosaurs could not have died out much earlier because, of course, death itself was introduced into the world in consequence of Adam’s “sin.” But actually, the Bible has nothing at all to say about dinos, which were not even discovered until the 19th century.

The whole concept of extinction wasn’t really a thing till then, most people (well, Christians) believing life on Earth unchanging. Discovering dinosaur fossils threw them for a loop. And even science at that time was kind of stumped to explain how such a whole big range of creatures could have more or less abruptly vanished from the scene.

Not until recent decades was a good theory offered, by Luis and Walter Alvarez, father-and-son scientists. They ascribed dino extinction to a huge asteroid smashing into the Earth. There is evidence of such impacts happening periodically, in the form of 190 craters. And the Alvarezes pinpointed remains of the gigantic 66-MYA Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan peninsula and coast. They also found much evidence in the geologic record, identifying a distinct boundary between sedimentary layers at just that time, with the in-between layer being notably different, showing a very high iridium content, which could only have come from an extraterrestrial source. Such evidence is found as far away as New Zealand (can’t get much farther), proving how dramatically the planet’s environment was affected. Frank also pointed to  some fossils discovered in the U.S., showing directly how animal life suffered.

His talk included some vivid descriptions of just how catastrophic an asteroid hit that big would have been. Unfortunately I missed that part because the talk was on zoom and my internet connection cut out. But you can fill it in from various disaster movies you’ve seen.

Not all scientists buy this asteroid theory. They don’t deny the impact, but don’t think it alone can account for the extent of the extinction. Pointing instead to a spate of big volcanic eruptions that seem to have occurred shortly before. But they accept that the asteroid didn’t help.

We may miss having dinosaurs around (though we do have birds, which are their descendants). However, Frank pointed out, it was the demise of the dinos that cleared the way for the flourishing of mammals, which in turn led to the evolution of you-know-who. Though some misanthropic cynics would say this was not such a blessing.

Yoho, AOC, Trump, and the degradation of civic culture

July 26, 2020

“Fucking bitch!” he ended with. Following some other choice bons mots, including “disgusting” and “out of your freaking mind.”

That was Congressman Ted Yahoo (correction: Yoho) (R-FL), speaking unprovoked to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), with his finger in her face. At the capitol. In public. In front of reporters.

Later, he “apologized” on the House floor, but said, “I cannot apologize for my passion for loving my God, my family and my country.”

The Washington Post drily noted that it was “not clear how or why loving one’s God and country would require a member of Congress to have a public meltdown on capitol grounds.”

In contrast was Ocasio-Cortez’s eloquent epithet-free response. She disembowled Yoho with a stiletto. It wasn’t personal — it was about our culture.

I am no fan of AOC’s far-left politics. “Socialism” is a word much mis-used by people who don’t know its meaning (they typically point to countries more free-market than America). We can debate such matters. But Yoho’s words were not political discourse. They reflect deep sickness in our body politic.

I myself have written very caustically about Trump. This embodies my factual analysis of reality, as a close student of politics for over fifty years, nearly all as a partisan Republican. Until my party went off the rails.

Led of course by Trump, unconstrained by reality or decency. Indeed, one of the things I fault him for is the degradation of civic culture I’m talking about here, which Yoho exemplifies. For example saying AOC and other U.S.-born Congress members should “go back” somewhere. Falsely suggesting broadcaster and former Congressman Joe Scarborough committed murder. Need I go on? And on and on?

Look at all the venom Trumpsters spew at Pelosi and Schumer. Of them I’m no great fan either. But they are just ordinary public officials, who take their responsibilities seriously, whose policies can be debated. Not monsters bent on destroying America. And what’s stunning is that people who invoke their names as though they’re talismans of evil (for reasons they cannot exactly specify) are blasé about Trump’s “peccadillos.” They mock Biden as weak in the head, but think Trump’s mind is fine. What planet are they living on?

