Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

How conservatives and liberals both miss the boat on poverty

December 3, 2019

Ask Americans about “poor people” and they’re generally sympathetic. About “people on welfare?” Not so much.

Those on the right tend to see social spending as basically taking from deserving people and giving to the less deserving. Who are thought mainly responsible for their poverty. It doesn’t help if they’re less white.

For the left “inequality” is a cri de couer. But while “poverty” used to be one too, that’s actually largely forgotten. They seem obsessed not about the poor but the rich, and how much they have (with big dollops of resentment and envy). That’s their inequality concern. And also their focus is less on the poor than the middle class. Where their own bread happens to be buttered; but it makes political sense too because that’s where the votes are. Poor people are smaller in numbers and they don’t vote much.

We could argue over how the middle class is actually doing. But, even with admitted challenges, they’re able to live a life that’s, well, middle class. Which in a rich 21st century country, historically speaking, is quite decent. It’s the poor — around 15% of the population, depending how you measure — anyway, those on the bottom — who are obviously in tougher shape. Tougher, indeed, than the corresponding population slice in other advanced countries. This is a special American problem. Concerning our fellow human beings.

“Inner city poverty” was long seen as a thing. But as a recent report in The Economist highlights, “outer-city poverty” has become a bigger thing. Poverty too has been moving to the suburbs. While a lot of the non-white poor do remain urban, the suburban poor includes more whites and Hispanics. And it’s harder to deal with, because while big cities can deploy resources, smaller non-urban jurisdictions tend to be cash-strapped and lacking the necessary public infrastructure.

Sneering at poor people as responsible for their plight is easy when you’ve been handed all the advantages. Mostly, people are poor because they’ve been dealt lousy cards. Poverty is heritable: growing up in a poor family, especially in a poor neighborhood, messes you up in a thousand ways that make it much much harder to achieve the American dream. One pilot study showed that just moving a family from a poor neighborhood into a more affluent one results in 31% higher income for their kids in adulthood.

So let’s focus on children. You cannot argue that children, at least, who are in poverty are somehow personally responsible for that. And even put altruism aside. The fact is that a person who grows up into lifelong poverty costs us all a huge amount — for all the welfare, social services, health services, and don’t forget the cost to society of the crime that goes with the territory. Compared against one who becomes a contributing member of the community, holding a job that grows societal wealth, and pays taxes.

So doesn’t it make sense to invest in kids, so they’ll grow into the latter, not the former? The payoffs would vastly exceed the costs. One California study calculated that the cost to end deep child poverty by simply handing out enough cash would be a quarter of what the state spends on prisons. Not doing this was deemed “insane” by the study’s author.

Education looms large here. America’s poverty scandal is mainly an education scandal. Rather than investing to lift children out of the poverty trap, we disinvest, actually giving poor children inferior education.

Liberals won’t face up to this. They assail charter schools for “draining” money from public schools, which they idealize — as though public schools were providing decent service to underprivileged kids. They are not. Many parents in poor neighborhoods see charter schools as their only hope of escaping the school-to-prison pipeline.

School segregation is a big factor. Poor minority children do poorly when ghettoed in their own schools; better when educated with middle-class kids, whose schools tend to be fine. It’s because those, their own schools, are fine that liberals battle for public schools and against charters. And while liberals notionally endorse integration, they seem oblivious to the reality that America’s schools in recent decades have grown ever more segregated.

That segregation is partly a consequence of high rents in better areas with better schools. “Affordable housing” is another liberal cry. Yet their prescription for it is snake oil: rent control. Sure, it’s tempting to regulate rents to prevent gouging by greedy landlords. But it doesn’t take an economic genius to realize rent control disincentivizes landlords from maintaining apartments and building new ones. This results in housing supply shortages which of course actually drive up rents. Keeping poor people poor — and out of decent schools.

Conservatives meanwhile say all this talk about education is futile because the real problem is families. A kid won’t do well in school if his family situation is dysfunctional. And conservatives blame parents for that, being again averse to helping people whose problems are perceived as their own fault. So for the kids: tough luck. While liberals, for their part, are unwilling to see anything to criticize concerning single motherhood.

So what’s the answer? We have to get past our ideologies and do what it takes to get kids born into poverty onto a better track. This does mean attention both to schools and to family. But that’s not some utopian fantasy. An excellent model for it is Harlem Children’s Zone, a private effort spearheaded by Geoffrey Canada, which has produced great results.

America is a very rich country and can amply afford to do this. We really can’t afford not to; it would actually make us even richer, with every dollar spent coming back many times over. And anyhow, the cost would be far less than what we spend on welfare for the rich.

