Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Fake News and government propagandists

April 8, 2018

Researching my 1973 book on Albany politics, I pored over early 20th century local newspapers. I was astonished how partisan they were, openly touting candidates, with no division between news and opinion pages. This was typical; many American papers called themselves “The Democrat” or “The Republican.” Some still retain those vestigial names. But the standard journalism model has changed, and for a long time now it’s been universally understood in the news media that opinions go on the editorial page, while news reporting is just that: reporting.

It’s true that most journalists, due to their cultural backgrounds, personally lean liberal. Yet it’s really a lie that their work is skewed by bias (let alone calling it “fake news”). Modern professional journalists are steeped in the ethos of accuracy and neutral objectivity, and generally strive hard to uphold it. Making stuff up is an absolute no-no; correcting errors a must. And if anything, they bend over too far in giving both sides of a story, even when one side is rubbish (for example, lending credence to climate or vaccination science denialism).

I’ve regularly watched PBS’s Washington Week, where reporters discuss the news. It’s striking how their personal opinions are never detectable. Indeed, it’s almost maddening to hear them talk, in bland neutral tones, about Trumpian outrages. And even Jon Stewart, on The Daily Show, making no secret of a liberal stance, was an equal-opportunity satirist, often freely skewering Obama and other Democrats.

But then there’s Fox “News.”

I put it in quotes because Fox is in fact the regime’s fawning cheerleader and propaganda mouthpiece — making a cruel joke of its former slogan, “Fair and Balanced.” Fox is anything but. It’s the real fake news channel, shattering the longstanding paradigm of news media striving for accuracy and objectivity.

And now too Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair owns about 200 local TV stations covering 40% of the country, and aggressively seeks to gobble up more. Like Fox, Sinclair is uncritically all-in for Trump. While it can’t, like Fox, control every word going out over its airwaves, Sinclair can and does put words in broadcasters’ mouths. Recently we saw every Sinclair station (including Albany’s WRGB Channel 6) required to air a script about “fake news.” While the lockstep parroting in these hostage videos was itself ludicrous enough, so was the content: straight out of Trump’s potty mouth, telling viewers not to believe what they hear from supposedly biased mainstream news media, which Sinclair called a threat to democracy. At least Sinclair stopped short of calling them “the enemy of the American people.”

See what’s going on. Trump lauds slimy Fox and Sinclair while demonizing all legitimate news sources. It’s a concerted effort to cripple news media not in the government’s thrall, and replace them with ones that are — with regime propagandists. This is something very new to America, and very chilling. THIS is the threat to democracy.

We saw its apotheosis in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Communist world; we see it today in Russia, China, Turkey, Venezuela, and too many more places. Malaysia just passed a law with stiff jail terms for “fake news” — defined as anything the government doesn’t approve (presumably including any reference to Prime Minister Rajak’s billion dollar theft from a state development fund).

Am I being alarmist? Yes, I am very alarmed. I do not want America with a government of lies unaccountable to a free press. Like Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, Malaysia, and other such shit-hole countries.

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America Trumped (my “Trolley” article)

March 21, 2018

The wonderful New York State Writers Institute (founded by William Kennedy; headed by Paul Grondahl) has published a very interesting online magazine, The Trolley. (Click here.) I was asked to contribute an article, a follow-up to my blog review of their October symposium on post-truth politics.* The magazine’s inaugural issue focuses mainly on the same general topic.

Since the last election, I’ve been grappling with the really dramatic lurch our civic life has taken into uncharted territory. It has a lot of aspects, and I’ve written a lot trying to unravel them. For this Trolley article, I aimed to draw all these strands together into one big picture, titled America Trumped.

I consider myself a student of history. And we are at an historical hinge point, with huge implications for the future of this country and, indeed, the world. I am not one of those fatalists who believes human beings are at the mercy of forces beyond our control; it’s why I continue to call myself a rational optimist. It is by using our rationality that we can master our situation. That’s how we’ve progressed so enormously since the Stone Age. And in order to master our situation, we must first understand what it is. Such understanding is a key quest in my own life; after half a century at it, I feel I’ve made progress. That’s what I’m trying to share on this blog, and in my Trolley article.

* Find it here; scroll down past a few later posts.

White Rage

March 7, 2018

Alice Green

Carol Anderson’s book White Rage was discussed recently at the Albany Library by Alice Green, Director of the Center for Law and Justice and a longtime activist.

Anderson is a historian and her book takes a historical view. In Green’s telling, the basic theme is that whenever black Americans achieve some advancement, there’s white pushback. And while “black rage” has been very visible, with obvious sources in what they’ve suffered (beginning with slavery, and subsequent discrimination; yet most blacks are patriotic), white rage is a more elusive phenomenon, mostly hidden for a long time until recently.

