Archive for the ‘history’ Category

The Minneapolis trial — what kind of nation are we?

April 8, 2021

“All men are created equal.” The Supreme Court pediment proclaims “Equal Justice Under Law.” The Constitution begins, “We the people.”

We’ve had four years of trauma, testing this country’s heart and soul. The Minneapolis trial is another test.

Cops have long gotten away with brutality and crime. The Rodney King trial a prime example. Our society cloaks police officers with a powerful mystique and deference. Many idealize them as our bulwark against the abyss. There’s also the traditional “blue wall” of cops circling wagons to protect their own.

The Minneapolis trial presents a supremely important counterstory. Here the blue wall has resoundingly fallen, with officer after officer taking the stand to denounce what their man did. A virtually unprecedented blow against police impunity.

A guilty verdict would cement the trial’s positive societal import. The evidence seems damning. The parade of police witnesses blew away the defense that Chauvin was following his training. And to claim Floyd died from other causes is ridiculous. Chauvin seemed to want him dead; or else simply didn’t care; and shows no remorse.

But juries can be unpredictable.* As salutary as a conviction would be, a failure to convict would be a devastating setback to our collective progress.

I do not want to see people having to take to the streets, yet another time, to protest yet another such outrage. Which can begin to feel pointless and futile. There must come a time when the hammer of justice finally prevails. If it does not prevail here, in this most extreme of cases, when could we ever hope for it?

The right keeps bleating “Freedom!” and about government overreach. But no threat from government is more immediate than its armed representatives who can kill you. No freedom more important than the freedom to go about your life in peace and security. Why isn’t police accountability a conservative rallying cry? (Well, America’s “conservative” movement has simply lost its mind.)

They also bleat about law and order. Floyd’s killing was the antithesis of law and order. If you want law and order, start with the people we hire to enforce it. What does it say if a society condones those very people themselves violating law and order?

That’s not my America. In my America, those people — even those people — especially those people — are accountable to the rule of law and to the citizenry they are entrusted with protecting.

Too often we have failed at that. And, yes, at many other aspects of our foundational ideals. Humans are imperfect. But America’s great virtue is constant improvement. The last four years were a ghastly swerve from that trajectory. The Minneapolis trial can help us return to it, can be a key milestone in our larger story of progress toward a “more perfect union.”

** In the one trial where I sat as an alternate juror, the verdict shocked me. 

Freedom of speech and lies

March 28, 2021

“Are Jews hidden in your attic?” You answer with a lie.

Kant had a categorical take on morality, with lying considered always wrong. John Stuart Mill’s view was consequentialist — lying is wrong only when someone is harmed unjustly. You don’t owe the Nazi officer the truth. But a public official owes citizens the truth.

Does freedom of speech include lying? Republican have been turning freedom of speech into a political bludgeon. The puritanical “woke” left enables this by persecuting the slightest verbal boo-boo, letting the right posture as though they’re defenders of free speech under dire threat.

Recently a Republican congressman said anyone criticizing racist comments violates freedom of speech. And Trump’s defenders in his second impeachment argued that he was merely exercising his free speech rights when he lied about the election being “stolen” and encouraged insurrection.

Our constitution protects free expression more strongly than in any other country. Yet no right is ever so absolute that it overrides all other societal considerations. The Second Amendment doesn’t allow nuclear weapons. And Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said the First Amendment doesn’t cover falsely yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Yet in 2012 the Court ruled quite differently in U.S. v. Alvarez. Striking down the “Stolen Valor Act,” which criminalized lying about military awards, saying that if Congress could outlaw one sort of statement, it could outlaw any.

A strange anti-Holmesian rationale. Nobody imagines the First Amendment protects lying in all contexts — we punish perjury. Because we consider that inimical to important societal values. Why couldn’t Congress, for similar reasons, punish lies about military medals? 

Such is not what the First Amendment mainly aims to protect. Rather, it’s expressions of opinion, especially political opinion. It’s really about free public debate. And it only bars government restraints. Not public criticism of your racist talk, Congressman. (To the contrary, it’s that criticism that’s protected.)

Inciting violence has always been considered another appropriate exception to free expression rights. Like perjury, another example where those rights bow to valid broader societal concerns. Thus Trump’s pre-January 6 incitements were not protected free speech.

That includes the “stolen election” claim, the biggest and most harmful lie in U.S. history. It’s at the center of a larger phenomenon, the corruption of American civic discourse by severing it from truth and reality. This Republican onslaught undermines the very thing — public debate — the First Amendment aims to protect. Thus their invoking freedom of speech is itself dishonest.

So what is to be done?

One obvious response is to vigorously counter lies. Well, many have been trying. It’s not working. As Mark Twain said, a lie can run around the world while the truth is getting its shoes on. Especially when it seems weak tea as against a lie’s bracing brew. And when the latter is what some people relish swallowing.

In past times, responsible gatekeepers kept the infosphere reality-based. Of course those news media had their own interests — making money — but that actually required maintaining public trust by reporting accurately. It worked pretty well. The public knew to trust the likes of Walter Cronkhite. Debates were about interpretations and consequences of facts, not facts themselves.

Today too many get “informed” by sources having very different incentives, flourishing by catering to discrete niche audiences wanting their opinions and prejudices flattered. The more a factoid does that, the better. Truth being irrelevant.

