Monday, September 24, 2018

#267 / Too Democratic?



In case you can't quite identify what is going on in the image above, I think it is intended to represent the end of democracy in the United States of America, with the famous statue of Abraham Lincoln covered with creeping vines, and with Lincoln's noble head having been severed from his body.

I am providing a link to the article from which the image is taken. The article is titled, "Democracies end when they are too democratic." The article, by Andrew Sullivan, appeared in the May 1, 2016, edition of New York Magazine.

Writing during the 2016 presidential campaign, Sullivan is reporting on what Plato might said about the state of our politics: 

As this dystopian election campaign has unfolded, my mind keeps being tugged by a passage in Plato’s Republic. It has unsettled — even surprised — me from the moment I first read it in graduate school. The passage is from the part of the dialogue where Socrates and his friends are talking about the nature of different political systems, how they change over time, and how one can slowly evolve into another. And Socrates seemed pretty clear on one sobering point: that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” 
What did Plato mean by that? Democracy, for him, I discovered, was a political system of maximal freedom and equality, where every lifestyle is allowed and public offices are filled by a lottery. And the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become. Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread. Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like “a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues.”
This rainbow-flag polity, Plato argues, is, for many people, the fairest of regimes. The freedom in that democracy has to be experienced to be believed — with shame and privilege in particular emerging over time as anathema. But it is inherently unstable. As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.
The very rich come under attack, as inequality becomes increasingly intolerable. Patriarchy is also dismantled: “We almost forgot to mention the extent of the law of equality and of freedom in the relations of women with men and men with women.” Family hierarchies are inverted: “A father habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents.” In classrooms, “as the teacher ... is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers.” Animals are regarded as equal to humans; the rich mingle freely with the poor in the streets and try to blend in. The foreigner is equal to the citizen. 
And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment.

Sullivan clearly thinks that our current president (who was then a candidate) is exactly the kind of tyrant that Plato would have predicted. Sullivan was predicting him in May 2016, which is pretty impressive, in terms of political analysis:

For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.

The article is lengthy. It is worth reading.

Then, I'd suggest, it might be good to go back to that much shorter political pronouncement, back to Abraham Lincoln, and to remember that it will be up to us, and no one else, to insure that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth."



Image Credit:
http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/04/america-tyranny-donald-trump.html

Sunday, September 23, 2018

#266 / Happy Campers



Kathleen Sharp found that political, religious, racial, and social differences seemed to disappear at Mt. Ranier National Park, pictured above. Her Op-Ed column in The New York Times was titled, "All Together in the Great Outdoors."

Sharp's column is an "upper," while the news, in general, is more or less a "downer." It was a pleasure to read about her experiences. Here is Sharp's explanation for the good feelings that she and her family experienced among people who (contrary to her own preferences and positions) boasted MAGA bumper stickers and pro-gun insignia: 

Much of our “polarization” seems to be cooked up in a vat of social media, cable TV and talk radio to the benefit of those who gain from our divisions. Put average citizens in the woods, miles from home and away from their phones and other devices, and chances are they’ll lend you their stove, strike up a conversation and perhaps share beer.

More than anything, it seems that Americans want to be happy campers, if only for awhile.

I don't, actually, think you need to go to a National Park to learn that "GOOD PEOPLE DO EXIST." Good people can be found all over the place. 

Right now, in fact. Right in your own hometown.

I think we're the majority!



Image Credit:
https://www.awfullive.site/mt-rainier-camping-rv/

Saturday, September 22, 2018

#265 / Trolling



Jonah Goldberg, pictured, is a politically conservative newspaper columnist and a senior editor at the National Review. So, consider the source. 

Setting aside what might be a political prejudice (I am coming from the other side of the political spectrum from Goldberg and the National Review), I thought that Goldberg's September 18, 2018, column made an important point. I read his column in the Sunday, September 16, 2018, edition of The San Francisco Chronicle, but I am linking to it from the National Review website, which doesn't impose, as the Chronicle does, an ungenerous paywall:

One of the dominant features of our time is that more and more people define themselves by what they hate. For many partisans, what motivates them the most isn’t support for their side’s policies but their hatred of the other party. Most Republicans didn’t vote for Donald Trump; they voted against Hillary Clinton. Most Democrats didn’t vote for Clinton; they voted against Trump.

To the degree that this is an accurate assessment of our contemporary politics (and there is surely some truth to it), I think we are making a mistake. 

This is just another way to make the point that Frank Bruni made in the column I referenced yesterday. Let's try not to make political choices on the basis of "what we hate." Let's pick our representatives on the principle that we need to elect the persons who will represent us best!



Image Credit:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonah_Goldberg

Friday, September 21, 2018

#264 / Ideology Ain't It



Politics by ideology is one way to do it. Frank Bruni, in a column in the Sunday, September 6, 2018, New York Times, suggests that there is also another way:

This year’s victorious candidates, like so many winners before them, aren’t prevailing simply or even mainly because of the labels they’re wearing or the precise points on the political spectrum to which they can be affixed. 
They’re powered by their personalities, their organizations or both. They communicate effectively. They have backgrounds that make sense to voters or temperaments that feel right to them. And they’ve devised ways to reach voters that their rivals haven’t. 
The lesson of 2018 isn’t novel. But it’s overlooked because it doesn’t come wrapped in fancy analytics, it can’t be integrated into sweeping pronouncements about the arc of America, and it transcends our beloved binaries of progressive versus moderate and blue versus red. 
Candidates matter. Campaigns count. Voters use more than bullet points, spreadsheets and the marching orders of the Democratic Socialists of America or the New Democrat Coalition to make decisions. We use our hearts. We use our guts. (Sometimes we even use our minds, though not nearly often enough.)