Columnist David Brooks has written that come Biden’s inauguration in January, a great quiet will descend upon the land. Biden being a non-ideological, anodyne, get-the-job-done kind of guy, politics will cease being manic Manichaean warfare. But I fear Brooks is dreaming. For the next three months Trump and his cult will demonize Biden with deranged ferocity. I’d like to think a bath of cold water on November 3 will snap these people back to reality. Maybe for some it will, but others will be deranged even more. Seeing Biden as the antichrist, they’ll behave accordingly.

In 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks went into the Senate Chamber and savagely attacked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane, maiming him for life. Perhaps the opening blows of the Civil War.

We’re not quite there yet. But Trump and his yohos play with fire.

Reopening schools

July 24, 2020

Trump wants schools reopened. Because he cares about kids’ education? (Note, that was a laugh line.) No, of course he cares only about himself, seeing open schools as the ticket to economic rebound, his only hope for re-election.

You might think that in his desperation, he’d do what’s really needed to reopen schools and the economy. His latest briefing took matters a tiny bit more seriously. But just a tiny bit. Even now Trump is still trying to keep federal money for testing and tracing out of pending legislation!

Covid forces tradeoffs between economic and health concerns. Life has great value, but it’s not infinite, and it’s not necessarily crazy to posit that the lives saved are not worth the enormous economic costs — which, after all, themselves affect lives and their quality. Unfortunately, thanks to Trump, we took the economic hit, but because of an atrocious lack of leadership and relenting too fast, got the health disaster as well.

For schools, the tradeoffs skew differently. Keeping them closed cripples the economy by forcing parents to stay home with kids rather than work. (This is Trump’s real animus.) But the damage to children’s education could actually be lifelong, with the missed classroom time never made up. Zoom lessons are not the same. The impact on poor children, less able to participate remotely, is all the greater. They will fall further behind, widening inequality. And out of school they’re more likely to suffer abuse, malnutrition, and mental problems.

The World Bank estimates that losing five months of school will cut the lifetime earnings of affected children by $10 trillion, equal to 7% of current annual GDP.

Against these huge detriments, the health risks are smaller than for other societal sectors. Studies indicate that children are much less susceptible to infection than adults, and way less likely to die. And infected children seem to be less contagious. One reason is that they’re shorter. The virus-laden droplets they eject tend not to reach higher altitudes where adults can ingest them.

So I too actually want schools reopened. But it entails serious risks that must be seriously addressed.

Much unlike Trump (who simply threatens to force schools to reopen, ready or not), Joe Biden has presented a careful comprehensive plan for reopening schools while minimizing the risks. His plan follows CDC guidelines. (Which Mike Pence said schools should feel free to ignore. Yes, our national covid response coordinator actually said that.)

The plan’s key elements are clear:

• First, schools can’t reopen where the virus is not under control. That requires masks, social distancing, and intensive testing and tracing. (On all these, America is still an underachiever.)

• The most vulnerable (mainly older) teachers and school personnel must be specially protected.

• Good supply of masks and PPE.

• Reduced class sizes, staggered schedules, and other measures to prevent crowding.

• Giving schools the money needed to meet added costs for PPE, sanitizing, reconfiguring classrooms, etc.

• Communication with parents, giving them confidence they can send kids to school in reasonable safety.

• Where schools cannot provide full in-person teaching, much more is needed so all students, but especially disadvantaged ones, can fully participate in remote learning programs.

Some further thoughts: with all the unemployment, shouldn’t we hire some people to help bring kids up to speed on learning? And shouldn’t we consider shortening if not eliminating next summer’s vacation?

Other countries have implemented plans like Biden’s with good results. I note that the elementary schools I’ve been supporting in Somaliland seem to be doing great at working with (very poor!) children stuck at home. Surely we should expect as much for America’s kids.

Find the details of Biden’s plan here:

(As a contributor I received it from his campaign. As a former Republican donor, I get all their e-mails too. The contrast is stunning. The Biden ones are always sober, serious, fact-based, inspiring confidence. The Republican messages are an hysteria of wild falsehoods.)

