Archive for the ‘history’ Category

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

July 30, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demise of the dinosaurs

July 28, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 26, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Republican Party?

July 20, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Lewis at the bridge

July 18, 2020

The Edmund Pettus Bridge, 1965.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The race issue: Reconstruction and now

July 17, 2020

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

                           — William Faulkner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales of Bermania

July 8, 2020

Once traveling with my family through Philadelphia Airport, I encountered an acquaintance, and introduced my little daughter to him as the King of Bermania. I guess it made an impression on her young mind.

Fast forward a dozen years or so. She showed me a draft of her college application essay. About travel broadening one’s horizons or something. Mentioning how, in an airport, she’d once met a king. “Ahem, Elizabeth,” I said. “You see, that was actually . . . ”

Allen Berman. A fellow coin dealer. He also goes by Alanus I, King of Bermania. But that’s all in fun. Though it’s very elaborate fun. He’s held Bermanian fests at coin shows. (Remember those BC [before covid] times when we had coin shows?) Now he’s written a book about Bermania, Please Ignore Our Time Machine. He finagled me into buying a copy. At least it was cheaper than on Amazon.

As its opening explains, Bermania is a (very) small old kingdom somewhere in Eastern Europe; whose name does not actually derive from his own. It seems the land’s early inhabitants had a thing for lawn ornaments. One fellow displayed a large wooden bear. He became known as the “Bear man.” The rest, as they say, is history (explicated rather more verbosely in the book). And since Renaissance times, hawking “relics” of “the true bear” has been a Bermanian cottage industry.

But Bermania is a very small country indeed. Even smaller than Grand Fenwick. As the author notes, the kingdom avoided Napoleon’s armies by hiding behind a tree.

The book is basically a history of Bermania and its quasi-yiddische people. Interwoven with the history of Europe and indeed the rest of the world. For example, few people know that General Tso’s chicken is actually more a Bermanian dish than a Chinese one.

The stories are amusing. Perhaps not S.J. Perelman hilarious — but amusing. There’s mention of “[w]hen the famous flying saucer arrived in 654 A.D.” Note this was the famous one.

Numismatics is never far from the author’s mind. One of the stories concerns what are called royal touch-pieces. This was an actual thing, in pre-modern Britain, whose people believed a certain nasty illness (scrofula) was curable by the King’s touch. In connection with these touch ceremonies they minted coin-like “touch-pieces,” often holed and worn on a ribbon around the neck. In the case of Bermania, the malady to be cured was glumness, the monarch administering the remedy of jokes and ticklings. So the Bermanian equivalent of the touch-piece was the tickle-token. Allen had restrikes made; some years ago he gave me one with the request that I carry it in my pocket so eventually he could see what it would look like with natural circulation wear. This was pure Allen. Actually, I didn’t know why he couldn’t do it himself; but flattered by this royal trust, I have performed it faithfully till the present day.

The picture shows the worn one from my pocket. Note the angel is not spearing the dragon but tickling it with a feather. As always, I try to thoroughly research my blog posts, so I went to Google Translate to get the technical meaning of the Latin word “placebo.” Google helpfully translated it as “placebo.”

After WWII, like several countries in its neighborhood, Bermania suffered Communist occupation. Then there was the “fig revolt” in the ’70s, resulting in a delegation of Bermanian dignitaries dispatched to Bridgeport, Connecticut, their archaic costumes causing them to be initially mistaken for trick-or-treaters confused about the calendar. They may also have been confused about Bermanian royal genealogy. The book unfortunately omits detailing the Bridgeport connection. In any case, these Bermanian emissaries were under the impression that a 14-year-old kid there was the rightful heir to the throne. This was Allen, later Alanus I. (Earlier Bermanian monarchs had much sillier names.)

Alanus, like all Bermanian kings, has ruled with a light touch. So light in fact that when Bermanian meshuginauts landed on the moon, in 2013, nobody told him. He learned of it later from Edward Snowden.

Still and all, humanity has outgrown monarchical government. Bermania should become a democratic republic.