"Candidates matter." I think that is the crux of Bruni's message. I think he is on to something there! We live in a representative democracy, which means that election contests are about who the voters want to represent them.

I am recommending Bruni's column, in its entirety. From our local elections to our natinonal elections, let's take Bruni's observations to heart!


Image Credit:
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/15/opinion/sunday/democrats-candidates-victory.html

Thursday, September 20, 2018

#263 / Fun With Van Life



Tracey Kaplan, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, is getting ready to transition herself into "Van Life," moving from a typical living situation into what she reckons will be a more affordable residential option: an eighty-square-foot van, pictured above. 

Kaplan's story is engaging, and the reader can only hope that this idea will actually work out well for her. As I read her September 19, 2018, piece in the Mercury, though, I couldn't help but laugh at what I feel certain was not an intended injection of humor into her article. Recollecting how things have changed since she was a girl, Kaplan says this (emphasis added): 

Women of my generation — I’m 61 — were supposed to grow up to be wives, mothers, nurses, teachers or stewardesses, not brave independent, adventurous women with a van that gives them the freedom to live anywhere they want. 
In the northern New Jersey town where I grew up, girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school until I was 12.

Those who love newspapers - I'm 74 - wish that newspapers today would (or could) figure out a way to pay their reporters more, and pay for more reporters. Things are getting stretched pretty thin, and it's not really a good sign that experienced reporters are having to move into eighty-square-foot vans just to survive.

Putting a copy editor on staff (!!) would also be a worthwhile expenditure. The humor found in the above excerpt was, I feel pretty certain, not actually intended by Kaplan. Without a copy editor to provide the necessary revision, though, all her readers are picturing what a massive celebration the young people of her New Jersey town must have had when Kaplan finally turned twelve. According to her report, that is when every girl in town could finally wear pants to school!


Image Credit:
https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/09/17/van-life-the-big-reveal-on-my-80-square-foot-solution-to-the-bay-area-housing-crisis/

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

#262 / Why Is This Person Smiling?



According to John D. Stoll, writing in The Wall Street Journal, baristas and other line workers at Starbucks get stock distributions, as part of a corporate "Bean Stock" program. Nearly all Starbucks employees are included in the program, and Apple has implemented something similar for its employees. Just to emphasize, these programs provide corporate stock to ordinary employees, not just to top executives!

I think that this is a very good idea and that corporate workers should, by virtue of their work for a corporation, receive a meaningful share in corporate ownership. This is not an idea that necessarily has to depend on enlightened corporate leadership, either. Well, not if we have some enlightened governmental leadership!

For those who think that the incredible wealth inequality and income inequality that prevails in this nation is putting our future as a democracy at risk (I'm raising my hand), there needs to be some effective way to reduce or eliminate those wealth and income disparities. One way would be to mandate that anyone who works for a corporation must be given a significant share in the corporate enterprise by requiring all large, public corporations to make significant stock distributions to their workers (besides meeting minimum wage and other requirements, of course).

Our tax system could be pretty easily reconfigured to impose very dramatic taxes on large corporations, with tax deductions being given if the money that would otherwise go to pay corporate taxes were distributed, instead, direct to workers, by way of a distribution of corporate stock. That would eliminate the federal bureaucracies that would otherwise be needed to collect and then redistribute the tax monies collected from the corporations. 

Just an idea! Ponder it as you wait in line to order your next latte, or as the latest program update to one of your Apple devices downloads.

Image Credit:
https://www.theodysseyonline.com/never-underestimate-the-power-of-your-starbucks-barista

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

#261 / Rule #2: A Reconsideration



After serving in local government for twenty years, I retired. As I looked back at my time in elected office, I found there were Five Simple Things that an elected official needed to do, if that elected official wanted to do a good job. I usually call them my "Five Simple Rules." Here is Rule #2:

Rule #2: “Remember You're In Charge.” There is a bureaucratic momentum present in every institution (certainly including government). An elected official needs to remember that he or she was elected to run the bureaucracy not the other way around.

Unfortunately, I have to say that members of the Santa Cruz City Council don't quite seem to understand this basic concept. Voters elect local officials to listen to them (the voters and residents), and then to try to operate their local government in ways that best respond to what the local voters want. City officials and consultants, of course, can provide invaluable assistance, and often have worthwhile suggestions, but who should be steering the ship? 

Not the bureaucrats!

Recently, I watched the Santa Cruz City Council decide (with two dissents) to abandon its downtown library (pictured above). In 2016, voters passed a library bond issue to "support the modernizing, upgrading and repairing of the Aptos, Boulder Creek, Branciforte, Capitola, downtown Santa Cruz, Felton, Garfield Park, La Selva Beach, Live Oak and Scotts Valley library branches, as needed." This description of the objectives of the bond issue comes from a pre-election article in the local newspaper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel. No mention of a new library was ever suggested, as the voters authorized money for needed "upgrading, repairing, and modernizing."

After voter approval, with something like $23 million dollars made available from the bond issue, the City Manager suddenly decided that idea of "upgrading, repairing, and modernizing" our existing downtown library was not what should happen, at all. Instead, the City Manager decided that the city should build a brand-new new library, which would be located in, under, or in conjunction with a huge, multi-story parking garage. 

This Garage/Library plan, if implemented, will completely abandon the current downtown library site (with no announced indication of what might happen to that site, located immediately across the street from City Hall). The plan would also require the destruction of an existing city-owned surface parking lot that has served as an informal "community plaza," where an extremely popular weekly Farmers' Market is held. Huge and beautiful heritage trees (a couple of hundred years old, by some estimates) will have to be destroyed to turn that informal plaza and surface parking lot into a multi-story parking garage. 