Trump’s war against law and order

July 22, 2020

Having earned the loathing of a big majority of voters, Trump’s last ditch hope for re-election is to pose as the defender of law and order, cracking down on disorder. Problem: there really isn’t much disorder. Solution: create some, then make like you’re cracking down on it. (Though unfortunately the heads cracked are all too real.)

There was no disorder in Washington’s Lafayette Park in June; people were peacefully exercising their constitutional right to gather and demonstrate. Until Trump turned it into a scene of mayhem by unleashing a violent militarized assault on protesters and journalists, replete with tear gas and helicopter buzzing.

Now Portland. Comparisons to Hitler and Nazis should normally be avoided. But what can we say when a regime deploys goon squads, without uniforms or insignia, to violently seize people off the streets, into unmarked vans, without charges, hustling them away to detention and interrogation?

One man relates this was done to him while walking blocks away from a protest. Another was shot in the head. A navy veteran who told these gestapo guys they were acting unconstitutionally was hit with batons and pepper spray. “Law and order?”

The local authorities (including the governor, mayor, and police chief) all say matters were under control and calming down — until, rejecting their pleas to stay out, Trump’s storm troopers invaded and started provoking violence with their outrageous actions. That really caused protests to flare up.

“Protecting federal property?” — A federal facility in Portland did get trashed — after — and because — their bullies brutalized the locals. It wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Now Trump threatens to deploy federal forces in Chicago and other cities. The administration claims some law somehow vaguely authorizes this abuse of power. Congress should legislate to clarify that it does not.

Kidnapping people is illegal. It’s those federal “officers” who are committing crimes, who should be arrested, charged, and sent to prison. (No, their officialhood does not immunize their lawbreaking. Not in America.)

Law enforcement is a local responsibility. That’s a fundamental element of our civic compact. We’ve never imagined in this country that armed federal men can just barge into a city, unbidden, indeed against the express wishes of local officials, and arrest people.

Where are all the Confederate flag wavers with their bleats about “state rights?” And the guys who keep guns saying it’s to guard against “government tyranny?” All those anti-maskers shrieking “freedom?” Does the federal assault on Portland look like freedom to you?

Trump is cynically trying frighten people into thinking we’re beset with violence, so they’ll vote for him as the savior of law and order. While the biggest promoter of violence, the biggest offender against law and order, in today’s America, is Donald J. Trump.

What is the Republican Party?

July 20, 2020

As unfoxed Americans see Trump is a glob of pus larger than Uranus, and the Republican party careens toward massive defeat, some members now say, “I told you so.” Or, rather, “I should have told you so.” Or at least a few say it.

A number of anti-Trump Republican groups are indeed coming to the fore, including legions of officials from past Republican administrations, when sanity still reigned. Some even say that every GOP senator who voted against impeachment should be unseated. If that means complete Democrat control of the government, so be it — the Republican party must be burned to the ground and rebuilt.

Where were these people all this time? But I feel their pain. I experienced it myself after 53 years as a Republican. However, my answer was simpler: leaving.

My Republican party was for limited government, fiscal responsibility, personal responsibility, free trade, and strong global engagement opposing enemies of freedom, especially Russia. It actually believed in morality. And it was for black emancipation that that Republican party had literally been born. Now it is dead.

What, after all, is a political party? It’s not some static institution like, say, the Catholic Church. It’s people organizing together for certain political objectives. That’s always changeable. Those calling themselves Republican today do not promote the objectives cited above, but undermine them, actually pursuing an entirely different agenda. Mainly white nationalism. With this I could no longer associate myself.

There’s been much analysis of Trumpist politics, and yes, it’s a phenomenon way more complex than just those two words. For some evangelicals, abortion is key; for others, it’s guns. But everything else is window dressing. Fox News and the whole right-wing universe have worked mightily dressing up that window, creating an alternate reality, putting a halo on a scumbag and vaunting a record of supposed achievement that’s in fact horrible. They still call this “conservative.” Useful cover for people who don’t want to think they’re racist. But strip away all that camouflage and misdirection — and by now the sheer unavoidably obvious reality has stripped much of it away — and what’s left is mainly people continuing to back Trump because they see him as standing for whites against all those “others.”

