Sunday, March 18, 2018

#77 / Autocracy Meets The Poem

I Object

Anonymous 無名氏

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé

weapons, to kill 
(Warring States era); 
later similar in use to the perpendicular pronoun 
‘I’ in English, and ‘me’
I object to the north wind
I object to pollution-haze
I object to wet, rainy mornings
I object to the darkling despair of dusk
I object to the confusion of the seasons
I object to these topsy-turvy times
I object to curtains and security doors
As well as to intimidating walls
I object to roads that smother flowers and trees
I object to the ponds where they raise swans
That are enclosed by barbed wire
I object to ill-fitting clothes
And to shoes that are too small
As well as to their uninspired colours
I object to men who hit women
I object to parents who mistreat their children
I object to cruel departures
I object to betrayal
I object to disappointment
I object to smug laughter
And shrill cries
I object to self-indulgent weeping
I object to those vile faces
And to the mouths that sing crap songs
As well as to the promotion of those songs
I object to grass that yields to the wind
I object to myself, too:
My stupidity and craven timidity
But I don’t object to writing a poem
To record my objections
I object to the white noise of the world
I object to the pretense of equanimity
I object to the eradication of greatness
I object to self-justifying truths
I object to blatant ignorance
I object to the tomorrow that’s been promised
I just want you all to join me in shouting:

This poem is by an anonymous Chinese author, and has been translated and published by Geremie R. Barmé, who is a professor of Chinese history and the founding director of the Australian Center on China in the World at the Australian National University. Barmé is also the editor of China Heritage.

This poem, "I Object," has circulated on social media and among China analysts, and the last few lines of the poem were published in an article in the March 10, 2018, edition of The New York Times, "Murmurings of Dissent Upset China’s Script for Xi’s Power Grab."

Reporters Steven Lee Myers and Javier C. Hernández, both with extensive experience in China, identify this poem (and other poems that have been suppressed in China) as evidence of the "murmurings" that signify that the efforts of Chinese President Xi Jinping to establish what amounts to his lifetime rule over China have only a "veneer of public support." 

As I noted in one of my recent blog postings, autocracy, which gives the appearance of strength, is ultimately weaker than a political system that recognizes the ultimate truth of our human condition: we are all together in this life, and we best address every issue, from pollution to sexual harassment, when we are all engaged in the debate and discussion that will ultimately lead to action.

The "objections" in the poem are not specifically Chinese objections. "Roads that smother flowers and trees," and "crap songs," afflict us all. 

In a democracy, we are all invited to shout, "I object," but more than that. Where democratic self-government prevails, we are all invited to go beyond shouting, and to change the world in fact, and all those conditions within it to which we object.

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Saturday, March 17, 2018

#76 / Forgive And Forget?

The smiling lady at the top of this blog posting is Gina Haspel. Haspel is President Trump's nominee to lead the CIA. Leon Panetta, our homegrown CIA Director (now a former CIA Director, of course),  has come out in strong support of the nomination

Senator Dianne Feinstein, who will get to vote on this nomination, has made no final commitment, but in her initial remarks, Feinstein stated that Haspel was a "good deputy director of the CIA."

The American Civil Liberties Union was not too happy about Feinstein's initial statement, pointing to Haspel's admitted past connection to the CIA's torture program. According to an ACLU spokesperson, Haspel was the "architect" of the torture program, and acted as its "champion." In fact, says the ACLU, "this woman was literally at the black sites watching torture occur and personally approving the action."

As we probably shouldn't forget, candidate Trump strongly endorsed the use of torture, saying, "torture works ... Half these guys [say]: ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ Believe me, it works.” The Washington Post story from which I gleaned this statement went on to outline the extent of our current President's commitment to torture as a basic instrument of American policy, making a rather accurate prediction about how Mr. Trump would conduct himself if elected: 

In an election year in which many conservative voters are deathly afraid of Islamic State terrorists, Trump is setting himself apart by promising not just to fight terrorists but also to torture them and kill their loved ones — and to treat all foreign Muslims as suspects by barring them from entry to the United States.

Leon Panetta, commenting on Haspel's involvement in the United States' torture program, essentially says, "that was then; this is now." Panetta has urged people to "contextualize" the United States' past use of torture, reminding us that torture was our response to the 9-11 attacks. 

Is it just President Trump who thinks that "torture works?" That is a proposition that is strongly disputed, and the confirmation vote in the Senate will determine whether Senate Democrats agree with the president, or not.

Maybe we should just "forgive and forget." Maybe we should just "contextualize" the past use of torture, as Leon Panetta advises.

I don't think so. Neither does The New York Times, I am happy to report.