The plan to "bury the library," as opponents designated it, was wholly derived from ideas coming from the City bureaucracy, and most notably from the City Manager, who then enlisted a brand-new Library Director, the City's Public Works Department, and the City's Economic Development Director to say that this was a super good thing for the city, particularly because it would stimulate economic growth and (allegedly) provide assistance to affordable housing developments. Those with just the slightest degree of skepticism, despite bureaucratic claims to the contrary, looked upon this plan as the City Manager's way to rip off library funds to help build a parking garage much needed by development interests, who didn't want to pay for required new parking themselves.

In all fairness, there were some good arguments advanced by the staff, and there was some community support for this plan, too. What struck me, however, was the way that the Mayor and City Council rolled over and brushed aside heartfelt community objections. After giving the city staff a long opportunity to say why their idea was so good, individual members of the public were then each given 90 seconds to raise concerns. As soon as the public comment period was over, the Council quickly moved to adopt the City Manager's plan. 

Maybe the City Manager's plan is a good plan (though I truly doubt it), but what was most disheartening to me was to see the way that the plans of the bureaucrats were elevated so much above the quite legitimate concerns voiced by members of the public (even though members of the public got only a 90-second snippet to make their points).

I keep a pretty close watch on what my local City Council does, and how it operates. Unfortunately, this recent decision is one of many in which I can't help but conclude that the Mayor and Council Members (with a couple of dissents) essentially see their role as telling city voters how great the city is being managed by the city staff, instead of telling the city staff what the public wants. 

I personally think that every one of my "Five Simple Rules" provides good advice for locally-elected officials. In terms of making democratic self-government work, however, with elected representatives making the key decisions on how the resources of local government should be used to achieve community objectives, Rule #2 should perhaps be reprioritized: 

Rule #1:

"Remember You're In Charge.” There is a bureaucratic momentum present in every institution (certainly including government). An elected official needs to remember that he or she was elected to run the bureaucracy not the other way around.


Image Credit:
http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/article/NE/20160425/NEWS/160429824

Monday, September 17, 2018

#260 / Ben And Joe





Ben Sasse (pictured above to the left) is a United States Senator from Nebraska. Back in 2017, the extremely right-wing Chair of the Republican Party in Iowa called Sasse an "arrogant academic." Sasse was due to make a major speech in Iowa, and because Sasse had expressed some reservations about President Donald J. Trump, he got some pushback from the true believers.

Pictured on the right is Joseph J. Ellis. Ellis is a bonafide academic. He is an American historian whose work has focused on the revolutionary period. Ellis' book, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for History. It was also a bestseller. Before his retirement, Ellis taught at Mount Holyoke College, located in Massachusetts. As far as I can determine, Ellis has never once made a speech in Iowa. I also found no documentary evidence that anyone has ever called Ellis "arrogant."

This introduction aside, it turns out that Sasse and Ellis have something in common. As I noted in my September 8, 2018, blog posting, Sasse thinks the Supreme Court has been "politicized," largely because Congress hasn't done its job. In an article in The Wall Street Journal, titled "The Supreme Court Was Never Meant to Be Political," Ellis agrees with Sasse.

Ellis counsels us, as citizens, to "lower our expectations" about the ability of the Court to resolve our differences.

I would like to add, speaking for what I think Sasse would say, that we also need to "raise our expectations" about what Congress should do.

If the people are looking to the Supreme Court to solve the nation's most difficult political controversies, they are looking in the wrong place. The people's fervent wish that the Supreme Court will act to revolve our differences has come about because no one has any respect for the ability of the Congress to do anything at all.

Let me say it again (repeating what Sasse says): We need to demand a lot more from Congress. Since all Members of the House of Representative face an election every two years, we have the ability to make sure that happens, too!


Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2017/06/22/iowa-gop-chairman-sanctimonious-and-arrogant-ben-sasse-not-welcome/
(2) - https://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2013/07/historian_joeseph_ellis_of_amh.html

Sunday, September 16, 2018

#259 / How (Not) To Talk To Each Other


Click To Enlarge
My blog post, yesterday, was really about how we need to find a better way to talk to each other. One way not to be successful in a conversation is to begin that conversation with an assumption that what we think is "obvious" is obvious to everyone else.

In the same batch of newspapers I read on Sunday, August 26th, I found this cartoon by Stephan Pastis. His Pearls Before Swine cartoons are always a treat, and this one definitely gets at our current political dysfunction, providing a humorous look at our inability to find a good way to talk to each other. We need to respect other persons' views and take them seriously. We can't just dismiss them because we know they are so clearly wrong. 

Obviously!


Image Credit:
https://www.gocomics.com/pearlsbeforeswine/2018/08/26

Saturday, September 15, 2018

#258 / Obviously!



I read a lot of newspapers each morning (five), and I sometimes find that two different articles, on two different topics, seem to relate in some way. So it was on Sunday, August 26th.

I first read an article in The New York Times Magazine, titled "Clear Cut," pointing out that things that seem "clear-cut" to one side of our current political debate are not at all clear to the other side. Then I turned to The New York Times Book Review, which carried an article titled, "A Palestinian Neighbor Responds." This article reviewed a book by Yossi Klein Halevi, Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor

In "Clear Cut," Nausicaa Renner, digital editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, suggested that the political truths that we have been in the habit of taking for granted, as "obvious," are no longer obvious at all. If American politics seems divided today, this may be part of the problem:

Politicians and the press still invoke obviousness in the hope of summoning some conviction we all still share, some bedrock of group belief we can agree on. To see them fail, repeatedly, is unsettling; it makes our deepest values seem impotent. It had seemed obvious to some that a modern presidential administration would not defend white nationalists or that the United States government would seek to avoid taking babies from their parents’ arms — or that a man who bragged about harassing women wouldn’t be elected in the first place. Last summer, NPR celebrated the Fourth of July by tweeting, line by line, the text of the Declaration of Independence; its account was immediately attacked by angry Americans accusing the organization of spreading seditious anti-Trump propaganda. The nation’s founding values have come to seem, somehow, unfamiliar and contentious; we can’t recognize the Declaration of Independence when we see it. Let the obvious sit too long and it becomes like an animal in a zoo: pointed at, but never exercised, and idly wandered past by people who have forgotten how powerful it is in action.