This is what today’s Republican party is. It’s indeed the core theme of Trump’s re-election campaign. “Conservative” my ass. It’s no coincidence that probably a majority of the states Trump carries in November will be ones that seceded in 1861. Where for decades already a majority of whites have been Republicans because they don’t want to associate themselves with blacks who are mostly Democrats. More sociology than politics.

And more proof: normally a president responsible for some huge disaster would be toast. Trump owns the double catastrophe of raging coronavirus and economic melt-down. Plus his disgusting behavior regarding the BLM movement. Overwhelming majorities disapprove. So how does this guy still have any support at all? A big part of it is white bitter-enders, for whom nothing else matters.

But even that may actually be too rational an explanation. This is really a cult, with all the irrationality that implies. It might be explicable, sort of, if it centered on some really charismatic and inspirational leader. Instead it’s a vile creep. Evil does have a strange counter-intuitive attraction. There’s also a macho masculinity thing going on. And for Trump cultists this loyalty is part of their personal identity, so anything against it they take personally.*

The Republican voting base had long been tending toward know-nothing nativism. Party leaders tried to exploit this while at the same time keeping a lid on it. Then came Trump not only exploiting it but celebrating it. And the party’s responsible center just collapsed. No longer able to beat back the yahoos, formerly sane Republicans stampeded to join them.

Those anti-Trump Republicans I mentioned see themselves as battling for their party’s heart and soul. If only there were any left to fight for. But that horse left the barn when 99% of congressional Republicans voted against impeachment. In fact, there’s never in U.S. history been a party as united as today’s Republican Trump cult. Its 2024 presidential nominee will be Donald Trump — Senior or Junior. What’s to prevent that?

Yes, the party should be burned down, but rebuilding it into something better is a fairy tale. That imagined new reformed Republican party could meet in a closet.

Nobody still associated with the old one should ever be elected to anything again. That will likely pan out, to a considerable extent. Demography is against Republicans as older bigots die off, replaced by less religious voters with more open attitudes, while the electorate becomes less white every day. Trump thinking he’ll ride to victory waving the Confederate flag is political insanity. He’s indelibly stamped the party with this stain.

He also hopes to win by flooding the zone with lies. And preposterous scaremongering that radical Democrats will somehow destroy suburbs. And by blocking as many citizens as possible from voting. Republicans stole Georgia’s governorship that way in 2018. But Trump is so far down, his usual game plan of lying and cheating can’t save him.

Remember too that 2020 is a census year, with decennial redistricting ahead. Despite Republican efforts to game the census, a big Democratic tide in November will still give that party much more control over gerrymandering than it had last time, when Republicans dominated (2010 was a big year for them). This will disempower Republicans even more, going forward.

We’ve long had a two-party system. Looks like it will become more like a one-and-a-half-party system. That’s not good; could make reigning Democrats complacent, arrogant, and unresponsive. We need a new second party, but given our electoral system it’s hard to see how one could emerge as long as a zombie Republican party continues to stagger onward.

* I’ve also written often about the moral arrogance of the left’s intolerance for divergent viewpoints.

John Lewis at the bridge

July 18, 2020

The Edmund Pettus Bridge, 1965.

John Lewis and his fellow marchers on that bridge knew what was coming. Courage is not lack of fear. Only a fool would have been unafraid that day. Courage is going forward in spite of the fear.

Lewis knew what he faced because it was not his first time. He’d already been brutally bloodied, more than once, on the “freedom rides” to integrate bus travel. Yet there he stood again, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Where he was badly beaten again, along with many others. None turned back.

America is a better country for what they did. And what they achieved. Our saving grace is democracy, the power of the vote. Those heroes marched on the Edmund Pettus Bridge so southern blacks could vote. Today, the state with the most black elected officials is Mississippi.

John Lewis survived that day. The vote, for which he fought, eventually sent him to Congress, where he served with distinction. I was proud to be a citizen of a nation with a John Lewis there.