Twitter and Facebook have justifiably banned Trump. Violating his free speech? No. They are not the government. He can still say what he likes, on his own dime — with no constitutional right to use a platform provided by someone else. Last year, Facebook’s Zuckerberg said his site wouldn’t vet for truthfulness; but it has gotten intense criticism for all the garbage it disseminates. Now Facebook has started blocking anti-vaccine lies and some QAnon lunacy. But purveyors of such bilge just go elsewhere. And as a society we cannot look to private actors like Facebook to solve the bigger problem for us.

So should government step in and outlaw political lying after all? Ohio actually tried, with a law against campaign untruths. That was struck down — it surely did tread the slippery slope the Supreme Court feared in Alvarez. So lies in political advocacy do get some First Amendment protection. And what public officials should be entrusted with deciding truthfulness in political discourse? Laws like that have been introduced by several authoritarian regimes, as handy tools for stomping on pesky critics. Social media sites can block you but not jail you. 

There was actually a time, believe it or not, when being caught in a lie was fatal to a politician’s career. Trump glided through 30,000. This tells us America has changed in a very important way. Political tribalism now pre-empts everything — at least on the right. Among Democrats a major lie would still likely be devastating. But Trump famously said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and lose no votes. Thus a little peccadillo like lying doesn’t matter. Because his voters have other fish to fry. For some evangelicals, it’s the abortion obsession; but for most Trump voters it’s defending their tribal turf of white nationalism. And for them, literally, nothing else matters

Their amoral scorched earth politics jar against the Christianity they also purport to defend in this culture war. But for many, that Christianity is just an identifier, no longer truly a belief system. Such conventional religious belief is crumbling, and to feed their thirst for religious fervor, a lot of people now instead look to politics. It’s mirrored too in the left’s sanctimonious intolerance. When politics takes the place of religion, no wonder resolving issues through compromise becomes impossible.

The British royals: Netflix’s “The Crown”

March 11, 2021

“The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them.”

Jefferson wrote that in his last letter. Perhaps strange, inasmuch as he owned slaves. However, he was writing there about hereditary privilege and power. With that understanding I’ve always loved the quote.

So it may seem odd that my wife and I have been captivated by the Netflix series “The Crown,” chronicling the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (now in its 70th year). But this is no hagiography. Indeed, a pretty good indictment of hereditary monarchy, an absurd anachronism in today’s world.

The series is beautifully done, compelling to watch. The producers present it as drama rather than history, and so take liberties with the facts. Sometimes that’s annoying, but in the big picture the show tries to show truth. It depicts real human beings, imprisoned in circumstances that pervert their humanity. Themselves, in a sense, victims of the social paradigm Jefferson decried. Not to be envied.

This is no comedy, yet I find myself laughing out loud a lot. At the sheer bizarreness of the deadpan drama, and gobsmacking words coming out of the characters’ mouths. Irony abounds.

Do they themselves watch it? Curiosity reportedly does draw their eyeballs. How must it feel? Their feelings cannot be what yours or mine might be. It’s been reported that Elizabeth actually likes it, though her portrait hardly seems flattering. Yet as the drama itself shows, the criteria by which she judges her own behavior are not those you or I would apply to ours either.

I take issue with Margaret Thatcher’s depiction as an affected woman with silly hair, an arrogant ideologue whose cruel policies caused much suffering. I know she’s still hate figure for the left. But the nation was sinking into what was being called “British Disease” and she administered some needed medicine, putting the country on a path to prosperity.

Prince Charles, on the other hand, I’ve always considered a supreme ass. His portrayal here (by Josh O’Connor) in no way redeems him. Not even by way of complexity. But here too, assuming Charles has viewed this, one can easily suppose him actually seeing it as a vindication, imagining that anyone watching would assess his conduct exactly as he himself did. Saying to himself, when he’s shown crazily denouncing Diana, “Yes, that’s right!”

He seems to have suffered from a lifelong identity crisis. His major complaint against Diana was her being more glamorous and popular than him.

One laugh line (for me) occurred when Charles, first pondering dating Diana, vets her by phoning her sister. “Is she fun?” he asks. It didn’t sound like code for sex, rather being asked straightforwardly. As such, a pretty weird thing to ask about a potential future queen. But the really striking thing was its coming from the least “fun” person on Earth. 

Indeed, watching this portrayal, the word “hangdog” kept coming to mind, his very posture conveying lugubriousness. He’s almost like a hunchback, evoking Richard III. You want to shout, “For God’s sake, man, straighten up!” In more ways than one. His mother pretty much does tell him that.

Diana once complained there were three in the marriage. Charles still stuck on Camilla, who’d married Parker-Bowles years earlier. This infatuation reprising that of Charles’s great uncle (Edward VIII) for Wallis Simpson — in both cases the men so hopelessly besotted it emasculates them.

In one scene, Charles and Camilla sit talking in a car. Prodded, she assures him of the strength of her love. I expressed bafflement, Camilla herself being long besotted with Parker-Bowles. But my astute wife observed that she was careful not to say she loved Charles more than him.