The story begins with Reconstruction, after the Civil War. The federal government did much to assimilate the freed slaves as citizens, with the 14th Amendment enshrining equality before the law, and the 15th giving black men the vote. Really extraordinarily progressive (in the true sense). Not only did former slaves vote, many were elected to high office in the South (including two U.S. Senators).

But, as Green noted, slaves had been extremely valuable property, and taking it away left some angry people. When federal troops departed the South in 1877, the pushback came, with whites using violence to terrorize and subjugate blacks. Black voting largely ended.

And when the Supreme Court endorsed segregation in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, it put Jim Crow race-based oppression into high gear. While the Court okayed “separate but equal,” the reality was very unequal.

In 1954, Plessy was reversed in Brown v. Board of Education. A genuine advance, Green acknowledged. And of course there was pushback. Public school integration was violently resisted (Little Rock, etc.), and many Southern communities tried to evade it by recourse to non-public schooling. (Schools today continue very segregated.)

This febrile atmosphere engendered the 1960s civil rights movement, with some dramatic results, the passage of civil rights and voting rights legislation. There was again pushback; but enough acquiescence that the face of American society was altered. In particular, unfettered voting by Southern blacks empowered them and made a big difference.

In Green’s view, though, pushback now took the form of heightened emphasis on policing and criminal justice (Nixon’s “law and order” theme), with the war on drugs ramped up. In practice it was a war on black communities, disproportionally affected, and devastated by the mass incarceration of their inhabitants.

When a black man became president, many of us felt we’d finally overcome the demon of racism, entering a post-racial Eden. Of course, it turned out a lot of whites just couldn’t stand seeing a black man in the White House. Indeed, can’t stand whites on track to becoming a minority in America.

Electing Trump was certainly a manifestation of their pushback. His slogan really meant make America white again. He’s brought white rage out of the closet, legitimizing it. Meantime, Republicans have undertaken voter suppression efforts targeted particularly at blacks, to prevent another Obama being elected.

I used to reject claims that America is fundamentally racist, contending instead that while racism obviously persists, it is confined to dark corners of our society, and to benighted people who really don’t matter. Of course, being seen as people who don’t matter is part of their grievance, aggravating their white rage. And we’ve learned that it’s more intense and more widespread than it had seemed before Trump came along.

Last May I wrote a blog post, “Why so many blacks in ads?” (suggesting it’s because they convey a positive vibe of hipness). That post continues to attract a far higher rate of hits and comments than any other. Take a glance at those comments. I’ve frankly been shocked at the crude, unabashed racism most of them express. And a friend pointed me to this article, with a brutally candid portrayal of the mindset of white rural Christian Americans (no small part of the country) — which includes a big dose of racial attitude. The article’s author, coming from this community, thinks nothing can change their minds.

There is the idea that blacks are racially inferior, with a sense of grievance against them, that somehow their inferior character and behavior is being unjustly rewarded (a prominent theme in comments to my mentioned “blacks in ads” post). These ideas behind white rage are not reality-based — much unlike the all too factual sources of black rage. But that doesn’t seem to matter.

Yet my optimism endures. Green seemed to imply the historical trajectory is from bad to worse. But bad as things may seem now, we tend to forget how really awful they were in the past. And in the question period, I said, “If I were a Martian hearing your talk, I’d be very puzzled by something: the fact that Obama was elected, even though, as he himself said, he was actually black before the election.” (He was re-elected, too, while black.)

We’re still a very divided society, with most blacks experiencing life very differently from most whites. These divisions are very visible in the news and public discourse. And as noted, the Trump era has brought racism out of the closet and in our faces. But is America actually growing more racist? No. To the contrary, the trend of public attitudes over time is progressively ever less racist and more tolerant. And at the nitty gritty ground level of routine day-to-day social interaction, what strikes me is how well we actually get along with each other. This is still a very positive contrast against an awful lot of places in the world.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nor will a paradise of racial amity be built in a day, or even a century. But again: it is not getting worse. While the white Christian rural Americans in that cited article lash out against ethnic minorities as scapegoats for their own failing dysfunctionality, it will catch up with them. Racism is not winning, but inexorably losing. That’s why we see so much pushback; it is the desperation of losers. It can do much harm in the process, but won’t change the ultimate outcome.

Every day more racists die than are born.

The book that changed America: Darwin, Slavery, and God

February 27, 2018

Darwin

The Book That Changed America is the title of one by Randall Fuller. It’s about Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, looking at its impact particularly in Concord, Massachusetts.