Let’s talk about race (again)

July 5, 2020

My 2009 “Rational Optimism” book addressed race. Rejecting the trope of America as a fundamentally racist society, I saw a nation “that has made titanic efforts to right these wrongs.” Recapping all the progress in just my own lifetime. Quoting black scholar Shelby Steele that America has achieved the greatest moral evolution in human history.

Obama had just been elected. The symbolic import seemed huge: we were “choosing a civic father, a tribal leader.” And “in a nation where bloody battles once raged over blacks merely voting, a black presidency has arrived in peace and goodwill.”

I wrote that “[t]hose few who still spout white supremacy are mostly disadvantaged, powerless whites,” with “no influence upon the larger society, and scant real impact on blacks.” And “institutional racism . . . is largely a figment of imagination . . . no significant American institution could actually practice it. Indeed, today’s institutional bias is affirmative action . . . favoring blacks.” (Emphases in original.)

My view has since evolved. I obviously did not foresee the racist backlash against Obama’s presidency soon to explode. Nor a successor empowering the racism I’d thought was relegated to America’s dark corners.

What I wrote was colored by my own experience interacting with blacks, in the workplace, in commerce, in society. I understood deeply what cause for resentment they had, yet rarely observed its expression. Instead I was always impressed by the friendly decency of most blacks toward whites. If white society had, as I believed, done much toward reconciliation, blacks had done more. Again I quote Kimberly Jones: we’re lucky they seek only equality, not revenge. Their goodwill has outstripped that of whites.

But that does not mean they’re now okay with how things are, and it’s in that respect that my understanding has grown.

In particular, my words “scant real impact on blacks” overlooked policing. Being white, it just wasn’t on my radar screen then. Even if most cops aren’t consciously racist, nevertheless for a lot of them brown skin is a red flag. And for people having that skin, that’s a very big fact of life. They might shrug off the racism of assholes, but it’s another matter when it’s guys who can commit violence against you with near impunity under color of law. (Of course that’s a threat to us all, but blacks bear its brunt.)

I also didn’t fully grasp then how deeply raced-based concepts are culturally embedded in our heads. Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, likened one’s conscious mind to a rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. The rider thinks he’s directing the elephant, but he’s really just along for the ride. Whites claiming color-blindness is a cliché. But experiments have shown that most harbor unconscious negativity toward black faces vis-a-vis whites. Even blacks themselves do.

I’m not color-blind. I see blacks as people whose forebears were brought here in chains and who struggle against much adversity to live their lives. I respect their blackness.

And even if today’s society were truly color-blind, also deeply embedded into its fabric are the effects of past racism. Studies have found differences between two populations today are often actually rooted in differing circumstances centuries ago. When slaves were freed in 1865, of course they started out very disadvantaged in relation to whites. That gets passed down through the generations. If your parents are poor and ill-educated, you will likely be too, hence handicapped in rising to betterment. And of course white society made sure that continued, at least for a century — the Jim Crow regime in the South erected to keep blacks “in their place” and, elsewhere, red-lining and a host of other discriminatory practices doing much the same.

Most of that is thankfully a thing of the past, yet all the racial baggage described above got lodged pervasively throughout societal structures and institutions.

We’ve tried to rectify this, with civil rights and voting rights legislation to at least remove barriers, affirmative action to counteract their lingering effects, and anti-poverty programs. But in one crucial respect we’ve singularly failed: education. Schooling could be a powerful force for overcoming the effects of inherited disadvantage. Instead, that disadvantage is mostly aggravated by rotten schooling for blacks.

That’s probably a key reason why, despite the mentioned efforts to close the black-white economic gap, it has actually widened over the past half century. A further reason is the over-incarceration of blacks, mostly thanks to the insanely punitive “war on drugs,” which makes everything worse. And another factor is the disintegration of black family life, at least partly the unintended consequences of anti-poverty programs. Even during the worst of the Depression and Jim Crow, the black family was strong. Today, 70% of black children are born to single mothers. That has an undeniably negative impact on those kids’ life prospects.