Nevertheless, in some presumed future episodes, they will each eventually divorce, and eight years after Diana dies (no seat-belt), Charles and Camilla will finally marry, and live happily ever after. One hopes ; -)

At least, thank goodness, these absurd people no longer have any actual power. In fact, while Elizabeth is often shown berating prime ministers over political issues, I doubt this could occur, so circumscribed is her role.

But in 1826 Jefferson’s quote did not reflect reality and does not fully yet today. It’s aspirational. Looking toward a world in which nobody is born saddled, with others to ride them. Slowly we are getting there. One hopes.

The Republican war on voting rights

March 7, 2021

Republicans are a minority party. Winning the presidential popular vote only once (and then barely) since 1988. Their weakness masked by the electoral college overweighting small rural states; and by a 2010 high water mark showing, which gave them control of many state legislatures, enabling their perpetuating it via gerrymandering in that census/redistricting year. While their voting base, centered upon older rural religious white males, inexorably shrinks. 

You’d think they’d strive to broaden their appeal among other, hostile demographics. An internal party post-mortem after their 2012 loss urged just that. But they went the exact opposite way, doubling down on their pitch to their base to the exclusion of courting others, by nominating Trump. This might have seemed vindicated by his squeaking to victory despite losing the popular vote. But then in 2020 he lost pretty decisively.

So are they retooling their appeal now? No. Instead Republicans are tripling down, going yet more totally Trump, even trying to purge any dissenters. Blind to rational people hating Trump for lies, divisiveness, half a million covid deaths — and the violent attempt to overthrow the government!

So how pray tell do Republicans, waving this rancid flag, envision winning elections? Here’s how: by preventing opposition voters from casting ballots.

Voter suppression has been a central Republican strategy ever since their 2010 state legislative wins enabled it. They figure to do better if fewer people vote. Now they’re on a tear, with literally hundreds of bills introduced across 40 states, to make voting harder.

Their pretense is election integrity and fraud prevention. It’s a total lie. Vote fraud has been proven virtually nonexistent. Trump in 2017 set up a commission to investigate it — galled that he lost the popular vote by three million — but it disbanded after being unable to find even a single improper Clinton ballot.

But now they say the 2020 election raised widespread concerns about vote fraud. This is like the classic illustration of chutzpah, someone murdering his parents and pleading for mercy as an orphan. It’s of course these Republicans themselves who spread Trump’s vote fraud lies. When none of his 60+ lawsuits could prove Biden got even one fraudulent ballot. While responsible authorities attested that the 2020 election was among the most impeccably conducted ever. 

And, if anyone, it was Republicans who cheated in that election — through all their voter suppression.

What does that actually mean? Making it harder to register, eliminating automatic registration. Cancelling registrations of people who don’t vote often enough, or on minor technicalities. Obstructing mail voting, by limiting when it’s allowed, making it more complicated and cumbersome, eliminating drop-off options, etc. Curtailing early voting, closing polling stations, and making them less accessible. Requiring particular forms of ID to vote.

All carefully targeting poor and minority voters, less likely to support Republicans. It’s become common in Black neighborhoods to wait hours on line to vote. Very rare in white areas. Proposed legislation in Georgia would even criminalize giving water or food to anyone waiting to vote!

The Jim Crow South used poll taxes and literacy tests to keep Blacks from voting. They might be asked to explicate an obscure section of the state constitution. If that didn’t work, a beating probably would. Blacks knew enough not to try. So until the 1965 Voting Rights Act outlawed these sorts of things, very few Southern Blacks could vote. Then in 2013 the Republican-majority Supreme Court eviscerated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and Republican-dominated state legislatures rushed to enact new restrictions aimed at impeding Black voting. And those the court has consistently upheld.

Bad enough for America if one party thusly perverts the system to illegitimately hold power. Worse yet: while at one time I saw the two parties as each merely representing differing but sincere visions for the common good, that’s no longer true. Say what you will about Democrats’ policies, they are advocated honestly and sincerely. Not so for today’s Republicans. Bad faith pervades their entire enterprise.

Epitomized by their “stolen election” lie. That’s the huge fraud. They know it, but use it to serve their partisan purposes — notably, their voter suppression onslaught. Which — together with a majority of GOP lawmakers voting on January 6 to overturn the election — proves they just don’t believe in democracy. They are no longer legitimate actors upon the nation’s political stage. 

And what further delegitimizes the GOP is its having become, most fundamentally, the white supremacy party. Their trying to prevent Black voting is thus really a twofer — not only aimed at unfairly winning elections, but furthermore reflecting their deep-down feeling that Blacks shouldn’t be allowed to vote anyway.

This is ghastly for the country. After all we’ve been through. The horror of slavery, and the bloody Civil War over it. Followed by a century of Jim Crow crushing the rights that war had seemingly assured. Then, the great civil rights battle to finally make those rights a reality. To fulfill at last America’s promise as a democratic society with liberty and justice for all. Will we now let all this be set back by a dishonest white supremacist minority?

Voting is sacred. Republicans bleat about “freedom” — especially to own guns (giving us an epidemic of gun violence). They’d never accept gun restrictions equivalent to what they impose on voting. They fantasize guns as a bulwark against tyranny; but the primary bulwark is voting, essential to freedom. For most of human history, ordinary people were powerless. Voting gives us the power to shape our collective destinies. Thank God for Black Americans, who in their millions defied Republican efforts to hinder their voting and thus saved the country in 2020. Public servants should be working to expand opportunities for citizens to exercise their voting rights — not to curtail them, as Republicans strive to do.