Medicare for All: a critical look

November 21, 2019

Bill Hammond gave a talk on this to the Capital District Humanist Society. He’s the Empire Center’s Director of Health Policy, and is critical of the single payer concept. CDHS members being mostly well to the left, Hammond was received like a skunk at a picnic.

He started by quoting Bernie Sanders that “Health care must be recognized as a right, not a privilege.” Which Hammond said nobody really disputes; but Sanders and his fans equate it to a “single payer” system. (The “single payer” — seems they’re afraid to say this plainly — would be government, responsible for all health care.)

Hammond noted that a “right to health care” would have been unintelligible to our founders. Health care itself was not even a concept; he described how George Washington was really killed by the medical “care” he received. We’ve advanced a lot since. But meantime they saw “rights” as things the government should notget involved with, whereas for Sanders backers a right means an entitlement. And his “Medicare for All” plan goes even beyond a “universal access” model (e.g., schools, libraries, and indeed existing Medicare), with only government being allowed as a payer for health services.

Hammond also saw equality of access as a big part of it; the idea that people should get the same care regardless of income. This, he said, is a kind of extreme egalitarian moral reasoning we don’t apply in any other sphere (for example, food).

He presented some figures illuminating the status quo. Private insurance penetration is 67%, the bulk of that employment-based. Most of the rest is public coverage — Medicare and Medicaid. Medical costs are paid roughly half from private sources and 42% from taxes. Nine percent is self-pay and charity care.

Major flaws in the existing landscape include millions uninsured; out-of-pocket costs too high even with insurance; a fragmented, poorly integrated delivery system; and health care is 17% of our economy, an excessive burden far above other countries’, with no corresponding benefit in health outcomes. Hammond said “single payer” would not tackle the latter two problems.

He also cited some misconceptions. First, that our private insurance model is the cause of high costs, with too much profit. One audience member, a friend of mine, insisted no one should be allowed to profit providing something as vital as health care. I would turn it around: why should anyone be forced to provide her with any service (let alone one so vital) without compensation? People get paid for their work (she does). Those who expend effort to set up, invest in, and operate health care systems surely deserve compensation in the form of profits too.

But are they excessive? Hammond presented numbers showing that while compared to other countries, our health care overheads, including all administrative costs, arehigher, they’re only about 8% of total outlays, with the bulk of the cost difference being what we actually spend on care. And that’s not for more or better care but, rather, in the prices paid for care — mostly due to much higher salaries for medical professionals than in other advanced countries.

It’s also often asserted that all other advanced nations have single payer systems. Not so. Most actually have mixed systems (which ours is), but are more tightly regulated (hence their lower price levels). Obamacare was a step toward convergence with those other countries. But Hammond noted that even in Britain, which does basically have a single payer system, you’re still allowed to buy private insurance, which many Brits do. Sanders (and Warren) would disallow that.

Another notion is that their plan would merely be an expansion of the existing and successful Medicare system. Hammond pointed out that existing Medicare actually entails a lotof cost sharing; it’s far from free*, and there are out-of-pocket costs at point of service too.

He also discussed the proposed New York Health Act, seemingly on the verge of passage. In Hammond’s telling, this would be a “Medicare for All” plan on steroids; a “carte blanche” with the state simply paying allhealth related costs for all residents. He presented various studies attempting to estimate the costs. While there might be some cost savings, increased demand for health services would likely raise overall spending levels. Total taxation would have to double or triple. Hammond acknowledged that a majority of New Yorkers would probably come out ahead after higher taxes are set against lower health bills. But this would require richer people paying dramatically more. (A notion garnering vocal approval from attendees; but it was pointed out that rich people could simply leave the state.)

A comparable federal plan would, he said, entail similar ramifications. [Though presumably richer people would be less apt to leave the country than the state — FSR.] Hammond cited an Urban Institute estimate that over ten years, $34 trillion in higher federal taxes would be required, replacing $27 trillion in current outlays.

Questioners from the audience gave Hammond a rough time. My own question said I agreed with him about single-payer, but that we’re a rich country and can afford to somehow make sure every citizen gets a minimum level of basic care. (This elicited applause!) Hammond responded that actually this can be achieved with modest tweaks to our existing system. In particular, the Medicaid program already aims to do it for low income people; a problem is that many of those eligible simply don’t sign up for it. [Also, Medicaid requires money from states; red state Republican regimes hate it and try to limit it — FSR.]

Hammond concluded with a story about Fidelis Care, a New York health insurer run by the Catholic Church, which received a $3.75 billion buyout offer. Long story short, Gov. Cuomo figured out a way to get control of $2 billion of that, which he used as a kitty to hand out goodies to favored entities in the health care industry; in return for which he glommed unprecedently large political contributions.