The chapter I started out quoting from was titled “America the Beautiful.” It didn’t claim perfection. Rather, what inspires me is the place of humanistic ideals in our society and our striving for progress toward fulfilling them. That’s America’s greatness. In the last few years we’ve had a great lurch backward. But progress never goes in a straight line, and in the long view we do grow better.

Francis Fukuyama wrote, in The End of History, of our craving for thymos — for recognition of one’s legitimate place in society, one’s worth and dignity as a human being. This is what “Black Lives Matter” is all about. It is this dignity, in the eyes of white Americans, that black people don’t feel they’ve yet fully achieved. But we’re getting there.

George Floyd’s killing and its aftermath raised the consciousness of millions of Americans, many more whites now able to empathically put themselves in the shoes of blacks, as fellow human beings, seeing the reality that they do, and newly supportive of measures to improve it. Even Mississippi is removing Confederate symbolism from its state flag.

While Trump ramps up his racist divisiveness. Tweeting “thank you” to a video with a man shouting “White power!” Completely insane — such hatefulness is fortunately far outside today’s American mainstream. In November the nation will do the right thing, flush its toilet, and we will move forward.

George Floyd will not have died in vain.

How Trump sinks U.S. global standing

June 28, 2020

One of Trumpdom’s most ludicrous lies is that’s he’s raising America’s world standing. In the Fox News alternate reality maybe. In the real world it’s the opposite.

As a longtime conservative Republican, no “isolationist,” I always supported constructive global engagement.* It’s not merely about national pride, but what’s good for people here and abroad. Following WWII, the U.S. undertook leadership to painstakingly build a rules-based world order grounded in a web of alliances and international institutions. (Not just the UN and NATO but many others like the global financial infrastructure, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, etc.) All crafted to promote planetary prosperity and peace. A more peaceful world is better for America. A richer world is better for America.

Trump hates all this and tries to wreck it — his warped idea of “America First.”** Totally ignorant of how the system actually works and how greatly it has served U.S. national interests. That’s why we built it in the first place. Trump thinks all those Americans who did so were stupid, and his uninformed instincts are superior. It’s that kind of attitude that’s tragically stupid.

So he’s pulled us out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the World Health Organization, the Paris Climate accords, the Iran nuclear deal, arms control agreements, and on and on. Did you know he’s paralyzed the World Trade Organization just by refusing to fill the U.S.-designated seats on its court?

At one time America would have led (as we did with Ebola) a global pandemic response. Trump wound up not even leading among America’s own states. His self-congratulatory lies about our “tremendous” efforts fool only Fox fans. Other nations see the scandalous reality, a huge blow to our international stature. In fact, several European countries are banning travelers from America, because covid-19 is out of control in many states.

Indeed, most of the world views Trump as a boorish monster and Americans as nuts for electing him. That’s why Russia connived to elect him — knowing it would weaken America. Other national leaders quickly learned to play him like a fiddle, by flattering his deranged vanity with empty pageantry. Laughing behind his back.

U.S. global standing never rested mainly on our economic or military might. Instead the world looked to us chiefly for leadership as a force for good. America alone among nations was founded not on blood and soil but values and ideals. That’s not to say we’ve been perfect in living up to them. Of course not. Yet more than any other country America had striven to be guided by such principles.

And much of the world had seen us as representing a vision of democracy, openness, generosity, justice, and human progress toward all those ideals. Both at home and in our relations with others. That’s what’s called our “soft power,” but it doesn’t mean weak. Defense Secretary Mattis said soft power is stronger than the other kind. Trump is shredding it.

For him everything is just transactional. Natural to a man with no moral core. As if morality is just for dummies. But nothing could be dumber than throwing away America’s most valuable international asset — being seen as standing for what’s right. Lord knows not everyone has seen us that way. Now Trump is forcing those who did to revise their opinion. A recent global poll actually showed more people today look to China than to America for global leadership.