Maybe I admire such courage because I doubt my own. But it’s another great thing about America that I’m not put to the test. “Freedom from fear” was one of FDR’s “Four Freedoms.” I can write my blog in freedom from fear. In many other places that would court prison or death. Would I still write it? Would I have marched on the Edmund Pettus Bridge? I don’t know. But at least I know what it means when people do such things, and I honor them for it.

This is part of the great human story that inspires me, makes me a believer in progress, a rational optimist.

Edmund Pettus was a klansman. In this moment of national reckoning with history, the bridge should be renamed for John Lewis.

In 2017, regarding John Lewis, Mister Bone Spurs tweeted, “All talk, no action.” And added, “Sad.”

When I vote this November, I will remember John Lewis, and do the right thing.*

* After writing this, I received Joe Biden’s statement. More eloquent than mine. Please read it: Remember when presidents uplifted us like this?

The race issue: Reconstruction and now

July 17, 2020

          “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

                           — William Faulkner

Eric Foner is a leading American historian, who spoke at the New York State Writers Institute’s Albany book festival. Reminding me of that Faulkner line, Foner spoke of history — and its interpretation — shaping current politics and culture. His talk was given back in the Fall, and seems all the more relevant now.*

America was a slave society for a lot longer than not. This was not confined to the South, but colored everything. And we’re still dealing with the fallout.

Foner focused on the Reconstruction period following the Civil War (1865-77), which he feels transformed America. Despite falling short in its aim of equality for African-Americans.

Foner said that from around 1900 to the ’60s, the received view of Reconstruction was the “Dunning School.” This viewpoint deemed Reconstruction’s reigning “Radical Republicans” misguided, even villainous, in trying to bend the South to black equality. This view was embodied in the 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, glorifying the KKK; it fit with the racial dispensation which had come to prevail. And I remember imbibing that viewpoint myself: “carpetbaggers” being a term of opprobrium for Northerners who went South in the reform effort, meddling where they had no business; the radicals’ leading figure, Thaddeus Stevens, a fanatical monster; President Andrew Johnson, who fought them, lionized; the one Republican Senator who opposed his impeachment was one of JFK’s Profiles in Courage. I was unreflectively somewhat racist myself in youth. Only with deeper reading of history, and raised consciousness, was that whole picture inverted. (I grew to consider Johnson our worst president — until now.)

Foner calls Reconstruction our “second founding,” making the Constitution what it had never before been; a “regime change.” The 13th Amendment abolished slavery; the 14th established birthright citizenship, and equal protection of the laws; the 15th gave non-white males the vote. This swept away the pre-war legal paradigm, exemplified by the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, in which non-whites were not just second-class citizens, they couldn’t be citizens, with any rights, at all.

“A new birth of freedom,” said Lincoln at Gettysburg, prefiguring this.

But Southern whites fought back, with violent guerrilla warfare, led by the KKK. President Grant crushed them militarily. But withdrawal of those troops was part of the settlement resolving the disputed 1876 presidential election. That enabled southern whites to recapture political control, disenfranchising blacks and imposing the Jim Crow regime to keep them “in their place.” This was sanctioned by various judicial decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson, and enforced with the terrorism of barbaric lynchings in which almost the whole white Southern population was complicit. (Foner suggested that the North’s desire to heal the Civil War’s wounds resulted in letting the Southern whites off the hook for their treason and later crimes.)

Meantime, I see the “radical” Republicans of the 1860s as having represented an advanced humanism utterly astonishing for their time. After all, the ex-slaves were very “other,” coming from a condition of abject degradation, viewed almost universally as biologically and morally inferior. How did those Republicans rise above that to embrace them as fellow citizens?

I asked Foner this question. He said a big factor was the heroic service of many blacks as Union soldiers, refuting ancient stereotypes. This helped in building an ethos of true democratic egalitarianism.

How tragic that today’s Republicans have gone radical in the opposite direction.