Hammond said that single payer advocates seem to imagine that having the entire health care industry under government control would be a good thing. They idealize government. But the Fidelis story is a cautionary tale about how things really work; tending to be run for the benefit of insiders; and big players in this industry have tremendous clout to make it work for them.

After his talk, Hammond was taken outside, where he was tarred and feathered.

* My own monthly Medicare payments were high enough that I opted out.

Christian destruction of the classical world

November 19, 2019

Hans-Friedrich Mueller is Professor of Ancient and Modern Languages at Union College. I heard (twice!) a talk he gave, based on a book by Catherine Nixey titled The Darkening Age — the Christian Destruction of the Classical World.

Nixey was brought up in a religious environment, and got the traditional “sunday school” story of Christian monks preserving, through the Dark Ages, the writings of the ancient world. She was shocked to find out that in fact such preservation was almost accidental and was overwhelmed by a much bigger tale of destruction and suppression. Her aim in writing was to present this other “untold” side of the story.

The religion of the ancient Greeks and Romans was what we call “pagan,” with a pantheon of deities like Zeus and Athena (Jupiter and Minerva to the Romans). Actually the word “pagan” was a Christian coinage intended to be derogatory; it derived from “pagus,” meaning “countryside.” Hence a religion of country bumpkins.

The change came when the Roman Emperor Constantine I (ruled 307-337 AD) converted to Christianity, making it now the state religion. But Professor Mueller observed that it’s actually hard to convince people to change their religion. He pointed to conflict in his own family concerning his marriage, involving two kinds of Christianity; and of course between paganism and Christianity there is a far bigger gulf. The conversion was accordingly achieved by much violence and repression.

Indeed, Mueller started by reading from Nixey’s account of what happened at Palmyra, a Syrian city, in 385 AD. “The destroyers came from out of the desert,” it began. A large “swarm” of Christian men, targeting everything pagan in Palmyra. Described in detail was the dismemberment of the beautiful marble statue of Athena, likened to a rape. “The triumph of Christianity had begun.”

In an unmistakeable reprise of this past, Palmyra’s ancient monuments were again ravaged, in 2016, by ISIS, with a quite similar religious impetus.

Hypatia was not a marble statue, but an actual woman, a notable philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, in Alexandria, Egypt. In 415 AD, she was lynched by a Christian mob at the direction of their bishop. Professor Mueller gave a graphic description but I will spare my readers here the ghastly details.

Meantime, however, we’ve all been told how Christians themselves had suffered persecution in prior centuries. This is part of the mythology Nixie sought to debunk. While the Romans did require everyone to partake in some pagan rituals, and executed refusers, this wasn’t a big thing. Mueller quotes a letter from the Emperor Trajan (98-116 AD) to a Roman governor, embodying a kind of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The Roman state practiced a whole lot more religious tolerance before Constantine’s conversion than afterward, with persecution of pagans far more severe than what Christians had experienced. Indeed, Christians persecuted each other far more, over doctrinal disputes.

Nixey thinks not only that Christianity’s triumph by violence and oppression was a crime, but also that something valuable was lost. Pagan religious practice was a part of civic community life, and may have accorded more holistically with human nature. Professor Mueller noted in particular that ancient pagans had more open attitudes about sexuality, that were probably healthier, in comparison to Christianity’s frankly twisted up doctrines.

The ancients more generally took religion less seriously, tending to view their gods as being merely symbological or metaphors. Poseidon, for example, was the personification of the sea. But most intelligent people were not so silly as to imagine the gods were actual beings. Religion was for them a way to acknowledge our context within the natural world. It was not something central to their lives, as it is for high octane modern Christians or Muslims, for whom god does play a big role in the world and in their lives.

The degree of violence and social upheaval experienced in past civilizations, as depicted in Professor Mueller’s talk, was actually pretty typical throughout human history. Our own societal dispensation, with its separation of church and state, ethos of tolerance, and constraints upon violence and other forms of governmental power, is something not to be taken for granted. Yet there are fools today actually trying to tear this down.

Also there’s a notion that modern monotheism is a somehow more advanced religion than silly childish paganism with belief in many deities. A humanist might agree only insofar as belief in just one god approaches the correct number.

Bolivia, China, and 1984

November 12, 2019

Bolivia’s longest-serving President Evo Morales was first elected in 2006, a left-winger, of indigenous background, former head of the Coca growers union. He held a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run for a fourth term. Voters said no. He ran again anyway. Typically for such autocrats, he got a packed court to legalize this. But voters said no again. When Morales tried to fiddle the election results, huge protests ensued. On Sunday, the military — Morales had not consolidated his co-opting it — finally said he must go. And Morales actually did step down; as did three others in his line of succession.

