Political violence: thinking about the unthinkable

August 27, 2020

It’s December 13, 2020. Trump’s been crushingly defeated, Democrats have won the Senate — and Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died.

Just three weeks of lame duck Republican control remain. Mitch McConnell, who blocked Supreme Court nominee Garland, calling it wrong to fill a seat during a president’s last year, now plans to rush through a Ginsburg replacement.

What could stop them?

It would be so civically destabilizing, so blatantly illegitimate, that forceful action would be justified. I could see legions of people marching on Washington, possibly to occupy the Senate chamber and physically prevent a vote. Non-violent civil resistance. The regime’s response would probably be very violent.

Steven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, sets forth in exhaustive factual detail how much human violence, in all its many forms, has declined in modern times. And all the many reasons accounting for that. Cynics and pessimists mocked Pinker, but couldn’t refute him. The decline in violence is one of the things that makes me a believer in progress and an optimist about humanity.

But while opposing violence I am not a pacifist. I’ve always believed an ideology of pacifism fails to confront the true moral choices life sometimes presents. That some things are worth fighting for.

While the Ginsburg scenario is hypothetical, Trump’s defeat is highly probable. And with it, a very real danger of political violence. Trump openly says he will reject the election as fraudulent if he loses; laying the groundwork, by impugning mail voting. Even though it’s long widely been used with great reliability and security. Trump would like to create chaos by delaying the Postal Service’s delivery of ballots, and to delegitimize the whole election. Giving America a big black eye; hardly short of treasonous.

Important: a study by The Economist estimates that 80% of mail ballots could be cast by Democrats. Thus on Election Night, before mail ballots are counted, Trump may seemingly be ahead. He will claim victory and then ferociously insist it’s being stolen by fraudulent mail ballots, whose count he will try to disrupt. He’s intent on retaining power by hook or crook. “Will of the people” be damned.

A poll showed 29% of Republicans would back Trump if he refuses to leave office claiming vote fraud. No matter how big the eventual landslide against him? Does that sound insane? But for anyone to still support Trump at this point — after his disastrous record on covid, economic devastation, divisive racism, mountain of lies and corruption, vicious cruelty, and so much else — including trying to sabotage the postal service and the election — isn’t that already a bit insane?  And given all those powerful reasons why so many people will vote against Trump, can Republicans actually delude themselves that only fraud could defeat him?*

A lie cannot be worth fighting for. Yet not only are Trump diehards crazy enough to swallow all his lies, some are indeed the kind of people crazy enough to fight for them. Many of them are gun nuts — besotted with a fantasy of “defending liberty” against “bad people,” with bullets. Convinced, against all reality, that their führer’s been cheated of re-election. Trump’s last stand could well be, for them, a now-or-never, do-or-die moment.

A particular worry is the frighteningly large “QAnon” conspiracist network. Which Trump praises, having retweeted QAnon content almost 200 times. The FBI considers QAnon a domestic terrorism threat, with its members already responsible for gun violence. In their insane mythology Trump is the god, supposedly battling against a vast “deep state” conspiracy of Satan worshippers, engaged in child sex trafficking and even baby eating. His election defeat, accompanied by his flagrant incitements, will send these already deranged people way over the edge. With a very different sort of March on Washington.

This is our coming Armageddon. Ever since the Civil War the idea of an American political settlement through violence would have seemed inconceivable. No longer. What would this do to our democratic way of life? A democratic culture is one in which issues are decided by debate, with acceptance of pluralism, respecting the legitimate role of people who are different and have divergent opinions. Even accepting political defeat. With rule of law — not guns.

That is something worth fighting for. If attacked by people with guns, it must be defended. One might expect law enforcement and the military to do so. I doubt the military would be party to any sort of coup. But the traitor-in-chief being commander-in-chief is a wild card. We’ve already had a foretaste with his deployment of goon squads in Portland. And Trump is the kind of person who, if he can’t get his way, will try to burn the place down.

How all this will finally play out could be very ugly, leaving deep lasting civic wounds. One might rationally suppose a Trump putsch attempt would shred his last remaining political support. But don’t bet on it; rationality is in short supply in that cult. One report on a Trump rally showed a woman saying she’d welcome him as a dictator.