How do Americans want to appear to the world? Do we want to be feared as a country that will torture you? If so, let's appoint an admitted torturer to head the CIA, to carry out the pro-torture policies that our president espouses. If we don't want to be seen as a country that will torture people, our checks and balances system (the United States Senate in this case) needs to operate and to make that clear.

Context doesn't cut it, in my opinion, where state-sanctioned and state-directed torture is involved.

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Friday, March 16, 2018

#75 / A Striking Strategy For Social Change

Jonathan Zimmerman is a Professor of History of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Zimmerman says that "To win the gun fight, students should stay out of school."

Zimmerman thinks that a recent strike by teachers in West Virginia has some important lessons for those students who have stated their determination to get substantive changes in the nation's gun laws.

West Virginia teachers and service professionals just won an historic nine-day statewide strike. That strike ended in a deal that provides five percent pay raises for all educators and public employees and establishes a task force inclusive of educators to address a long-term solution to the state’s rising healthcare costs.

Here is the lesson that Zimmerman draws from the teachers' "striking success."

How did West Virginia teachers win a 5 percent salary increase earlier this month? 
It’s not simply that they walked out of school. They resolved to stay out of school, until the state met their demands. 
And that contains some important lessons for Wednesday’s scheduled national student walkout to protest gun violence. Students are planning to leave their schools at 10 a.m. on March 14 for 17 minutes, in honor of the 17 people murdered on Feb. 14 at a Florida high school. 
But if the students want to do something that really reduces the gun carnage in this country, they’ll need to remain out of school for a lot longer than that. And the rest of us will have to rally behind them. 

I have just wrapped up my course at UCSC, "Introduction To Legal Process," and Zimmerman's words rang a bell. In discussing "Law and Social Change," the course textbook said that there have really been only three ways that ordinary people have ever been able to prevail against the power of the wealthy, and of the corporations that have so profoundly corrupted our politics.

Number one on the list has been to support unions and organized labor. After that comes the use of governmental regulation to protect the public health, safety, and welfare. Number three in this short list is progressive taxation.

Those are the tools. That's what we have to work with.

On Wednesday, students all over the United States walked out of school for seventeen minutes. If we want to change the world, we need to be in it for the long run (so seventeen minutes is just the "tasting menu").

Let's start paying attention to the striking successes that walkouts and work refusal and comparable actions have had during American history. I think Zimmerman gets it right.

Let's get started on that longer run right now!

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

#74 / R.I.P.

As most people reading this blog posting will know, Stephen Hawking died yesterday, March 14, 2018, at age seventy-six.  

Hawking was a respected theoretical physicist and cosmologist. His commentaries on scientific subjects are not ones I can comment on in any meaningful way. I do feel competent, however, to comment on Hawking's proposal that "Humanity Should Leave The Earth."

I disagree. 

How the universe began, and how we came to be alive on Planet Earth, is not a mystery that Hawking, or any other scientist, can ever solve. When asked what came before the "Big Bang," about which Hawking wrote extensively, Hawking said "nothing." 

That conclusion, it seems to me, is a confession by Hawking that the existence of the Universe (and our own existence) is a mystery. That we have no idea how we and the Universe have come into existence supports my argument that we are "creatures," not "creators." 

The human world, the world in which we most immediately live, is definitely our creation. It is, as I like to say, a "political world."

But the Universe, the World of Nature, the world upon which we ultimately and totally depend? That is not something over which human beings have dominion. The idea that humans should flee the Earth, our home (and it would only be a very few humans, of course), suggests that it is humans who should and will create the world in which we ultimately, as opposed to "immediately," will live.

Rest In Peace, Stephen Hawking! 

And as for the rest of us, let us not consider our existence on Earth a confinement, but a joy!

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

#73 / Blowback

Moving on from optimism, let me recommend a recent "Tomgram," one of those bulletins that author Tom Englehardt calls an "antidote to the mainstream media."

Englehardt's posting on March 1, 2018, puts that "keep on the sunny side" admonition to a rigorous test. Here is a representative sample of what Englehardt has to say, his essay beginning with a reference to the book shown to the left:

"Washington created what was, in effect, a never-ending blowback machine. In those years, while the distant wars went on and on (and terrors of every imaginable sort grew in this country), the United States was transformed in a remarkable, if not yet fully graspable, fashion.

"The national security state now reigns supreme in Washington; generals (or retired generals) are perched (however precariously) atop key parts of the civilian government; a right-wing populist, who rose to power in part on the fear of immigrants, refugees, and Islamic extremists, has his giant golden letters emblazoned on the White House (and a hotel just down Pennsylvania Avenue that no diplomat or lobbyist with any sense would dare not patronize); the police have been militarized; borders have been further fortified; spy drones have been dispatched to American skies; and the surveillance of the citizenry and its communications have been made the order of the day.