That wasn’t just Anytown, U.S.A. Concord was the center of America’s intellectual ferment. The protagonists in Fuller’s book include Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, Franklin Sanborn, Louis Agassiz, and Asa Gray — all living in or near Concord and interacting with each other and with Darwin’s bombshell book.

Brown

It hit Concord almost simultaneously with another bombshell in late 1859: John Brown’s attack on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal and his subsequent execution. Brown was not, as often portrayed, a madman. He considered slavery a great sin that could be undone only through war, which he aimed to start. He was just about a year early.

America was already, of course, hotly divided over slavery, and Harper’s Ferry raised the temperature further. So did Darwin’s book.

How so? The only possible excuse for slavery was the idea of blacks’ racial inferiority. Thus their constant denigration as a degenerate, brutish species. And slavery apologists, being besotted with religion, had to believe God intentionally made blacks separately and enslavement-worthy. Efforts to prove their inferiority litters Nineteenth century science. (See Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.)

(Even most abolitionists thought blacks inferior. But they opposed slavery nonetheless because it was cruel and unjust. This applies to every pogrom, genocide, or other ethnically based abuse or exploitation. Even if its victims were lesser, degraded creatures — it’s never true, but even if it were — their mistreatment would still be cruel and unjust. The creatures proven inferior and degraded are the perpetrators.)

Anyhow, the races’ biological separateness continued to be a matter of intense science-oriented debate.* That’s where Darwin came in.

His book prudently refrained from specifically addressing human origins. (Darwin bit that bullet later in The Descent of Man.) Origin discussed living things in general, and all its numerous examples and case studies concerned non-human life. Many at the time imagined humans were something apart from all that. Yet many others were not so deluded, and they realized that if Darwin’s varied finches and so forth were all close cousins, branches of the same tree, obviously then so were whites and blacks. (We now know that blacks came first, and whites descended from them.)

Thus did Origin explode the moral underpinnings of slavery. And Darwin was not just another polemicist with an axe to grind. Not only was his a science book, it was powerfully supported and argued, hence a devastating blow.

Yet still it was disputed. Inevitably, for a book that gored cherished oxen. And slavery was not the only ox. The other was God himself.

Gods have always been the answer for natural and cosmic mysteries people couldn’t otherwise penetrate. That territory used to be huge. But science has progressively answered those mysteries, inexorably shrinking godly territory.

To naive eyes, the world might look designed, the only possible way to explain life’s diversity and complexity. Literature is filled with rhapsodizing on this theme. Though would any intelligent designer have so filled creation with pain and suffering? Calling this a mystery is no answer.

Thoreau had studied nature intensively, and likewise studied Darwin’s book. He got it, completely; it explained so much of what he’d actually observed. Fuller casts Thoreau as holding that the world is indeed filled with magic and mystery — just not the kind religion postulates.

But Darwin greatly demystified life. His theory was a revelation, a revolution. He called it “natural selection” and “descent with modification;” for short, evolution. His book explained it thoroughly and cogently; there’s hardly a word in it that doesn’t still hold up. A stupendous achievement of human intellect.

And once Darwin unveiled it, the idea of evolution was actually obvious. (I recall Richard Milner’s song, wherein other scientists of the time moan, “Why didn’t I think of that?!”) As Thoreau found, evolution instantly made sense of everything observable about the natural world, everything previously so puzzling. The great geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it thusly: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Yet, to this day, half of Americans reject it. Fuller’s book recaps the opposition to evolution as it played out at its advent, with famed scientist Louis Agassiz in the attack’s vanguard. Its essence remains unchanged. Evolution shrinks God almost to irrelevance. And not just in biology. If life is attributable to natural, not supernatural causes, couldn’t the same be true of the entire cosmos? To Agassiz, all this was something literally unthinkable.** As it is for his modern counterparts.

Likewise that we “come from monkeys” (or even lesser creatures). Some believe that degrades us. But “there is grandeur in this view of life,” connecting us to every other living thing. And our animal antecedents make us all the more remarkable. It’s sublime that a Darwin, descended from apes, could have the insight to see it. All we’ve achieved we’ve done ourselves, with no help from any god.

A reader of Fuller’s book must be struck by how one key mistake — belief in a god — traps you in a carnival house of mirrors, distorting everything about life and the world. Escape it and all becomes clear. This is the main reason why Agassiz and other scientists of the time failed to see what Darwin saw. Religion blinded them. And even when shown the light, they hold tight to their blindfolds. They torture facts, evidence, and logic, struggling to hammer the square peg of their belief into the round hole of reality.