So it’s still possible for citizens to get rid of a seemingly entrenched regime. This is very encouraging. Yet the global trend is unfortunately contrary. Such regimes are perfecting the techniques for staying in power, neutralizing opposition. Look at Venezuela. The Maduro gang is literally destroying the country, impoverishing the populace, yet still it seems impregnable. There, unlike in Bolivia, the army is totally in bed with the regime. They’ve got the guns, and aren’t squeamish about using them.

It also helps to have at least some citizen support. In Venezuela, there are actually still a lot of people who actually believe the regime’s propaganda and back it. And they go into the streets and use organized violence against regime opponents.

It is indeed dismaying how so many people, everywhere, can be so misguided in their political allegiances. Look at Brazil. Its last presidential election had a run-off between right-wing and left-wing extremists — because in the first round few people would vote for the sensible, responsible moderate choice. So they wound up with an absolutely terrible person. The Brazilian Trump. Then there’s the Philippine Trump. Not to mention, of course, the American one.

But the godfather of authoritarian regimes, consummating the techniques for holding unchallengeable power, is China’s. PBS recently ran an exploration of Artificial Intelligence; one segment, titled “The Surveillance State,” focused on China’s use of AI to suppress any and all dissension. In its largely Muslim province of Uighuristan, it employs AI to intensively profile every citizen (or, more accurately, subject), and anyone suspect has been put into “re-education camps.” It’s estimated that that’s a million people. Meantime, nationwide, China is perfecting facial recognition technology to keep tabs on everyone, deploying a “social credit” system giving every inhabitant a score for subservience. Those with low scores are being treated accordingly. To make the whole system truly pervasive, China is deploying — wait for it — surveillance cameras — six hundred million of them.

Hong Kong is in revolt against all this. It’s widely feared that this must end with China’s regime violently cracking down, like in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Maybe; but I suspect that will not happen because it’s not necessary for China’s regime. There is simply no way for Hong Kongers to gain the democracy they seek. The Beijing bosses can just sit tight doing nothing. And the vast majority of China’s population is actually already so brainwashed that they support the regime — fervently —against the Hong Kongers.

Nineteen Eighty-Four may have been too optimistic. At the book’s end it was clear it was looking back on a regime that was no more.

End Road Work? No!

November 8, 2019

We’ve all seen those signs along highways, saying “End Road Work.” This movement seems very misguided. I can think of many things that should be ended, but road work surely isn’t one of them. In fact, most people would consider it a very good thing if not, indeed, vitally necessary. Having myself sustained a flat tire recently due to a pot hole, count me as strongly in support of road work. What can these people be thinking, wanting to end it?

Sure, it can be an annoyance, slowing up traffic. But traffic would ultimately become a lot slower if the campaign against road work succeeds! One of the many things about modernity we blithely take for granted is good serviceable roads. But there’s no free lunch, everything has a cost.

Maybe road work opponents have been confuzzled by all the rhetoric trying to soft-soap socialism, by claiming that anything government does is socialism. So they think road work is socialism. Well, I’d be happy to see it done by the private sector. But failing that, I still want roads repaired, even if it is socialism. There are a lot worse ways for government to use taxpayer money.

Fortunately, years of “End Road Work” signs seem to have had little or no impact on curtailing the practice. These foolish cranks should give up and find a different issue to protest about.

Facebook: helping to destroy civilization

November 5, 2019

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he won’t stop running political ads — even lying ones. Trump has already run ads falsely smearing Biden. But Zuckerberg says Facebook banning or censoring such ads would violate freedom of speech.

He’s wrong. Freedom of speech (embodied in the First Amendment) means government may not squelch what anyone says. Facebook — big and powerful though it is — ain’t the government (yet). “Freedom of speech” in no way obligates Facebook to make itself a platform for lies. (Twitter’s chief Jack Dorsey, trying to be a more responsible citizen than Zuckerberg, is stopping political ads on Twitter.)

We now know how thoroughly Facebook was manipulated by the Russians in 2016 to get Trump elected. It went way beyond political ads. Among other ploys, they also set up vast numbers of seeming Facebook user groups to spread disinformation and dissension.

Not only does Facebook blow it as a gatekeeper on all that, it even does so on it’s own mis-named “news feed.” More accurately a garbage feed. Because to increase traffic (and hence ad revenue) its algorithms parlay user information to show people stuff calculated to push their buttons — whether true or not. And much is not.

