Sunday, August 20, 2017

#232 / Sacrificing Democracy For Liberal Values

The image above comes from the website of the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom. The platform positions articulated above, which come from the Liberal Democrats' Constitution, seem to be a good shorthand statement of what might be called "liberal values."

In an article published in The New York Times on August 18th, Max Fisher and Amanda Taub ask this question: "Is it worth sacrificing democracy if that seems to be the only way to protect liberal values?"

There are some in our country, given our current president, who might pose that very question. Some "liberals," in fact, have called for a military overthrow of President Trump.

Fisher and Taub, citing the experience of Egypt, argue that "democracy" (what I call "self-government") should never be sacrificed to achieve the kind of "liberal values" that do, indeed, improve our lives together. 

I think the column is well worth reading. Therefore, I provide it here: 

A young man mourning next to casualties of the Rabaa massacre.

What Egypt Can Teach Us About Democracy’s Biggest Weakness 

This week is the fourth anniversary of the 2013 Rabaa massacre in Cairo, in which government troops shot over 800 people who were protesting the removal of Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected president. 
That sad milestone has us thinking about a deeper issue, one that has relevance for many other countries today. What happens when liberalism and democracy become opposing forces in the same country? Or, put more broadly, what happens when people feel they need to choose between protecting their fundamental values and protecting democracy itself? 
After protests ousted the longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011, there was hope that the country would become a liberal democracy. The early stages were promising. After a brief period in which a military council served as a caretaker government, the country held democratic elections. Mr. Morsi, the candidate of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, won a narrow victory. 
But while Mr. Morsi’s election was democratic, his governing impulses became, over time, illiberal. Remnants of the old order in what is sometimes known as the deep state, including in the judiciary and security services, undermined him at every turn. As he fought against them, Mr. Morsi took increasingly extreme steps that eventually targeted more than his internal enemies, real and perceived. He pushed through a new, Islamist-oriented constitution, harassed and threatened critics and opposition leaders, and tried to make his own presidential decrees immune from review. 
That opened up a deep divide between Mr. Morsi’s supporters and people who had expected democracy to bring a liberal constitution and laws. That divide was deepened, we should note, by the country’s economic problems during that period, which increased discontent with Mr. Morsi’s policies. The situation created a political question that few had thought to ask before the revolution: Is it worth sacrificing democracy if that seems to be the only way to protect liberal values? 
For many Egyptians, the answer was yes. About a year after Mr. Morsi took office, tens of thousands of people returned to Tahrir Square, this time demonstrating against an elected president whose government they saw as little better than Mr. Mubarak’s dictatorship. They called for the army to remove Mr. Morsi as they had removed Mr. Mubarak just a few years earlier. 
The army accepted that invitation. At first, many hoped the coup that ousted Mr. Morsi would be a kind of reset button on the 2011 revolution — another chance to elect a government that would protect important values. John Kerry, then the United States Secretary of State, said the military had been “restoring democracy” when it ousted Mr. Morsi, adding that “The military did not take over, to the best of our judgment — so far.” 
That judgment proved incorrect. Having determined that public support for democracy was fickle, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s military regime quickly hardened into permanence. His forces arrested Mr. Morsi, rounded up opposition activists en masse, and cracked down on dissent. And when thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters camped out in a square in Rabaa and refused to disperse, Egyptian security forces staged a bloody raid, killing at least 800 people and wounding many more. 
Egypt’s experience was extreme. Its revolution was recent, its army was powerful, and there were few institutions in place to support its democratic transition. 
But Egypt is part of a broader pattern. As we’ve written before, democracies often die because the public, or a large chunk of it, supports other principles or interests slightly more than the processes of democracy itself. In Venezuela, that was class-based identity; in Russia, security and stability; in Turkey, it seems, a combination of identity and economic concerns. 
Research by Milan Svolik of Yale University shows that it is not that those citizens don’t value democracy at all, but that they are willing to place it second in order to protect something else they value more. 
It’s easy to assume, from the comfort of stable democratic countries, that we would always work to preserve democratic rules and norms. But Mr. Morsi’s brief tenure is a reminder of how difficult it can be to do that.

Fisher and Taub are giving us a "heads up." Let's look to democracy, and not to the generals, to save the "liberal values" we care about so much.

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Saturday, August 19, 2017

#231 / Liberal Democracy In Extremis

E.J. Dionne, Jr. writes a column for The Washington Post. One of his recent columns had this title, as it appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle: "Stand up for liberal democracy." 

Listing a number of contemporary challenges to human civilization, running from climate change to the current confrontation between the United States and North Korea, Dionne says that "the challenge to liberal democracy is far and away the most consequential question facing the world." This is true, says Dionne, because "liberal democracy is essential for solving every other problem."

Liberal democracy, Dionne says, "assumes that history is open and that free electorates can change their minds and their governments. Oppressed groups have a right to agitate and organize against injustices, and new ways of reforming society are given room to emerge." In other words, "liberal democracy" is the way that we can address our collective challenges and opportunities, and jointly fashion a world that meets our deepest aspirations.

For Dionne, "liberal democracy" means "a belief in governments created through free elections and universal suffrage; an independent judiciary; and guarantees of the freedoms of speech, assembly, religion and press." 