I find it far better to just accept reality.

* Some even argued for different species on the basis (by analogy to mules) that mixed-race people tend to be sterile — simply untrue. Furthermore, the vast genre of argument that race mixing somehow “pollutes” and degrades the quality of the white race likewise contradicts manifest biological fact: mixing different gene pools improves strength and quality. It’s called hybrid vigor.

** Scientist Asa Gray entered the fray on Darwin’s side, but even he was unmoored by God’s banishment, coming up with the fallback idea that evolution is God’s method for managing life’s pageant. And even Darwin himself seemed queasy about a purely mechanistic view of creation.

The dreamers’ nightmare

February 18, 2018

The Senate has failed to rescue the “dreamers” — young people brought here as children, without legal status. A big majority of Americans favor such legislation. And nearly every Senator voted for it.

So why the failure? Because they backed different bills, none of which got the 60 votes needed. So they can tell their constituents, with straight faces, “I voted for the dreamers bill — it’s the other party that blocked it.”

In fact it was Trump. When in September he cancelled the DACA program, with crocodile tears, saying he hoped Congress would fix it, he lied as always. He was taking the dreamers hostage, demanding as ransom funding for his wall (the one Mexico was supposed to pay for), and also a big cut in legal immigration. Backed by a farrago of lies about how the existing system actually works, and scaremongering about crimes by immigrants (who on average actually commit fewer crimes than the native born). Though previously lying that he’d sign whatever dreamers bill Congress passes, now he’ll only sign one including his two poison pills — my way or the highway. His plan got the fewest Senate votes.

Meantime, refugee admissions are way down in the past year; putting into crisis the infrastructure of charities that help them.

The Know-Nothing Party’s flag

It’s now clear that racist hatred of immigrants is the core raison d’etre of today’s Republican party. It’s not the first time we’ve had such a party. The previous one, in the 1850s, was the Know-Nothing Party.

Failure to pass dreamer legislation is emblematic of our galloping democratic dysfunction. Part of it is the Senate’s 60-vote rule (they passed the tax bill using a gimmick to evade it). Sixty votes are required to end debate on a bill. Through most of our history, only very rarely would a bill’s opponents “filibuster” it, forcing the issue of closing debate. But now it routinely applies to every bill, a symptom of today’s hyper-partisan scorched-earth politics.

That’s just one of the problems that saw our democracy already in real trouble even before 2016. But now it’s exploded into a grotesque caricature — with a president who trashes every ideal, principle, and value America used to stand for. A racist, uncouth, incompetent ignoramus; a fraudster rip-off artist; a preening egomaniacal mental case; a prodigious liar; a sex criminal; a Russian stooge; and did I mention racist?

Still, in the latest polls, over 40% of Americans give him a thumbs up. Among Republicans, 89%.

Happy “President’s Day!”

Chris Gibson thinks we can put America right

February 11, 2018

He calls himself an optimist. He believes we’re on the wrong track, but can fix it.

After a 29 year military career, Chris Gibson won a New York congressional seat in 2010 as a Republican; then “term limited” himself in 2016, and became a college professor. Too bad, because the GOP sure needs such good guys.

Now he’s authored a book, Rally Point: Five Tasks to Unite the Country and Revitalize the American Dream. Sounds like every politician’s book. Nevertheless, my wife* and I went to a January 24 luncheon, hosted by the Times-Union newspaper, where its editor Rex Smith interviewed Gibson. I read the book.

Gibson feels the Republican party has strayed from its true conservative principles. (Some of his points echoed my own commentary in that morning’s paper.) He starts with the nation’s founding precepts, discussed with rare erudition and depth. For him the key idea is pursuit of happiness. He doesn’t mean hedonism, but invokes the ancient Greeks’ concept of eudaimonia, a life well lived; and psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, culminating with self-actualization. America was founded on the premise that government’s job is to promote such human flourishing. Really a revolutionary idea at the time.

Here Gibson distinguishes between America’s two chief ideological currents. Traditional conservatism saw government as a facilitator and referee, to enable people to thrive in their own individual ways (exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt and his restraints on corporate power). Liberals and progressives, in contrast, want a more activist government, seeking to achieve outcomes, regulating everything in sight.

But obviously that dividing line has become very muddled. Gibson harshly criticizes modern Republican hostility toward equal rights for sexual nonconformists, as violating true conservative principles. And the religious teachings so many Republicans profess to follow. Gibson’s watchword here is “love,” which seems absent from today’s Republicanism.