In fact Facebook’s system rewards falsity. I heard a radio interview with one guy who candidly explained how he cooked up a false report about Hillary vote fraud, and made thousands from it. This is called “clickbait” — whenever someone clicks on such a link, not just Facebook, but the link’s creator too, make money from ads.

Some time back, a Trumper I know indignantly distributed a bunch of quotes from leading Democrats slamming the Constitution. Obviously (to me) fake quotes. But instead of ignoring it, I did some googling and quickly found the source, a lying website, and the debunking. This was just one small taste of a monster phenomenon.

Manufacturing phony quotes or vote fraud reports is easy enough, low-tech lying. But now you can create fake video. Like the recent “drunk Pelosi” clip. But worse yet, you can even cook up footage showing someone appearing to say whatever outrageous things you want to put in their mouths. Watch for this in the 2020 campaign. How will the average voter know what to believe?

In the internet’s infancy, we naively imagined it would make people better informed. Instead, it’s a fountain of weaponized lies, and most people (like my Trumper friend above) just don’t have the capability for vetting all the stuff coming at them. This poisons the well of information influencing our voting decisions. Democracy cannot function this way.

It’s exacerbated by having a president who — instead of trying to confront the problem — is himself a big part of the problem.

We are headed toward a world where there’s no such thing as truth or reality. Or so it will seem. But, of course, no matter what rubbish fills minds, there will still actually be a reality out there. And voters with rubbish-filled minds will make for a pretty ugly reality.

Trump is just a harbinger.

Two kinds of Trumpers

October 31, 2019

He famously said he’d lose no votes if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. Recently one of his lawyers actually argued in court that if he did it, the law could not touch him.

I’ve written a lot about confirmation bias, an aspect of human psychology whose importance seems growing. It’s the proclivity to embrace information agreeing with one’s beliefs, and shun anything contrary. Smarter people are actually more susceptible. Education makes some think they’re know-it-alls. And they’re more skilled at confabulating rationalizations to justify their stances.

We see this in anti-vaxxers. The more science proves them wrong, the more they dig in. And these are not dumb people. Again, smarter than average. Too smart for their own good. “The greatest deception from which men suffer is their own opinions,” wrote Leonardo da Vinci.

Groupthink also operates. You get yourself in a group of like thinkers, and they reinforce each other. In fact, studies have shown a tendency for such groups to be pulled toward the views of their most extreme members.

All this is epidemic among Trump supporters. Like some relentless commenters on my local newspaper blog — fountains of what they think are facts and information, talking points from the right-wing groupthink echo-chamber. These guys are all full of the Steele Dossier*, FISA warrants, spies, Hillary-this and Hillary-that, demonizing Adam Schiff, deep state conspiracy theories, all soon to be proven, dastardly Democrats demolished, Trump totally triumphant.

All foolish fantasy.

Just as they’re blind to Trump’s big con, equally are they impervious to actual facts. Like his disgusting business history of rip-offs, Trump University fraud, inheritance tax fraud, charitable foundation fraud. Everything in the Mueller report proving how Russia subverted our election, and how Trump conspired to obstruct justice. Now the shocking proof about his mis-use of Ukraine aid. Trump’s blatant brobdingnagian record of lies and other swineries. And so on and on and on, it would fill many ghastly pages. All dismissed as “fake news.”

Nothing will break the spell. They’ll go their graves waving their arms still bleating about the Steele Dossier and all, while the rest of the world has moved on. History will look back on them like we look back at flat earthers and The Inquisition.

John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Mindful of that quote, and the phenomena of confirmation bias and groupthink, I strive to avoid those pitfalls. I was a lifelong conservative Republican. But when in 2016 the Republican party, and what went by the name “conservative,” drastically changed, I changed my mind. I don’t laud myself. It was forced upon me, by reality.

So why don’t most Republicans see what was so clear to me? Are confirmation bias and groupthink really that powerful? Apparently so, and it’s extremely disturbing. An unprecedented extreme of political loyalty — to a man of unprecedented vileness. There’s no Trump depravity they won’t defend or excuse, no idiotic attack of his they won’t parrot.

It’s partly explained by that very muscularity of badness, all previous politics seeming weak tea in comparison. Between a strong horse and a weak one, people by nature prefer the strong horse (said Osama bin Laden). Even if the strength is in monstrousness.

Then too, hate is stronger than love. These folks are infused less with Trump love than with hatred for the other side.

And for the people I’ve described, Trumpism has become central to their human identity, their very existence. It’s the reality they’ve constructed for themselves to inhabit. Like the religious beliefs most of them also hold. Oliver Cromwell told an opponent, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” These people cannot think it possible, neither regarding religious faith nor Trump faith.