Dionne also states that "the right to private property is a characteristic of liberal societies," and insists that "there is also an important place for social insurance, government provision of various services (education and health care among them), and rules protecting workers, consumers and the environment." Indeed, Dionne says, "the vast inequalities that capitalism can produce when unchecked typically undermine liberal democracy, and are doing so now."

Looked at analytically, it seems to me that Dionne too easily conflates the governmental procedures that establish democracy (free elections with universal suffrage, a free press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and an independent judiciary) with some of the accomplishments that Dionne attributes to the operations of this "liberal democracy" - things like "rules protecting workers, consumers, and the environment, and governmentally-provided health care and education."

What counts more? The democratic procedures that Dionne lists, or the "results?" It seems pretty clear to me that Dionne is most concerned with the "results." He fears that because the procedures that establish "liberal democracy" are not delivering acceptable results, we are on the way to discarding the procedures of free elections, a free press, free speech, freedom of religion and assembly, and an independent judiciary. Here is how he concludes his column: 

When liberal democrats become arrogant and forget that governments have an obligation to create the circumstances for widespread well-being, autocrats will always be there offering security and prosperity in exchange for less freedom. Liberal democracy must be defended. It must also deliver the goods.

The "bottom line" for Dionne, is that those governing our nation (and he calls them "liberal democrats") have allocated too much to the rich, and not enough to everyone else. Our government is serving the 1%, not the 99%, and this is putting the whole premise of our democracy in peril. 

I certainly agree that the economic misallocations Dionne identifies are horrific, and I am definitely a believer in "democracy." I am not only happy to use that word, but I am even willing to call democracy "liberal democracy," if that makes people happy. What is most important to me, however, and even more so than "democracy," is "self-government," a government in which we ourselves are personally engaged. 

If "liberal democracy" is in trouble around the world, as Dionne correctly suggests, one reason is that "we, the people," those supposedly in charge of our government, are now more "governed" than "governors." The results of recent governance have been bad, as Dionne says, but the biggest problem for us may be less with the "results" than with the ever-more obvious reality that those making decisions are not "we, the people," but incredibly rich and powerful special interests that are governing everything, and using free elections, the free press, and free speech in the process of doing so.

Unless large numbers of ordinary men and women reengage, and become more directly and personally involved in government, neither "procedures" nor "results" will produce a commitment to the common enterprise of government that allows us to "solve every other problem."

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Friday, August 18, 2017

#230 / Keeping In Touch

Rod Dreher, a self-styled "American Conservative," writes about American politics, culture, and religion from a "conservative," and specifically from a "conservative religious" perspective. I have been following Dreher's daily blog postings since his profile appeared in The New Yorker

As The New Yorker made clear, Dreher is calling for a "new monasticism," which he identifies as the "Benedict Option," defined as a "communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life."

On August 17th, Dreher commented on President Trump's reaction to the confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia between a white supremacist crowd and those who came to Charlottesville to protest the white supremacists' "Unite the Right" demonstration. As you will remember, a young woman was killed during this confrontation, and the President, though he made different comments, over a period of several days, ended up saying that "both sides" were to blame for the violence

The American Conservative agreed with the president, but almost universally, pundits and the mainstream media did not. The press and media reaction to the president's statements rejected the idea that those who came to witness against a white supremacist demonstration were "equally to blame" for the death of Heather Heyer, who died after having been run over by an automobile driven by a white supremacist demonstrator. 

Dreher's take on the controversy is titled, "Trump Is More In Touch Than You Think," and relies on recent polling to support this analysis. Here are his conclusions: 

  • The news media have been seriously distorting public reaction to Trump’s handling of Charlottesville. Whether this is a matter of only seeing what they want to see, or a matter of the talking heads being concentrated among coastal elites of both parties, is a matter of conjecture. True, a slight majority of Americans think Trump didn’t go far enough, but judging from the coverage and commentary, you would have thought at Charlottesville, Trump met his Waterloo. It didn’t happen. Charlottesville is not nearly a big a deal to Americans as it is to the media and coastal elites. 
  • Trump’s disapproval rating is very high, but Charlottesville didn’t really move the needle. And he’s kept his base. 
  • Continuing to attack Confederate statues is a big loser for Democrats and liberals. A strong majority of Americans favors keeping them standing. Only liberals want to see them go. When even 44 percent of African-Americans favor leaving the statues alone, the take-them-down faction of the Left has a serious echo chamber problem. 
  • This is likely to cause them to seriously overreach. If Democrats and liberals only pay attention to the media and to each other on the statue debate, they are going to alienate a lot of people. The hostile media environment has made it very difficult for anybody to speak up for keeping the statues, even though that is a majority opinion in America. So people will keep that opinion to themselves. 
  • In turn, they may very well stew on it, angry at the liberal gatekeepers of respectable opinion either not caring about their opinion, or shutting them down as racists. 
  • Do not underestimate the power of cultural symbols to drive voter behavior. 
  • Americans have no trouble condemning white supremacists and the far right, while at the same time supporting the statues. Americans probably do not believe they are racist for wanting the statues to remain in place. 
  • Charlottesville was the first time most Americans will have been introduced to both Antifa and the Alt-Right. 
  • Trump remains an extremely divisive figure. For any Commander in Chief, the idea that six out of 10 Americans do not trust your leadership in an international crisis is potentially destabilizing. 
  • And, it’s telling that younger voters are half as likely to back Trump’s handling of Charlottesville than older voters. This is not terribly surprising, but it points to long-term problems the GOP faces reaching the young after Trump departs the scene. One way or another, Trump will leave a strong legacy when his presidency ends — one that the Republican Party will be dealing with for a long time.