To combat that we need a new national voting rights law. A good one’s been passed by the House of Representatives. It cannot pass the Senate with the filibuster rule still in force, enabling Republicans to block it. Democrats must bite that bullet, end the filibuster once and for all, and then enact the voting rights bill, while they still have the capability to do so. Otherwise, Republican voter suppression may well enable them to illegitimately regain power — and make America stink again.

The Status Cuomo

March 4, 2021

 Saying “Sorry if someone was offended” is not an apology.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s first accuser, Lindsey Boylan, might have been shrugged off. I’d assumed any mention of “strip poker” was in jest. Does anybody really play strip poker? But I’m less sure after Charlotte Bennett’s story. Clearly Cuomo was hitting on her for sex. And now there’s the cringe-inducing photo of him with hands on Anna Ruch’s startled face. So a pattern emerges.

His calling it all just playful banter, and saying he’s sorry if it was taken the wrong way, was not going down well. Especially on the heels of his trying to manipulate the situation by having it “investigated” by someone not exactly disinterested. (Now Attorney General James will do it; she’d recently produced a damning report about Cuomo’s nursing home debacle.)

Cuomo, 63, is divorced; he split with his girlfriend in September 2019.

I originally drafted this piece a few days ago, writing that Cuomo should have said this: “What I did was wrong and out of line. I’m sorry for my actions. This is not an excuse, but it happened because I’ve been alone for a while and craved female companionship. While the way I sought it might have seemed normal in previous decades when my social acculturation occurred, I get it that times and mores have changed, and I must change with them. I have learned from this episode and will endeavor to be better in the future. On that basis, I humbly beseech forgiveness.”

Then Cuomo’s own words, at his Wednesday press conference, actually came pretty close. Yet he still ended with, “And if they were offended by it, then I apologize.”

Boylan and Bennett were employed under Cuomo’s authority; seeking sex from them was not merely a matter of it being unwelcome, it was an abuse of power. For too long men with an exaggerated sense of privilege have gotten away with egregious behavior toward women. On the other hand, “#metoo” and “cancel culture” too often fail to fit the punishment with the crime. It’s public death for all, whether Harvey Weinstein or Garrison Keillor or Al Franken. That’s just wrong.

If his moves on these women were Cuomo’s sole transgressions, that should not, in my judicious opinion, necessarily incur the ultimate political penalty. I would say let the voters decide, in the context of his overall record.

One might mention, in this regard, “Grab them by the pussy,” lying about payoffs to women to silence them about adulterous sex, etc. Making Cuomo’s behavior almost look innocent in comparison. But I’d prefer to consider the Trump case a grotesque aberration, rather than setting the standard for judging such things. Indeed, that would eviscerate standards altogether.

And what of Cuomo’s overall record? Previously I’d given him good marks on covid. Here too, in comparison to Trump, he looked heroic. But then there was the nursing home mess. The original decision to require nursing homes to take infected patients from hospitals can be argued — where else could they go, with hospitals overwhelmed? But here again, the problem was a refusal to take responsibility. To obfuscate matters, the ensuing deaths being classified as hospital deaths rather than nursing home deaths, Cuomo long doggedly stonewalling and dodging responsibility.

Then there was the Moreland Act Commission, empaneled to investigate government corruption. When it got too close to his own operations, Cuomo simply disbanded it. The state also has a “Joint Commission on Public Ethics” — hahahaha. A joke of a Cuomo poodle. When his top henchman, Joe Percoco. was convicted of mis-using his office and bribery, JCOPE refused to take up the matter. Indeed, refused even to hold a vote on taking it up. Meantime, Cuomo’s been up to his eyeballs in smelly “pay to play” games, raking in huge campaign donations from businesses getting state contracts. 

And he’s not a nice person. A nasty bully. Even as the nursing home controversy continued aboil, and the Boylan allegations were swirling, Cuomo in a previous press conference saw fit to launch a bizarre personal attack on an obscure state assemblyman, Ron Kim, who had somehow crossed him. And, said Kim, in a hectoring phone call Cuomo had threatened to “destroy” him.

So, taking into due account the entire record, my final verdict: hang the bastard.

Many say he’s now indeed done for. Ron Kim was part of a pattern too. Cuomo bullying victims are legion in state politics. He seemed to follow Macchiavelli’s dictum that it’s better to be feared than loved. So there’s nobody who loves him, leaping to his defense, except of course for his entourage of toadies. And now, seemingly on the ropes, he’s no longer much feared either. The ubiquitous metaphor is sharks smelling blood in the water.

But how, exactly, will they bring him down? He can’t be forced to resign (like Eliot Spitzer did, in a 2008 sex scandal). Impeachment? An unwanted kiss on Boylan might actually have been a criminal offense. But I can’t see a Democratic governor being impeached, by a Democrat-controlled legislature, for that.

Conventional wisdom says that in any case, a fourth gubernatorial term is always tough in New York politics. It eluded his father Mario. How can Andrew even dare run again, with all this ugly baggage? But there’s no obvious candidate to beat him in the primary. Especially given his pay-to-play campaign slush fund, flush with tens of millions. And New York’s Republican party is a pathetic basket case of Trump cultists in a Trump-loathing state.