But such zealots are actually a small minority of Trump voters. Most are just, well, ordinary normal people. For whom politics just isn’t that important. The Steele Dossier? Never heard of it. It’s all just a blurry buzz in the background of their lives. To them, Trump may appear to be doing a good job. Shaking things up like he said he would. The economy is OK. He’s not a politician — a good thing. A “successful businessman” — ditto. All the arguing is just a lot of noise. Democrats are all effete socialists.

The world order that Trump’s blowing up is far outside their consciousness. The basic American ideals he’s shredding had become so commonplace, so deep in the background, they’re no longer even visible — hence their destruction doesn’t even register.

So, unlike those who actually refuse to see how horrible this is for America, most Trump voters don’t see it because . . . they simply don’t see it.

The first type are a lost cause. But not so the latter. I continue to believe that the great majority of Americans are (like humans everywhere) good people. While we must, alas, write off the former group, the latter we must embrace, as our neighbors and fellow countrymen, to find commonality, to get us all past this ugly interlude of our history. We need a new president for whom this reconciliation is a top priority. In the words of Lincoln, “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . . let us strive . . . to bind up the nation’s wounds . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

* For the record: The claim is that a dodgy dossier, paid for by Democrats, was behind the Russia investigation. Steele was a former officer with Britain’s intelligence service who’d previously given ours much useful material. Democrats hiring him in 2016 didn’t taint his work. When he gave it to the FBI, it fit with what they were already seeing. Though allegations of Trump hotel sex hijinks couldn’t be documented, Steele’s detailing how the Russians had long been working Trump certainly merited investigation. It would have been a scandal if the FBI had not followed up. And there was loads of other evidence for Russia’s efforts to manipulate our election, justifying the investigation — which proved it. This was no hoax or witch-hunt. It’s Barr’s investigation of the investigation that’s a hoax and witch-hunt.

Impeachment, Nixon, and me

October 22, 2019

I watched Nixon’s 1974 farewell speech live, with tears in my eyes. Not tears of sorrow; it was actually a bizarre speech. But at the moment’s poignancy and historical weight.

I’d been a fervent Nixon supporter in 1968, and he was my friend. A slight exaggeration, but I did feel a personal connection. In my teens I would write to famous people for autographs. This was before celebrity culture; they weren’t inundated and would often reply. I wrote to Nixon several times about politics while he was in New York exile after his dual election defeats. Looking toward a comeback, he was working the Republican vineyards; probably didn’t realize I was a kid. Anyhow, he would respond to me not with form letters but meaty disquisitions that seemed obviously personally dictated.

He was my dream presidential candidate, which seemed a pipe dream at first, given the GOP’s crushing 1964 defeat. I was very active in Republican politics, both on campus and in the real world. I signed up with Nixon’s campaign. A huge Nixon poster adorned my bedroom. On Election Day (my first vote), I was a poll worker, then stayed up through the night watching returns. It was a nail-biter.

I remember my elation the next day, commuting to my law school. My classmates were mostly radical left, with only a handful of “out” Republicans. Sixty-eight was such a tumultuous year. But in the end, it was my guy who’d won. I was over the moon.

Later I was actually appointed by Nixon to a minor federal commission.

As Watergate unfolded, I followed events closely. Carefully read the transcripts of White House tapes, and was appalled. The man there revealed was not who we’d thought he was. Most Republicans had the same reaction.

I was as partisan as anyone. Indeed, at the time, deeply engaged in the political wars locally, as a ward leader. But I saw no animus by any Republicans against Democrats over impeachment. It was not a partisan issue, it was about the facts. Nixon resigned because his own party could not condone what he’d done.

Certainly they were not demonizing Democrats as “traitors,” as trying to mount a “coup” to overturn the previous election, or any such nonsense. Even Nixon himself, in that mawkish farewell speech, did not impugn his opponents’ motives.

Trump’s offenses are far worse than Nixon’s. Nixon tried to cover up a “third rate burglary.” Trump, the mis-use of hundreds of millions in U.S. aid, perverting our foreign policy, for his own base political ends. Mulvaney saying this is normal, and we should just “get over it,” insulted our intelligence.

But not only do Republicans defend Trump, their idea of a defense is cooking up false smears against Democrats, like their meritless attack on Adam Schiff for supposedly lying — he didn’t — as if Trump isn’t the biggest liar ever. What a sickening disgrace.

Trump’s behavior shows he’s trying to prove he can get away with absolutely anything. Our president is literally an insane out-of-control monster, a patsy for dictators, yet Republicans still have his back. When Senate Republicans vote to clear him, it will be their final, ultimate degradation. While Democratic presidential canmdidates are off on another planet somewhere fixated on the minutiae of health care plans. If Trump is re-elected, America will need mental health care.