It’s becoming clear that whatever happens, this is not going to be a normal election with an orderly peaceful transfer of power. We’ve had 232 years of them. One way or another, that sterling American record is about to end, thanks to Trump. It breaks my heart.

I pray we can get past this very dark and dangerous passage in our history, that the plague Trumpism represents will finally dissipate, and America will resume its far longer climb toward building a better society for all.

*The same poll showed Democrats would be reluctant to accept an election outcome they believe was produced by Russian subversion, or another Trump electoral college win despite losing the popular vote. Those views would at least be grounded in rationality. But they’re likely moot because Biden is so far ahead.

American Dirt

August 25, 2020

Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt begins with a bang. Literally. A gunshot. Then a lot more.

It’s a quinceañera party, in Acapulco. The massacre’s cause: a newspaper reporter who wrote about a drug cartel boss. Eighteen die. Only his wife Lydia, and her heroic eight-year-old son Luca, escape. Knowing they’re hunted, they become migrants, heading for “El Norte” (America).

Lydia had owned a bookstore; formed a deep bond with a customer who’s a real book lover and (bad) poet. He was in love with her. He’s the cartel boss.

This was one of those books I had to put down every so often, to hold my head in my hands. Sometimes I had a hard time resuming. Had to remind myself, this is fiction. Yet knew, too, its reality.

Literature is about the human heart and soul. This book exemplifies it. From the first words, the reader confronts two human beings in extraordinary trauma, knowing they face a terrible ordeal ahead. Does it matter they’re Mexican?

For some it does. The book prompted a firestorm of criticism for “cultural appropriation.” How dare a white American write a novel depicting Mexicans? This doctrine of the politically correct woke left elevates identity politics to a new height. As if a violator steals something from whom they portray.

It first came to the fore with a painting in the Guggenheim Museum based on the famous Emmett Till open-casket photo, showing his mutilation. The artist’s intent was to spotlight the injustice. But she was white. Oops. Horrors. Not only were there demands for the painting’s removal. They wanted it destroyed.

There’s a spate of polemics calling upon whites to get past their whiteness, or some such incoherent notion. Demanding wokeness. What could be more woke than trying to evoke tears for Emmett Till? You’d think. But no. Destroy that painting.

I’ve discussed this before; also in reviewing Robert Boyers’s book The Tyranny of Virtue. The watchword is “stay in your lane.” Of course that doesn’t apply to non-white artists or writers portraying whites. But otherwise, Boyers points out, “stay in your lane” applied strictly would mean white writers limited to memoir only.

This is why I make a point of literature being about the human heart and soul. That’s what Cummins is engaged in — very powerfully. Had the “cultural appropriation” cops been always with us, we’d have scant literature altogether.

Stating the obvious, the novel’s characters are human beings. Just like you and me, with joys and sufferings just like ours — no, of course not, far deeper. Even reading this with stomach clenched, it wasn’t possible for me to get my head around their extreme experience.

These are the migrants Trump and his minions so despise. Dehumanizing those whose humanness far excels their own. Any one of those migrants, with the capabilities and grit to surmount all the horrible pitfalls, and actually make it to our border, puts to shame the Americans who hate them. Those migrants have qualities that make our country great. I wish we could swap out the one group for the other.

Of course this is the import of the book’s title. Many Americans call these people “dirt.” I thought it could also mean “American soil” — something confirmed near the end.

The book does spotlight that migrants entering America, instead of receiving Good Samaritan treatment, succor and sanctuary, are today met with yet more vicious cruelty. Their children confiscated — many toddlers, even babies — many likely never to be reunited with parents. Being thusly separated from Luca is a big fear for Lydia, once they do get across the border. I used to be so proud of my country. I look forward to that pride’s restoration. Though our humane new president will have his work cut out to unwind the vile policies put in by his predecessor — American Dirt.

No — not American. Just plain Dirt.

Also as shown in this book, what ruined Acapulco, and so much else in the world, is the insane war on drugs. Doing vastly more harm than it could ever prevent, even if it did stop drug use, which it cannot. When will this madness end?