In his article, "A Palestinian Neighbor Responds," Raja Shehadeh reviewed Yossi Halevi's Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor. Shehadeh indicates that he was offended by Halevi's book. Halevi is a New York Jew who had lived for thirty-six years in Palestine, and it is clear that his book was Halevi's attempt to be reconciling. Shehadeh didn't see it that way:

“The purpose of Judaism,” as you see it, “is to sanctify one people with the goal of sanctifying all people.” The Palestinians don’t need to be sanctified by Israel. We simply want the right to control our fate, a desire I know you must understand well from studying Jewish history. 
I agree with you that peace can come only if we succeed in sharing this land and living on it with justice and fairness for both nations. And I will forever agree with your sentiment that the “violence, suppression, rage, despair” that characterizes our relationship must end. But perhaps the problem with your letters is that they don’t read as if they are seeking an answer, hoping for that Palestinian neighbor — me — to respond, but instead seem like lectures, half a conversation with a partner who is expected to stay quiet and listen.

Halevi surely thought it was obvious that his book was a reconciling statement, an effort to reach out to his "Palestinian Neighbor." But to have a genuine dialogue with anyone, you can't take anything for granted. Nothing is "obvious," and when you begin with "obvious," you are going to wind up nowhere, fast. Assuming that something is "obvious" will seem condescending at best, and may well be seen as belligerent.

The picture at the top of this posting accompanies an article titled, Why You Should Never Use the Word “Obviously.”

That's good advice!


Image Credit:
https://spin.atomicobject.com/2014/09/09/never-use-the-word-obviously/

Friday, September 14, 2018

#257 / What Is Freedom?



Arthur Goldhammer, pictured above, is a Senior Affiliate at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University. Goldhammer has translated more than 125 books from the French, and in an article in The Nation, published online on August 1, 2018, he looks back at the tumultous "events" of 1968 in France, and then at the '60's in both France and the United States. 

Goldhammer's topic is "Freedom." Specifically, per the title of his article in The Nation, Goldhammer is asking, "What Is Freedom?" He turns to Isaiah Berln, and Berlin's 1958 lecture, "Two Concepts of Liberty," to help him find an answer:

To simplify Berlin’s arguments brutally, negative liberty was “freedom from,” or the enjoyment of a zone of noninterference, of guaranteed exemption from coercion, while positive liberty was “freedom to”—the freedom to be (or, more sinisterly perhaps, the freedom to choose) one’s own master. These, Berlin argued, might seem to be “concepts at no great logical distance from each other,” but in fact they were in “direct conflict,” because the adept of positive liberty might conceive of “the real self” as “a social ‘whole’ of which the individual is an element or aspect.” In pursuit of the will-o’-the-wisp of positive liberty, in other words, the individual risked surrendering herself to voluntary servitude, indentured to some seemingly transcendent cause; and then, sliding down a slippery slope, she might feel herself entitled to coerce others too “blind or ignorant or corrupt” to recognize what was in their own best interest.

Goldhammer, as an American, appears to assume that we all agree that "negative liberty," a zone free from coercion, is the bare minimum of what freedom requires. I think he is basically right about that. He appears to be most interested in the other pole, however, the possibility of "positive liberty." That is an idea that Berlin seems to find more problematic. Goldhammer indicates that the kind of freedom demanded by the young people who revolted against the French government in 1968, like the freedom demanded by  the "blissed out hippies" in the United States, was the freedom to "live more."

In fact, Goldhammer describes a sense of "social freedom," that he seems to identify as related to the "positive freedom" that he yearned for, and briefly found, before losing it when he was drafted and sent to Vietnam. This was a heady and romantic sense of freedom which, as I understand it, Goldhammer now believes separates him from many of those with whom he served in Vietnam. Many of his former comrades in arms are not enjoying the kind of lifestyle or economic success that Goldhammer has enjoyed, and so any demand to "live more," coming from someone in Goldhammer's situation, seems unpardonable and obscene.

I am only a couple of years older than Goldhammer, and thus lived through those same times, though I was never "blissed out" or a "hippie," and I completely missed the sense of social freedom that Goldhammer discusses and identifies as "romantic."

I did want, though, and still do want, our freedom to include not only the bare minimum of "negative liberty" but "positive liberty," too. Unlike Goldhammer, at least as I am understanding him, I do not identify this "positive liberty" as a kind of social freedom. I see it in political, not social, terms. I see it as a demand that I, joining with others, should be able to transform the economic, social, and political realities of our current world, so that we can make, together, a new and better world, one that will more adequately respond to what I believe is a collective desire for justice and equality.

In seeking to comprehend and utilize such "positive liberty," I think we should be seeking to make common cause with exactly those disaffected comrades from whom Goldhammer appears to feel both distanced and disaffected.




Image Credit:
http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~agoldham/

Thursday, September 13, 2018

#256 / We're (NOT) "All Going To Die"



Ok, Ok! My headline is wrong! We ARE all going to die, but not (as John Oliver seemed recently to announce) because our president is a "goddamn dumbbell."

If you haven't watched John Oliver discuss the anonymous New York Times Op-Ed, by someone deep inside the Trump White House, and if you haven't yet heard what Oliver has to say about Fear, reporter Bob Woodward's latest book, then by all means click on this link and watch the 2:26 minute segment from one of his recent shows. It's funny, and it casts our president in a very bad light. The segment ends with this statement:

The president's a disaster; we're all going to die.