In 1974 we were all Americans, first and foremost. Not blinded by partisan tribalism. We could tell right from wrong. Truth from lies. And true patriots from Russian stooges.

What a different country that was. I mourn for it, with tears of sorrow in my eyes.

DeRay Mckesson and Black Lives Matter

October 20, 2019

DeRay Mckesson is a Baltimorean who got activist during the Ferguson protests and is prominent in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. He wrote a book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope. I wanted to like it.

The opening chapters reminded me of when an opposing lawyer called my first major brief a “Proustian stream of consciousness.” It wasn’t a compliment. (I was the sidekick on that brief; the next I wrote alone, more coherently.) Mckesson seems to string together a flood of thoughts as they occur to him, with no organization or clear line of argument.

The third chapter is much better, focusing on police vis-a-vis blacks. Mckesson’s basic point is that the police have little accountability. We hire them to uphold our laws but they become a law unto themselves. The book explains this in detail, examining local police contracts, negotiated by their unions, geared toward protecting cops against any misconduct charges, by creating roadblocks for complaints.

But a point strangely missing here is that while many cops are sincere public servants aiming to do good, too often police work attracts the wrong sort. Who see the badge as a license to assert their manhood by swaggering with weapons, to be a bully, to vent what are really antisocial proclivities. Or just plain racist ones. Whites may be oblivious to this police brutality because they don’t bear its brunt.

Which brings us to the chapter on white privilege. Here again, unfortunately, the author throws together a welter of ideas, many really rhetorical non-sequiturs, with no coherent line of argument. The “white privilege” trope is polemical jiu-jitsu. It’s not that whites enjoy some special status. What they get is what everyone should get — human privilege. The problem is blacks not receiving it. A simple concept unspoken in Mckesson’s treatment.

“Black Lives Matter” is not a negation of other lives mattering. It’s black lives mattering as much as others. Recognizing the reality that for most of our history, and even now in many places and many hearts, they matter less. Mckesson never says anything so straightforward. The point, like so much else, gets lost in all his verbal gymnastics.

Nearing the book’s middle, I realized that two words in particular were weirdly absent: slavery and lynching. They finally did get a passing mention. But Mckesson first unfolds a bizarre analogy to a stolen lottery ticket, enriching the thief and his descendants, while the victim’s remain poor. As if losing an unearned lottery windfall is remotely comparable to the suffering of slavery and lynching.

A Martian reading this book would not realize that enslavement was the foundational experience of African-Americans. And that during the Jim Crow century, thousands of blacks, often (or mostly?) innocent, were lynched, often with hideous barbarity, to “keep them in their place” through plain terror. In Georgia in 1918, Haynes Turner, an innocent man, was lynched. His wife protested to authorities. She was then arrested, and turned over to a mob, stripped, hung upside down, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death, her belly slashed open to pull out her unborn child, who they stomped to death.

It’s as though Mckesson can’t bring himself to talk plainly about such things. Odd, considering all his assertions that America isn’t truly confronting its race situation, actually one of his key themes. He ends the chapter saying this: “Whiteness is an idea and a choice. We can choose differently. We can introduce new ideas to replace it.”

What?? Maybe I’m too dumb to grasp what he’s talking about there. Or maybe it’s just meaningless word spinning.

Mckesson too often gets tangled in such rhetorical knots and convoluted concepts. He says Charleston racist killer Dylann Roof didn’t get called a “terrorist” to somehow avoid holding him accountable and to “preserve this lie” that crimes by blacks reflect racial pathology whereas white people’s crimes are “just the errant actions of individual actors.” What??

The author’s indictment encompasses most whites, few (if any) meeting his stringent wokeness test, hence being part of the problem in his eyes. Too broad a brush, methinks. Meantime, notwithstanding his mention of Dylann Roof, he says little about burgeoning white nationalist ideology, egged on by Trump, which is coming to be recognized as the nation’s number one terrorist threat. Even absent continued shootings, this poison’s spread could tear the country apart. Mckesson has no answer.

The antepenultimate chapter is a breath of fresh air. Starting it, I sat up and realized this immediately. No more cutesie rhetorical pyrotechnics but clear eloquent honesty — about his growing up gay and how he’s come to terms with it.

But thinking about the book as a whole — this may seem strange for me to say now — what it really is is poetry. Poetry isn’t necessarily linear. It’s more about feeling than argument. I can see Mckesson performing a lot of what he wrote in a poetry slam. But as a book trying to actually elucidate a subject, it really didn’t work for me.