Having now read Dreher (and the other commentary published by The American Conservative), I wish Dreher would have taken his own advice, and sought a "withdrawal from the mainstream." I think there is significant truth in Dreher's suggestion that the public doesn't want to promote the kind of social and political division that gave us Charlottesville. Instead of trying to calm the waters, however, Dreher's comments are fanning the flames of further division. 

To get back to that "rainbow" metaphor I talked about yesterday, it doesn't help for Dreher to promote never before defined oppositional groups (the so-called "alt-right" and the "antifa"), as Dreher does, as a way to help sharpen divisions that may not even exist, as the polling he cites apparently indicates. What Dreher and The American Conservative are doing will lead us further and further from what Martin Luther King, Jr. used to call "the beloved community."

That's where we should be heading. 

You can even call it the "Benedict Option" if that makes you feel better. 

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

#229 / Looking For A Rainbow

I wrote about "identity politics" in my blog posting yesterday. Particularly after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last Saturday, lots of people are thinking about that term. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, which ran one of the articles I referenced in yesterday's blog posting, devoted its lead editorial on Monday, August 14, 2017, to "The Poison of Identity Politics." 

The Journal editorial said that "a politics fixated on indelible differences will inevitably lead to resentments that extremists can exploit in ugly ways..." As might be expected, The Journal had examples of ugly, extremist behavior coming from the "left," as well as from the "right." 

The Journal also opined that President Trump should not be blamed for the nation's "identity obsession," and (inferentially) that he should not be blamed for what happened in Charlottesville. As The Journal put it, speaking about the "identity politics" that The Journal thinks led to the violence, the president "is more symptom than cause, though as President he now has a particular obligation to renounce it."

Many think our president was more "cause" than "symptom" of the divisions that gave rise to the events in Charlottesville, but assigning blame may not be our best focus. Maybe we should be looking for a way out. Metaphorically speaking, we might think about how to precipitate a "rainbow." 

The "rainbow" metaphor is inherently problematic, however, and I suppose a good argument could be made that Jesse Jackson, in his effort to promote a "rainbow coalition," actually stimulated the kind of "identity politics" that The Wall Street Journal, among others, now denounces. Wikipedia reminds us that the National Rainbow Coalition was a political organization that grew out of Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign:

During the campaign, Jackson began speaking about a "Rainbow Coalition." The goals of the campaign were to demand social programs, voting rights, and affirmative action for all groups that had been neglected by Reaganomics. Jackson's campaign blamed President Ronald Reagan's policies for reduction of government domestic spending, causing new unemployment and encouraging economic investment outside of the inner cities, while they discouraged the rebuilding of urban industry. The industrial layoffs caused by these policies hit the black and other minority populations particularly hard. At the 1984 Democratic National Convention on July 18, 1984, in San Francisco, California, Jackson delivered an address entitled "The Rainbow Coalition." The speech called for Arab Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, youth, disabled veterans, small farmers, lesbians and gays to join with African Americans and Jewish Americans for political purpose. Whereas the purpose of PUSH had been to fight for economic and educational opportunities, the Rainbow Coalition was created to address political empowerment and public policy issues. After his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination in 1984, Jackson attempted to build a broad base of support among groups that "were hurt by Reagan administration policies" - racial minorities, the poor, small farmers, working mothers, the unemployed, some labor union members, gays, and lesbians.

I have linked Jesse Jackson's convention speech, below. The way I understand Jackson's use of the "rainbow" metaphor, he was calling not for the fracturing of civic unity into a multitude of discrete elements, the way a prism takes the unity of light and manifests its different wavelengths, in different colors. Quite the opposite, Jackson wanted to make clear the "unity," not the differences, that should bring Americans together. 

I do think we are looking for a "rainbow," politically, but a rainbow that unifies our differences in a single, majestic symbol of our common aspirations. 

A "rainbow" is one thing. The colors that comprise it are many and different. 

Are we defined by our differences, or by our unity? 

What kind of a "rainbow" can be our guide?

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

#228 / In This Together

Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, talks about "identity politics" in an article titled, "The Liberal Crack-Up." Lilla's article ran in the August 12-13, 2017 edition of The Wall Street Journal. An older article, "The End of Identity Liberalism," makes many of the same points; that article ran in The New York Times on November 18, 2016. The images I have included in this blog posting were taken from those two articles. 

Wikipedia describes "identity politics" as follows:

Identity politics includes the ways in which people's politics may be shaped by aspects of their identity through loosely correlated social organizations. Examples include social organizations based on age, religion, social class or caste, culture, dialect, disability, education, ethnicity, language, nationality, sex, gender identity, generation, occupation, profession, race, political party affiliation, sexual orientation, settlement, urban and rural habitation, and veteran status.