Let's stipulate to that first assertion, but let's remember, as well, that our government, in the end, is NOT some sort of monarchial state. That went out with Louis XIV of France. The president (disaster that he is) is only one person, and "we," citizens of the United States of America, are going to be around a long time after he is gone (though not likely forgotten, I am afraid).

In other words, while our president is "a disaster," that isn't the reason that "we're all going to die." Could we take our eyes off that rubber baloon of a Chief Executive for a minute or two? We are all paying way too much attention to someone whose own lawyer calls him a "dumbbell."



Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.hbo.com/last-week-tonight-with-john-oliver
(2) - https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/world/2018-07-13-snarling-orange-trump-baby-blimp-flies-outside-british-parliament/

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

#255 / Tout Court



I have mentioned David Kaplan's most recent book in an earlier blog post. Titled, The Most Dangerous Branch, Kaplan's book apparently suggests that the Court might have become "too powerful." At least, that's the way NPR has characterized it.

My earlier reference, which came from The Wall Street Journal, focused on the fact that our most important "political" questions have now been transmogrified into "judicial" questions, to the detriment of both our judicial system and our democracy.

I have not yet read Kaplan's book, but I ran across an excerpt from the book in Longreads. That's where I got the picture at the top of this posting.

I commend this excerpt to you. It is not really that "long" a read, and it gives a very good sense of how the Court always tries to present itself as "the closest thing we have to a secular shrine."

Hannah Arendt, who felt that the United States Constitution had established ("constituted") the best example in history of a genuine and democratic self-government, approved of the near-religious reverence that the Court has almost always enjoyed.

If we make the Court "political," and if we come to believe that "political" is the right term to describe its role in our democracy, our losses will be immense.



Image Credit:
https://longreads.com/2018/09/06/above-it-all-how-the-court-got-so-supreme/

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

#254 / Better Arguments



My blog posting yesterday referenced the views of a former Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott. Abbott "sized up" our current president in an article in the July 14-15, 2018, edition of The Wall Street Journal, with Abbott finding a lot to be positive about. I suggested that those who are not so positive, and who want to elect a new president (I'm raising my hand), need to be able to understand the arguments of those who can see some "good" in what President Trump is doing. 

Another article in that same edition of The Wall Street Journal article was titled, "We Need Better Arguments." This title does not signify that the article is urging those with differing opinions to hone their rhetoric so as to prevail in a debate. Rather, the word "argument," in the context of that article, means the actual exchange of views itself, the actions and efforts taken by parties with differing opinions to persuade others to "their side." The article, in other words, is really making much the same point that I was trying to make yesterday.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, who wrote the article I have referenced, is the Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics at Duke University. I think he provides good advice: be candid; be respectful; be patient.  I think his article is worth reading


Image Credit:
https://www.wsj.com/articles/to-get-along-better-we-need-better-arguments-1531411024

Monday, September 10, 2018

#253 / We Need To Hear This



Tony Abbott, a former Prime Minister of Australia, is pictured below. We all know who is pictured above!

The "Baby Trump" balloon, flown over London on July 13th, was meant to portray our president in an unflattering light. In fact, President Trump was insulted by the balloon, and said so, but there were undoubtedly many at home and abroad who believe that this balloon portrayal of our president was fully justified by his behavior. Most of the people I know (and I join them) have a very poor opinion of President Trump, and don't like the way he conducts himself. The balloon portrayal could be said to "speak to our condition," to use a Quaker phrase. 

Former Prime Minister Abbott has a more positive view of our president, which he put forward in an article headlined, "An Ally Sizes Up Donald Trump." That article ran in the Saturday-Sunday, July 14-15 Wall Street Journal, and I think we should pay attention to what the former Australian Prime Minister has to say. 

Before I tell you what Mr. Abbott has to say about President Trump, let me acknowledge that one of Mr. Abbott's first political involvements was as a director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. Since there are reasonable grounds to think that President Trump's natural inclinations are "monarchical," not democratic, Mr. Abbott's support for monarchy as a form of government could indicate a natural sympathy for the way Donald Trump approaches politics. 

But let's focus on the content of Mr. Abbott's comments, not on the source. Here is what he says about President Trump (and these are judgments I do think we need to hear):

For someone his critics say is a compulsive liar, Mr. Trump has been remarkably true to his word. Especially compared with his predecessor, he doesn’t moralize. It’s classic Trump to be openly exasperated by the Group of 7’s hand-wringing hypocrisy. Unlike almost every other democratic leader, Mr. Trump doesn’t try to placate critics. He knows it’s more important to get things done than to be loved. 
The holder of the world’s most significant office should always be taken seriously. Erratic and ill-disciplined though Mr. Trump often seems, there’s little doubt that he is proving a consequential president. On the evidence so far, when he says something, he means it—and when he says something consistently, it will happen. 
He said he’d cut taxes and regulation. He did, and the American economy is at its strongest in at least a decade. He said he’d pull out of the Paris climate-change agreement and he did, to the usual obloquy but no discernible environmental damage. He said he’d scrap the Iranian deal, and he did. If Tehran gets nuclear weapons, at least it won’t be with American connivance. He said he’d move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and he did, without catastrophe. He said he’d boost defense spending. That’s happening too, and adversaries no longer think that they can cross American red lines with impunity. 
In Mr. Trump’s first year, he acted on 64% of the policy ideas proposed in the Heritage Foundation’s “Mandate for Leadership” agenda—not bad compared with Ronald Reagan’s 49%. 
It’s a pity that he kept his promise to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But his concerns about that deal shouldn’t be dismissed. In the short term, freer trade can be better for rich people in poor countries than for poor people in rich ones.

Mr. Abbott has a few more things to say, as well, and some of them are a bit more critical, but the quotation above gives a pretty good summary of how Abbott "sizes up" our president. 