Yet I am an optimist, a believer in progress. Grounded in most people being good. It’s not a faith; it’s empirical, based on an understanding of the scientific evolutionary reasons why it’s so, as well as a lifetime of experience. Some actors in this book are very bad indeed. But most are good. Throughout Lydia’s and Lucas’s ordeal, made gut-wrenching by those bad people, they encounter far more who are good. But for whom they’d be dead. It could almost be a fairy story.

On a lighter note — I visited Acapulco once. In 1973, when the very name connoted carefree tourism. Before the criminality that has almost destroyed the place. I went there with a girl on what was literally a blind date. But one crime did take place.

The much tonier hotel next to ours was the Club de Pesca. On a lark we snuck in there just to sit by the pool. A waiter came by; we ordered a little something. Later, bringing the bill, he said to just sign with our room number. So I did.

Ah, youth.

Political insanity round up

August 23, 2020

While several commentators on a CNN panel lauded Biden’s superb speech Thursday night, stressing the character chasm between the candidates, the Republican Scott Jennings was burbling, “The policies! The policies!” About where Democrats would take the country. As a former Republican I wanted to grab him and shake him. Policies? Where Democrats will take us? As if Trump hasn’t taken America down the toilet. If you really cared so much about your precious “policies,” why did you put their fate in the hands of a man no responsible person could vote for? Taking down with him your beloved “policies,” whatever shreds they might still possess.

Friday I received a Trump-Pence e-mail headed, “The Biden Campaign is unhinged.” It said:

“No one is safe in Joe Biden’s America. Not only is he encouraging the lawlessness in Democrat cities, but his campaign donated money to BAIL OUT DANGEROUS criminals, including a serial rapist, from jail. Disgusting. Can you believe it, Frank?”

Actually, I could not. So, curious, I googled a bit and found that some Biden campaign people — not the campaign — made private donations to a fund bailing out folks arrested in George Floyd protests. No one charged with crimes like rape. So on the truth-o-meter, Trump’s message rates a solid PANTS ON FIRE.

Yes — “disgusting” indeed. Talk about a campaign being “unhinged.” Every Trump accusation or insult is always uncannily more descriptive of him than his target.

And talking about “lawlessness in cities,” the St. Louis couple arrested for unlawful firearms use, for pointing guns at Black Lives Matter marchers, has been slotted to speak at the Republican convention. A really smart move to dispel any stink of racism in Trump and his party, and spotlight their “law and order” bona fides. Reaching out to voters not already crazy enough to support him.

Then there’s Trump campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson. Answering President Obama’s speech ringing the alarm about Trump’s threat to democracy, Pierson tweeted: “We are NOT a Democracy!! Not understanding this simple, yet critical fact, is likely the root cause of Trump Derangement Syndrome!”

I think a symptom of “Trump Derangement Syndrome” is imagining somehow that “We are NOT a Democracy” is a killer defense of Trump, a stirring campaign rallying cry.

The syndrome is contagious. When Michelle Obama’s speech, taped in advance, mentioned 150,000 U.S. covid deaths, Trump mocked her, tweeting, Wrong! It’s 170,000! What a brilliant riposte, sure to win him votes.

Trump meanwhile accuses the FDA of deliberately “slow walking” vaccine development until the election; part of a “deep state” conspiracy against him. While we have the “QAnon” network, seeing that conspiracy (inevitably involving Jewish George Soros) working to destroy Trump and America while engaging in child sex trafficking and even baby eating. The FBI considers QAnon a domestic terrorism threat. But Trump has now publicly endorsed QAnon, saying its devotees love their country (and him).

Then there’s messing with mail service. One analyst said this could finally be Trump’s undoing. No, wait, seriously! Worse than shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. Because so many people depend on timely delivery of checks and medications, etc. Trump does everything for political advantage. Yet is too insane to know what actually helps or hurts.

But alas political insanity is nonpartisan. A survey of 510 Sanders delegates to the Democratic Convention found 33% “strongly disapprove” of the Biden-Harris ticket. A further 19% “somewhat disapprove.” Just 17% “somewhat approve,” and a mere 7% “strongly approve.” Fortunately those hard core Sanders fanatics are —as the primary voting showed — actually only a fringe minority among Democrats. The great mass of the party has its head firmly on straight, not up its ass.

American ideals cannot survive four more years of government by lunatics.