Lilla's point is that a successful politics, ultimately, cannot really be based on the various aspects of personal identity that divide us. "Politics" is a decision-making process that must focus on what we will do collectively. That's what politics is all about.

As individuals, we are all different, with different backgrounds, abilities, ideas, and interests, but our "political" objective must be to search for what Lilla calls "a unifying vision of the common good." 

At least, we will need to search for such a unifying vision if we want to have a politics that succeeds in realizing our deepest hopes and aspirations, because we are not only individuals. We are all in this together, and we need to achieve a politics that is based on that truth.

The Wall Street Journal illustration shows the Democratic Party donkey flying apart, as "identity politics" destroys the party's ability to forge a common program. The image below, from The New York Times, suggests that our manifold different "identities" can all fit within a common frame!

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

#227 / It Works For Dogs, Doesn't It?

Lewis writes on parenting and education, and her article was published in Mother Jones in 2015. Here is a very short excerpt, which will give you an idea of Lewis' perspective: 

How we deal with the most challenging kids remains rooted in B.F. Skinner's mid-20th-century philosophy that human behavior is determined by consequences and bad behavior must be punished. (Pavlov figured it out first, with dogs.)

Hey, if it works for dogs it will work for kids, right?

I am more and more thinking that our entire system of "social control" is based on an erroneous idea that "bad behavior must be punished." Our criminal justice system is out of control in a big way, and we should be looking for a better plan. 

Lewis' article focuses on our standard system of student discipline, and suggests that it's counterproductive. 

Let's start thinking about similar alternatives to the "bad behavior means punishment" perspective in the context of criminal justice.

The book I used in my "Introduction To Legal Process" course this summer, Law, Justice And Society: A Sociolegal Introduction," pretty much said that "social control" was the main reason to have laws. I have a somewhat different perspective, but if we genuinely care about "social control," then we're going to have to come up with a different system. 

The "bad behavior means punishment" system doesn't work in our schools, and it doesn't work in society at large.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

#226 / One Nice Thing About That Book

As outlined in my blog posting yesterday, I found 45 Ways To Fight Trump, a book by Markos Moulitsas and Michael Huttner, to be rather disturbing in its claim that we no longer live in a "legitimate democracy." 

There is one thing in the book, though, that I thought was really nice. On Page 61, commenting on how "digital relationships are no substitute for the power of gathering people physically together," the authors quote an article in the September 2013 edition of Psychology Today

Oxytocin - known as the "love hormone" because of its important role in the formation and maintenance of mother-child bonding and sexual attachments - is actually involved in a much broader range of social connections ... oxytocin released through any type of social connectivity triggered the release of serotonin. In a chain reaction, the serotonin then activated the "reward circuitry" of the nucleus accumbens resulting in a happy feeling....

In other words, political action, in a group setting, makes us "happy."

This is, in fact, something noted (without reference to hormones or brain chemistry) by Hannah Arendt, in her wonderful book, On Revolution. In Chapter Three of her book, Arendt illuminates the reason that our Declaration of Independence says that we are endowed with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

It is Arendt's claim that those who brought our nation into being, through revolutionary political action, came to understand (again, without reference to hormones or any knowledge of brain chemistry) that we are "happy" when we are, together, engaging in the political actions that result in the creation of the world that we most immediately inhabit, that "political world" which is the product of our politics!

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

#225 / Dangerous Claims Of Political Illegitimacy

I just got through reading the book whose cover is pictured on the left. Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos, and Michael Huttner, founder of ProgressNow, outline ways to change our national politics in the time of Trump. 

The authors have some very good ideas, and they outline their "45 ways to fight Trump" in five different sections: 

I. Resist Trump At All Costs
II. Protect The Culture
III. Minimize Damage, Policy
IV. Build Electoral Infrastructure
V. Build Grassroots Infrastructure

I particularly applaud Sections IV and V, since that is really what democratic self-government is all about. We, the people, can and must assert control over our own government, but generally speaking, talking about it isn't going to be enough. Some actual action, focused on elections, is going to be required. This is the message of activist Micah White, too, about whom I wrote in a blog posting a week or so ago

I do want to say that there were some things in the Moulitsas-Huttner book that I found disturbing. Specifically, statements like these: 

  • Why do the Dakotas, with their combined population of 1.6 million have four senators, while California, population 38.8 million, has two? [Page 2] 
  • Donald Trump is not the legitimate president of the United States... [Page 2]  
  • We aren't living in a legitimate democracy... [Page 3] 
  • We cannot accept the results of an illegitimate election won by an illegitimate candidate by illegitimate means...       [Page 4] 
  • People as racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic as Trump and his gang of brownshirted cronies have no legitimate role in our nation's public life [Page 6].

Let me comment, first, on why North and South Dakota (two separate states) have four senators to California's two. It's pretty clear why! Our Constitution allocates TWO senators to each state, regardless of population. While we could have organized our nation differently, there are some very good reasons to have adopted a "federal" system. "Mass democracy" has its potential problems. Read Hannah Arendt if you need convincing. 

Avoiding any debate on the merits of our federal system (and there are definitely arguments on both sides of the question), I don't like to see the authors deliberately attempting to mislead their readers. 