"Meanwhile, the latest disturbed teen, armed with a military-style AR-15 semi-automatic, has just perpetrated another in a growing list of slaughters in American schools. In response, the president, Republican politicians, and the National Rifle Association have all plugged the arming of teachers and administrators, as well as the “hardening” of schools (including the use of surveillance systems and other militarized methods of “defense”), and so have given phrases like “citadel of learning” or “bastion of education” new meaning. In these same years, various unnamed terrors and the weaponization of the most psychically distraught parts of the citizenry under the rubric of the Second Amendment and the sponsorship of the NRA, the Republican Party, and most recently Donald Trump have transformed this country into something like an armed camp."

Distressing truth can be disempowering.

On the other hand, it might just galvanize some necessary action. Isn't that why those superhero movies do so well?

Here's the thing: the superheroes are going to have to be us!

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

#72 / Keep On The Sunny Side

"Steven Pinker Continues to See the Glass Half Full." That is the headline on a book review published in The New York Times on March 2, 2018. 
Pinker's book is getting a good deal of attention. Its title is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
In general, the The New York Times was kind to Pinker, and not so kind to Easterbrook, who is identified as an "unreliable witness." 

I am all for optimism. In fact, as I was growing up, an optimistic approach to life was more or less a paternal commandment. That said, and with all deference to Pinker and Easterbrook, we do live on Planet Earth, with limited resources, and we are pushing the limits. Elon Musk wants to send us to Mars, but Mars (I think) is not an option.
Being optimistic that we can meet and surmount the challenges that confront us (virtually all of them being of own making) doesn't mean we should ignore just how daunting those challenges really are. That's my view.
And as for being optimistic, I suggest that we can all do worse than taking our cue from Mother Maybelle and the Carter sisters:

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Monday, March 12, 2018

#71 / Carlin Nails It

In January 2017, as The Atlantic notes, the Women’s March "punctuated Trump’s inauguration with what was likely the largest single-day mass demonstration in American history." There is now a debate about whether the Women's March has been compromised by the alleged anti-antisemitism of one of its leaders, Tamika D. Mallory. Mallory, who is black, and who has been attending Nation of Islam events since she was a child, has refused to denounce Louis Farrakhan, who is the leader of the Nation of Islam. 

[Mallory] wrote that she had been attending Nation of Islam events since she was a child, and would continue to do so. She bristled at the suggestion that she was not fully committed to fighting anti-Semitism and homophobia. She certainly did not apologize. “The Women’s March, throughout this whole controversy, just hasn’t come across as taking anti-Semitism very seriously,” Jesse Singal wrote at New York. “Mallory’s unwillingness to see Farrakhan for what he is will surely cost the entire Women’s March organization its credibility among many Jewish people, LGBTQ people, and those who see themselves as allies to those communities,” Christina Cauterucci predicted at Slate. It seemed reasonable to take the position that as long as any of the leaders of the Women’s March was associated with a vicious bigot like Farrakhan, the entire organization was delegitimized. This is also an oddly satisfying position.

I found out about this debate by way of the weekly blog published by The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. The blog is titled "Amor Mundi," and usually spotlights articles that mention Arendt, as Gessen's does. 

The Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, Roger Berkowitz, disagrees with what Gessen says about the debate, making the point that Arendt expects politics to be full of debate and discussion, conflict and controversy, and that efforts to eliminate such controversies, however well-motivated, represents an attack on politics itself: 

Many on the left see Mallory's support as de-legitimating the Women's March. Masha Gessen turns to Hannah Arendt to try to understand the way "oddly satisfying position" of those who would condemn The Women's March for its association with someone who associates with anti-semites. The danger of such satisfaction is, as Gessen argues, the loss of politics. And yet, even as Gessen fears the loss of politics, she embraces the feeling of helplessness of the age and argues that we live in a time when no politics is possible
Such fatalism, however, abandons the argument for human freedom as well as the faith in politics and revolution that are at the center of Arendt's thinking. That is the reason why Gessen, who spoke at the last Arendt Center Conference, felt justified in criticizing the decision to include a member of the German nationalist Alternativ für Deutschland; and it is why she suggests that President Trump and his supporters are apolitical and not worth arguing against. While it is important to make judgments and to argue against those who target refugees and make war on facts, to assert that law abiding adversaries are beyond the boundaries of political discourse is to give in the dangers of self-satisfied certainty that Arendt understood to be one of the greatest political dangers.
I agree with Berkowitz. In addition, I came across a Facebook posting on the day before I heard about this debate, and the video I have linked below speaks directly to the debate about whether the Women's March is anti-Semitic, at least to my mind.

The video is short, and lots of fun. It's called, "Why the rich keep us separated."

See what you think. I think George Carlin "nailed it." 

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Sunday, March 11, 2018

#70 / Propositional Versus Oppositional

In 2016, Annafi Wahed was on the campaign staff of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. She is on the right, in the picture above, which comes from Wahed's Twitter feed.