If you play strip poker with this guy, watch out for marked cards.

The insane Republican religious cult

March 1, 2021

I’d love to forget Trump ever existed. But Republicans won’t; despite January 6, Trumpier than ever. Kind of circling the wagons around him.

Seventeen GOP lawmakers did break ranks to back impeachment. But state party organizations are voting to censure them! Something quite unprecedented in the annals of American politics. Trying to enforce a slavish conformity no party has ever attempted. It’s a great irony that they continue denouncing “cancel culture.” These censure votes are the GOP’s own cancel culture. Showing it’s no longer a political party so much as a religion, bent on casting out heretics.

Religions have their mythologies; now salient here is “the stolen election.” A trifecta of nonsensicality. It originated with the biggest liar ever. It’s been thoroughly debunked. And third, Trump lost not due to fraud but loathsomeness. Which Republicans also blind themselves to. A divorcement from reality characteristic of religious cults. The “election steal” fits right in with the QAnon fantasy, of some vast Satanic deep state conspiracy of cannibalistic pedophiles, rampant too among Republicans.

Such confabulation of nonsense stories — blaming Trump’s defeat on fraud, January 6 on leftist provocateurs, Texas power outages on the Green New Deal, and on and on — is now pervasively how Republicans engage with the world. Textbook insanity.

But they’re really RINOs — “Republicans in name only.” Everything the party used to represent thrown under the bus in their insane worship of the most destructive individual in U.S. history.

This is what we confront today in place of conventional political debate over ideas, issues, and policies. Not even abortion is to the fore any longer. In this religion, Trump is the messiah, the savior. Their Jerusalem, which they see him as promising, is the preservation of white supremacy, in the most literal sense. To, as they see it, remain culturally dominant, by any means necessary.

This is a fundamental rejection of democracy. A democratic culture means accepting the legitimacy of the role of people different from you, with different ideas. Today’s Republicans do not. I’m reminded of Turkey’s Erdogan saying democracy is like a train — you get off when you reach your chosen destination. To reach theirs, Republicans will stop at nothing. Not lies, not cruelty, not trashing civic decency. All grotesquely contravening the Christianity they supposedly sacralize. In fact, they’re not only RINOs, but CINOs — Christians in name only. Trump having superseded Christ.

They even justify overthrowing the Constitution. That’s what they tried to do on January 6. Many dupes fantasized “protecting democracy” from vote fraud; for others that was just a useful lie. But anyway, it was never actually election integrity that mattered, it was keeping their despicable messiah in office. At least President Biden has never tried to overthrow the government.*

Their failure on January 6 is not the end of it. While Republicans used to claim venerating the Constitution, about half, according to polls, now actually believe force and violence are justified to maintain the white Christian America of their imaginings and defeat their betes noires. No wonder this is now seen as our greatest national security threat. They consider January 6 another 1776. Though in 1776, we got rid of a king; on January 6 they tried to crown one.

This is the party Hawley, Haley, Cruz, Rubio, and others are jockeying to lead. Struggling to square the circle of kissing Trump cultist asses while somehow distancing from their loopiness. Their moral depravity will profit them nought, because the 2024 nominee will be Donald or else Donald Junior. If not a Trump-Trump ticket.

We’re told the party is split, undergoing a civil war, with some Republicans battling for sanity and the party’s soul. But GOP voters harbor great resentment against “elites.” Those still sane are the GOP’s own elite, similarly resented (now being censured), and too few to put up much of a fight. Many (like me) having simply left the party, as irredeemable.

I remember LBJ quoting, “Come, let us reason together.” America was always a place where, while disagreements were real and large, reason helped us work through them. That’s what politics was about. But no longer. There’s no reasoning with a religious cult.

So obviously is this a bad thing for America, one wants to believe it cannot possibly prevail. That we can’t go so far off the deep end. But the fools dancing dementedly around bonfires of reason are so numerous they don’t have to ensnare many additional voters. We’ve already had one bout of catastrophic misrule by their monster messiah, leaving half a million dead. Yet he actually came within 1% of re-election. Can the better angels of our nature keep these demons at bay?

*But Republicans will probably accuse him of it; weirdly inverting all indictnments of Trump. Now calling Biden “anti-science.” A right-wing radio commentator faulted his foreign policy for not sufficiently emphasizing human rights! And so forth.

Understanding history’s meaning

February 26, 2021

(My Black History Month essay)

America is a divided country — two sides seeing things very differently. Naturally enough that includes history. Interpreting the past shapes one’s current perspective.

One side focuses on correcting what it considers a sanitizing of American history. Thus “The 1619 Project,” emphasizing the centrality of slavery. There’s also genocidal mistreatment of Native Americans, and much else, to portray a history of infamy. The other side deems this unpatriotic, and seeks to restore a positive narrative, epitomized by Trump’s 1776 Commission and Mount Rushmore hagiology. To defend the “nobility of the American character” (said the most ignoble character in U.S. history). But such voices too often centralize whiteness and Christianity, sacrificing for that all other values — and our history’s true meaning.