The sentence to which I object acts as though there is an "equivalence" between "the Dakotas" and "California." The sentence therefore implies that the allocation of two senators to California, while "the Dakotas" get four, is somehow unfair and "illegitimate." Of course, unless and until we amend the Constitution, the allocation of senators that the authors complain about is totally "legitimate," and it's not "unfair," either. That's the system we've set up. It would be fine to argue for a change to the system, but unless the system is changed, giving "the Dakotas" four senators is exactly the way our system is supposed to work. There is nothing "illegitimate" about the system. Quite the opposite!

While the authors' misleading statement about "the Dakotas" doesn't use the word "illegitimate," it gives the impression that the authors believe that the system established in our Constitution is "illegitimate." That is a word used liberally throughout the book, as noted in my list, above, of objectionable statements. 

In every case, the authors say that Trump's victory was "illegitimate," and if that were true, that would seem to justify extraordinary actions outside the confines of the law. I am not a Trump fan, but the authors are way out of bounds, in my opinion, in seeking to inflame public opinion on the basis that Trump is another Hitler (he and his "brownshirted cronies"), or that he is not the "legitimate president," or that we do not live in a "legitimate democracy." 

This is a very dangerous set of assertions.  

If our democracy has in fact "failed," in some fundamental way, so that our elections are no longer "legitimate," then what are we to do? In fact, the "45 Ways To Fight Trump" are all actions well within the boundaries of normal democratic activities. But the prefatory materials suggest that this isn't really enough.

Be careful for what you wish for! 

Portraying our democracy as having failed, and rating it as "illegitimate," sets us all up for a political civil war. I don't think the outcome would be so good!

I am sorry that Donald Trump won the election. I think he is unqualified and unsuited for the job, and he should be replaced. There are several different ways that could happen, but voting him out of office, the next time there is a presidential election, is the normal way we take care of such matters. To say that our system is "illegitimate" opens up the possibility that some other means for governing ourselves should be chosen. And if the last election wasn't "legitimate," then maybe we should delay the vote next time around, or ask the generals to take charge!

Let's stop any further talk about the "illegitimacy" of our current democracy, or of the president the nation elected. 

Check out the 45 ways to make sure the next election produces a different result! Our very legitimate democracy can take care of business; that's what I think. Suggesting that it can't is dangerous in the extreme.

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

#224 / Just One More Liberal Attack

John Carney runs finance and economics coverage for Breitbart, which is an "alt-right" news source on the web. Carney was formerly an editor/writer for The Wall Street Journal, and he also says he was a Wall Street lawyer (among other things)

When Carney saw the latest cover on Vogue magazine (as pictured above), he immediately identified the cover as an attack on President Trump and the president's MAGA program. Naturally, he broadcast his analysis by posting a Tweet that you can read right here. If you are unclear about that "MAGA" reference, it means "Make America Great Again." I, personally, had to look it up!

If it seems strange to you that the picture above could be considered an attack on the President, and on his alt-right supporters, please remember that Stephen Miller, one of the president's senior advisors, has recently denounced any effort to link the Statute of Liberty to a "welcoming" approach to immigrants. I just did a blog posting about Miller, and of his disdain for this interpretation of what the Statue of Liberty stands for, so I did not have any problem understanding what Carney was thinking. 

In my previous posting on Miller v. Lazarus, I said I was "on Lazarus' side." Now, I guess I'm on Jennifer Lawrence's side, too, though I'm hoping she's not right about that "end of the world" comment. Given the president's approach to negotiating with North Korea, she could have a real point.

Here is what Lawrence told Vogue, in November 2015: 

My view on the election is pretty cut-and-dried: If Donald Trump is president of the United States, it will be the end of the world. And he’s also the best thing to happen to the Democrats ever.

That's an attack! The Vogue cover? Well, maybe not so much.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

#223 / Saying "No" Up Front

An editorial in Tuesday's edition of The San Jose Mercury News was titled, "Reject plan for housing on Lincoln site." Though I agreed with the editorial, I was still pretty surprised by the recommendation. Read how that editorial teed up the land use question presented: 

It sounds so heartwarming. A wealthy landowner who got some property at a bargain during the recession wants to build some 14 affordable apartments for teachers on it in the neighborhood commercial stretch of Lincoln Avenue in Willow Glen. All she needs from the San Jose City Council is a little change in the city’s general plan. 
How could this be a bad thing?

Well, said The Mercury News, in answering its own question: "Let us count the ways."

If you'd like some background on this particular land use controversy, The Mercury ran a news story on the proposed development back in May, and another story, documenting the denial of the project, published just yesterday. I was surprised by both the Council's apparent unwillingness to make changes in its General Plan, and The Mercury's editorial support for that position. I was surprised not because I disagree, but because that kind of approach to land use decision making is actually pretty rare.

State law requires every land use project approval to be accompanied by a finding that the project is "consistent with the General Plan." Typically, project proponents file an application for their development that includes a proposed General Plan amendment, and if the City Council or the Board of Supervisors is persuaded by what are often (as The Mercury editorial says) "charming" project proponents, and attractive, though unenforceable, promises, the General Plan gets amended to permit the project, at the same time that the project is approved. Thus, the state law requirement that projects get built according to an overall land use plan is thrown out the window. 

As I say, this is so common that I was pretty surprised that The Mercury News came down on the other side. 