I think it is important that we pay attention to this evaluation because I believe it comes across as a  relatively "fair" summary of the president's record, from someone who is trying to present that record from a sympathetic perspective. If we want different policies (and a different president), we need to make our own arguments as persuasive as we can make them. We can't just ridicule the president, in other words, because we will then just be talking to ourselves. We need to be able to talk to people like Tony Abbott, who admits that President Trump is "erratic and ill-disciplined," but who then goes on to recognize what he regards as some very positive features of the president's personality and presidency.

In the elections upcoming this November, and the elections coming in 2020, those who oppose the president and his policies need to be able to talk to voters who have a somewhat sympathetic view of the president, like the view that Abbott has. Lots of people, not just Tony Abbott, have some sympathy for President Trump, even though they don't much like the way he behaves.

Too often, I fear, the president's opponents are so outraged and appalled by the way he conducts himself that they forget that large numbers of voters, who may not like many things about the president, do have some positive views of the president, and think that the president is "following through" on his promises, and is "keeping his word" to the American people. Those who know that the president is more apt to lie than to tell the truth may assume that everyone will see him as we do, and as people in London saw him when the "Baby Trump" balloon flew over the London skyline. 

Not everyone sees our president as a churlish, bullying, ignorant baby. If those who do see him that way want to win elections, we need to be persuasive to at least some of the people who don't see him that way, who may see him exactly as former Prime Minister Abbott sees him. 

These are views we need to hear so we can address them in ways that will be persuasive to those who hold them. Laughing them off, or making fun of them, is not likely to be a good electoral strategy.

Tony Abbot, Former Australian Prime Minister






























Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/world/2018-07-13-snarling-orange-trump-baby-blimp-flies-outside-british-parliament/
(2) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Abbott 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

#252 / Roe, Roe, Roe Your Boat



If there is any single Supreme Court decision that indicates how inadvisable it is for the Court to become the seat of political decision-making (the topic addressed in yesterday's blog posting), it must certainly be Roe v. Wade

When that case came to the Supreme Court, the Court was asked by "Roe" to declare unconstitutional a Texas law that denied her the right to an abortion. If you click the link and read the decision, you will find that the Court did something beyond finding unconstitutional the particular Texas statute that was challenged by "Roe." The Court, in other words, went beyond deciding the specific "case and controversy" brought before it, which is what Article III of the Constitution requires.

Instead of making a focused decision on the exact case before it, the Court extensively reviewed the history of abortion, and then said that some state laws forbidding abortion must be found to be unconstitutional, as an invasion of a woman's "privacy." 

The Court went on, having made this initial decision, to outline a fairly detailed scheme to evaluate the constitutionality of state laws. In other words, the Court attempted to balance the equities the way a state legislature might, and this is a task that is essentially "political," not judicial. 

We and the Supreme Court have gone "down the stream" ever since, though not very "gently" or "merrily," in my opinion. 


Disagreements can be dangerous, and the Constitution indicates that such disagreements should mostly find their resolution through legislative decisions, and not by decisions made in the courts. As long as we think that the Supreme Court is really the group that makes the final and most significant political decisions that impact our lives, we will continue to experience the kind of corrosive politics that undermines, in the end, the proper role of the judiciary in our Constitutional system of government.



Image Credit:
https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-most-dangerous-branch-review-judging-the-judges-1536098871

Saturday, September 8, 2018

#251 / Politicizing The Court



Whether or not Brett Kavanaugh (pictured above) is confirmed as a member of the United States Supreme Court (and the chances are very good that he will be), I think that Senator Ben Sasse is correct that it is Congress, not the President, whom we should ultimately blame for politicizing the Court. Sasse is a Republican, and a Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and his September 6, 2018, column in The Wall Street Journal, "Blame Congress for Politicizing the Court," accurately depicts how Congress has walked away from "politics," abdicating its proper Constitutional role, ceding way too much power to the president:

It’s predictable now that every Supreme Court confirmation hearing will be a politicized circus. This is because Americans have accepted a bad new theory about how the three branches of government should work—and in particular about how the judiciary operates. 
In the U.S. system, the legislative branch is supposed to be the center of politics. Why isn’t it? For the past century, more legislative authority has been delegated to the executive branch every year. Both parties do it. The legislature is weak, and most people here in Congress want their jobs more than they want to do legislative work. So they punt most of the work to the next branch. 
The consequence of this transfer of power is that people yearn for a place where politics can actually be done. When we don’t do a lot of big political debating here in Congress, we transfer it to the Supreme Court. And that’s why the court is increasingly a substitute political battleground. We badly need to restore the proper duties and the balance of power to our constitutional system.... 
How did the legislature decide to give away its power? We’ve been doing it for a long time. Over the course of the past century, especially since the 1930s and ramping up since the 1960s, the legislative branch has kicked a lot of its responsibility to alphabet-soup bureaucracies. These are the places where most actual policy-making—in a way, lawmaking—happens now. 
What we mostly do around this body is not pass laws but give permission to bureaucracy X, Y or Z to make lawlike regulations. We write giant pieces of legislation that people haven’t read, filled with terms that are undefined, and we say the secretary or administrator of such-and-such shall promulgate rules that do the rest of our jobs. That’s why there are so many fights about the executive branch and the judiciary—because Congress rarely finishes its work.

The massive personal inadequacies of our current president might lead to authoritarian government (that is where the president would like to go, clearly), but it might also lead to a "re-powering" of the United States Congress. We, the people, if organized effectively within a Congressional District, are actually able to compel our elected Congressional representatives to do what "we" want. By "we," I mean the voters organized on a Congressional District basis. If voters in my Congressional District can hold Jimmy Panetta accountable to his local constituents (and there is no doubt in my mind that we can), and if other communities can do the same to their own Congressional representatives, then these elected officials will have to engage in actual "politics" in the Capitol. 