The divergent viewpoints were discussed in a Washington Post essay by aptly named history teacher Daniel Immerwahr (German for “always true”). Regarding whether students should learn of America’s virtues or its shortcomings, he ended by saying the aim of teaching history isn’t for them to love or loathe their country, it’s to prepare them to live in it. 

That should include civic engagement, for which an understanding of history is indeed essential. And seeing both virtues and blemishes enables properly grasping the full picture. We cannot know where we’re going without knowing where we’ve been, and how we got where we are now. Thus Immerwahr describes “1619ers” as pushing us to live up to our ideals. Loving or hating America isn’t the issue. It’s how we go forward.

Some do talk as though slavery was our deep dark secret, hidden somehow like Mr. Rochester’s madwoman in the attic. But that history has always been very much in our faces. We fought our bloodiest war over it; and its literal descendants live among us.

So, yes, we did have slavery, and Indian atrocities, and WWII Japanese internment, and more. But are there countries whose histories read like fairy stories? It’s hard to think of any. Maybe Norway? Then again, a million Norwegians fled for the greener pastures of . . . America.

Immerwahr cites Howard Zinn’s infamous book, A People’s History of the United States. Which saw America as conceived in sin because we did not, immediately in 1787, abolish slavery, establish universal suffrage, liberate women, empower labor unions, and so forth. The book chronicled generations of Americans who battled for progress on all such fronts. While studiously omitting mention of any success. (Zinn did acknowledge women finally gained the vote, but dismissed that, saying they just voted like their husbands.) 

But America has indeed progressed tremendously, becoming fairer and better. Look at gay marriage. Something Zinn neglected to gripe about. Because in 1980, when he wrote, nobody imagined it possible.

Such progress is America’s true central story. While much was wrong in the past, we established a system that, not set in stone, was conducive to positive change through citizen action. And it is in our national character to achieve that, with an ethos of democratic openness and dynamism. A character shaped by generations of people uprooting themselves to come here for their own betterment, like those Norwegians, thus infusing positive attitudes into our very DNA.

This is why I love and take pride in America. And America is really the best exemplar of a character imbuing all humanity. Here too cynics and pessimists press their indictments. But talk about sanitizing history — the “good old days” were squalid, even our prehistoric past no Garden of Eden. Ever since, we’ve made epic efforts toward improvement, with a degree of success once unimaginable. While bringing our worst instincts, too, progressively under control. This is history’s central story. Also filling me with love and pride. 

End the filibuster

February 19, 2021

I previously wrote that Democrats, in power, should refrain from exercising it in ways that might look illegitimate — that is, like Republicans have. Even though turnabout might seem fair play, we must try to de-escalate tribalistic partisan warfare. Nevertheless, it’s time to end the Senate filibuster. It’s something very doable, and would help significantly to fix what’s wrong with today’s America.

President Biden did pledge to try to work with Republicans. But it’s becoming clear that most of the GOP, rather than recovering from Trump insanity, is burrowing deeper into it. Incapable of cooperating rationally in the national interest, they have forfeited their seat at the table. We’ll have to work around them.

We venerate our Constitution. It was trailblazing in 1787 and has stood the test of time, not only maintaining our democracy, but enabling us to progressively broaden it. Even through a civil war; and Trump. Yet it’s actually ill-suited to our modern reality and now in many ways has become an obstacle not only to continued progress but even to basic democratic values.

One factor is the difficulty of amending it, which requires agreement by three-quarters of states. Almost inconceivable today for anything controversial, given our partisan divisions. We’re now pretty much stuck with the Constitution we’ve got.

It established the two houses of congress differently, the House of Representatives apportioned by population, while in the Senate all states are represented equally. (In fact, that’s the one thing the Constitution explicitly says cannot be changed by amendment.) This was to allay small-state fears that the big ones would be too powerful. The founders probably didn’t foresee how that would play out in a fifty-state union with many small states. Size might not matter much if it didn’t correlate with other characteristics. But the big states are big because they have big cities; small states don’t, tending to be more rural. And whiter.

And with two senators each, those small rural ones are way overrepresented. Problem enough if the Senate worked by majority rule. But the filibuster rule means it normally takes 60 out of 100 votes to pass a bill. That magnifies small state clout even more; 41 senators representing an even smaller fraction of the population can stymie the other 59. And given such partisan division that neither party can hope to have 60 senators, the result is the gridlock and government paralysis we’ve come to expect.

It wasn’t always like this. The filibuster rule is not in the Constitution. Originally both houses of Congress had unlimited debate. That soon became unworkable in the House of Representatives, having so many members, so they limited debate. The smaller Senate — only 26 members at the start — saw itself as a more collegial, deliberative body.

Not until the 1850s did “filibustering” become a thing — Senators preventing a bill’s passage by keeping debate going. But that was rare. Only in 1917 was it deemed necessary to institute a way to end debate — called “cloture,” it was considered an extraordinary measure, and hence required a two-thirds vote. But such situations were still rare, until the 1950s when southerners filibustered to block civil rights legislation.

It was of course hard to get 67 Senate votes for anything. Finally, in 1975, they reduced the requirement to 60 votes, thinking to make cloture, and bringing bills to a vote, easier.