After twenty years as an elected official in Santa Cruz County, I came to believe that the state law requirement that land use projects follow the community's General Plan, instead of the plan following the projects, is exactly the right way to approach land use decision making. In other words, "say 'No' up front." I even wrote a book about it, when I was the Executive Director of LandWatch Monterey County, "Land Use and the General Plan." 

My suggested approach to land use law (make a good plan and follow it) is what state law requires. But the ability of local governments to amend their General Plans at any time, to facilitate preferred projects, and preferred project applicants, make mincemeat of the state law requirement. As I say, I was pretty surprised to find the state law requirement being taken seriously in San Jose.

Of course, as indicated by the graphic at the top of this blog posting, the idea of sticking to a plan, and being willing to say, "No," instead of "Maybe," is good advice in a more general sense. 

Take a life lesson from that land use policy requirement. Don't say "Maybe," if you really mean, "No."

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

#222 / Against Normalizing Nuclear War

Donald Trump, the President of the United States, has been criticized (and I think quite fairly) for "normalizing meanness." I am not sure that it qualifies as "meanness," exactly, but the president has recently suggested that a United States' nuclear attack against North Korea might be forthcoming. The president has promised that unprecedented "fire and fury" will be rained down on that country if the leader of North Korea doesn't stop issuing threats against the United States. 

That's a "turnabout is fair play" kind of reaction, I guess, because it is true that the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-un, has been making threats, and our president is not going to be outdone. Whatever may be the relative size of their hands, or the relative size of their private parts, Donald Trump can bring forth a bigger threat than Kim Jong-un, anytime, and our president isn't going to let anyone forget that, either!

It is, of course, of concern that our president might actually start a nuclear war, designedly or by mistake. That wouldn't be good.

I am now starting to worry about something else, though. The very fact that President Trump has advanced the idea that he might use nuclear weapons, and that reasonable and responsible people are beginning to discuss this as a real possibility, is "normalizing" the possibility of nuclear war - and is thus making it all the more likely. 

It was an article in the Wednesday, August 9, 2017, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle that made me aware of this danger. Yesterday's paper had this headline on the front page of its print edition: "How would S.F. react to attack by nukes?" The article outlined various strategies that might (or might not) be useful in the case of a nuclear attack. My local paper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, had a similar advisory article in today's newspaper

The best thing to do in the event of an attack, experts say, is get inside, ideally in a basement or interior stairwell that puts as much building material between you and potential radiation as possible. Staying inside for 12 to 24 hours is best, but staying sheltered for at least the first hour is the most important. 
“When you’re looking at a high population density area like the Bay Area, you can save hundreds of thousands of people from significant exposure if we just get people inside after the nuclear detonation,” said Brooke Buddemeier, a health physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who studies the effects of nuclear detonations.

"Normalizing" the use of nuclear weapons is not something new. The article from which the picture at the top of this blog posting was taken highlights the concern, in the context of "resolving" Middle East conflicts through the use of "tactical" nuclear weapons. And persons in my age group remember Herman Kahn, and his "thinking about the unthinkable." Here's how Wikipedia explains Kahn's concept:

Unlike most strategists, [Kahn] was entirely willing to posit the form a post-nuclear world might assume. Fallout, for example, would simply be another one of life's many unpleasantnesses and inconveniences, while the "much-ballyhooed" rise in birth defects would not doom mankind to extinction because a majority of survivors would remain unaffected by them. Contaminated food could be designated for consumption by the elderly, who would presumably die before the delayed onset of cancers caused by radioactivity. A degree of even modest preparation – namely, the fallout shelters, evacuation scenarios and civil defense drills now seen as emblematic of the "Cold War" – would give the population both the incentive and the encouragement to rebuild. He even recommended the government offer homeowners insurance against nuclear-bomb damage. Kahn felt that having a strong civil-defense program in place would serve as an additional deterrent, because it would hamper the other side's potential to inflict destruction and thus lessen the attraction of the nuclear option. A willingness to tolerate such possibilities, Kahn argued, might be worth sparing Europe the massive nuclear exchange more likely to occur under the pre-MAD ["mutual assured destruction] doctrine.

I didn't like Kahn's concept then, and I don't like it now. We, the people, need to make clear that this mode of thinking is unacceptable, and rather than "thinking about the unthinkable," we need to make sure that the "unthinkable" becomes "impossible." In other words, we need to push for the total abolition of all nuclear weapons, everywhere. We can start at home, with the weapons we control!

It is my view, as previously expressed in this blog, and based on my experience, that people usually do what they think is "expected." Saying things like, "staying inside for 12 to 24 hours is best, but staying sheltered for at least the first hour is the most important...." gives the impression that being in the general vicinity of a nuclear attack is something like a major inconvenience. It's Herman Kahn-like thinking.

In fact, the use of nuclear weapons will really mean the end of the world - the human world, civilization, and what we might say is "the world as we know it." 

As I said in this blog yesterday, every one of us should be making clear that we do not "expect," nor will we countenance, the use of nuclear weapons in any form, ever. 

Discussing how to mitigate the damage of nuclear war (as per the San Francisco Chronicle and the Santa Cruz Sentinel) is most emphatically not the right way to confront the nuclear threat that hangs over the entire world. 