Most recently, Wahed attended a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, sponsored by the American Conservative Union, which bills itself as "the nation's original conservative organization." Wahed wrote about this visit in an opinion piece in the March 2, 2018, edition of The Wall Street Journal, "A Hillary Staffer Goes To CPAC." That link might not work for non-Wall Street Journal subscribers, so here's the flavor of what Wahed had to say: 

Among liberals, conservatives have a reputation for being closed-minded, even deplorable [comment: that is definitely a Hillary Clinton word]. But in the Washington Republicans I encountered at CPAC, I found a group of people who acknowledged their party’s shortcomings, genuinely wondered why I left my corporate job to join Mrs. Clinton’s campaign in 2016, and listened to my arguments before defending their own positions.
Although CPAC attendees were as passionate about policy as my liberal friends, they took a more lighthearted approach. At one after-party, they alternated between taking selfies with Milo Yiannopoulos and engaging in a thoughtful, substantive discussion with a Democrat. One notable exchange: I exclaimed, “Of course the Department of Education is necessary!” which drew the rejoinder, “Great! Let’s make 50 of them!”
As I look back on all the people who greeted me warmly, made sure I didn’t get lost in the crowd, and went out of their way to introduce me to their friends, I can’t help but wonder how a Trump supporter would have fared at a Democratic rally. Would someone wearing a MAGA hat be greeted with smiles or suspicion, be listened to or shouted down?
At Hillary rallies, we always filled the stands with our biggest supporters. At CPAC, most of the few liberals in attendance had media credentials, as I did. I’m new to this, but shouldn’t we want to engage with people who aren’t convinced of our viewpoints? Why aren’t there more conservatives at Democratic rallies and more liberals at CPAC? What are we afraid of?

Hopefully, those on the "liberal" or "progressive" side of the political spectrum are not "afraid" of debating and discussing issues with those who have "conservative" views, although I do think it is likely that a person with a MAGA hat, worn without satire, would not have gotten a particularly friendly reception at the recent convention of the California Democratic Party. In all fairness, however, Wahed did not, as far as I can tell, go to this CPAC gathering sporting any gear that would have identified her as a "liberal" or as a "progressive." I doubt she had her "Forward Together" button on her blouse. Wahed was there with press credentials, and her enthusiastic and welcoming reception did not come in the face of dress and demeanor that made her political preferences immediately clear.

So, to the degree that Wahed's article is meant to suggest that "conservatives" are more open-minded than "liberals," please let me express my substantial skepticism. While I'm happy that Wahed had such a nice visit with the activists of the far-right, I tend to doubt that "conservatives" beat "liberals" on open-mindedness. I REALLY doubt that, as a matter of fact. 

Here's a thought, though, that Wahed's article provoked. If the Democratic Party wants to prevail in the upcoming midterm elections, or in any elections, I think that the Democrats will have to advance a "propositional" program and platform, and not one that is essentially "oppositional" in nature. 

In other words, Democrats need to be "for" something, not just against our current President, "deplorable" as our current president may be. Others agree with me. Sonali Kolhatkar, for instance, suggests the same thing in her recent article in Truthdig:

There are several signs that strong progressive candidates with grass-roots backing are refusing to take a chance that revulsion toward Trump will be enough to propel Democrats to congressional power and have challenged Democratic incumbents from the left.

So far, despite those "several signs" spotted by Kolhatkar, I'm not seeing much of that "propositional" approach. The ordinary voters of the world aren't going to write off the "conservatives" just because the "liberals" say they're "bad."

"Conservatives" are people, too, and if we want to have a chance, our "liberal" program and platform had better be based on something positive, that appeals generally to the voters at large. 

Propositional, not oppositional, is the way to win!

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Saturday, March 10, 2018

#69 / Kerner

The picture is of former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. Kerner's political and public service career (which included service on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit) was marred, at the end, by his conviction on seventeen counts of mail fraud, conspiracy, perjury, and other charges. The charges were related to Kerner's tenure as Governor, and some thought them unfair. Nonetheless, the convictions were never overturned, perhaps partly because Kerner died, after having resigned his judicial position and having served time in federal prison.

Recently, former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris and Alan Curtis, the president and chief executive of the Eisenhower Foundation, wrote a powerful Opinion Editorial about Kerner's main claim to fame, the report issued on February 29, 1968 by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, which was better known as the "Kerner Commission." 