But the result, perversely, was the opposite. It would never have seemed reasonable to effectively require 67 votes for every bill. But 60 felt different. Another factor: in the past, a filibuster meant you actually had to keep debating. Strom Thurmond set the record in 1957, holding the floor talking for 24 straight hours. Now, however, it became a given that every major piece of legislation would require cloture with 60 votes; the actual speechifying dispensed with. Thus giving a minority an effortless automatic veto over everything.

Again, none of this was required by the Constitution; but it became a hardened status quo. Changing the filibuster rule was called the “nuclear option,” as if tantamount to an act of war. But during the Obama administration, Republicans were using the rule to block his judicial nominations, so Majority Leader Harry Reid went for a limited nuclear option, scrapping the 60-vote rule just for those nominations. Then, when Republicans got control of the Senate, they extended this to Supreme Court nominations, to keep Democrats from blocking Trump appointments.

What all this shows is that the 60-vote rule is by no means sacrosanct. Its resultant minority veto is a major factor undermining the health of our body politic. And it’s one that actually has an easy fix: the Senate can change the rule by a simple majority vote. For that, 60 votes are not needed!

And once that’s done, a lot of other problems can be tackled effectively. A big one is immigration. Desperately needed reform has been stymied for decades by the filibuster rule. Without it, immigration reform should happen quickly. Another priority is election reform. We need to set national standards, to allay concerns about fairness and fraud. But particularly to outlaw all the ways Republicans use to make voting harder. We should also make DC and Puerto Rico states, likely adding four Democratic senators and reducing the perverse Republican small state advantage.

Yes, they will howl bloody murder, accusing Democrats of a power grab. That will dominate talking heads and internet blowhards for, oh, maybe two or three days. Then will be forgotten as we move on to something else. After all, the Senate being able to pass a bill by majority vote shouldn’t seem very radical. We’ll quickly get used to it, and if we think of it at all, will wonder why the previous bizarre rule wasn’t junked long before.

Lessons from Myanmar’s coup

February 10, 2021

Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History, heralded liberal democracy’s apparent final triumph, fulfilling basic human aspirations. But alas, bad people also have aspirations — and often guns.

Cheerleading for democracy is frustrating. Hopes often raised, then betrayed. Visiting a democratic Russia — shortly after Fukuyama wrote — was thrilling. Then history returned. The story repeats again and again. As in the Arab Spring. In Thailand, and Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. Now Myanmar (formerly Burma).

The problem isn’t just guns. It’s also voters. Too few have read Fukuyama to understand how democracy serves them. Too many foolishly fall for strongmen. (America saved by its would-be strongman being himself a fool.)

Myanmar’s voters, though, understood fully. Overwhelmingly choosing democracy over military rule. Perhaps a no-brainer, given their military’s remarkable vileness. As evidenced by its brazen power grab, claiming “election fraud.” (Sound familiar?) And no one was deluded that the army acted benevolently with the people’s interests at heart. They ruled by the gun, as Al Capone in Chicago, a criminal gang doing it for their own power and (importantly) profit.

The army had ruled since 1962. Democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. She’d been heroic; her book, Freedom From Fear, an inspiration. Then, in 2012, a new military president, Thein Sein, initiated a transition to democracy. It seemed for real, aiming at the nation’s progress. Suu’s party won elections and she became Myanmar’s top leader. But the military still retained much power.

Suu’s luster dimmed when she refused to criticize, and even defended, the army’s savage genocide of rape and murder against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. (Buddhist pacifism?) Admittedly her tense relationship with the army circumscribed Suu’s power and authority; but she had some; and what good are they if you’re afraid to use them? Freedom from fear?

Mao famously said power comes from the barrel of a gun. He knew whereof he spoke. In past epochs it was the “divine right” of kings. Few today (apart from Republicans) can be persuaded that God chose someone to rule. Instead we do it ourselves, by voting. But Mao had a point — bullets can trump ballots.

The paradigm of an army using its guns to rule is so familiar it seems inevitable, like the weather. How to keep soldiers in their barracks is a perennial conundrum. Yet few question why a country like Myanmar even has an army in the first place.

Armies originated in a world where might made right. Your city-state needed one because others had them and would use them to pillage yours otherwise. Russia’s Ukraine depredation was a throwback to that kind of world, no longer customary. By and large that just doesn’t happen any more. Most national armies, especially for small countries, are anachronistic holdovers from past history. The idea of a country like Myanmar needing to defend against invasion by some neighbor is basically just ridiculous.

Myanmar does have internal conflicts, with regional/ethnic insurgencies, that its army battles. That sort of thing is what mainly occupies modern militaries — to the extent they do any actual military stuff at all. But query what would obtain absent a national army. The aggressiveness of Myanmar’s toward those regional elements is itself a major instigator of bloodshed. Without its army, the country would likely work through such conflicts politically, and peacefully.

What’s suggested here is not some utopian pacifist fantasy. Naturally, disbanding any army faces much opposition, not least from that army itself; which, after all, has guns to back up its resistance. (Myanmar’s proved unwilling even to coexist with a civilian government.) Yet a few countries have succeeded in abolishing national armies. Costa Rica, for example, did so back in 1948, after a civil war. It has not since experienced another, nor an invasion — nor, of course, a military coup. Its democracy thrives unmolested.