Getting rid of the weapons? That's what we should be expecting! In fact, we'd better start insisting that this expectation be achieved. We had better get to work on it. Using any nuclear weapon, anywhere, is NOT normal. It's not acceptable. Ever! By anyone!

And that definitely includes the President of the United States of America.

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

#221 / Fire And Fury

The President of the United States has threatened to unleash "fire and fury" against North Korea. Taken literally, the President's statement is a threat to launch a nuclear attack against North Korea if Kim Jong-un, the "Supreme Leader" of North Korea, says something that our President doesn't like. Specifically, President Trump is quoted as follows:

North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States ... They will be met with the fire and the fury like the world has never seen.

In this statement threatening the use of nuclear weapons, President Trump is echoing President George W. Bush, who said that the United States would use nuclear weapons not only to deter nuclear attacks, but "to deter and respond to any attack or even threat of attack." 

I am quoting from an essay called, "A Renunciation of Nuclear Weapons, One Citizen at a Time," by Dennis Rivers. 

Rivers' essay is linked above. It is also available in Hope In A Dark Time: Reflections On Humanity's Future, edited by David Krieger, one of the founders of The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

Here is Rivers' statement of renunciation: 

A Citizen’s Renunciation of Nuclear Weapons
Mindful of the extreme dangers and costs that nuclear weapons bring both to the world and to those who rely on them, and mindful of America’s practical, moral and spiritual need to serve life rather than build instruments of death, I, ______________________________________________________________________, a citizen of the United States of America, renounce, withdraw my citizen’s consent for, and oppose any design, production, testing, planning for use, or use of nuclear weapons by the United States, against any nation, group, persons or person, at any time, and under any circumstances. 
I declare to my elected representatives and to all agencies of the United States government that if I die in an act of mass murder against the United States, I do not want further acts of mass murder committed in my name. I make this declaration in my own name and in the name of Saint Francis of Assisi and all the children of the future: 
Signed this ___ day of________, in the year ________.
(Name) __________________________________________,
A resident of (City, State, Zip Code) __________________________________________.

If you are of the same mind as Rivers, and do not consent to the use of nuclear weapons in your name, no matter what the occasion or provocation, then please feel free to copy his statement, sign it, and then send it on to all of your elected representatives. Just so they know.

Fire and fury? I herewith renounce them. Not in my name. Ever!

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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

#220 / That "Comfortable Middle"

Yonatan Zunger, who writes about politics on the Medium platform, has written, recently, about "The Axes of American Politics." Zunger says that seven ideologies determine how politics works in the United States today. The graphic above diagrams his ideas, but you really have to read his explanation fully to understand what he's getting at. Click the link to read Zunger's explanation of his "seven ideologies." I am most interested in that purplish cloud, the so-called "Comfortable Middle."

It is Zunger's contention that there is such a "Comfortable Middle" in our politics, and that this is a real group of real people. Zunger further says that this group is "defined by its shared commitment to not having politics be the center of its life." Zunger has the "Comfortable Middle" group shading into the "Uninvolved," which is a group comprised of people who are "entirely disconnected from politics."

My personal political experience substantiates the existence of many persons who are "uninvolved" in politics (and who really don't want to be involved). I find it intriguing, however, to think that there is a defined and discernible group of people, the members of which are taking active steps to make sure that politics is not, and does not become, the center of their lives. That kind of a relationship to politics is not the same thing as a lack of "involvement." At least, not as I understand Zunger's concept. He posits people who affirmatively reject a substantial involvement in politics, and who have to spend some energy to make sure that they don't become entrapped.

I had never really thought about this before. "Uninvolved" I understand. I have seen it. Many people are just not interested in politics, for whatever reason, and so they are "uninvolved." And frankly, that's fine, in my opinion, as long as any member of the "uninvolved" contingent always has a standing invitation to enter the world of politics and participate. But what about a group that has a "shared commitment to having politics not be the center of its life?" That requires real energy and effort of some kind!

I can understand the impulse that would lead people affirmatively to separate themselves from "politics," because politics appears to many to be a realm of lies and corruption. Keeping oneself out of such a corrupt and discouraging place can be seen as something that is worth some energy to accomplish. I do agree with Zunger, now that I have been presented with this analysis; he is correct that there is a group (he seems to think it's even larger than the "uninvolved"), who are taking care to be sure that they are not enticed into participating in a part of life that they think of as despicable.

But what of that modifier "comfortable?" I guess that this modifier is to suggest that those actively fleeing from any political involvement are doing that so as to be or remain "comfortable," since politics is all about conflict and controversy, and both conflict and controversy do tend to "afflict the comfortable." If that quoted phrase doesn't ring a bell that means you may be unfamiliar with Mr. Dooley, who says that newspapers should "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable." The press is part of politics, and any genuine politics really has the same mission.

I am not certain how Zunger intends the word "comfortable" to be understood, in the political schema he suggests. I want to say, though, that anyone who is seeking "comfort" by making an active decision to separate himself or herself from politics, is pursuing a flawed strategy. We do, in fact, live in a "political world," created and sustained by our own actions, and to make that world "comfortable" to us, to make it fulfill our hopes and aspirations, active involvement is the only strategy that works.

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Monday, August 7, 2017

#219 / Save The Trees???