Foner appeared again later, in conversation with leading Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, discussing Confederate monuments. They put the subject in a larger context of “iconoclasm,” with action against statues venting societal transformation — as happened with monuments to Soviet “heroes” — and the Taliban’s dynamiting the giant Bamiyan Buddha figures.

It was pointed out that most Confederate monuments were erected not right after the war but during Jim Crow’s consolidation, as one more way to show blacks where they stood. It wasn’t just about heritage and history, but who gets to choose what to honor, and why. Foner noted that Tennessee has more memorials to General Nathan Bedford Forrest — the “homicidal maniac” who founded the Klan — than Andrew Jackson.

The statues also reflect Southern whites’ sweeping the crime of slavery under the rug while romanticizing “The Lost Cause” as a noble one, a battle for “state rights” and indeed “Liberty (!)” Holzer expressed amazement at the emotive power these tropes still pack. Southern whites really see their pride and honor somehow at stake. Thus the removal of statues has often provoked violence.

But secession was not a noble cause, it was a vile one. A rebellion against the ideals America actually stands for (or should). The war was not about “liberty” but its opposite, slavery — no slavery, no war. The discussants quoted Robert E. Lee himself saying there should be no monuments to Confederate leaders, because it was not the South’s finest hour.

* What follows I actually wrote back then; I have a big backlog.

Why Pro-life Christians should dump Trump

July 13, 2020

To some Christians, abortion is a primal sin blighting America’s soul. It’s a supervening moral issue guiding their politics; they can’t imagine voting for a pro-choice Democrat.

Pro-life is a legitimate moral stance that can be debated. Abortion does end a life. It’s reasonable to hold that at some point a woman bears some moral responsibility toward a life she’s carrying.

But can this justify support for Trump?

Michael Gerson (a Republican pro-life Christian) explored this in a recent column. He too, of course, understands why moral feelings about abortion drive some people’s politics. But he sees a problem when this becomes “a moral claim without a limiting principle.”

Abortion cannot be the only concern. Life is never that simple. You also have moral responsibility toward your neighbors, community, nation, and world. Their collective fate matters at least as much as the unborn. Gerson is saying that when you’re willing to justify anything in service to a single concern, sacrificing to it everything else, that is actually morally wrong.

Especially when it means supporting a man who, in so many ways, is shredding the basic principles, values, and ideals that used to govern America and its global role. That affects many more human lives, and is thus more morally consequential, than abortion.

Christians have a special burden here. They need to apply their overall Christian ethics not just to one issue but to the whole waterfront of what should be powerful moral concerns. The number of U.S. abortions is exceeded at least tenfold by living children who die of preventable illnesses globally. And shouldn’t “pro-life” mean wearing face masks and social distancing to keep people from dying of covid-19? And compassion for suffering refugees and their children? And when an obsession with abortion leads Christians to support a pussygrabber president who lies relentlessly, enflames racial divides,* flouts rule-of-law and democratic values —who rips children from mothers’ arms and puts them in cages — their moral compass is out of whack.** They’ve made a deal with the Devil. Jesus would not approve.

Furthermore, Gerson points out, such obviously messed up morality undermines societal respect for their religion, and its overall sway. People see it and conclude this religion is for the birds. Why listen to Christians prattling about morality when they clearly just don’t know right from wrong?***

Gerson also thinks they’re naive to imagine getting their way through raw political muscle. The hardline pro-life stance actually commands the support of only a small minority of Americans. At the end of the day, says Gerson, pro-lifers “are only going to win the abortion debate if we persuade enough people . . . We are not going to prevail by gaining power and imposing our view.” Persuasion requires thinking about how their arguments look to people coming to the debate with very different perspectives. And Gerson suggests that having those pro-life arguments linked with Trump — with all his baggage of vileness — “is not likely to be helpful.”

An understatement. Moral blindness has led them to miscalculate spectacularly in hitching their wagon to Trump. He is going down, and will take them with him.

* For some (not all), pro-life actually camouflages even from themselves what really drives their politics — hostility toward “the other” — other ethnicities and nationalities.