And for countries that still feel an itch for military defense, here’s another proposal: the U.S. can sell invasion insurance. For an annual premium payment, we’d promise to defend a nation against foreign invasion. (Russia’s neighbors would pay a surcharge.) But their cost would be far less than for maintaining national armies. This would be good for America; the payments would help defray our own defense budget. Which could be reduced even further because armed conflicts would be fewer, as more nations join the plan. A more orderly world like that would be more prosperous too, further serving our national interests.

This is a practical path toward the pacifist dream of a world without war.

Understanding the China problem

February 1, 2021

Henry Kissinger wrote a 624-page book, On China. Here’s a shorter take.

China’s imperial dynasty was overthrown in 1911. Violent turmoil followed as warlords, Communists, and a government led by Chiang Kai-shek all battled for power. Then Japan’s 1930s invasion ravaged the country. Finally in 1949 Mao’s Communists triumphed; Chiang and his Nationalists decamping to Taiwan. Which became prosperous and democratic; de facto independent, though China insists it’s theirs.

Poverty always afflicted China. Mao’s harebrained economic policies didn’t help. The 1958-62 “Great Leap Forward” left tens of millions dead. The country was convulsed yet again in 1966 by the madcap “Cultural Revolution” Mao launched to consolidate his control. Destroying much cultural heritage, and many more lives. Ending only with Mao’s 1976 death.

That history of traumatization shapes China’s psyche. Mere domestic order seems a great blessing. Chinese also keenly feel past humiliation, seeing a century of Western bullying and exploitation. Making them truculently nationalistic, with chips on their shoulders, something to prove, swaggeringly aggressive.

Deng Xiaoping succeeded Mao, jettisoning his craziness and most communist dogma, opening up the economy. While big state-owned enterprises endure, they accompany a private sector actually epitomizing “unfettered laissez faire capitalism.” Producing four decades of spectacular economic growth, eliminating most Chinese poverty and creating a vast middle class. For which they also thank the regime.

Younger people, especially, wanted a freer society too. But that dream died with the 1989 Tiananmen bloodbath. All memory of which the party has striven to scrub out. The basic deal it offers is rising prosperity in exchange for total political control.

Corruption and dishonesty have long characterized China’s culture. In 2012 Xi Jinping became leader, gaining plaudits for an anti-corruption campaign. But it was mainly a way to amass more personal power than anyone since Mao. China actually remains deeply corrupt. While Xi has suppressed all dissension or debate, deploying pervasive propaganda and an Orwellian surveillance state. Thus China’s repression in Tibet, then Xinjiang, then Hong Kong. A million Xinjiang Uighurs are in concentration camps, an effort to pretty much stamp out their Muslim religion.

Today the idea of democracy has scant traction. What freedom Chinese do want is economic, which they’ve got. Politically most seem happy with dictatorship, if (as they believe) it manages the country well. In fact, they take pride in their system’s achievements, rejecting “Western” values like rule of law or press freedom, and feeling superior to democratic nations as dysfunctional, disordered, and declining. They support crushing Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations. Some social liberalism does surface mainly among the young, for causes like women’s equality, LGBT rights, and the environment. But most Chinese are more into consumerism and other personal stuff than public affairs. And remember that China has no historical ethos of individualism like ours, conformism being more the rule.

Also greatly shaping Chinese society is the one-child policy, harshly enforced between 1980 and 2016, to prevent overpopulation. It succeeded too well, causing a shortage of working age people. While a traditional preference for boys meant many girls aborted, with lone boys raised as spoiled princelings, and not enough females for them to marry. Add in desperate competition for university slots and housing costs becoming unaffordable, another damper on marrying.

Many millions had migrated from farms to cities for better pay, but the “hukou” system prevents their registry as official residents there, making them second class citizens. A deep social division. Meantime sweatshop factory jobs are disappearing, moving to even lower wage countries. Now many Chinese feel they’re in a rat race with “996” office jobs — 9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week.

There’d been hopes that an increasingly prosperous and secure China would become a well-behaved member of an interconnected global community. But clearly today’s China thinks differently. If Trump was right to see China more adversarially, unfortunately he followed up brainlessly, subverting our own interests. Not just with self-harming tariffs, but trying to decouple our economy from China’s, dividing the world into two economic ghettoes with separate supply chains, to our detriment. Particularly idiotic was confronting China alone, blowing off our allies who could have been marshaled into a united front.

But this needn’t be a new cold war. Whereas Soviets wanted the whole world Communist, China has no such agenda, being “Communist” in name only. Seeking instead just national aggrandizement. Mere cost-free kowtowing could actually help assuage that. What we really have is not combat but competition, and there’s a big difference. Competition among economic actors is always the way of the world, and should be, it’s the essence of our own free market system. The world is not zero-sum with China’s gain necessarily being our loss. They don’t stupidly imagine destroying America would be advantageous. We have to manage our competition for mutual advantage.

Of course that doesn’t mean overlooking China’s intellectual property theft and other unfair tactics. Just as we enforce rules within our own economy and punish violators but don’t seek to put them out of business. Nor do China’s human rights violations make it our enemy. That too we must call out, and mitigate whatever way possible; but again, that needn’t mean blowing up what’s mutually beneficial in our economic relationship.