He worries about the nation’s fiscal future — a subject I’ve harped on for years. In brief, government cannot keep spending way more than it collects in taxes. We borrow the difference, and can borrow a lot, yet the limits will be sorely tested in years ahead as deficits continue growing; while interest costs eat us alive. The recent tax legislation, even if boosting growth, will add to debt. Fiscal responsibility is another bygone traditional Republican conservative principle. The whole nation now ignores the debt issue — sleepwalking over a cliff.

A further problem Gibson sees is legislative abdication in favor of executive and bureaucratic fiat. Successive Republican and Democratic administrations are each denounced by their opponents as abusing power in imposing policies undemocratically. Gibson says this undermines legitimacy and divides the country; whereas issues being instead resolved through legislative give-and-take stitches the country together.

Gibson is pretty good on diagnosis; less so on remedies. It’s the usual wish list: campaign finance, gerrymandering and lobbying reform; term limits; motherhood; and apple-pie. And a balanced budget amendment — oh, please. As if the nation could, like Ulysses, chain itself to the mast to resist the siren song of spending. (The latest congressional budget (busting) deal shows the two parties can happily work together to waive such limits and raid the Treasury.)

Gibson also feels the Republican party is redeemable, and can be hauled back to its traditional principles — which he even imagines can unite the country. More fantasy. My old GOP is now the White People’s Party; a zombie that’s undergone demonic possession. There’s no exorcist in sight. (Gibson never even mentions race or immigration.)

And Gibson stresses that citizens must insist that their elected officials act responsibly. When 38% back Trump no matter what, and American political life has become a partisan tribal bash-fest. How do we cure this? Nobody has a good answer.

It’s often lamented that only half of Americans vote; even less in non-presidential elections. Republicans cynically work to make voting harder (mainly for Democrats). That truly stinks. But will more people voting cure our political ills? Non-voters tend to be the least informed and engaged citizens. Their participation will not elevate our politics.

Gibson also decries moral decay — too much materialism; not enough communitarianism and religious faith; with reinvigorating the institution of marriage being vital for raising the kind of good citizens he envisions. He wants to reverse our sociological history. (And strengthen untrue beliefs.)

Further, he sees a need for real leadership (his emphasis) that can rally the nation to do what’s needed. Yet elsewhere he says a strong man is not the answer. “The man on horseback” myth I’ve written about. Trump said, “I alone can fix it,” and Gibson thinks Americans are wrongly attracted to such authoritarianism because we’ve lost confidence in our ability to tackle problems democratically.

But the book’s conclusion says that “historically the American people follow leaders who inspire the best in us and who treat people with dignity and respect. Americans believe in founding principles and our own exceptional way of life and ultimately will not give that up for authoritarian approaches.”

I would have said exactly the same thing myself . . . until “grab them by the pussy.” Too many Americans no longer seem to understand, let alone honor, the nation’s founding principles, ideals, and values, that Gibson is so eloquent about. Without a populace being invested in those ideas, they cannot endure.

Am I too cynically harsh? As I said at the start, the GOP desperately needs people like Gibson. If the party had more of them, I would not have left it.

* When I asked her about coming, her “yes” actually surprised me; but she’s a remarkable person full of surprises.

 

Conservatism and Elephants

January 28, 2018

(This appeared as a commentary in the January 24 Albany Times-Union)

I used to call myself a conservative. The left/right divide originated in the French Revolution’s parliament — aristocrats sat on the right, revolutionaries on the left. The right sought to “conserve” the status quo, a political orientation valuing tradition and skeptical toward change.

Goldwater

Modern American conservatism began as a reaction to the change represented by FDR’s New Deal. It revved up during the 1960s Goldwater era (when I came aboard), emphasizing opposition to big intrusive government. The philosophy was best articulated by 19th century British thinker John Stuart Mill (Europeans call it classical liberalism).* It says society fares best when individuals are left free to follow their own paths. Adam Smith showed how a free market economy’s “invisible hand” makes individual self-seeking serve the greater good.

But most citizens are not political philosophers. As Jonathan Haidt explained in his book, The Righteous Mind, political orientation is shaped more by personality type and psychology — nature and nurture. American conservatism is thus less philosophical than social and cultural.

Republican politicians long pandered to that, exploiting issues like gays, abortion, and race, to advance their larger political ends. They were riding a tiger — which finally ate them. Today, there’s little left of philosophical conservatism but stripped bones and tiger droppings.

Goldwater, in his eighties, supported gays in the military, before it was accepted policy. That was conservatism honoring every individual’s right to live their own way. But today’s “conservative” opposition to gay marriage, or transgender rights, isn’t philosophical. It’s social/cultural prejudice. They’re all for individual freedom except when they’re not.