One country, two planets

August 21, 2020

For half a century I would watch Republican conventions and feel reminded of what my Republicanism meant.

This week’s Democratic convention reminded me of everything my Americanism means. And how Republicans endanger it. What a contrast with them was Biden’s superb, uplifting speech.

During President Obama’s searing evisceration of Trump’s unfitness, Trump was busily at work corroborating the indictment with a disgorgement of disgraceful deranged tweets.* All this made me wonder what next week’s Republican convention will be like. How can they defend this monster and his vile record?

They can. They have their story to tell. A false one, but it will be told very slickly, and with the fervent conviction of true believers. How Trump is making America great again after all the Democratic failure, how he stands up for the little guy, for law and order, stands up to China, strengthens our military and border to protect us, rebuilds our international standing. Doing a great job battling Covid-19. While Slow Joe and Phony Kamala and the corrupt Democrats, tools of socialist radicals, want open borders, a weak America, abolishing the police, want our cities destroyed. They hate America, hate God, will take away your guns, and kill babies. (Maybe eat them, as QAnon conspiracists — lauded by Trump — now literally assert.)

A total inversion of reality. The whole Trump project a tower of lies. The mind reels at their ability to convince themselves.

One commentator on PBS, Sarah Smarsh, said that such people can actually be “psychologically rational.” What they see as true is a matter of what information they’re exposed to. They are outside the ambit of genuine information.

Another commentator, Gary Abernathy, disagreed. He said Trump supporters get access to the full spectrum of news sources out there, and take it all in, but they just evaluate it differently from others, and reach differing conclusions.

Smarsh wasn’t buying it. She responded that a person’s outlook is powerfully shaped by how they’re raised and acculturated. Citing a telling example: herself. Brought up in a conservative milieu, and accepting all the intellectual software thusly installed into her brain. Until she left that environment and was exposed to a whole new universe of information, changing her perspective entirely.

Hers is not an unusual case. Look how so many people just run their culturally pre-installed religious software. Oblivious that if they’d been born into a different culture, their faith would be radically different. Christians believe Christianity is true, with one god. A billion Hindus believe Hinduism is true, with 33 million gods. They can’t both be right. But that gives neither side pause.

I often discuss confirmation bias — the proclivity to embrace information confirming pre-existing beliefs, while creating rationalizations to dismiss dissonant information. Smarter people are indeed more adept at this. Abernathy’s picture of Trump supporters scrolling through all sorts of news sources, as though with pristine objectivity, ignored the huge impact of confirmation bias, and pre-installed cultural software filtering the information they see. It’s not a search for truth, but for comfort.

Meantime they’re actually bombarded with a blitz of seeming “information,” much of it Foxian, manipulative or bogus. Sipping news from a firehose; many aren’t fastidious about what gets through. Often it’s a witch’s brew that fails to include some of the most basic facts about what’s actually going on in the world (let alone what they might mean). How many people have a grounding understanding of such realities. equipping them to sensibly evaluate the “news” they see?

This is how people can live in one country but on two different planets. But both are not equally “psychologically rational.”

*Michelle Obama’s speech, taped early, mentioned 150,000 covid deaths. Insane Trump mockingly tweeted that it’s actually 170,000!

Belarus crisis

August 20, 2020

Belarus (once known as “White Russia;” capital Minsk) is a European former Soviet republic becoming independent with the USSR’s 1991 collapse. In 1994, Alexander Lukashenko was elected president. Has since ruled as a repressive dictator, with at least enough grudging popular support. But that has run out.

In the August 9 election, a chief opponent, a leading “vlogger,” was jailed to prevent his running. His wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, registered her substitute candidacy. Lukashenko dismissed her as a “poor little thing.” But her rallies attracted gigantic crowds.

Lukashenko won with 80% of the vote. Or so the regime announced. A more credible estimate, had the vote and count been fair, was 70% for Tikhanovskaya. She went to the electoral authority to complain. After hours of interrogation by the security forces, she made a hostage video (her husband still jailed, remember) conceding the election. Then they expelled her to Lithuania.

Massive protests erupted. Lukashenko’s goon squads responded with massive brutality. One might wonder why anyone would defend such a vile regime. But there are always guys who enjoy beating people up. And also people courageous enough to risk their lives.