Impeachment and the party of rule-breaking

October 17, 2019

Trump’s Northern Syria retreat is shredding U.S. national interests. Our longtime Kurdish allies, thrown to the wolves, are now aligning with the Syrian regime and its Russian backers, empowered together with Iran. Likewise ISIS, with thousands of its fighters, formerly imprisoned by Kurds, back in action. After first greenlighting Turkey’s attack, now Trump seeks to punish it; Europeans too denounce it. This endangers their deal for Turkey’s harboring millions of Syrian refugees. If they’re expelled into Europe, the political fallout there will be ugly. While the newly exploding Syrian humanitarian nightmare is making yet more refugees — 160,000 fleeing at last count. What a stupid unnecessary disaster.*

But Trump is being impeached for a different foreign policy travesty. Unjustifiably withholding vital military aid, voted by Congress, to extort Ukraine’s leader to help Trump’s re-election by concocting smears against an opponent. There’s no question of fact or even interpretation; Trump’s own account of the key phone call amounts to a confession. And that call, we now know, was part of a broader plot to suborn Ukraine. Giuliani played a key role; our Ukraine ambassador was fired for not playing ball.

Not only is seeking foreign help in a U.S. election flatly illegal, the Constitution furthermore specifies bribery as one impeachable offense. Trump clearly solicited a bribe — in the form of election help — in exchange for releasing the aid. Compounded by attempted cover-up, and defiance of Congressional authority. The House of Representatives has no choice about impeaching, it’s a duty. And it’s not a “coup” or attempt to undo the last election. The Constitution prescribes elections; it also prescribes impeachment for serious misconduct.

So will Republican senators vote to convict Trump? No. Over 80% of Republican voters still love him, despite everything. The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist, on U.S. politics, nods to the idea that Republican officeholders actually hate much of what Trump is about, but political cowardice keeps them in line. However, based on his conversations with these folks, it seems they actually don’t object to Trump’s behavior all that much.

Republican senators would actually be smart to unite and take the opportunity of impeachment to rid themselves of this Trump affliction. But they won’t because they’ve drunk his Kool-Aid. Lexington quotes social psychologist Jonathan Haidt that Republicans “have now dug themselves into a position that they can’t leave without admitting that they sold out morally.” A Devil’s bargain.

I used to blame our political divisiveness more on lefty Democrats demonizing Republicans. But now Republicans have proven them right after all, living up to their worst stereotypes, and repaying the demonization with a vengeance. It’s a relatively new and scary feature of America’s political landscape. The idea of politics as blood sport, and anything — anything — is justified for your side to win. Rules shmules. Laws shmaws. Truth shmooth.

This goes with the idea that the other side does the same — no, worse. An idea now implacably embedded in, particularly, Republican heads. Thus every objection to Trump administration misconduct is met with “what about Hillary? What about Bill?” or the like. There’s even a name for this: whataboutism. This kind of thinking defines today’s Republicanism.

Were the Clintons angels? Certainly not; as a Republican myself I criticized them plenty. And one might point out that two wrongs don’t make a right. Yet only a mind pathologically blinded by partisanship could equate Clinton transgressions with Trump’s monstrously greater ones. (Let alone deny the latter altogether.) The Clintons skirted rules — Trump drives a Mack Truck through them.

He’s found he can flout not only our unwritten societal norms of civic conduct, but even actual laws, with impunity. He’s done it throughout his life, and contempt for rules and standards is an organizing principle of his presidency. This does not make him some sort of admirable free spirit like a ’60s counterculture character. It’s deeply corrosive of the glue that holds society together and keeps us from barbarism. No democracy can endure this way.

It’s true that while Republicans imagine Democrats are worse, Democrats see Republicans as worse. Yet in fact there’s no symmetry between the parties here. Because Democrats do not, in their minds, justify any rule-breaking on the basis that Republicans are worse. They don’t justify it at all. But Republicans do justify it, based on that deranged notion of equivalence. They actually do believe two wrongs somehow make a right.

Lexington also cites a poll, shortly after the 2016 vote, wherein two out of three Republicans agreed that America needed a leader “willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes.” An even greater percentage today, he thinks, would say that, based on their total support for the rule breaker in chief.

Lexington furthermore suggests that Republicans, deep down, realize that with their shrinking base of older, whiter, less urban and more religious voters, they cannot maintain power through playing fair. Thus their despicable voter suppression tactics. While Democrats, in contrast, believe that in fair elections with broad voter participation, they’ll prevail.

The column concludes that how Republican senators vote on impeachment “will decide more than the president’s fate. It will decide whether theirs is now the party of rule-breaking.”

* Erdogan would not have invaded without Trump’s assent. As usual with foreign dictators, the Great Dealmaker got nothing in exchange.