Haidt invoked another animal riding metaphor. Our conscious rational minds are like a rider on an elephant, which represents our unconscious. We imagine the rider is in charge. But actually the elephant decides the direction, with our conscious minds along for the ride. And much of our thinking is rationalizing, to ourselves, that path. Even religious rationalization. People pick and choose from the Bible what fits with their gut feelings. Conservatives’ anti-gay stance comes less from the Bible than from their elephants.

Many of us thought racism was disappearing. I myself had long denied that it deeply infects America. But maybe that was over-optimistic. Survey analysis reveals that the one factor most strongly correlated with Trump support is racial/ethnic antagonism. People may think they’re not racists — but their elephants may be. (Not only in America. Brexit was primarily a vote against immigration.)

The elephant is very tribal, which increasingly characterizes our politics. And while race, religion, social class, etc., are traditional tribal dividing lines, political identity itself has now become the salient tribalism, trumping all else.

This helps explain how Republicans and “conservatism” so thoroughly embraced Trump. Once his support in the GOP reached a critical mass, its tribal identity transmogrified, into the Trump tribe. His comprehensive unfitness (obvious long before the book Fire and Fury) didn’t seem to matter. Nor policies rubbishing traditional conservatism. Forget free trade, fiscal responsibility, equal opportunity, American global leadership. Swallow all the lies. And hello, racism. You go with your tribe, regardless.

Of course this was an elephant stampede — revealing that for most Republicans, intellectualizations dressing up their political proclivities are just a veneer hiding, even from themselves, the base instincts really behind them.

So principled conservatism is dead. Unprincipled “conservatives” rule for now — thanks only to gerrymandering and the Electoral College — but they’re doomed. More folks already vote Democrat. The rat’s nest of attitudinal pathologies calling itself “conservative” today is concentrated in a diminishing demographic of older voters. And the presidential horror show should thoroughly toxify the brand.

* David Brooks recently had a nice column about Mill.

What is populism?

December 28, 2017

“Populism” is the political word du jour. America has its first president so labeled, and “populist” parties are thriving throughout Europe. What exactly does “populism” mean?

It (like the word “popular”) comes from the Latin “populus,” meaning “people.” During the Roman Republic, politics was divided between “Populares” and “Optimates;” not organized parties as we know them, but factions. The Optimates (“best ones”) represented the elites and the status quo; the Populares, as the name implies, aimed to represent the interests of the common folk.

“Populism” connotes the people ruling and getting what they want. Of course, all democratic politics is supposed to entail the people (a majority) having their way, that’s what voting is all about. But today’s populism reflects a notion that somehow “the people” have not been getting what they want, because the system is rigged against them by elites, who have to be pulled down. A theme of both the right and left.

America had a “People’s Party” in the late 1800s, also called “Populist,” whence we get the modern usage. Those Populists too stood against the elites, representing mainly farmers. One of their key policies was free silver coinage, championed by William Jennings Bryan (“you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”). This might seem an arcane issue, but it was really about “easy money” and favoring debtors (mostly farmers) against creditors. It was at least a coherent and basically rational program which, if enacted, would have achieved its stated aims.

Sigmund Freud divided the mind among the super-ego, the rational moral cogitator; the id, the primal instinctual unconscious; and the ego which pragmatically mediates between them. Modern populism is id-based politics — the politics of the gut, not the brain. Emotion does have a legitimate role, of course, indeed it’s an inextricable part of our functioning. But it has to be moderated by our higher executive intellect. Otherwise the result is policies which are not coherent and rational, often actually running counter to the ostensible objectives.

This is epitomized by modern populism’s xenophobia, racialism, and economic nationalism. They manifest in hostility toward immigrants, toward ethnic and cultural diversity, and toward free trade. And in favor of misguided and counterproductive policies that will not “make America great again,” but worse. Likewise Britain’s vote to leave the European Union — quintessential populism. This is the id, not reason, in charge.

“Optimates” versus “populares” type class conflict is actually an eternal political phenomenon. But in America, until recently at least, the elites were seen to have a certain moral authority, were accorded a certain deference, were looked to for guidance. The nation had a sense of common purpose. However, all that has been eroded by a populist ethos of egalitarianism and individualism, with Joe Sixpack deeming himself equal, and maybe even in a down-to-earth way superior, to the “optimates.” And woe betide any “leader” who tells him nay. Politicians are cowed from making the case for anti-populist policies like liberal immigration and free trade.

But true leaders like Lincoln, FDR, and JFK summoned Americans to their highest values, ideals, and aspirations. “The better angels of our nature.” In contrast, today’s populism — Trump’s populism — panders to and enflames our baser nature. Appealing to the id, our primal engine of raw instinct, rather than our rational moral minds. Trump’s America is not a shining city on a hill, but a squalid slum in a swamp.