Our current system, which is partisan on a national level, eliminates our ability to make politics function the way the Constitution says it is supposed to. Once elected, free from any real check in their local districts, Members of Congress try to avoid making any real decisions, just as Sasse describes.

The recent Congressional victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley give me hope there may be a change coming. I hope so!

If we don't make our political process work the way it's supposed to, the alternatives are definitely not attractive!



Image Credit:
https://www.wsj.com/articles/blame-congress-for-politicizing-the-court-1536189015

Friday, September 7, 2018

#250 / These Observations Still Seem True



The business of "publish or perish" has been a catastrophe. People write things which should never have been written and which should never be printed. Nobody's interested. But for them to keep their jobs and get the proper promotion, they've got to do it. It demeans the whole of intellectual life ... The one who really loses is the person who has a passionate interest in matters of the mind, who is an excellent reader, who can establish contact with his students and make them understand that his subject is important, but who will not write....

The above remarks by Hannah Arendt were made during a 1972 conversation that included Arendt, Paul Freund, Irving Kristol, and Hans Morgenthau. The conversation was convened by Kenneth W. Thompson, then the vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation. Arendt's complete thoughts on "Values in Contemporary Society" can be found in Thinking Without a Banister, a 569-page collection of some of Arendt's short essays and other writings. 

Arendt's observations, although made forty-six years ago, still seem true to me, and if we want to "rethink college," as I think we ought to, these remarks would be a good place to begin. 



Image Credit:
http://www.wz.de/home/politik/wenn-fakten-zu-meinungen-verkommen-1.2743319

Thursday, September 6, 2018

#249 / Change Up



It turns out that Tuesday's Democratic Party primary in Boston has reproduced, in that different community, the kind of victory that The Nation celebrated when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young woman of color, defeated a well-established, liberal Democratic politician in New York City. Joe Crowley had represented his Brooklyn Congressional District for years and was a top Democratic Party leader in the House of Representatives. Ocasio-Cortez, who had never held elective office, blew him away.

In Boston, the woman who won, pictured above, is Ayanna Pressley. She defeated a well-established and liberal Democrat, Michael Capuano, who had represented his extremely liberal Boston district for twenty years. Pressley was not a political neophyte, though. She has served on the Boston City Council since 2009. Thus, she is not quite the newcomer that Ocasio-Cortez is. Still, Pressley's election was a big upset! Also, Ocasio-Cortez did campaign for Pressley, so that Pressley's victory can be chalked up to that "AOC effect" that The Nation is hoping will be a real thing in Democratic Party politics this year. 


  • I am not running to keep theings as they are. I'm running to change them.
  • Change can't wait.
Pressley also campaigned on the promise to provide “activist leadership,” beyond the votes, whether the Democrats retake the House or not.

Votes are important. "Activist leadership" is, too.

In fact, activist leadership may be even more important than votes. That's what gets those votes to the polls!


Image Credit:
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/01/us/politics/ayanna-pressley-massachusetts.html

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

#248 / Why Republicans Stick With Trump



The picture above is of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, featured in an article in a recent edition of The Nation magazine. The article is titled, "The AOC Effect." It is worth reading. 

The picture of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a lot more energizing and appealing than a picture of Bobby Jindal would be. You may remember his name. Jindal ran for president in 2016 (and lost, as we know all too well). From 2008-2016, Jindal was the Governor of Louisiana. Here is Jindal's picture, from Wikipedia, just for comparison purposes:


Jindal is relevant to my blog posting today because the title I am using comes from a Bobby Jindal Op-Ed column in The Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal has a paywall, and so you may or may not be able to click through to the content; the points that Jindal makes, however, are important. 

Jindal attempts to respond to an obvious question. Since Donald Trump seems pretty clearly to be the most dishonest and personally disgusting person ever to serve as president, why don't members of the Republican Party do something? In case that question has ever crossed your mind, Jindal has the answer. The fact is, Jindal says, although "Mr. Trump [has] broken from GOP orthodoxy on free trade, immigration and entitlement reform ... not to mention the personal scandals and the never-ending tweets," Trump is delivering on key conservative issues:

  • On spending and taxes, Trump is eliminating raises for those (lazy no-good) federal employees and has cut taxes for the rich. [To be fair, Jindal did not call federal employees "lazy and no-good;" that is my editorial addition to the point he makes].
  • Trump's court nominees have been stellar right-wing rockstars.
  • Although the president previously said he was "pro-choice in every respect," that turned out to be a lie, and the president is actively doing everything he can against abortion.
  • The president is pro-Israel and has repudiated his earlier claim that he would "not take sides between Israel and the Palestinians."
  • Despite his earlier statements supporting a ban on assault weapons, which have also been repudiated, Trump has been avidly supporting a pro-gun agenda.
  • Even though he campaigned on a platform that promised to provide universal health care, that turned out to be another prevarication, and Trump has done everything he possibly can to undermine the Affordable Care Act, and to come down on the side of the insurance companies, and against ordinary American citizens.
  • On military spending, Trump said in 2013 that there should be reductions in this massively bloated part of the federal budget, but this statement has been totally forgotten and the president has supported massive military spending increases. 
As Jindal sums it all up: "It isn't unusual for a politician to change positions. Unsurprisingly, voters tend to be more forgiving of flip-flops when they agree with the final result." 

This is why the Republicans are supporting Mr. Trump. He's a personally disgusting liar, but he's their liar. [Again, that is my own editorial comment.]


oooOOOooo


The article about Ocasio-Cortez is not, actually, irrelevant in the context of this conversation about Jindal's review of why Trump has not drawn fire from leading Republican Party authorities. The article in The Nation documents how Ocasio-Cortez is going around the country speaking to voters far from her New York City home, which happens to be quite politically progressive, urging a program that would pretty much be the polar opposite of the list Jindal provides, as summarized above. Some Democrats are questioning whether an honest advocacy of her progressive ideas is politically wise.