The Commission was established by President Lyndon B. Johnson in Executive Order 11365, to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots in the United States and to provide recommendations for the future. The Kerner Commission's report, which I remember reading in a paperback edition, just like the one shown in the picture, above, concluded that:

 “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

The Harris-Curtis Op-Ed, published on February 28, 2018, exactly fifty years after release of the Kerner Commission report, is titled, "The Unmet Promise of Equality." It is disturbing reading. Harris and Curtis conclude that: 

  • After some progress, we are backsliding, and returning to segregation.
  • The percentage of Americans living in extreme poverty — that is, living on less than half the poverty threshold — has increased since the 1970s.
  • Mass incarceration has wildly escalated: "At the time of the Kerner Commission, there were about 200,000 people behind bars. Today, there are about 1.4 million."

Harris and Curtis argue that we know what to do. The chart below, which can be seen full size by clicking this link, outlines what is needed. 

Knowing what to do is one thing. But the Kerner Commission told us what to do over fifty years ago. To eliminate the outrage of segregation, mass incarceration, and the scourge of extreme income inequality, we actually  have to do it!

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Friday, March 9, 2018

#68 / Hanging On To That Common Good

The Koch bothers, Charles and David (pictured), are each worth more than $40 billion, and to say that they are "active politically" would be a massive understatement. According to Rolling Stone, Koch-affiliated organizations raised some $400 million during the 2012 election, and they haven't slowed down since. All these contributions are having a significant impact on public policy, too, as a recent article from The Intercept makes clear.

Koch Industries is a private company, and thus the Koch Brothers don't have to make any public accounting of how they earn that money. According to the article I am referencing, dated in September 2014, "the Koch brothers are in the oil business...but Koch Industries is not a major oil producer. Instead, the company has woven itself into every nook of the vast industrial web that transforms raw fossil fuels into usable goods. Koch-owned businesses trade, transport, refine and process fossil fuels, moving them across the world and up the value chain until they become things we forgot began with hydrocarbons: fertilizers, Lycra, the innards of our smartphones."

I was struck by a headline on a more recent article, published by Jim Hightower's Lowdown. Here's what the headline said:

The Koch Klan is funding a stealthy war against the principle of the Common Good

In fact, that somewhat antiquated-sounding phrase, "the Common Good," expresses the central and enduring question in our national politics. Are we nothing more than a collection of individuals (which is pretty much the premise upon which the Koch Brothers seem to operate). Or, to the contrary, are we "in this together?"

If it's the latter, as our greatest leaders have always proclaimed, then a war against the "Common Good" is a war against what is best in both our history and our potential future. Whether we talk about health care, education, or land use - whatever issue we address - if our society elevates individual prerogative over collective community benefit, then we are heading for disaster. And that's where the Kochs and their politics would apparently like to send us. 

Ben Franklin got it right, right from the start: 

We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

Robert Reich, like Jim Hightower, has also raised concerns that selfishness is prevailing, and that Americans may be losing their commitment to the Common Good. Unfortunately, dedication to the Common Good is all too uncommon. What you have to do, if you care about the Common Good, is to pay attention to your neighbor, and to what your neighbor needs. To do that, you need to take your eye off your own money, every little once in a while. 

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Thursday, March 8, 2018

#67 / Is There A Vaccine For Propaganda?

Monika Bauerlein, writing in Mother Jones (she is the CEO), has posed the question: "Is there a vaccine for propaganda?"According to Bauerlein, there is. It is called "the truth." 

Bauerlein's one-page opinion piece ("To Our Readers") makes a good argument, and Bauerlein does confront what she knows will be instant skepticism. Since when, we might all ask, does "the truth" carry the day? Bauerlein's response is based on social science research:

It turns out the firehose of falsehood may not be invincible; confronted with facts, it ultimately turns into a trickle. In 2016, long before the election that showed us all how powerful disinformation can be, the RAND Corporation published a study of propaganda techniques that noted that truth can actually serve as an inoculant. Giving people facts and context makes them less vulnerable to BS.

You might be thinking: Since when? Haven’t we learned that facts don’t matter, that people actually believe a lie more strongly when you confront them with the truth? Turns out that like every other assumption, this one deserves to be challenged—and it doesn’t hold up. Slate’s Daniel Engber has a great deep dive on new research that has begun to debunk what’s known as the “backfire effect.” In fact, people (even those fairly hardened in their beliefs) will often correct their misperceptions when they are confronted with the truth.

That is welcome news. As Bauerlein notes, "We all have access to more information than ever before, and as a result it has become harder than ever to be informed." 

She also says, in concluding her pitch, that "Truth ... can act as a kind of vaccine - but immunity works best when it gets to as many people as possible."

Every one of us can help with that!

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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

#66 Stranger And Stranger

On February 21, 2018, Vice Media ran a long article by Jorge Ramos, excerpted from his recent book, the cover of which is shown above. 

Ramos' article was titled, "My Confrontation with Trump Made Me Feel Like a Stranger in My Own Country." The article focused, more than anything else, on the hatred that Ramos experienced at one of candidate Trump's press conferences, held in Dubuque, Iowa, on August 26, 2015.