Decency wins in Alabama

December 13, 2017

How great it feels that the America I love and believe in still lives. Even in Alabama. Even if only by a 50-49 vote.

Doug Jones & Roy Moore; from The Economist

It was a vote for decency and dignity. It’s actually sad that we’ve come to such a pass where that’s the bottom line. Sad that anybody, let alone 49%, voted the other way. At least decency and dignity did manage to scrape through. And we didn’t have to suffer creeps like Roy Moore, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump crowing over a triumph.

Moore (taking a leaf from Trump) stonewalled his history of sexual predation. But the evidence — testimony by multiple credible witnesses — would convict him in any court. It got him banned from a local mall! So to the sin of venery he adds the sin of lying. His whole life, steeped in God-talk, is one big lie. Belief in God may be excusable; believing Roy Moore is not. Most Alabamans didn’t, even many who held their noses and voted for him.

And please no “what-about-ism.” What someone else did doesn’t sanitize sex criminals like Moore — and Trump (or voting for them). At least Al Franken (whose offenses were minor in comparison) had the decency to man up and resign. While Trump and Moore compound injury to their victims by slandering them as liars.

And please don’t call him “Judge Moore.” He has the brass to so style himself despite having been twice kicked off the bench for defying the law. (I was not, and some still call me “judge,” but I don’t myself.)

Moore also said 9/11 was God punishing America’s sinfulness; homosexuality should be illegal; no Muslim should be allowed to serve in Congress; the First Amendment doesn’t protect a “false” religion like Islam; all amendments after the tenth created a lot of problems; and America was great when we had slavery!

This is who Alabama Republicans wanted to send to pollute the United States Senate.

In contrast, Democrat Doug Jones courageously prosecuted the KKK bombers of a Birmingham black church. Electing him may have signified some atonement for Alabama’s past sins, turning the page on what Roy Moore represents. Doug Jones last night quoted Martin Luther King that the moral arc of the Universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

I wrote recently that we’re experiencing a social revolution with sexual abuse viewed much more severely than in the past. But actually this applies only to a part of America. Another part is in fact doubling down on the old paradigm. The part that supports a pedophile Senate candidate and pussygrabber president. The part that shrugs off all their lies. And nevertheless preens as godly moralists.

They justify their political behavior by invoking, among others, abortion as a moral issue. It’s actually a very difficult one (unlike lying and sexual abuse). And many fetishize “right-to-life” for fetuses but not gun victims; their moralism rings hollow. But more importantly, embracing the likes of Moore and Trump goes whole hog on ends justifying means, crossing a moral Rubicon into perdition.

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his soul?”

Thank goodness I quit the Republican party months ago — once a principled and honorable party, now the party of pious frauds, lies, ignorance, xenophobia, Russia-dupes, more lies, criminals, creeps, cruelty, bigotry, vulgarity, and depravity. I am still working at scrubbing off the stench.

The Soul of the First Amendment

November 27, 2017

How far should free speech go?

Floyd Abrams is the country’s leading First Amendment lawyer. I bought his book, The Soul of the First Amendment, at the recent symposium on the post-truth culture (mainly for the opportunity to shake his hand).

The book’s introduction discusses my favorite painting: Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech (in his “Four Freedoms” series). If not an artistic masterpiece, it’s a gem of conveying an idea that’s very dear to me. Abrams explains that it illustrates an actual event Rockwell witnessed, at a Vermont town meeting. The speaker was a lone dissenter against a popular proposal. He’s an ordinary working class Joe. A telling detail is the paper protruding from his pocket. It suggests he’s not talking through his hat, but has gathered some information — a point of particular resonance today. And even more so is the painting’s other key feature — the respectful listening by the man’s fellow citizens. For me this painting captures America — and civilization — at its best.

Freedom of speech in America is enshrined by the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press . . . .” (The Fourteenth Amendment made it applicable against state governments too.) A key point of the book is how unique this actually is, not only in history, but in today’s world. In fact, no other country so exalts the inviolability of free speech. All others subject it to varying restrictions. And mostly they involve what are basically political concerns — the very sphere wherein freedom of expression is actually the most consequential.

People have been jailed in Europe for the crime of Holocaust denial. That is, advocating a certain interpretation of history. Europe also has many laws against “hate speech,” quite broadly (if vaguely) defined. Abrams cites a Belgian member of parliament prosecuted for distributing leaflets calling for a “Belgians and European First” policy, sending asylum seekers home, and opposing “Islamification.” His sentence included a ten year disqualification from holding office. It was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights! And such a case is not unusual in Europe. Actress Brigitte Bardot was fined 15,000 Euros for writing a letter objecting to how French Muslims ritually slaughter sheep.