My view is that the election this November should be focused on the "issues," not on the personal deficiencies of the president, as abundant as those are. Jindal says that the Republicans are supporting Mr. Trump because he is delivering what "the voters" want. Jindal is clearly speaking about Republican voters, and maybe only part of them. Let's see what programs "the voters" actually support. My strong bet is that the voters would actually prefer a program like the one being promoted by Ocasio-Cortez and that the voters will "forgive" the Democratic Socialist label, even if they might be nervous about it, if the voters get focused on the substance. 

It is tempting to campaign against our dishonest and disgusting president, on personal grounds, but that may not be the best way. I think, as Ocasio-Cortez does, that campaigning on "the issues" is a political winner, and not just in those so-called "blue" districts, either. 

One nice thing is that in the case of the Ocasio-Cortez program, nobody on the progressive side has to lie about it, either. 
  



Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.thenation.com/article/the-alexandria-ocasio-cortez-effect/
(2) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Jindal

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

#247 / The Definition Of Politics



Cynthia Nixon, pictured, is an actress, perhaps best known for her appearances in Sex and the City. Most recently, Nixon has become a long-shot candidate for Governor of New York, running against incumbent Andrew Cuomo

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Masha Gessen faulted both Nixon and Cuomo for their failure to understand "politics." Her comments are worth reading. In essence, Gessen criticized Cuomo for his suggestion that "politics" has no place in government, which Cuomo analogized to the operation of a major corporation. Gessen criticized Nixon for not making clear that Cuomo got it wrong:

The first question posed to Nixon concerned her qualifications for the job. Maurice DuBois, a CBS anchor, asked, “What in your experience and background should give voters confidence that you can run a state of twenty million people and a budget of almost a hundred and seventy billion dollars?” Nixon responded by pointing to her seventeen-year record of activism. She had campaigned for more equitable funding for public schools, she said, noting that New York State has “the second most unequal” education system in the country. She had campaigned for marriage equality, helping to raise eight hundred thousand dollars that funded opposition research on several state senators who opposed same-sex marriage—an effort that helped cost three of these senators their seats. 
In his rebuttal, Cuomo attempted to render her experience irrelevant. “The governor of New York is not a job about politics,” he said. “It’s not about advocacy—it’s about doing. It’s about management. This is real life. . . . You are in charge of fighting terrorism. You are there in cases of fires, floods, and emergencies, train wrecks. You have to deal with a legislature that’s very, very difficult.” 
Imagine if, in response to the moderator’s question, Nixon had said, “A state is not a company—the governor doesn’t ‘run’ it. The question is not whether I can balance a budget, put out a fire, prepare for a flood, or prevent a train wreck. There are professionals who can do any of those things far better than I. The question is whether I can lead and inspire those professionals and millions more people to forge, in this state, a more equitable, safer, better society that we all want to live in.” 
She did not, of course, say that. It seemed that the moderator and both candidates shared an understanding of government and politics, a view that considers a governor (or a mayor, or a President) the chief executive and politics the process of hiring that chief executive. This person “runs” a state: she is competent in an emergency and may gain relevant experience by raising money or doing opposition research.

We, the people, need to understand that our government is, truly, a government that belongs to us. Elections are not supposed to be about who gets to "run" our world. Elections are supposed to be about how WE will run it. 

Politics (not government) is, and ought to be, our first priority. Points to Gessen for highlighting that fact!


Image Credit:
https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-cuomo-nixon-debate-and-the-definition-of-politics

Monday, September 3, 2018

#246 / DSA



Kate Aronoff has written a good story about the DSA (the Democratic Socialists of America). You can find a copy in the September 2018 edition of In These Times. The title of Aronoff's article is, "Why the Democratic Socialists of America Won’t Stop Growing." It is well worth reading. 

A recent article in The Washington Post is also worth reading. It is titled, "Democratic socialists are conquering the left. But do they believe in democracy?"

Aronoff traces the history of the DSA, and reports on its latest political successes, most notably the primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who soundly defeated a high-ranking Democratic Party Member of Congress in a recent Democratic Party Congressional primary. Arnoff's article reveals, among other things, that In These Times has been, from the start, closely allied with the two groups that merged their organizations in 1982 to found the DSA: the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM).

I have been a longtime subscriber to In These Times, and I have probably always been a little "soft on socialism," but I never joined up with DSOC, NAM, or the DSA, and I never much thought about why. The reason struck me as I read Aronoff's article. She said this about how she went about reporting on the DSA: 

For this story, I spoke with around two dozen DSA members from chapters around the country. The primary source of their excitement was that DSA chapters seemed to be actively working on something, not just sitting around reading Marx.

"Sitting around reading Marx" has never much appealed to me. If that is a fair characterization of how the membership of the various explicitly socialist groups have tended to spend their time (at least until recently), I can see why these organizations have never been that appealing. My brand of left-wing political activism has had me "sitting around reading the Constitution."

My commitment to "revolution," and it's sincere, has much more to do with 1776 than with 1914, or even with 1789 (see Hannah Arendt's book, On Revolution). The American version of revolution is not likely to be of great interest to those who "sit around reading Marx," and that's their loss, in my view.

My advice for the DSA is pretty simple (and it definitely includes a commitment to democracy). I suggest that if the DSA would like to keep growing, its members should start reading the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. If lots of people start doing that, I think the DSA will have a bright future.

In other words, in thinking about the future, I think that the DSA should not forget to put some emphasis on the "A."





Image Credits:
(1) - http://inthesetimes.com/features/dsa_democratic_socialists_of_america_growth_alexandria-ocasio-cortez-bernie-sanders.html
(2) - https://www.dsausa.org