Ramos' article is a measured and thoughtful reflection on how hatred is proliferating within our politics. It is well worth reading. 

Opposed to a politics of hatred comes Valarie Kaur with her call for "Revolutionary Love." The video you can see by clicking the link just provided, or the video that is linked below, recommend an alternative to our president's invitation to make hatred central, and thus to turn the whole world into strangers, for that is what we do as we begin to believe that everyone who is different, or who thinks differently from us, is not only a stranger, but an enemy.

Meeting hatred with an equal (or even greater) hatred, with a resistance built on hate, will plunge us into a political world of darkness and despair. Things will be stranger and stranger as the whole world comes to hate. 

It is wise to consider what hatred brings. Valarie Kaur has the better proposition:

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Tuesday, March 6, 2018

#65 / The Line Becomes A River

The title on this blog posting is the title of a book, The Line Becomes A River, by Francisco Cantú. Cantú, who is pictured above, is a third-generation Mexican American who lives in Tucson, Arizona. He worked as a US border patrol agent between 2008 and 2012, and his book documents that experience. 

According to an article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Saturday, February 24, 2018 (accompanied by a column by Caille Millner), protesters shouted Cantú down at a February 19, 2018, book reading at Green Apple Books, in San Francisco. Their disruptive interference with his presentation in San Francisco convinced Cantú to cancel an event scheduled for the next day, at East Bay Booksellers in Oakland. The protestors were objecting to the Border Patrol, and to what it does and how it does it, and their demonstration against Cantú was apparently based on the charge that Cantú has been "profiting from others' suffering." The protest was not based on what Cantú says in the book, which does not appear to be a defense of the Border Patrol. According to the article in the Chronicle, some of the protesters said, "they hadn’t read the book, nor did they intend to read it."

I am increasingly nervous about the use of protests and civil disturbances to shut down public discussion about contentious issues. I am all the more disturbed when those shutting down such discussions are persons with whom I am in sympathy, on the merits of the issues. I hate racism, but am not comfortable with preventing persons who advance racist ideas to speak. I am in favor of strong controls over guns, but think gun advocates should be able to make their pitch. I am disgusted by current attacks on immigrants, spearheaded by our President, and I, like the Green Apple protesters, greatly dislike much of what I know about the Border Patrol. A book like Cantú's, though, could help change things, not hinder change - at least so I tend to think.

The Wall Street Journal reviewed The Line Becomes A River in its February 24-25, 2018, edition. That review quoted Cantú's final passage in the book, beautiful in what it describes, and evocative, I think, of the kind of human world we need to create, a world in which differences are both recognized and disappear:

In a final passage, [Cantú] lowers himself into the gentle current of the Rio Grande in Boquillas Canyon, at the tranquil and majestic Big Bend National Park, and swims alone back and forth between the two countries. “I stood to walk along the adjacent shorelines, crossing the river time and again as each bank came to an end, until finally, for one brief moment, I forgot in which country I stood. All around me the landscape trembled and breathed as one.”
 The line must become the river, once again.

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Monday, March 5, 2018

#64 / He's The Mosquito, Not the Virus

Tom Engelhardt is an American writer and editor. He writes a blog called TomDispatch, which is associated with The Nation Institute. Englehardt is also one of the co-founders of the American Empire Project and is the author of the 1998 book, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation.

I regularly get notices about Englehardt's latest blog postings, which he calls "Tomgrams." For some reason, the latest notice I got was about a posting from 2016, in which Englehardt commented on then-candidate Donald J. Trump. I thought his headline was pretty good:

Donald Trump Is the Mosquito, Not the Zika Virus

As Englehardt's 2016 posting reminds us, there was, during all the months leading up to the 2016 election, "much discussion of Donald Trump’s potential for 'authoritarianism' (or incipient 'fascism,' or worse)." Englehardt further observes that this authoritarian threat was "generally treated as if it were some tendency or property unique to the man who rode a Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race to Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

Since Mr. Trump's election, I would say that concern about his authoritarian tendencies has not abated, but in fact increased.

Englehardt's point, though, is that Trump is merely spreading a disease that has existed in our body politic for some time. He's not the actual problem. He's just spreading the problem around.

Mosquitoes are usually more of an annoyance than a danger to life itself. But if the mosquitoes are carrying around a deadly virus, that's a different story. I agree with Tom Englehardt that the virus that is being spread around by our current president is definitely dangerous, and is democracy-threatening, and that it has been infecting our national life for a long time:

Few bother to consider the ways in which the foundations of authoritarianism have already been laid in this society -- and not by disaffected working class white men either. Few bother to consider what it means to have a national security state and a massive military machine deeply embedded in our ruling city and our American world. Few think about the (count 'em!) 17 significant intelligence agencies that eat close to $70 billion annually or the trillion dollars or more a year that disappears into our national security world, or what it means for that state within a state, that shadow government, to become ever more powerful and autonomous in the name of American “safety,” especially from “terrorism” (though terrorism represents the most microscopic of dangers for most Americans).