America is a free speech paradise in comparison not only to such other places, but to our own past. The First Amendment actually played almost no role in our law and culture until around the mid-20th century. Abrams cites a 1907 Colorado episode. A lame-duck governor, defeated for re-election, exploited a newly passed law to pack the state supreme court with judges who thereupon ruled that he’d actually won the election. A newspaper published an editorial criticizing this ruling. The Colorado court held the editor in contempt. And that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion written by the famed Oliver Wendell Holmes.

The idea underlying all these cases is that rights are never absolute, being always subject to a balancing against the public interest. I myself have written that the Second Amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms” does not mean you can possess howitzers or nuclear weapons. And freedom of religion doesn’t cover human sacrifice. So it’s similarly argued that freedom of speech and press must be balanced against other public goods, and may sometimes be required to give way.

Abrams argues, however, that the First Amendment’s language, absolute on its face, reflects its authors having already performed such a balancing. The benefits to society, to the kind of polity they aspired to create, of unfettered freedom of expression were balanced against what public good might otherwise be promoted. And in that balancing, freedom of expression won out, being found the weightier. It’s more important to have a society with such freedom than, for example, one where religious sensibilities are protected from insult — or where judges are shielded from editorial criticism. That’s why we have the First Amendment, and why it actually does not permit the kind of balancing underlying that 1907 Colorado case. Justice Holmes himself came to repent his decision there, dissenting in similar future cases, and eventually the Court overturned its Colorado ruling.*

As Abrams stresses, the issues raised by the Belgian and Colorado cases go to the heart of the matter: free expression with regard to issues of public concern. This is crucial for meaningful democracy, which requires open debate and dissemination of information, with contesting advocates each subjecting the other’s views to critical scrutiny. Without that, voting itself is meaningless.

The exact same considerations were central to a case Abrams argued before the Supreme Court, which he discusses. He there contended that the government, because of the First Amendment, may not criminalize distribution of a film critical of a presidential candidate. (I quoted Abrams about it on this blog.) He won the case. And given our common understanding of free speech in America, that might seem a no-brainer.

The case was Citizens United, where the movie in question had corporate funding. Abrams is unrepentant and defends the Court’s decision, which has been ferociously assailed for affirming that businesses have the same rights to free speech and public advocacy that individual citizens have, and for allowing them to spend money in such endeavors. Abrams rejects the effort to make a distinction between money and speech, arguing that no right can be meaningful without the concomitant right to spend your money in its exercise. And he insists that businesses, being part of society, must have the right to participate in public debate.

Abrams cites here a case in which Nike was accused of corporate misdeeds and sought to rebut the charges with press releases and publications. For that, the company was sued in California state court under a consumer protection law barring false advertising and the like. The real issue was whether the First Amendment protects Nike’s freedom of speech. When the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, the New York Times submitted a brief which Abrams quotes: “businesses and their representatives have just as much a right to speak out on any public issue as do interest groups and politicians . . . .” And because issues concerning businesses “are increasingly fundamental to the world’s social and political landscape, the withdrawal of corporate voices on those issues from the media would deprive the public of vital information.” Abrams deems the newspaper’s stance there starkly at odds with the position it later took on Citizens United, where the issue was really the same. Issue advocacy, and backing candidates for office, stand on identical ground as far as the First Amendment is concerned.

For me personally, all this is not abstract, but essential to my being. Abrams discusses the landmark case of Times v. Sullivan, which particularly protects criticism of public officials. That saved my butt in 1973 when I was sued for millions by guys whose misconduct I mentioned in a book on local politics. I love the freedom to express myself like that, and in this blog. I’ve been called fearless but the fact is, in America, there’s nothing to fear. In most other places blogging like mine requires a courage I probably don’t have. People literally risk their lives, and some have been killed.

Abrams notes Europe’s “right to be forgotten,” with search engines being required to erase true information about people when requested, such as reports on criminal convictions. I blogged about this in 2009 (again quoting Abrams), when two convicted German murderers, Wolfgang Werle and Manfred Lauber, sued to erase their names from Wikipedia. In defiance of that affront to freedom of information, I made a point of putting their names in my blog post, and do so again here. God bless America and the First Amendment!

* Yet even this right isn’t actually absolute. The First Amendment doesn’t protect libel or slander, child pornography, or shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater (as the same Justice Holmes famously explained).