** Meantime, falsely claiming to “protect women’s health,” they try to restrict abortion by, for example, requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges in local hospitals, or even regulating abortion clinic corridor widths. Such dishonesty belies their movement’s moralism.

*** A true morality must be grounded in the reality of the world. Religion’s false reality undermines sound moral thinking.

China crushes Hong Kong

July 10, 2020

I could not write this blog in China or Hong Kong. It would be erased from the web — and me along with it, thrown in jail.

When Britain agreed to hand Hong Kong back in 1997, China’s regime pledged Hong Kong would keep its culture of rule-of-law and civil liberties at least until 2047. The catchphrase was “one country, two systems.” (Admitting the other system didn’t entail rule of law or civil liberties.) China even promised to move Hong Kong toward freely electing its leader.

But then, inexorably, “one country, two systems” translated into “Ha ha, we lied.”

Thus the massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong last year. Many feared the Beijing regime would ultimately respond as it did at Tiananmen Square in 1989, with a bloodbath. I never thought so; it wasn’t necessary. They could just do nothing and wear the protesters down with intransigence. (They were never going to dialogue with Hong Kongers to reach some reasonable modus vivendi.)

Meantime, one might have imagined the protesters had some safety in numbers. The authorities couldn’t jail a million people, could they? Actually, they could — they did in Xinjiang.

Then Covid-19 seemed to resolve the situation. Fear of the virus, not violence, pretty much ended the protests. But that was not enough for the rulers in Beijing. In the spirit of Carthago delenda est, they now sprang on Hong Kong a draconian law criminalizing any and all political activism or criticism. This went way beyond what Hong Kongers had been protesting to forestall in the first place. Not even the territory’s toady local government was consulted. Now mainland authorities can reach into Hong Kong to enforce their law, in courts they create, operating in secret, with penalties up to life imprisonment. Indeed, victims can be whisked to China for trial where execution would be on the menu. And don’t imagine these would remotely resemble fair trials.

Xi Jinping is saying: One country, two systems, my ass.

Some leading democracy advocates were arrested right away. Just to drive the point home, it was some of the most moderate and respected of them. The rest got the message. Silence descended. One youthful elected pro-democracy legislator, Nathan Law, fled the country.

The new law even applies to foreigners. Good thing I’ve visited China and  Hong Kong before. I can’t now, I could be imprisoned for this blog post. I wouldn’t bet on the regime, pervasively riding herd on the internet, overlooking it.

The Beijing gang can act this way because there’s no constraint. That’s down to the mentality of the Chinese people. Those in Hong Kong have (had) a very different, Westernized mentality, but they’re just a tiny part of China. The rest, pumped up with xenophobic nationalist swagger, mostly side with the regime against the Hong Kongers, condemned as traitorous enemies. The Chinese accept a government treating them like children, where the basis for any rule is, “Because I said so.”

Some of us had imagined that, as China became a richer, more cosmopolitan, educated, advanced modern society, that mentality would change. There’s no sign of that happening. Maybe the Beijing regime is right after all when it derides “Western values” of democracy and human rights as alien to Chinese culture. Maybe the Chinese really are that different from us. Maybe in a century that can change. I hope so. Our way is better.

Is there anything we can do? In the short term, not really. But that shouldn’t mean we just shrug and let Beijing believe there is no price at all for its conduct. Even if we can’t make it pay a tangible price, the Chinese regime actually cares a lot about international legitimacy and respect; and that can be stripped away. There should have been strong coordinated condemnation of China from the world’s democracies led by America. But unfortunately America no longer leads the world’s democracies. Trump has openly expressed idolization of Xi Jinping, particularly for his authoritarianism. He told Xi that putting a million Uighurs in concentration camps was “exactly the right thing to do.” His posturing as “tough on China” is, like all things Trump, bullshit. The Economist has just run a devastating deconstruction of Trump’s fecklessness toward China, and his trade war’s stupidity. It is well worth reading:

We do need to deal strongly with China, but that requires a sane, honest, responsible president, who reads briefing papers and actually knows what he’s doing.