In this long election season, amid all the charges leveled at Donald Trump, where have you seen serious discussion of what it means for the Pentagon’s spy drones to be flying missions over the “homeland” or for “intelligence” agencies to be wielding the kind of blanket surveillance of everyone’s communications -- from foreign leaders to peasants in Afghanistan to American citizens -- that, technologically speaking, put the totalitarian regimes of the previous century to shame? Is there nothing of the authoritarian lurking in all this? Could that urge really be the property of The Donald and his followers alone?

An engaging article in the February 26, 2018, edition of The New Yorker, which I read the same day I saw the 2016 "Tomgram," discusses the work of German philosopher and cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk, who comes at an analysis of President Trump from a completely different angle, but arrives at pretty much the same conclusion as Englehardt: 

"Trump is a degenerate sheriff.... What makes Trump dangerous is that he exposes parts of liberal democracies that were only shadowily visible up until now. In democracies, there is always an oligarchic element, but Trump makes it extremely, comically visible." For Sloterdijk, Trump’s true significance lies in the way that he instinctively subverts the norms of modern governance. “He’s an innovator when it comes to fear,” Sloterdijk told me. “Instead of waiting for the crisis to impose his decree, his decrees get him the emergencies he needs. The playground for madness is vast.”

I carry no brief for the extremely annoying mosquito who now serves as our president. By all means, let's swat him away at the earliest opportunity. Let's not be deceived, however, that our problem is Donald Trump. If we are worried about authoritarianism, as we ought to be, if we are concerned that the future of our democracy is in peril, we need to drive the disease of imperialistic militarism right out of our body politic.

Getting rid of the mosquito won't get rid of the virus, and getting rid of the virus is the only way to effect a cure.

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Sunday, March 4, 2018

#63 / Strongman

Pictured is Xi Jinping, the President of the People's Republic of China. Perhaps more importantly, Xi is also the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. That may be the more consequential position, given the subservience of the government to the party. Basically, though, Xi is the head of all major institutions of power in China, which include the party, the state, and the military. This has been recognized by his designation as China's "core leader."

Recently, at Xi's request, the party has changed the rules about term limits for the presidency. Since Xi is just entering his second five-year term as President, this potentially gives him life tenure as the nation's leader, and certainly attenuates the idea that Xi will have to accommodate any views other than his own, going forward.

The New York Times' "Interpreter Newsletter," written by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, discussed whether it was proper to call Xi a "strongman," a title that some commentators are now using to describe Xi. The picture above is from "The Interpreter," and the caption under the picture says, I assume with tongue in cheek, "Xi Jinping will need some flashier clothes before he can call himself a real strongman." The idea that "clothes make the man" goes back a long way, and I commend Sartor Resartus to you, if you haven't read that classic work by Thomas Carlyle

I don't think, though, that Xi's clothes should be the focus of our reflections about the recent changes that Xi has accomplished in the government of China. I don't think debating whether the term "strongman" fits is of much importance, either.

As a practical matter, what counts is that the government of China has now been transformed from a model of what The New York Times' editorial board has called "an autocratic collective" to a government based on "one-man rule." 

I teach a course called "Introduction to Legal Process" at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the last chapter in the textbook I use, Law, Justice, and Society: A Sociolegal Introduction, points out that legal systems can be categorized into four major "traditions." The tradition called "socialist law," of which modern China is cited as an example in the book, largely discards what that tradition thinks of as the "archaic" concepts of individual rights and procedural limitations on state power [Page 400]. 

The "Common Law" tradition, on which our legal system is based, elevates dissent and difference, and is essentially "adversarial." The idea is that better, and more acceptable decisions will be forthcoming when there must be an official "debate" about what policies to pursue. The danger of "one-person" governments is that the "one person" in charge may not always make the right decision, and without any requirement that his or her decision about what action to take be tested against other ideas, even the smartest, best (and best-dressed) decision maker may make an error.

I think the editors of The Times are right, and that China has just set itself up for a potentially dangerous governmental failure:

The system Mr. Xi has created ... makes it less likely he will receive sound policy advice or be challenged on decisions in ways that could avoid mistakes. That’s because he solidified his power base during the first term by waging an aggressive campaign against corruption and dissent, silencing political rivals and stacking the ruling Politburo with loyalists reluctant to speak up ....

One has to wonder what such control will do to innovation, a driver of progress in successful economies. Or whether knowing he has a job for life, Mr. Xi — who has presented himself as a benign father figure overseeing China’s peaceful rise — may be tempted by other risks, including in foreign policy.