We’re certainly no longer seen as a haven. Taking in refugees, and even legal immigration, have been virtually stopped.

Our president used to be called “leader of the free world.” Under Trump we’re not the leader of anything. He has done nothing but undermine our relationships with those nations still committed to an idealistic vision of global progress — while shamelessly getting in bed with the world’s vilest regimes.

In Helsinki he stood up for Putin’s lies against the findings of our own intelligence agencies. When the Saudi ruler was implicated in a ghastly murder, Trump stood up for him too. Trump congratulated the Philippine president’s “drug program” of simply murdering thousands. When Turkey’s authoritarian ruler wanted to attack the Kurds in Syria — faithful U.S. allies — Trump stabbed them in the back and green-lighted Turkey’s invasion.

And while he postures as “tough on China,” we now learn that when China put a million Uighurs in concentration camps for trying to practice their religion, Trump told Xi Jinping he approved of it as a good idea. Unsurprising given Trump’s own policy of ripping children from parents and putting them in concentration camps. Another villainy that will long blacken America’s name in the eyes of humanity.

“Leader of the free world?” Trump has switched us to the other side.

* Thus I was very critical of Obama’s foreign policy squeamishness.

** Bolton says his foreign policy is really entirely “Trump First.” But much of it makes no sense from either standpoint. He just thrashes around blindly.

Confederate flags and statues and racism

June 25, 2020

They claim the Confederate flag symbolizes Southern cultural heritage, or independence, or states’ rights — or some such baloney. Who do they think they’re fooling? That flag says “Fuck n—–s.”

People actually often don’t understand what goes on in their own minds, a lot of it being below conscious awareness. It’s themselves they are fooling, telling themselves they are not racist. Those who call the Confederacy a “noble cause” are trying to pretty up in their own heads what is really racial animus.

Yeah, sure, 1861 was all about state rights. What rights specifically? To enslave people. The Civil War was about nothing except slavery. No slavery, no war. Confederates were not heroic warriors. They were traitors to America and to fundamental human morality. Blacks know this flag stands for their enslavement and anyone flying it is giving them the middle finger. It belongs only in textbooks and museums.

And naming military bases after Confederate soldiers? What nation thusly honors men who fought against it? What kind of president defends this?

They say removing Confederate monuments erases history. And indeed today’s Americans lack much sense of history. Otherwise they’d understand why these statues must go. There’s a difference between remembering history and celebrating it. We have a Holocaust Museum to memorialize that part of the world’s history. We don’t put up statues to Hitler and Goering.

And those who understand history know Confederate monuments were not really erected to honor the individuals depicted. It was to send a message: “We’re not sorry we fought for slavery. We’d restore it if we could. So watch out, n—–s.”

White trash who say “go back to Africa” overlook that blacks didn’t choose to come here. Brought in chains on harrowing voyages to be worked to death. But now we’re all stuck here together on this lifeboat, and must live together. As Kimberly Jones said, whites are lucky African-Americans seek only equality — not revenge.

Showing they are better human beings than whites who would deny that equality. Whites who consider blacks inferior prove themselves to be the inferior creatures.

Okay. Let’s take a deep breath.

Like any movement often tends to, our current spate of iconoclasm goes too far, becoming indiscriminate and senseless. Jefferson’s name comes up. Even Washington’s. At least one Washington statue has been toppled. Also a Ulysses Grant.

Talk about erasing history. Grant went because someone said his wife’s family owned slaves. So forget he was the man most responsible for defeating the Confederacy. But that was not all. As president, Grant battled mightily defending the rights of newly freed slaves. When the KKK arose against them, Grant sent troops to suppress Klan terrorism.

On my wall

No human being is ever a perfect angel. Ideally, our statues honor people who have done great and worthy things, inspiring us to emulate their best qualities. That is why we memorialize Washington and Jefferson — and Grant. Their monuments move my own spirit deeply. When I see Washington what I see is a nation founded in the great virtues he exemplified. When I see Jefferson I see the words that gave that nation its sublime ethos.

Words we still must strive to fulfill.