Tikhanovskaya has returned. Lukashenko, defiant, refuses to give in and has ramped up the repression. Can he stick it out?

Some years ago I might have said no. In Egypt’s 2011 revolution, I predicted Mubarak’s fall — telling my daughter* “there is a tide in the affairs of men.” But what then seemed a democratic tide has since reversed. And Mubarak was not as vicious as Lukashenko.

Though I’d love to see Lukashenko get the Ceausescu treatment.

Next door to Belarus is Russia. Putin and Lukashenko have had a dicey relationship. But Putin of course hates revolutions against dictators.** Might his military help be invited? Or — might Putin send in troops uninvited, seizing an opportunity to declare Belarus in chaos and invading to “restore order.” But actually, of course, to annex Belarus. (His popularity bump from the 2014 Crimea grab having dissipated.)

This could thus become a very nasty explosive situation. So far, the U.S. has been sickeningly quiet about Belarus. What if Russia does invade? Trump might see this as his own opportunity, to posture as tough and forceful, for our own election. But that assumes sanity. And forgets Trump’s being in Putin’s pocket.

* Riveted by the Egyptian drama. This contributed to her winding up with a career in the Middle East.

** We’ve just learned that Putin’s chief critic, Alexei Navalny, is in intensive care, after what seems obviously another murder attempt. The list of murdered Putin opponents is very long.

Biden’s extraordinary nominating speech: less is more

August 19, 2020

I’m a lifelong political junkie. Watched every national convention over 56 years. A connoisseur of the speeches. Key, of course, is the presidential nominating speech. Normally delivered by a political heavyweight, a long oration of soaring rhetoric.

At the convention last night, the formal nominating process commenced with a video of Jacquelyn Brittany, a black security guard standing in uniform before the elevator she monitors. Telling how she often escorts bigshots to their important meetings, who never give her a thought. But not Joe Biden. He saw her as a person and made a human connection with her.

Okay, very nice. Nothing new there.

Then Jacquelyn spoke the words, “I nominate Joseph Biden . . . ”

Simple words. But I melted into my seat. Realizing this was the nominating speech. Surely the shortest, yet most extraordinary ever. Knowing instantly this was an iconic moment I’d think about, with goosebumps, for the rest of my life.

This is America. The new America. My America. The best America.

The America we’ve got to save this fall.

100 years of women voting

August 18, 2020

Today is the 100th anniversary of the constitutional amendment giving women the vote. That came just eleven weeks before the 1920 presidential election. In that short time, election systems all across the country had to gear up for a doubling of the vote. To get half the electorate registered to vote, for the first time. All without computers, the internet, and other modern technology.

Was there chaos, and cries of fraud? No. Nothing of the kind. Everything went perfectly fine. America made this huge adjustment with our traditional can-do spirit. A lot of men still opposed women voting. But nobody tried to stop them.

This November we will vote amid a pandemic, and unprecedented use of mail ballots. With a president determined to create chaos, lie about fraud, and keep as many people as possible from voting.

Are we at least as good a country as we were in 1920?

George Floyd and that $20 bill

August 17, 2020

It all started when a store clerk called police, accusing George Floyd of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. In all the vast Floyd coverage, no one seems to have examined that $20 bill story. Floyd’s guilt is just assumed.

But why? While Floyd had once been a lawbreaker, that was long past, and he’d been living straight. Counterfeiting is actually a pretty elaborate operation, and nothing ties Floyd to a counterfeiting ring. If the bill was fake, the far likelier explanation is that Floyd himself was the innocent victim of someone else’s passing it off on him.

But why even assume the bill was counterfeit? Has anyone actually examined it? Coin hobbyists like me are always regaling each other with stories of the ignorance of store clerks when it comes to the money in circulation. Just before the Floyd story, a local coin club member had told of trying to use a $20 bill at McDonald’s and likewise  being threatened with arrest. He was forced to walk to a bank to have the bill verified. It merely happened to be an older issue slightly different from more current ones — but still perfectly legitimate.

Good thing my friend is white.

November voting: the coming train wreck

August 14, 2020

Remember “hanging chads” and all that Florida turmoil in November 2000? (Into December, actually.) Now imagine such presidential election chaos not just in one state but all over the map. With Trumpism in the balance.