We have someone as our president who tends to like the "strongman" model, and just yesterday he suggested that he'd like a shot at being president for life! Let's hope that our Congress and the Courts will stick with our tradition of an adversarial politics.

Decisions based on a process that encourages conflict and controversy can avoid mistakes in the first place, and will best let a government reverse mistakes when made. As everyone knows, the human tendency to "double down" on a mistake (so as not to have admit you made one) is an all too common human tendency! Our system of law and government, based on the "adversarial" principle (and unlike the one now established in China), is designed to minimize that danger.

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Saturday, March 3, 2018

#62 / Not Even?

I got an email on Presidents' Day from People For The American Way. The picture above was right at the top. 

In the text of the email was this statement, which caught my attention:

NO ONE is above the law -- not even the president.

I definitely agree that no one is above the law, including the president, but I think I'd put it a little bit differently:

 NO ONE is above the law -- ESPECIALLY NOT the president.

Our Constitution grants immense power to the President. Particularly with respect to issues of war and peace, and national security, the Courts give great deference to the President, and the Congress does, too.

Granting such power to the President is a "feature," not a "bug," of our political system. Having a powerful Chief Executive makes it possible for the nation to act swiftly and decisively, when action is needed. But because that is true, and the President has such power, it is ESPECIALLY important that the other centers of power in our government, Congress and the Courts, make certain that the President is not allowed to act as if he were above the law. 

Beneath the law (not above it). That's where the President especially belongs!

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Friday, March 2, 2018

#61 / The Spanish-American War Had Its Day

Dylan sings about the upshot, but where did it all begin? When did the United States commit itself to the project of "empire" so unequivocally? When did the American people decide that we have God On Our Side?

A book review in the February 26, 2018, edition of The Nation suggests that a lot went wrong when the United States began its war against Spain, in 1898. 

The review, by Brenda Wineapple, sails under the title, "The Large Policy." The book reviewed, authored by Stephen Kinzer, is called, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire.

Indented below is what I would identify as the "Pull Quote" from the review, the entirety of which I recommend you read. Here is Wineapple on Kinzer on President McKinley (and with emphasis added):

The Treaty of Paris passed, albeit just barely, and in a speech delivered in enemy territory (Boston), McKinley offered a few bromides about US foreign policy being humanitarian in nature and good for the “misguided Filipino”: “Did we need their consent to perform a great act for humanity?” he asked. In disgust, William James denounced McKinley’s policies as nothing more than “bald brutal piracy, impossible to dish up any longer in the cold potgrease of President McKinley’s cant.” 
But with this speech, Kinzer points out, McKinley aired the principles that would guide US foreign policy henceforward, declaring that “the United States never goes abroad in search of selfish advantage; it seeks only to help less fortunate peoples, even if they cannot understand that they are being helped; and it always acts in accordance with noble ideals.” It was empire cloaked in the language of liberty. As one English journalist, writing at the turn of the century, noted, “That is what the unctuous rectitude of the Anglo-Saxon always ends in. He always begins by calling Heaven to witness his unselfish desire to help his neighbor, but he always ends by stealing his spoons!”

The Dylan performance of With God On Our Side that is linked above, and made available below, is the best rendition of this song I have ever heard. Today, the "next war" isn't even a relevant expression, because the United States has chosen to wage constant war, anywhere we think that there are spoons to steal. 

And let's be clear: God is NOT on our side!

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Thursday, March 1, 2018

#60 / Consumption

The image above, cadged from an article in the Sunday, February 10-11, 2018, edition of The Wall Street Journal, made me think. The article was titled, "A Decade of Hype and Tragedy." It focused on art in the 1980s, when "artists like Jeff Koons and Barbara Kruger [not to mention Andy Warhol] seized upon household appliances and commercial slogans as well as glamorous snippets from music and fashion" as a way to make "scathing and sly commentaries on the decade."

If we take language seriously, as the named artists took seriously the implications of our ever more commercial culture, we must acknowledge that we have largely been transmogrified from "citizens" into "consumers." 

The image at the top of this posting, from Barbara Kruger, pretty much lays out the argument. More and more, we define the meaning and purpose of our existence by the things we buy and possess.

The article in The Wall Street Journal made me think, and here is what I thought: 

It's a disease in more ways than one. That's what I thought!

*Tuberculosis was popularly known as consumption for a long time. Tuberculosis (TB) is a potentially fatal contagious disease that can affect almost any part of the body but is mainly an infection of the lungs. It is caused by a bacterial microorganism, the tubercle bacillus or Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Although TB can be treated, cured, and can be prevented if persons at risk take certain drugs, scientists have never come close to wiping it out. Few diseases have caused so much distressing illness for centuries and claimed so many lives.

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