The Sempervirens Fund just sent me a fundraising email (see above for the graphic that accompanied it). Sempervirens is a nonprofit organization that has been saving redwood trees since 1900. I am not exactly a "big donor," but I have consistently supported the Sempervirens Fund, which is why I am on the organization's email list.

This latest email from Sempervirens, though, came at a bad time, as far as I am concerned, because I recently heard about a controversy in which I think the Sempervirens Fund did exactly the wrong thing. This wasn't a good time for the Sempervirens Fund to ask me for money.

I routinely read Bratton Online, a weekly blog covering all things Santa Cruz, and the July 26 - August 1 edition had some distressing news about Sempervirens. 

Here is the Bratton Online story in its entirety:

Betsy Herbert, longtime forest activist, resigned from the Board of Directors of the Sempervirens Fund. Her environmental and community serving credentials are impressive: A PhD in environmental studies from UCSC, longtime local forest advocate, former watershed manager for San Lorenzo Valley Water District, currently President, Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council and board member, Center for Farmworker Families. Most importantly now is that she served on the Sempervirens Fund board for 15 years until she resigned last week. 
Historically, the Sempervirens Fund has used money from donors to provide permanent protection to the redwood forests of the state. Now, over Betsy’s objection, the Board has put Rich Gordon, former Member of the Assembly, on the Sempervirens Board. What makes this exceptional is that Gordon has just been named as the President and Executive Director of the California Forestry Association, which is the state's main lobbying group representing the timber industry. The CFA website tries to present itself as working for "sustainable forests." In fact, the CFA’s main mission in Sacramento is to make it easier to cut down more trees. Here’s the California Forestry Association website
After Betsy sent in her resignation letter, the Sempervirens Fund, obviously, acted quickly to update the organization's website and removed her name as a Board Member. Another local angle: Fred Keeley is a member of the Sempervirens Board, and apparently didn't see any conflict in putting the timber industry’s chief lobbyist on the Board of the Sempervirens Fund. 
The Sempervirens Fund did NOT update the website to give full information on Rich Gordon, however. Here is how the Sempervirens Fund presents him: 
RICH GORDON Government Relations Officer, Caminar; former member, California State Assembly; former member, San Mateo County Board of Supervisors; former President, California State Association of Counties; a resident of Menlo Park. 
Here's what the CFA has to say about Rich Gordon: 
California Forestry Association (Calforests) Chairman Arne Hultgren announced today that former Assemblyman Rich Gordon has been named its new President and CEO, effective July 17, 2017. “We've worked with Rich for years and are pleased to have him join our Association. We are confident his leadership and policy experience will continue to create great policy results for California and for our membership,” said Chairman Hultgren. Gordon brings more than 20 years of public service experience to Calforests, having most recently completed three terms in the State Assembly, where he served in leadership and successfully carried legislation supporting sustainable forestry. He also served as a member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, during which time he sat on the Board of Directors of the California State Association of Counties (CSAC). Gordon was president of CSAC in 2008. He has extensive nonprofit experience and was the founder of Youth and Family Assistance, an agency in San Mateo County serving at-risk youth.
As President and CEO of Calforests, Gordon will be replacing retiring President David Bischel, and will be responsible for providing leadership and strategic direction for the Association. In this capacity, Gordon will represent more than 4 million acres of private and family-owned forests; 95 percent of the States forest product manufacturers; producers of renewable biomass energy; and, forestry-related professionals. 
“Healthy forests are crucial to the sustainability of our planet. It is an honor to have been chosen to lead an industry association that plays a key role in Californias environment and economy,” said Gordon. “I look forward to working on behalf of Calforests for the benefit of allCalifornians."

I was an environmental lobbyist for the Planning and Conservation League from 1995 to 1998, and from 2005 to 2008, working in the California State Capitol. Among other things, on behalf of PCL, I opposed the enactment of bills to make timber harvesting easier, and bills that would undermine regulations that protect our state's threatened forestlands. I think I have a pretty good idea about who does what in Sacramento, where timber legislation is concerned, and the characterization in the Bratton Online column is accurate. The California Forestry Association is a major advocate for the state's timber industry. The CFA is emphatically not out to "Save Trees."

I don't know what Sempervirens was thinking, but I believe that allowing the state's major lobbyist for the timber industry to have a place on the Sempervirens Fund Board was not a good call. At the very least, the CFA will use Gordon's affiliation as part of its lobbying pitch, as it attempts to get legislation that makes timber cutting easier. If things are worse, the retention of Gordon on the Sempervirens Board indicates that Sempervirens may be wanting to "make deals" in Sacramento, helping to support timber industry legislation in return for money for forestry acquisition. 

There IS such a thing as a bona fide conflict of interest. I know one when I see one. Apparently, the Sempervirens Fund Board doesn't...or doesn't mind the conflict, on the theory that the organization is going to get some sort of benefit.

Whatever best describes the reality, the words "non-donor" best describe me, with respect to the Sempervirens Fund. 

I am not giving money to an organization that says it wants to "Save Trees," while it puts the state's foremost timber industry lobbyist on its Board of Directors. 

I am not giving money to an organization that doesn't know what a conflict of interest is.....

Or doesn't care!

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Sempervirens Fund Fundraising Email -