Most states are greatly expanding mail voting. so citizens can avoid the health risks of voting in person. It’s now expected three fourths of citizens will vote by mail. Or attempt to.

A few states have utilized universal mail balloting for years, practically without fraud or other problems. But most states are woefully unprepared, and for them this is a looming logistical nightmare. Many of their election bureaucracies are understaffed due to the pandemic. Mail voting is more complex than in-person balloting. Signature verification is a major headache, and a fertile ground for partisan fistfights in a contested count. Even in routine elections tons of mail ballots typically get thrown out for signature issues or other technicalities. And just getting so many paper ballots counted will be a huge job. In some recent New York primaries it took six weeks.

Meantime, covid will also make for a shortage of Election Day poll workers (often elderly). Thus fewer polling sites open, and longer lines. While, in many places, grappling with unfamiliar new technology.

Congress has allocated $400 million to help states prepare, but that’s a spit in the ocean. Experts say at least $2 billion is needed. That figure itself seems a pittance in light of trillions in covid emergency measures. Yet Republicans block even that piddling $2 billion. They actually want election chaos.

Because they think it will hurt Democrats more. Disproportionately affecting densely populated urban areas where their voters concentrate. We’ve long seen Republicans trying to game elections, using phony fraud concerns to make it hard for citizens (especially minorities) to vote.

And speaking of citizens, hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants have qualified, but the administration has shut down the final step of certifying citizenship, thus denying them the vote as well.

Then there’s the Postal Service. Understaffed too due to covid. And the political donor Trump appointed postmaster general has announced operational changes that will slow mail processing. Limiting overtime, eliminating hundreds of mail sorting machines, and more. Even before all this,  I can attest (based on my mail order business) that mail deliveries had already slowed markedly. What will happen with scores of millions of ballots all mailed within a short time? In 32 states, ballots, even if mailed before, don’t count if not received by Election Day.

Without confidence that mail votes will be properly delivered, many people will feel forced to vote in person. Some will get covid and die.

Trump has now made the stunning, shameless public admission that he’s trying to wreck the Postal Service, starving it of money, explicitly to screw up mail balloting.* While the Republican party had previously boasted it was budgeting $20 million to fight against mail voting.

A responsible, patriotic president, dedicated to America’s democratic values, would be hard at work to tackle all the mentioned problems so voting can go as smoothly as possible. Trump is doing the opposite: trying to intentionally sabotage the election, and create such a mess that he can try to throw out the results if (when) he loses.

And let’s not forget the well documented Russian interference in our last election (no, it was not a “hoax”). It’s proven they tried to hack into local voter registration and ballot counting systems. Surely they’ll try again, along with, probably, China and Iran.

They all want, if nothing else, for America to come out with egg on its face. Running rigged elections themselves, they want to destroy all confidence in the processes of democracy.* Trump is their handy tool.

Widespread mail voting and resulting counting delays, and Trump’s scorched earth war on the results, may make “election night” last weeks — a shattering climactic battle in America’s partisan all-but-civil-war. A prolonged night of goblins and ghouls and conspiracism running riot.

With that cruel vile monster, having plunged the nation, by his fecklessness, into this covid holocaust, now striving to exploit it, using it to strike a final blow on our democracy. It’s he who hates America. To vote for him is insane. 

But I pray it will be over quickly and decisively. Then we can wake from the nightmare and commence the giant task of making America great again.

*”Defund the Postal Service?” Of course, this screws up much more than just the election; an efficiently operating postal service is vital to our economy and society in a million ways. A president deliberately hobbling it is beyond insane. “Making America Great Again?” Or turning it into a “shithole country?”

**This has just happened in Puerto Rico’s primary, an election meltdown in which many citizens were prevented from voting.

Big box of Biden bling

August 14, 2020

An unexpected big mystery box arrived. From the Biden campaign (I’m a proud donor). Just for fun I’ve made a still-life picture of the contents: caps, buttons, candy, pins, water bottles, notebooks, convention credentials and a frame to display them, a tote bag, coffee, neck lanyards; and, for celebrating, champagne glasses and even a jar of confetti! Also (not shown) a vast amount of bubble wrap (handy for my business).